Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Cindery In-betweens of Charles Tomlinson

My essay on George Oppen, the inaugural posting in my blog, opened with a poem Oppen wrote to the British poet, Charles Tomlinson. The following essay is a consideration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson, a wonderful poet in his own right.

One thing I should alert my readers to is that I am, so far, unable to make the poems properly post with their indentations. I apologize for this and hope to shortly rectify this problem.

The Cindery In-betweens of Charles Tomlinson
By Michael T. Young

A poet is a type of geographer charting verbal countries in rhythms and metaphors. Some note the unobserved details of previously visited terrain while others discover altogether new islands. What the British poet, Charles Tomlinson, does is bring this metaphor of mine closer to an identity. That is, his verbal explorations are most often of literal geographic locations and their metaphysical depths. Tomlinson is deeply attuned to the landscapes he has visited in his lifelong travels, whether it’s Venice, Rome, Oaxaca or New York.

Although Charles Tomlinson has a name less recognizable than Philip Larkin or possibly even Thomas Gunn, he is their contemporary and as much a masterful poet. He was born in Stoke-on Trent in 1927 and educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge. A professor of English at Bristol University for thirty-six years, Tomlinson is also a successful visual artist, with some of his works published in 1976 under the title In Black and White: The Graphics of Charles Tomlinson.

In Tomlinson’s poetry his visual facility keeps pace with his poetic ear. This combination of eye and ear makes for lushly and subtly textured lines such as

. . . water, seeping up to fill their pits,
Sheeted them to lakes that wink and shine
Between tips and steeples, streets and waste


A trout, facing upstream, hangs
Balanced against the current he is riding:
Tail and fin countervail the force
Which keeps compelling him into acquiescence

These are delectable syllables, tasteful on the tongue and easy to relish. In fact, it might be enough to simply bask in the pleasure of his sound if that were all his poetry offered. But it isn’t. In early and late poems alike he returns to locations to meditate upon them and Tomlinson is a profound thinker. Buildings, events, moments in his travels are carefully and caringly traced through collections ranging from The Necklace in 1955 to Skywriting in 2003.

In the telling poem, “At Stoke,” about his childhood landscape, he writes,

I have lived in a single landscape. Every tone
And turn have had for their ground
These beginnings in grey-black: a land
Too handled to be primary—all the same,
The first in feeling. I thought it once
Too desolate, diminished and too tame
To be the foundation for anything. It straggles
A haggard valley and lets through
Discouraged greennesses, lights from a pond or two.
By ash-tips, or where the streets give out
In cindery in-betweens, the hills
Swell up and free of it to where, behind
The whole vapoury, patched battlefield,
The cows stand steaming in an acrid wind.
This place, the first to seize on my heart and eye,
Has been their hornbook and their history.

Indeed, the characteristics of this landscape intimate the interests and traits of his poetry, its color, its lights, a poetic life spent exploring all the “cindery in-betweens.” I tend to imagine Stoke with the “lights from a pond or two” serving as single points of certainty, of definition in a gray landscape, and I think this may be true for Tomlinson himself. One sees it in the care he takes with the structure of his poetry, the abundance of internal music, the rhyme, and the ease with which he moves through his meters. One sees it in the occasions of his poetry when “Light stilled the mind, then showed it what to do.”

Like his contemporaries such as Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie and Philip Larkin, Tomlinson responded stylistically, and even thematically, to those excesses found in a poet like Dylan Thomas. His poetry is not grandiose and passionate but thoughtful and controlled. This is not to say that Tomlinson’s poetry is cold and indifferent. Rather, his poetry shows the complexities of a mind and heart equally bound up in its responses to the world. These elements—heart, mind and world—so mingle and mutually make each other, none govern absolutely. But together they engender a form and structure in Tomlinson’s work that is not only poetic technique but insight into universal principles. In “Swimming Chenango Lake” the light playing on the water “is a geometry and not/A fantasia of distorting forms.” It is this same impetus that inspires a poem like “Against Extremity” or “Roma: Monte del Gallo” where the nature of two cypresses sit in “deep/Arboreal indifference to unsleeping Rome.” To Tomlinson, structure, form, and artifice are healing powers and the way to “wish back Eden.” But it would be wrong to think there is no conflict or struggle. We are, in fact, the dispossessed, living in a world expelled from Eden.

