James Fenton, “At the Kerb” – public and private

My feelings about James Fenton’s elegy for Mick Imlah are still divided.

You can find the text at http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=25361

In Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968 – 2011 the poem appears with the dedication “i.m. Mick Imlah”.

The appearance of Yellow Tulips is a major publishing event and there’s a great deal in “At the Kerb” that I admire very much indeed, both for its sheer accomplishment and for its imaginative daring. To take the last point, how many modern English poets would dare write in such an overtly artificial way, starting a poem with the syntactical inversion of the first three words and the archaic flavour of the repeated use of “bestow”? In fact almost every every separate phrase in the first and third stanzas is full not just of artificiality but of older art, whether in syntax, imagery, diction, or all three at once. The phrasing of the second line pretty obviously recalls the fourth stanza of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, but this is a minor flourish compared to how strongly the imagery of the stanza as a whole evokes funerary processions in Greek and Roman sculpture and vase painting. The lack of syntactical drive in the first four lines, the absence of enjambement, the lingering, hesitant rhythms, and the feminine endings of the odd-numbered lines all support this evocation of a solemn funerary frieze. To my ear line 12 catches the note of a poem like Ben Jonson’s “Slow, slow, fresh fount” almost exactly. The middle stanza is different in some ways: its simile is drawn from the world of twentieth century political atrocity and develops through a series of three fast-moving scenes like little film clips. But even this stanza sounds archaic with its elaborately formal construction and the hint of personification in its first line.

These features give the poem a ceremoniousness, a dignity and a formal beauty that honour the memory of the person who has died and seek to bring consolation to the grief of his loss, rather as the rituals of a funeral service do. They contrast poignantly with the brute fact of his illness and death. Civility and art do what they can to create a shelter for human feeling and values in face of the most absolute reminder of how little those values can ultimately prevail. The historical allusiveness of the poem and its impersonality make us feel how these human values have been built up and have endured over time, how behind them is the accumulated effort of whole cultures, a whole species. All these things and the sheer beauty of its phonetic flow make me admire the poem and be moved by it.

Yet somehow, reading the poem as it appears in Yellow Tulips, with dedication, I’m not quite satisfied or convinced. It feels as if there’s something missing. The poem pushes things so far in the direction of formal art and tradition, is so sumptuously beautiful in its sounds and phrasing, uses metaphors so far removed from the particularity of Imlah’s life and death, that he himself and any individual feeling for him seem to disappear. And perhaps this is how things should be. This isn’t a fictional creation but a poem about a real person and a real death. If it was a fictional creation the creator would have to create the illusion of a real individual person in his poem, but people who actually knew Imlah in real life can take the real individual and the grief of his friends for granted. They will be moved by the things that are in the poem without feeling a lack because of the things that aren’t, that for them don’t need to be stated. Those who didn’t know him have no right to expect a confessional baring of the heart by the poet who did, and the poet himself might well feel that such a wearing on his sleeve of too personal feelings would be indecent and exploitative.

In fact the more I think about it the more I feel that my dissatisfaction with “At the Kerb” as it appears in Yellow Tulips is not to do with the reticence of the poem itself, or with its formality, but with the way this reticence is compromised in the collected version. The dedication moves it from being a poem with a clear separation between its public and private faces to one which lets down its guard just enough to prompt one to read it with the expectation of more intimate disclosures than it is in its nature to make.

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