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The publication of a Collected Poems is a momentous occasion in the life of any poet. Momentous for the poet’s readers too and more than usually so with the publication of Waiting, the first volume of the Collected Poems of John Martin, only one of which, as a note on the first page explains, has appeared in print before.
The collection, when we have all the volumes, will cover a period of forty years (a lifetime, if it were not yet over) starting with the early poems and progressing, at what speed we do not yet know, until it reaches the present day. Two verses from a poem by Robert Browning stand at the head of the first volume, like a signpost showing us the way, except that each verse points in a different direction, one back (‘years go by and spring / Gladdens and the young earth is beautiful’), the other forward (‘now when all thy proud renown is out, / I am a watcher whose eyes have grown dim’). This Collected Poems, more than most, feels like a retrospective.
Most of the poems are untitled and that too helps to create the impression, deliberate or not, that together they comprise a drawerful of memorabilia, Browning again in the poem of that name (‘Well, I forget the rest’) or Eliot’s ‘evening with the photograph album’. The influence of these poets and others is ever present, reminding us that the poems were written when the poet was a young man, still finding his voice and liable, consciously or otherwise, to imitate others. Eliot is there on the first page:
I have seen those I know
and those I hardly know
turn to a corner of the room
and with their heads in shadow
bend to cry.
Voices echo and re-echo on almost every page, Catullus on page 3, Auden on page 4, Shakespeare on page 6, Rupert Brooke on page 7. Page after page, echo by echo, until at last the truth dawns that the poet is neither plagiarist nor parodist, but a writer who has learned to write by reading. The ‘old bones’ in Klein Upon Old Bones are the sonnets, villanelles, epigrams, satires and heroic couplets that make up a sizeable proportion of John Martin’s poetic output in this first volume. Klein calls them ‘fallen gravestones’.
Gawp at unstable words and catch the fracture.
Then exploit it, birds sing. Call yourself a poet.
He does and calls himself too
a self being loosened out of self,
a metronomic ventricle that drives the cosmic clock.
To write, says Klein, is ‘to put in a nutshell the feeling in your bones’ and ‘to catch the echo with your taking pains.’
The next time we meet Klein is in Klein At The Piano. ‘Distress,’ he states at the outset, ‘is my technique’.
Hours I walk precise tight-ropes
I tread for their tone
lest from modulated emotion I fall
to a dissonance of lovers
The poem ends with a self-mocking pun.
I farm granite with lichen,
like a poet I like to liken.
Every effect in these poems is carefully calculated, so carefully that, if it seems to miss its target, you suspect a trap. A complex poem about two people striving endlessly to understand themselves and each other –
Each compelled always to return
to pace an endless passageway beside the river
in re-enactment of an act itself a promise only
of its re-enactment
– resolves the dilemma with an uncompromising quatrain:
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
who am I, if you are all,
reflection from the real to tell –
I’ll smash your face and break the spell.
A poet who has remained unpublished for so long, not because his poems have been rejected by editors and publishers, but because he has never sought publication, is likely to be one for whom poetry is a private language, each poem a citadel. One of the poems won a prize, others would have found their place in the small presses of the day if the poet had been impelled to submit them. He wrote instead for himself, as all poets do when they are young and as some continue to do throughout their unpublished lives. He is the modern equivalent of the Victorian fossil hunter, driven by a personal and private obsession, an obscure need to know and to understand. Charles Darwin was slow to publish.
If self-knowledge (or its counterpart, self-loathing) is the subject of these private poems (so private they did not want to be read), poetry itself is what drives them. For the fossils on which Darwin based his theory, read the echoes that inform these poems. The poet’s own voice is beginning to be shaped. What it will turn out to be we do not yet know, but Waiting leaves us in no doubt that it will be good, perhaps very good, certainly worth waiting for.
The last poem in the book, the title poem, hints at a change. If there is an echo here it is of Philip Larkin, the subject of the poem being an incident on a station platform (Larkin territory since Whitsun Weddings). A stranger enters the waiting room, which the poet shares with a married couple and their fractious children. The stranger, ‘an ordinary bloke / who looks uncomfortably spick and span / in clothes one wears to dine in or be wived’, has a calming effect on them all. ‘We have been warmed / by kindness that reproves the common meanness / of imagination, often so deformed / by fear.’ It turns out that the stranger is dressed, not for a dinner or a wedding, but for his mother’s funeral.
My mother’s dead,
I’m going to bury her, clear up the mess,
this was the first train I could get, he said…
The poem ends, not with rhyming couplets, but with a single line, albeit one that bears, as it says itself, some weight:
we share, all bare, the weight all bear, and wait.
The puns, the internal rhymes, the repetition, contrive to slow the line down and turn what might have been too easy a conclusion into one that forces further thought.
Waiting is not what the other poems seem to be about. The collective title gives them a meaning which they did not have when they were written, but which is given to them retrospectively. One wonders what title they might have been given if they had been published, as poems in a Collected Poems should have been, when they were first written. Echoes perhaps, the title taken from another poem with echoes of its own.
This is that legendary city by the river,
a forsaken roadstead’s ruined palaces
amongst the dereliction of its watercourses,
with spellbound passageways between the vaults
and flooded chambers of abandoned wharves…
Serial publication of poems written over four decades is something no other poet to my knowledge has attempted. No other poet perhaps has had the patience or the will to wait until his lifetime’s work was complete (or nearly so) before allowing it to be read. Each volume will bring us closer to a present about which, most unusually for readers of a poet’s Collected Poems, we know nothing. What is John Martin writing now? New Poems may be some way off. Meanwhile, the John Martin Retrospective is novelty enough.
Waiting by John Martin (ISBN 978-0-9930899-0-2) is available in bookshops or by mail order here.
On 10 December I will be writing about two plays that are better known as operas, Pelléas et Mélisande and Salomé.
My next Reader’s Diary will be published on 17 December.