||TIM THORNE - REVIEW
- The Long and the Short of It,
- John Lucas (Redbeck Press)
- If for no other reason, those of us who
do not read Greek should be grateful for this book because it allows us access to the poem
"Deathfeast" by Takis Sinopoulos. Lucass translation/adaptation, with
which The Long and the Short of It concludes, is as magnificently moving as an
Angelopoulos film, a 20th century Homer in five pages, lamentation and celebration both,
poetry wrung from a war which was fought (and in some sense is still being fought) over
causes much more significant than those which led to Troy. Not being able to read the
original, I cannot say whether it is Sinopoulos or Lucas who deserves the more praise,
only that reading the poem is an unforgettable experience.
- Lucass own poems in this collection
are presented in two sections, the first of which springs from family and includes an
elegy for the poets mother which manages to be both relaxed and passionate, as well
as poems for his wife, children and baby granddaughter. This is no mere cosy domesticity;
there are universal themes evoked and poetically explored through the particulars of
family life and of specific occasions.
- It is in the second section that
Lucass attitudes towards the wider world infuse poems with a fiercely felt,
intelligently applied and satisfyingly integrated humanism, a mordant disdain of pretence,
a hatred of exploitation and violence, and an empathy with the downtrodden, especially
those who fight back. These latter range from the witty schoolboy rebel in "The Death
of the Hat" to Wilfred Page, to whose memory "Beyond the Headlines" is
"Wilfred, that plain good man, whose each last act
tells us that decency survives intact."
- "Four Reports from the Front",
one of my favourite poems in this section, looks at the phenomenon of war from four
amazingly diverse viewpoints, none of which perhaps has the Homeric breadth or the
plangent intensity of "Deathfeast", but the first three of which, using as
starting points respectively the First and Second World Wars and the current conflict in
Iraq, work brilliantly while being totally unlike any other war or anti-war poems ever
written. The fourth, "Birds Eye View", is on one level a comment on the
keeping of "companion animals", but the reader is left in no doubt that cats and
dogs are not the only beings referred to in the final couplet:
"Good people, have you lost your wits?
If not, why favour Thugs and Shits!"
- On the subject of "Thugs and
Shits", the third section, "Comic Relief", lists "Bush. Blair.
Rumsfeld. Straw." as the equivalent of the Inverness Castle porters interlude:
a drunken knock-knock joke turned to black satire; the "relief" from TV footage
of wasted cities is in the buffoon utterances of those who ordered them laid waste. I have
already used more words than Lucas and not mentioned anywhere near all that this short
piece contains. One of his many virtues as a poet is his pithiness.
- The Long and the Short of It, as
might be gathered from the snippets quoted above, has a lot of rhymed poems. Lucas, in
fact, in "An Impromptu Fit of Rhyme about Rhyme", gives a quasi-jocular apologia
for a formally traditional approach to verse. He sits firmly within that strain which
includes Starbuck, Harrison and Wearne, and in which in contradistinction to, say,
Winters, Larkin and McAuley of an earlier generation an apparently conservative
approach to prosody and an enthusiasm for exploring and using its rules by no means equate
to a reactionary politics. The devil, as Rowland Hill knew, doesnt have to have all
the good tunes. There is, however, more problematically, the villanelle, "Return to
Merrymount", which brings together the forms tight strictures and the idea of
the beneficence of social order. Lucas is no anarchist. This poem is perhaps more usefully
read as a cry of despair (albeit couched in the accents of innocent delight) for
humanitys inability to cope with freedom the dilemma of the institutionalised
on release. Or you could read it as just a bit of fun.
- A bit of fun certainly is to be had with
"Yours Sincerely", which will ring very loud, clear bells for any writer who has
been guest speaker at a "literary group", and with the delightfully satirical
social comment of "Thorns Work-Out Week" and "Randyloins and
Murdoch". In the light of the ongoing (if currently somewhat muted) debate about a
republic, Australian readers will enjoy (or enjoy being offended by) "Towards the Via
Republica". We sometimes forget that republicanism is not only an issue here in the
monarchs more far-flung domains. This poem reminds us that there are plenty of Poms
(and even more Scots) who would love to throw off the anachronistic shackles of of the
inbred Saxe-Coburg-Gotha clan, even if they dont all express the sentiment as
wittily or with as much personal emotional relevance as Lucas does. What is more, the poem
is based on three separate incidents that took place over half a century ago, at a time
when we antipodean grovellers were almost unanimous in our parroting of Menzies and our
lapping up of tid-bits fed to us via the glossy magazines by the cynical spin merchants in
the Windsors employ.
- This collection is a veritable
tour-de-force. Coming only a couple of years after Lucass highly acclaimed A
World Perhaps: New and Selected Poems, it is far, far from being anticlimactic. If
you read only one book of poetry published in the UK in 2004, it must be this one. And
that is the long and the short of it.