The fact that we need the healing powers of art implies our sickness and struggle. But what that art discloses is that the balances we strike simultaneously are points of great conflict and convergence. Here, equal and opposite forces become one another as often as they balance. In fact, the definition of balance may be not where equal and opposite forces cancel each other out but where they seamlessly become one another. Thus scavenging birds in “The Faring,”

. . . intent
On nothing more than the ploughland’s nourishment,
Brought the immeasurable in

Conversely, the poem “In Arden” discloses a manifest world echoing the transcendent and moves to that unseen rhythm as

. . . Arden’s springs
Convey echoic waters — voices
Of the place that rises through this place
Overflowing, as it brims its surfaces
In runes and hidden rhymes, in chords and keys
Where Adam, Eden, Arden run together
And time itself must beat to the cadence of this river.

With a poet like Tomlinson, it is not easy to plumb the depth of a poem, for multiple currents run through them, mingling, merging and separating in a constant dance of light and shade. It might seem like evasiveness if it weren’t for the fact that life hangs perpetually at the edge of revelation. Forces simultaneously disclose and cover the depths, like the gull in The Way of a World that “Swayed toiling against the two/Gravities that root and uproot the trees.” Or more overtly in Snow Signs, where, although the snow covers the landscape, rather than hiding the world, it leads to a revelation of contours that were otherwise unnoticed,

It is written here in sign and exclamation,
Touched-in contour and chalk-followed fold,
Lines and circles finding their completion
In figures less certain, figures that yet take hold
On features that would stay hidden but for them:

These are other forms of the cindery in-betweens, places where we stand before “the competing geometries of shore and sky,” or watch a jet trail

. . . beneath
this no-man’s territory to see
How far that fringe of vapour can prolong
Its fading signature against space

This territory has been Tomlinson’s poetic homeland from the beginning. His exploration of it for more than fifty years has made him one of its most accurate geographers, one of its most revealing historians, and one if its most sensitive poets. It is a rich country full of details and subtleties to which this visitor’s brief journal entry can only hint.


  1. Hi Michael,

    Great blog! Informative and interesting. I don't often read poetry, although I do enjoy it, and I am glad that you have created this blog.

    God Blesses You--

  2. Dear Michael,

    Charles Tomlinson was always writing the same poem. Thank goodness. Thus if you don't quite get one of them, or a bit of one of them, you can get a better "signal", as it were, with the same story continuing, elsewhere. It's like jumping from place to place in some big symphony. The sense is not lost. It coheres no matter what. Like a stretch of Scelsi, Dvorak, or Brahms, or (Charles's much loved) Mahler. So...another poem will do it. And that's why he's tough to portray well over a short run of lines, or even you give a whole poem. Brave attempts to anthologise him in the UK have shown this. The editors simply cannot do him justice with one or two poems. He suffers also from not having some signature poem or other that is well-known. The early attempts to "big-up" the ones like meditation on John Constable, and farewell to van gogh now look dated. The attempts look dated. Not the poems. He's not at all quotable, in fact!! And further...and worse...he can get get a bit "purse-lipped" or "fastidious" or can have a somewhat highflown rhetorical moment or two. But really none of this matters in the end. Charles's "one poem" is enough for anyone.

    Unlike Oppen, who seems to have prized the exercise of intensively careful thought as a final end in itself, (I compare Oppen to a logical positivist like Wittgenstein) Tomlinson has an a priori belief in the "virtu" and worth and even "love", of the phenomenal world - an unfashionable view which he is constantly advocating and proving. Charles is a worshipper of nature. He's a type of religious poet, as Wordsworth. Finding goodness in things. "seeing is believing". But he makes all that modern. He makes it possible and proper. Critics (and he himself) adduce the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty into the mix, but that's a red herring. Charles read it and was thrilled by it because it intellectually licensed a way of looking at the world that he was engaged upon anyway.

    The fact that no one in England is much interested in the sublime - scarcely ever was! - does not really matter. Charles is the current link in the chain that stretches back through Edward Thomas, DH Lawrence, Hardy, Hopkins, to Wordsworth and Cowper. The link he has made will keep England on the right road. And there'll be one or two, perhaps like him, along presently. Meanwhile thanks for writing about him. shantih.

  3. Thanks for reading and for your comments. I'm glad there are people out there who appreciate Tomlinson as you do. He clearly ranks high for you and this is promising in itself for the endurance of his work and the work of those who follow.