A D R I A N  S T O K E S

Stokes - the Poet


by Peter Robinson

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Peter Robinson

Adrian Stokes's poems, written between 1968 and his death on 15 December 1972, are at once a reiteration and a summation of his life, both as a writer and a man. Taking up poetry as he did so late in life helps to account for some of the broad characteristics of the over one hundred and sixty poems he wrote. Unlike the work of a poet developing through late adolescence, maturity, and old age, Stokes's poems do not show the hesitation, consolidation, and then mastery that can be found in some such oeuvres, for this has been worked out elsewhere - in his aesthetic and critical writings. Making these poems, Stokes ranged over the events of his life, the perceptions about painting, sculpture, landscape, sport, and psychology that he had come to - so that distant events, memories and perceptions are recalled and rendered into verse years after they occurred. The poems reiterate, but also consummate, in that poetry offered Stokes the opportunity to condense and realize the varied concerns of his life in a form which, when articulated fully, can be more conceptually substantial and complexly implicit than prose.

The development of Stokes's prose style might be broadly generalized as moving from impressionistic evocation to aphoristic suggestiveness, and this process can be seen in the poems as well, where his thoughts are compressed and reformulated in sometimes extremely economical form. This concentration is achieved by an intensified attention to the suggestiveness of language as a medium for art. Yet Stokes discovered the dynamics of this attention via his aesthetic writings. In Reflections on the Nude (1967), he relates his familiar dualism - here called a dualism of actuality and fantasy - of the material thing and the activity of making it evocative, to the writing of modern poets:

It was in fact poets who first of our time employed a bared dualism. Since many words have numerous overtones, it became important to allow them their varied actuality even while they were pressed into the service of a narrow theme; a consideration that has led to an employment of images forged from juxtaposed, previously dissociated parts, of metaphor divorced from simile, an interplay of matter-of-factness with poetic intent.

Stéphane Mallarmé is likely to have been one of the poets that Stokes had in mind, though to suggest that such a poet would have had a part to play in his theory of art might have been sharply qualified by the Stokes of the early critical volumes. In the conclusion to the second part of The Quattro Cento (1932), Mallarmé is repudiated in so far as his work is characterized by what might be called the 'period charm' of Symbolism - a morbid interest in pathological states of mind, music veiling a reduced quotidian reality, blurring, frigidity, unmitigated emotional projection. It is as an arch-symbolist (among his poems 'Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui' is alluded to - alongside references to Poe's 'The Bells', Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, and poems by Verlaine and Laforgue) that Mallarmé is being pejoratively evoked in these parodic lines:

    'A musical-box caged in ice, this poetry. Cold as well as heat scorches. What was that delicious pistol shot? A cracking of the ice, or was it the cracked music within, did I hear Vierge, Filles, La Lune, and other monosyllabic splutters come crystalline from the lake?'

Donald Davie first has pointed out that Ezra Pound, a poet of similarly anti-symbolist persuasion, may be behind a remark in the first chapter to Stones of Rimini (1934), where the ability to cherish fantasies of the material that stimulated the artist, viz. the stone, is attributed to poets: 'Poets alone are trustworthy interpreters. They alone possess the insight with which to re-create subjectively the unconscious fantasies that are general.' So it would appear Stokes came to see that this was what Mallarmé was doing in his 'Crise de Vers' when he wrote of 'la disparition élocutoire du poëte, qui cède l'initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés... remplaçant ... la direction personelle enthousiaste de la phrase.' Only now the material which stimulates the artist is his language. In the remarks from Reflections on the Nude quoted above, Stokes holds to the bared dualism more firmly than does Mallarmé, whose lack of interest in enthusiastic personal direction of the phrase contrasts with words pressed into the service of a narrow theme. In turn, though, Mallarmé's sense of a mobilizing shock in the inequality of words is echoed in The Invitation in Art (1965) when Stokes writes of the preliminary attack in making art works as providing 'inequalities, tension and distortion' which a reparative second phase seeks to resolve. Stokes gives a witty example of his aggression, reminiscent of Mallarmé's anxiety when faced with the virgin page: 'It is "seconds out of the ring" for every writer as he opposes his first unblemished sheet, innocent of his graffiti.'

