A D R I A N S T O K E S
Stokes - the Poet
A PLACE OF BIRTH
Black Swan Books, 1980 and
Carcanet New Press, 1981. Edited & Introduced by Peter Robinson.
As their title implies, the binding theme of Stokes's
collected poems is space. Nor is the assertion contradicted by the emphasis
Adrian Stokes laid throughout his aesthetic writings on certain qualities of objects.
In his introduction to With All the Views, Peter Robinson argues that the one
hundred and sixty or so poems which Stokes wrote between 1968 and his death in 1972
'consummate' his life's work. They do not simply reiterate established positions, they add
a new dimension. Our own stability goes hand in hand with the stability of objects, Stokes
once wrote. Looking back, he could also acknowledge their (and our) dependence on
intervening, affectionate space. 'Art' is now defined, in 'Birthday Poem', as 'man's
history of himself in space'.
The psychoanalytical impulse underlying Stokes's aesthetic has been outlined elsewhere - notably in the contributions to PN Review 15. The question is whether the poems attain to that 'wholeness' which, in Stokes's view, was the hallmark of a satisfactory work of art. Do they lose force when detached from the larger body of his prose? Do they create a space of their own? The answer appears to be that, if anything, there are occasions when their style lends the poems an excessive roundness and separateness.
In his PN Review article Richard Read demonstrated Stokes's shifting attitude towards two rival creative modes: the 'modelling' and the 'carving'. Stokes grew to appreciate that the carving mode, although it preserved the integrity and wholeness of the material, contained the seeds of a manic impulse. The very illusion of completeness and outwardness was suspect. Besides, it was hard to see how, without a modelling intent at some point in the creative process, an image could ever be formed. Stokes criticised his mentor, Pound, for expressing with an air of authority what were only 'opinions'. In the 1930s this proved a stumbling-block to their friendship. Much later, Stokes realised that wilfulness had to be embodied, not expelled. Without the preliminary energy to expression, the equanimity of outwardness could hardly be achieved.
These considerations bear closely on Stokes's style, which is epigrammatic. The language of the poems is sometimes rudely shaped to the argument: the tendons and muscles of balance arc dissected for display. One senses that the forms and the calculated ambiguities (between whose opposite meanings abysses yawn) barely contain a self-destructive impulse. Robinson suggests that Stokes used rhyme 'to promote the feeling of wholeness in a poem'. No doubt this was his intent but, on occasion, the device which should resolve the tension only pulls it tighter.
In Stokes's Italy, that opposite landscape where he first tried to shore up the shattered fragments of his London childhood, the great image of that restoration is Venice. In the poem 'A Tired Approach to Venice', he refers to Malamocco Novo, a suburb which symbolises the nature of his debt, bearing the name of a drowned predecessor. Venice was 'A place of birth / Of agony scrubbed out'. Yet the lines which in another poem,'Piazza San Marco', are intended to evoke Venetian outwardness and balance, in fact create, at least for me, a disturbingly opposite sense. At midday the pigeons, the birds which in 'Hyde Park' symbolised emotional poverty, fly down and are fed. 'The midday hour', Stokes writes, 'When pigeons sent headstrong on wing / Construct with air an ample ring'. The lines may describe Stokes's interest in imaginative space, but the tight beat and rhyme, meant to suggest firmness and finality, to my ear at least, crush the proposed amplitude. In excessive reaction, one longs for the 'ambiguous undulations' of Wallace Stevens's 'casual flocks'.
Stokes knew the dangerous appeal of incantation. In 'Brief Sermon on Love', the same technical strategy is put to its proper use. The poem concludes with the image of: 'Model child that's sitting pretty / Under table where the parents sit / Whose choice bits meanwhile seemly howl / Also prisoners in his bowel.' The rhythm grows as mechanical and retentive as the child's motions. Suppression of untidy articles: it is a linguistic equivalent of the child's lack of private space. The ambiguous jargon of nurses and adults jars; the rhymes unnerve. But, from these, the child constructs a collage world, a world of parts, void of binding affection.
Affection informs space. Space without identity suffocates. London, where 'The pipes beneath subjoin no bond', is 'unidentified'. By contrast, in another poem, 'Out of London', 'Instead of louring space / The rush of streams survived / Or fields that stemmed from stiles'. Satisfactory space has the open structure of a field with a stile. By the same token, without that projecting love, that identifies boundaries as linking spaces, the world collapses. The symptoms of mental illness, so movingly described in 'Schizophrenic Girl', is that the girl is 'Oblivious to things as such / Without boundaries where boundaries should confine.' She hugs herself 'to preserve a skin / That barely separates / Barely resists the air'. The ambiguity of 'barely' demonstrates Stokes's belief, expressed in another poem, that 'the word / Can never / Indistinguish- / able become / From things'. Significantly, the title of that poem is 'Future for Art'. Whether constructing a personality or a work of art, success is a matter of defining ambiguities, where 'inside' and 'outside' meet and become each other. The outcome of this continuous process is a sensation that space within and without has become bounded, human. For this reason, the 'air' which threatens the girl who has 'no inner shutoff space', if breathed in and out with gratitude, is 'reliant' or, elsewhere, 'even'. It is the medium of light, the soul of objects. So, in 'Age', 'Memories' are defined as 'interstices of light'; while, in 'Natural Death', to die is to 'Embrace the gap / Between fatigue and sleep'. In such poems Stokes resolves the carving / modelling paradox. Feelings have found a shaped, but unpolished, finality: our sympathies are engaged, as with familiar things.
The editor has intelligently grouped the poems into six sections. This not only has the advantage of giving us a breathing space, which the mass of poems might lack. It stresses the subtle richness of Stokes's consummation: external and internal objects, childhood townscapes and adult landscapes, art and our own life and death reflect, without distortion, the single pattern of life's process. All moments are felt, as Stokes says of 'rain' and 'sea', to be 'cognate'. On a narrow, scrupulously and painfully cleared foundation of self-knowledge, at the end of his life, Stokes constructed for the last time an image of his life which at its best has the quality he attributes to Greek temples, a 'generosity of fluted light'. On page 17 we are promised a photograph the book [the Carcanet edition] does not in fact contain. The conclusion is conventional but apt: we lose nothing by the omission. In his poems, as in his prose, Stokes did not describe, but transformed the world. This print on white pages gives a far better picture.