Books: The Metropolitan Critic — The Wheeze Incarnadined |
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The Wheeze Incarnadined

The evening is probably not far off when Steed will recite verses through the dressing-room door to Tara King as she dons her fighting suit for a new adventure: when he does, George MacBeth’s The Night of Stones could be his text. The Avengers is fancy telly and this stuff is fancy poetry, stylelessly stylish, unoriginally new, each tuneless phrase poised and punctuated so that it must mean more than it seems to do. The unwritten guarantee which comes with Avengers drama assures the viewer that nothing, no event, image or show of character, will force itself upon the memory — only a general air of chic will remain. With the blood-stone-light-bone poetry here under consideration, the reader is assured that the words will stay safely on the page. Though the most appalling scenes of carnage and nuclear holocaust are visited, it is only for the run of the book; usually only for the length of the page. Atomic bombs go off with soporific regularity, scorching the stone with light and playing hell with the blood, not to mention the bone. But these atomic bombs are Material for Poetry, and the killed are Material for Poetry too — their deadness is thematically handier than their lost aliveness. As in grand guignol, the only genuine casualties — once breathing, now rigid — are the words themselves.

                                                Old, asleep,
Washing slow hands in water, she was there,
Grey-haired and guilty, waiting for their thumbs
To choke her blood and stone....
                                                Like a dog
Blood ran between them with its nose to the ground
Sniffing for a scent....
                                                Somewhere a faucet dripped
Water, blood, water on stone. Inside her brain
The blood beat back.
                        Fire was the sign of blood....
                                                So he drove on,
Wading in blood....

(In this last piece one assumes that the car has a very long pedal travel, thus inducing a wading sensation when changing gears.)

In the longish poem, ‘Driving West’, which opens the book, the word blood occurs eighteen times, although to some extent monotony is avoided by supplying it in a variety of colours and textures — red, black, soupy, oily, watery and with its nose to the ground. In the book overall the word receives several more mentions than any of flame, silk, ice and the ever-popular groin, and towards the end manages to race away even from its stable-mates bone, stone and light to amass a total of twenty-five mentions — surely a record for a single substantive at the distance.

Suspended in this non-evocative vocabulary float inert namings of gadgets and gimmicks, mostly leftover properties from low-budget SF serials like Captain Video: hypodermics, electric coils and inevitably the dread laser.

0, my dear one, tempered
by the beam of the laser, torn
by the stone body of the gorgon, the man-child
lighten my darkness, I
need you now

None of the O.E.D. definitions of tempered accords with the actual properties of a laser, but no matter: prop gimmicks cost money and must be put to a variety of uses, as when Captain Video employed his personal oscilloscope (the Opticon Scillometer) to detect the political affiliations of the invaders from the Red planet Mongo. The pun count for the book is low, but the instances are revealing. This one is about a German dog.

jaw swivels, and:

Schnapps, you see, because the dog is German; and his jaw snaps; and Schnapps is a German drink. One’s response to such felicities sharpens at a second reading, causing, in the fit reader, a tendency to drum the heels on the floor. Nevertheless, this sequence of mini-poems about dogs (called ‘At Cruft’s’) is the best thing in the book: ‘characteristic’ pix of your favourite pets, taken with one of those cameras which develops the film instantly and gives you a slightly wet but reasonable sharp impression of what the outside of things looks like.

There are a few trick poems included, based on ‘vowel analysis’ and ‘numerical analysis’ of other people’s work: a dangerous game for this poet, since a blood-stone-light-bone analysis of his own poems would uncover the precisely recurring clotted patterns of a radar screen sweeping a herd of tortoise. A poem about Malta which conflates imagery of the two great sieges (1565 and 1940) seems to contain a moment of genuine memory:

     With paired wings, three remain
Holding the gold walls....

These are Faith, Hope and Charity, the three Gladiators (they were biplanes, hence the ‘paired wings’) which defended the island at one desperate period. The poet’s emotions are at least temporarily involved here, so the verse comes to life for a while: a writer so tough about Death, though, should have avoided giving the planes’ pilots

                                          clean, grey eyes
Behind the wings, mounting in honour

Biggles, Ginger and Algy fly again, as technical advisers to Malta Story.

The combination of recondite information and predictable emotion is characteristic — a narrow intensity of curiosity shared by stereo fiends and those people who wear opera capes and green eyeshadow and who can name you the directors of every Bette Davis movie if you give them half a chance. To draw upon the flat characters, contrived situations and ramshackle properties of B-pictures, Sam Katzman serials and comic strips is the only way to talk about poetry of this type. It is media poetry. It has a great air of living and struggling in the true world of Hitler, Himmler, Stalin and Beria, but a close look reveals that it has been transformed by fright-wigs and plastic incisors into the process-shot world of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and J. Carroll Naish, each lit uncannily among the zapping electric coils. Like horror films, this kind of poetry is the art with which frivolous people fulfil their seriousness quota. ‘I was terrified,’ said the old lady emerging from Psycho. ‘It was wonderful.’ And in all that spookery (‘all that’ is one of this poet’s favourite soggy specificities), not a single haunting phrase.

(TLS, 1968)


As a tyro critic, and later on a tyro TV critic, I spent more time praising than blaming: but blame, more fun to read, gets remembered, so I acquired an early reputation for always being either at the feet of my subject or else at his throat. I doubt that it was an accurate characterization, but have to admit that a piece like the foregoing one fits the billing. This was the piece I came closest to suppressing for this reissue. To have done so, however, would have meant rewriting my own history in a favourable light, and to have overrated my initial impact as a reviewer. Worried even at the time by the intransigence of the tone I had taken, I was relieved to hear that George MacBeth laughed it off: without being so crass as to put all adverse criticism down to jealousy, he still worked on the principle that anyone who didn’t like his work hadn’t understood it — a useful defence mechanism for poets, who can’t last long without a reservoir of self-belief. Nevertheless the piece shows the sharp limitations, as well as the questionable morality, of bending the language of criminal prosecution to the assessment of poetry, which even at its worst is more likely to be a misdemeanour than a felony. Having taken such a tone, I would have had nothing left over with which to criticize, say, Baldur von Schirach’s poems in praise of Hitler. As with any other self-indulgent emotion, spleen affects the minor details as well as the grand cadence. Just after ironic inverted commas, ironic capital letters (as in Material for Poetry) come high on the list of would-be snide tricks that don’t punch their weight. Usually it isn’t hard to produce a review more carefully composed than the poems being reviewed — most poets write poetry because they aren’t scrupulous enough to write prose — but if the aim is to outdo the subject for verbal authority, the passions need to be held in. I should add in expiation that nobody, including George MacBeth himself, had any inkling at the time of the illness which would eventually bring about his sadly premature exit from the scene, so to joke about his use of the word ‘laser’ wasn’t necessarily a sign of insensitivity. There were plenty of other signs, though, and I regret them still.