Written after a lifetime's study of art and psychoanalysis, these poems are imbued with allusions to Stokes's art theories. The bared dualism that he refers to above began as an antithesis of 'carving' and 'modelling' sculpture, an antithesis developed in three volumes written before the Second World War: The Quattro Cento, Stones Of Rimini, and Colour and Form (1937). The 'carving aesthetic' started out as a way to describe the attitude which certain artists are imagined to have adopted towards their material during the Italian quattrocento. The carver responds to the 'otherness' of his stone, looking for a form that is already present in the marble, to make what he imagines to be already there reveal itself. For such an artist, 'the materials were the objects of inspiration, the stocks for the deeper fantasies.' His creative activity is a thinning out of the stone block: conscious of the grain, the hardness and points of fracture in the block, he must be respectful of his material to coax from it a shape lying within, revealed by the flaking-off, the reducing process of the stone carving.

Stokes valued the carving attitude at the expense of the modeller in clay, the bronze caster, or iron founder. The modelling artist, he argued, uses his materials as the dupe and toy of his imaginative activity, pushing them one way or another, dabbing thumb-balls of clay onto the built-up lump at whim. Such work is characterized by the malleability of the medium, its plasticity or flow - and Stokes saw this fluidity as analogous to the duration of music and, once again, of Symbolist art: 'de la musique avant toute chose', as Paul Verlaine puts it in his 'Art Poétique'. Identifying a sense of rhythm with process, or life as an uncompleted continuum, Stokes found in the art that manifested the carving principle a completeness of life summed up as timeless presence. 'Modelling is more purely plastic creation,' he suggested, 'it does not disclose, as a face, the significance of what already exists.'

The carving artist's work was cherished by Stokes for its 'emblematic effect', which he imagined as the ability to make manifest through the fantasies projected onto the stone, and the manner of its working, a generalized symbol for the inner life of both epoch and individual. This 'inner life' points to the importance of psychoanalysis as an access to the substratum of art, a region about which Stokes began to generalize tentatively in Colour and Form, summing up this phase in his thinking:

Where lies the perennial strength of this fantasy? It is, of course, all the figures of the inner life, of the unconscious, that are shown as a fixture, as one harmonious family, steadfast, completed as an open rose, open, revealed. The modeller, on the other hand, imbues spatial objects with the animus and calculation of inner life. He projects the lively feeling, though not as a disclosed state. He accumulates force and directions: he does not reveal an accumulation, an augmentation upon the surface, a mere outwardness.

Stokes's antithesis of carving and modelling, a binary organization, like the pre-oedipal theory being advanced by Melanie Klein, with whom he had begun a course of psychoanalysis in January 1930, proved flexible enough to allow her sense of reciprocating, interdependent positions to be associated with it. The first stage of this developmental process in the infant's history Klein called the 'paranoid-schizoid' position. At this stage the child's ego has no integration, but relates to part objects - split projections of good and bad feelings. Projections of bad feeling onto the mother, accompanied by aggressive behaviour, result in the destruction, in fantasy, of the mother's image. The outcome of this - an experience of guilt and regret - was termed by Klein the 'depressive' position, in which a measure of ego integration is achieved. The child repairs the image of the mother by integrating the split good and bad part-objects, and in doing so constructs a whole object image, which is felt as separate from, as other than, its now somewhat integrated ego.

Stokes identified the former of these positions with modelling, the latter with carving. Both were now seen to be essential to the making of art, but Stokes held the carving aesthetic to be a fuller resolution of the integrative process of art, a process which he characterized as a drama of individual and cultural identity. In the former stage there is an acting out of aggression, a projection onto the materials of art, as in infancy onto the mother, of images lacking integration. At the second stage, induced by the artist's reparative need, he saw the process of art as an integrating of these tense and distorted images. In the work of integration, the artist constructs a whole object, whose articulation as a process of resolution helps confirm, or re-enact, the ego's integration. Both these stages contribute to the experience of completed art. The former, identified with process, is an incantation of parts which compels the involvement of spectator or reader. The latter, identified with completeness, emphasizes for the reader or spectator his separateness, or conversely the art object's wholeness, its otherness.

