Friday, 10 December 2010

Standard Midland by Roy Fisher


In an afternote to the collection, Roy Fisher provides an explanation for the title of the volume, when he describes as 'the plain way of speaking we people of central England like to believe we have'. Rather than the plainness to which he refers, the irony and self-deprecation implicit in his explanation are arguably the most characteristic elements of West Midland discourse (I express this view as a West Midlander). In my view, in addition to the explanation that Roy Fisher provides, the title refers to a variety of RP English spoken by middle class people from the Midlands and it may also echo the notion that the Midlands is culturally featureless or simply mean 'typically midland'. This degree of unshowy layering is also typical of Fisher's poetry, which is amongst the most engaging and remarkable work produced in this country over the last 50 years.

Paul Bachelor wrote a review in the Guardian where he said that Standard Midland is the work of a man in later life (after all, Fisher mentions that he talks to himself more than once). Indded, some of the poems seem more like random thoughts and impressions with little regard to the concept of audience, but there are also some astonishing poems in the collection, even if Fisher does manage occasionally to create lines which are little more than complex verb phrases, with all the charm of a traffic jam on a dual carriageway.

Fisher's saving grace is his imagination (both imagistic and linguistic). This is never more in evidence than in the brillinat sequence: Hell, Horse and Hellbox: the tabernacle poems, which celebrates seven generatins of printing in the King family. Originally, the text formed part of an object d'art and refers to it, and to its maker in the opening line:

FROM THE BOOK OF THE KINGS THEIR TRADES AND STATIONS

The poem succeeds because of the clash of registers, which helps to create striking mataphors, and its puns. Thus it begins like someting from the Bible (i.e. such as such begat such and such) but also sounds like a pastiche of the recitals from a land title deed. This fits in with the subjects of business and self-employment which appear in the poem.

It begins with a list of the occupations of preceding generations of Kings. One cannot help but study them to see how occupations repeat themselves, are poassed on, reappear and develop - or as Fisher says larer in the poem: 'Deviate,/ develop - hardly'.

Fisher grapples with profound ontological ideas, such as the notion of the particular and general which he refers to as the 'example' and 'the rule'. - this also refers back to the concept of biological generation, where the generations themselves are examples of a fundamental rule (i.e. the family biology).

Fisher also speculates on the 'mischief' of language itself (which develops by deviating from its original meaning). The mix of generation - of the occupations of those generations and their development and deviation - causes fascinating clashes of register:

with dynasties of every sort coming into fashion.
Sons in waiting, grandsons coming to the boil.

The first line of the quote contrasts the concepts of dynasties (continuity) with fashion, but also suggests that fashion itself has its own dynasties. Then the idea shifts to service and then to overcooking, in the mean time presenting a potted history of inter-generational conflict. It ends with an incresing focus on individuals rather than their collectivised histories as 'family' or 'society' (in the third section of Hell, the 'countryside shaken out clean,/ and everywhere fortunes falling out of it', finishing in 'Tabernacle Street', where I guess Ronald King was raised.

This is great stuff, worth reading again and again.

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