Poetry: Other Passports — Introduction | clivejames.com
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Other Passports :  Introduction

During thirty years of writing verse, one hopes to have improved, but can only have done so by becoming more self-critical, a development which tends to winnow the crop in advance of the harvest. Therefore I am pleased to find some things asking to be kept even from early on. If it does not sound too grand to say that there was an initial phase, it was the ten-year period in which I wrote what were meant to be lyric poems. These mainly went into university magazines and newspapers either in Sydney or in Cambridge, and in the pages of those publications most of them demand to lie undisturbed. Though I never had what it took to be obscure, clarity still had to be worked for. Local outbreaks of straightforwardness from the early part of this struggle are here preserved under the title Earlier Verse, not because I want to disown them but because even at their most transparent they try so hard to disown me. To write in his own voice is every poet’s object, and my voice, I have since realized, was the prosaic one I speak with. It was so close to hand that it took an age to reach.

A big help along the way was a second phase, not represented here. At Cambridge I began writing song lyrics for the music of my fellow undergraduate, Pete Atkin. In the next eight years we published half a dozen record albums. I never wrote from a surer instinct. But there came a point, while I was still writing song lyrics, when another instinct awkwardly insisted that I was not yet quite through with writing verse. The awkwardness lay in the fact that the new urge was theatrical. Having my song lyrics performed had given me a taste for going public. My mock epic poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage was the brazen outcome. Eventually it had three successors, and all four mock epics might one day appear together in a single volume suitably annotated, but here I need only say that before attempting that first, long, parodic poem-for-performance I wrote a number of isolated parodies, imitations and lampoons, most of which were first published under the name of Edward Pygge.

Hard news about Edward Pygge might prove useful to those scholars who concern themselves with the London Literary World in its more subterranean aspects. Pygge’s activities were designedly shrouded in mystery, but by now there is a new generation of literati on the scene to whom the mystery looks like a conspiracy. It never was. Pygge simply happened. In his heyday he was three people. Ian Hamilton invented him, and composed, mainly for the pages of that astringent little magazine the Review, his first withering attacks on current poetic fashion. My own additions to the swinish canon were made in order to generate more material for a one-night literary spectacular presented at the ICA in the Mall. Rehearsed irregularly at the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street, Soho, and unofficially known as the Edward Pygge Revue, the show was produced by Hamilton and myself but stolen outright by Russell Davies, who made a dramatic, unheralded appearance in the role of Pygge. Seemingly just off a plane from Chicago, Davies wore a dark suit, darker shirt, white tie, pointed shoes, and a black fedora with the brim pulled low over the eyes. He carried a violin case under his arm as if it contained a Thompson sub-machine gun loaded ready for action. He read our Pygge poems in a variety of voices to stunning effect. It should also be said that his own Pygge poems, when he could be persuaded to write them, were of deadly accuracy and unmatched inventiveness. He had that flair. The last two lines of ‘The Wasted Land, for example, were supplied by Davies sotto voce, or perhaps blotto voce, as he sipped a pint at rehearsal. I appropriated them without compunction.

A man to respect, a back-room boy, an itinerant torpedo whose power depended on the obscurity of his turned-up coat collar, Edward Pygge found his reputation turning into fame, with all of its attendant dangers. On two occasions there were double-page spreads of Pygge poems in the New Statesman. Pygge started showing up in the same paper’s weekly competition. He became a handy sobriquet for anyone who had a spoof to launch. The feminist termagant Edwina Pygge put in an appearance. Obviously it would have been only a matter of time before Edward and Edwina were joined by Kedward Pygge and their Nordic cousin, Hedwig Pygge. The star having gone nova, he duly dissipated into a nebula. Occupied by long confections far out of scale with Pygge’s pinpoint focus, I forgot that I had ever been part of the collective brain beneath that dangerously angled black hat.

As well as the mock epics which are not here, I wrote verse letters which are. The first seven of these were published in book form under the title Fan-Mail, a term which Philip Larkin, in a letter, correctly pointed out should not have a hyphen. A slim volume verging on the flimsy, it was reviewed like the plague but did me good. The different verse forms I adopted were identical in their salutary discipline. It sounds like masochism and sometimes felt like it, but in the long run the exigencies of rhyme and metre made plainness mandatory by revealing would-be profundities as fudge. Here I have felt bound to discard only the first verse letter I wrote. Addressed to John Fuller, it was too clumsy to keep, in view of the high standards of craftsmanship he has set for those poets of his generation who have followed his example in producing, or trying to produce, urbane and entertaining public verse.

The only other things I have subtracted from the Fan-Mail verse letters are the italicization, extra capital letters and cognate olde worlde furniture which excused them as a deliberate throwback, when I should have admitted that I meant every word of them. I have included two verse letters written less apologetically later on, the ones to Michael Frayn and Craig Raine, and in the same section put two birthday poems, for Anthony Thwaite and Gore Vidal. This whole intermediate phase of extended rhyme-scheming was rounded out, symbolically if not chronologically, by my fourth mock epic Charles Charming’s Challenges, for which the West End critics demanded that its perpetrator be transported to Botany Bay, and were not to be mollified by the information that he was born there. Adopting a new disguise as a novelist, I discreetly vacated the poetic scene.

While hiding out through a long winter, I remembered Pygge. Having found a legitimate freedom of language through strict form, I was ready to recapture, in propria persona this time, my share of Pygge’s laconic anarchy, his mimetic disdain, his heroic disinclination to be impressed. It occurred to me that the poems I had written under his name were the first that had been entirely mine — the reason that I reproduce them here, minus the porcine pseudonym. A strange characteristic of parody is that by tightening your grip on someone else’s throat you can loosen your own tongue. Pygge would pitch his voice at any level that suited the case, shade it to any tone. Either he trusted his own personality to come through anyway or else he simply didn’t give a damn. Now that he had finished copying everybody else, I resolved to copy him.

The shorter pieces grouped under the heading Recent Verse were composed in the euphoria of this very elementary breakthrough. Taking strict form from my longer poems and polyphonic courage from Pygge, I wrote them in matching stanzas when the occasion demanded, and free verse when it did not. But the freedom would not have been the same without the discipline, nor the discipline without the freedom. In the compound of those two elements resides the only concept of the modern that I am willing to understand. Recent verse is a category which I hope I will go on adding to for the rest of my life. It turned out, however, that the urge to write longer poems was not extinct, merely dormant. They rose again in the form of verse diaries. ‘An Address to the Nation’ was the rehearsal for Poem of the Year. I include them both here, without the author’s note attached to the latter when it was first printed in book form. If these two verse diaries seem to take up a disproportionate space, it doesn’t mean that I value long poems more than short ones. But I don’t value them less, either. At any length, the aim is brevity.

— London, 1986
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