In 'Weathering,' words with numerous overtones cluster around the language of accountancy and the description of the inner world:

                                        Gorging on the pointed brick
                                        - Spaces fattening plenteous time -
                                        Seasons picnic stretched full length.
                                        Rains are spreading capes.

                                        The years are crumbling vivid stone
                                        Revetment with their feet.
                                        Why roseate? The Bank dome hoards
                                        All poaching thrusting fingers.

                                        The figures of the balance show
                                        Rich deposits, swollen greed;
                                        While the hours are nosing paint
                                        Silently as fungi feed.

These are the words 'figures' and 'balance' in the last stanza. The figures of the inner world are an assemblage of relatives, of objects modelled upon the infant's relations with his mother, whose integration as whole objects coincides with the stabilizing of the infant's ego. This process, analogous to the reparative phase, is suggested in the word 'balance', an evening-out of inequalities in psychic debit and credit, of loss and gain.

The preliminary attack, the aggressive first stage in creating, characterized by the infant's gnawing at the nipple, and the destruction of the mother in fantasy: this complex of ideas is brought into play in the poem's description of the seasons 'gorging', a devouring of the Bank's stone, the 'dome' figuring as an image of the breast. It is certainly not far-fetched in the context of Stokes' thinking to find an overtone in the seemingly inactive 'pointed' brickwork, and the question 'Why roseate?':

Some years ago I wrote of the smooth and rough motif that is native to architectural composition, that is perennial for all styles, for every type of building however modest, in terms of the breast and nipple, a theme of contrasting textures that characterizes music also, particularly concerted music.

The theme of music is invoked in that, for Stokes, music was a form of enwrapping that involved the auditor, a relationship of unity physically reminiscent of infantile identification with the breast-source of Freud's 'oceanic feeling.'

What Stokes came to appreciate in music as such, he also found true of the music of poetry: 'The poem, the sum-total, has the articulation of a physical object, whereas the incantatory element of poetry ranges beyond, ready to interpenetrate, to hypnotize.' This interpenetrating and hypnotic effect is encouraged in poetry by the unequal power of parts of a work acting on their own, and it will be felt in local senses of slight confusion:

                                        The years are crumbling vivid stone
                                        Revetment with their feet.

The first line is a completed semantic unit as it stands, and could be closed with a full stop. However, the turn of the enjambment ('stone / Revetment'), aggravated by the capitalization of the first letter of the new line, blurs that completeness, the object 'stone revetment' being split across the line-ending, and draws the reader into the work of comprehension. Likewise the words' varied actualities aid in this process of involvement, so that the metaphorical use in art appreciation of the term 'vivid' allows the unexceptional sense 'lively', while the theme of infantile object-relations projected onto architecture is promoted by 'alive'. This theme is reinforced by 'Revetment' - in English a word whose sense is confined to civil and military engineering, with its architectural sense being 'a facing of stone or other hard material over a less durable substance'. However, it derives this meaning from the French verb 'revêtir' (to clothe, dress), a meaning that distantly suggests the underlying motif of the maternal body. Further, the curious notion of the 'years' having 'feet' (a word that also evokes the largely iambic tread of the poem's lines) recalls a description of the Tempio's putti in Stones of Rimini where Stokes writes: 'The putti have a swollen vigour...They are never separated from their mother whom they ride and trample, each upon his block.' The acts of teasing out a sense which readers perform in going through the poem involve their response as its rhythm and lineation draw them into it.

    'Similarly a poem, like a picture, properly appreciated stands away from us as an object on its own'. Rhyme as a frame for clinching formulation, a having-the-last-word, a closing-off of sense, serves to promote the feeling of wholeness in a poem, suggesting the internal consistency of a free-standing artwork. The only rhyme in 'Weathering' occurs in the poem's final quatrain:

                                        The figures of the balance show
                                        Rich deposits, swollen greed;
                                        While the hours are nosing paint
                                        Silently as fungi feed.

Yet the poem doesn't only act formally, of course; it bears sense, and a 'narrow theme' of sorts. In Smooth and Rough, Stokes notes that 'it is at first disquieting to concede paramount importance to the issue from the balancing of forces present in infancy.' The ideal of balanced inner figures put forth in 'Weathering' suggests a position at odds with the notion that a healthy bank balance is one which is as much in credit as it is possible to be. The suffered losses and reparative gains of the developing self seem rather to take as their model economy a just-breaking-even. This is because stability is characterized by the recognition of limits - unending loss being as debilitating as omnipotent, unbounded gain. Thus, in line two of the stanza quoted above, 'Rich deposits' are matched by 'swollen greed'.

So the equanimity and the evenness of tone in 'Weathering' give the impression of a limit established and accepted. 'For a moment luxury may satisfy greed and provide the riches that separate us from loneliness'; this sentence from 'The Luxury and Necessity of Painting' in The Painting of our Time (1961) shows a distrustful understanding of surfeit, echoing the baby's attack, but it also indicates (by the phrase 'for a moment') the action of weather in conjunction with time. The opening line of the poem 'Weathering' describes the seasons as 'gorging'; by the last stanza, weathering is transformed into a process of 'nosing' and 'feeding'. In that same essay on painting, Stokes describes the role of the gallery director: 'we are not interested in his business acumen but his nose.' So the hours nose paint and the fungi feed to give the surfaces they weather a low relief of flakings, crackings, and encrustation. These offer the eye a purchase on the wall, on 'Leonardo's homogeneous wall with adventitious marks', enabling the viewer to be nourished by its presence - both to be enwrapped, and have otherness reaffirmed. So the poem balances its books; its view of weathering develops from greedy incorporation to co-existence.

The implied comment on the national economy expressed in 'Weathering' (suggested by 'The Bank' - the Bank of England - sometimes called The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street) brings to mind not only Ezra Pound, but also recalls one of Stokes' main influences, the John Ruskin who, in the opening pages of The Stones of Venice, asks the tourist to 'behold in the brightness of their accumulated marble, pages on which the sentence of her luxury was to be written until the waves should efface it, as they fulfilled - "God has numbered they kingdom, and finished it"'. This is the lesson that Ruskin draws for mercantile England, Tyre's and Venice's successor, as he argues, in the work's opening paragraph when he prophecies that the country 'which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.'

As with Ruskin, though happily not to such manic effect, there was much that depressed Stokes in his later years about the society and environment in which he lived; they are eloquently spoken of in his lecture 'The Future and Art' from A Game that Must Be Lost (1973). But one feature of British life since 1945 that seems to have come as a relief to him was the sense that the country's economic power and wealth were not what they had seemed:

And now that since the war Victorian squalor and splendour are numbered, finite, I imagine that it has not only been a vast shock but also for many a psychological relief to discover dramatically that there is a decided limit to our national wealth.

It is perhaps helpful to bear in mind amidst the drastic measures and dinfor miracle-cures aimed at the British economy, amidst desires to see Britain a 'world-beater' again, that moth and rust eating deposits could be looked upon as welcome affirmations of a true limit.

Matter of factness and poetic intent, the Bank of England and a baby at the breast: the ambition of Adrian Stokes' poetry is to enrich with associations the ways in which the ordinary world is viewed and understood, while retaining the recognizable lineaments, the familiarity of this ordinary world. Formulating in the detail of every-day life a psychologically-founded sense of human consciousness and life does strain his bared dualism. Sometimes his lines seem to attempt too much. But successes, partial successes, and partial failures all attest to the seriousness, importance, and difficulty of Stokes' project, a final essay at his lifelong task - making sense of both inner and outer worlds, making a sense that appears inherent, a drawing out and disclosing of the significance in what already exists.

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