Sunday, 22 July 2012

Pindaric Mode

  Ian Pindar’s Constellations is the most intriguing new volume I’ve read this year for a number of reasons. Like Tim Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation (which I wrote enthusiastically about last year), Constellations finds a way of utilising the great Modernist forebears - chiefly in this case Stevens, Aiken and late Eliot, with perhaps a few Continental masters like Valery, Rilke and Seferis thrown into the mix  – and remoulding their rhetoric of high-flung abstract lyricism into a more contemporary idiom.

     Whereas Donnelly’s style seems an understandable extension of what’s happened in American poetry in recent decades, where Stevens channelled through Ashbery seems a prevalent line of influence, Pindar’s feat seems all the more admirable within the context of an English poetry which has been fairly resistant to these kinds of writers since the Movement declared its highly-damaging moratorium on Modernism back in the late 50s – remember Larkin’s asinine rejection of “Pound, Picasso and Parker”?( His estimation of Charlie Parker as a radical Modernist -  a saxophonist who in the light of subsequent jazz-explorations now seems decidedly old-school – suggests how limited and partial his critical viewpoint was.)

     Even the more experimental British poets who have been interested in American Modernism, such as the ‘Cambridge school’, have taken more from the skinny-lined, syntactically-disruptive Objectivist/Black Mountain lineage than from the lusher, reflective manner typified by Stevens: “the tradition of Pound and Williams rather than the tradition of Pound and Eliot” as Crozier and Longville put it in their Introduction to what’s seen as the ‘Cambridge School’ anthology, A Various Art.

    What’s particularly important about Constellations is the way Pindar has forged a style based on Modernist and non-British role-models that sets it bravely apart from the run-of-the-mill complacencies of so many volumes published today. In so doing, it reminds us both of the restrictive set of tacit conventions many poets are writing by, and of the vastly wider possibilities embodied in looking beyond these same conventions and towards areas of poetry far more ambitious, complex and powerful than anything written in the UK in the last 10 years (the usual source of influence for new poets.)

   For a start, Pindar returns to an essentially impersonal aesthetic in Constellations, avoiding the  autobiographical-foregrounding which all too often dominates mainstream poetry. We learn nothing about Ian Pindar’s personal life or past in these poems because he is too absorbed in the task of crafting beautifully-measured lines and stanzas and allowing these to speak for themselves:

       “Old cars and roses. The yard prepares for evening.
         It knows the colour of yesterday,
         as the shapes in the yard are angles of themselves.”

Without the need to put himself in the frame of the poem, Pindar is free to evoke subtly-modulated scenarios which are frequently both painterly – the luminous semi-figurative landscapes of Matisse or Dufy spring to mind – and musical, with playful variations made on the sounds and meanings of words: “New vistas and visas, new rooms with new aromas”; “each particle part-icicle”; “engendered/in the consciousness, endangered in the consciousness”. The overall structure of the book, which indeed can be read either as a single long poem or as a linked sequence, is also more symphonic than narrative-driven, with themes and motifs (eg. the changing of the seasons) recurring and reconfiguring throughout its length. This is another key device used by Modernist poets, of course, with Four Quartets being only the most obvious example: the effect is to allow a complex, open-ended meditation on certain ideas and images without pinning down meaning to the kind of glib, unitary conclusion invariably encountered in the post-Movement poem.

    Despite its many virtues, my main reservation with Constellations is that the style often sails a little too close to Stevens and ends up sounding almost like an imitation; this is where the book diverges from Donnelly’s Cloud Corporation, which seems like a bold bringing-forward and revivifying of the Stevensian poetic, spicing it up with dollops of absurdist irony and post-Modern  weltschmerz. In attempting to capture the airiness and grace of Stevens at his most lyrical, Pindar sometimes overdoes the mellifluous “gaudiness” of his language and comes out rather over-alliterative and flowery (eg. “The rose/is a replica of a rose in a replica reality”); equally, there is occasionally a naive tweeness of expression which the political poems of the middle sections do not sufficiently offset: “ Life is a holiday. For love and sudden joy”;/ “How nice to make a Paradise./ How nice to know white pansies and white peonies.” Stevens brought darker tones into many of his poems (eg. at random “A little less returned for him each spring”) - as did other Modernists like the early Eliot, Montale and Vallejo – and one might say that Constellations could do with a touch more of this harsher, bassier octave.

  Still, airiness, grace and unEnglish jouissance are perhaps exactly what we need when there is so much dull and unimaginative poetry around.  It is summer, after all (allegedly). Far better poems that are too redolent of Stevens than poems that are too redolent of Don Paterson and Carol-Anne Duffy.


  1. Many thanks for this thoughtful review, Oliver. I couldn't have set it all in context better myself! If not dark enough, it was a conscious choice to affirm life (although 'How nice...Paradise' was supposed to be ironic). My first collection was dark, but dark is easy, easier.

  2. I'm glad you liked it. Since writing the post I've been reading Emporium, which although I don't think is as strong as Constellations does have (as you say ) that dark quality - ironic that I mentioned early Eliot since he seems to be more the main source of reference here (particularly the quatrains of Poems 1920). But its admirable that you're going for that Joycean affirmation in your new book, particularly in light of our current dismaying political climate. Perhaps another reason why Constellations feels like such a breath of fresh air to me (or fresh of breath air, as I almost wrote.)

  3. Thanks, Oliver. I suppose what changed for me in between Emporium and Constellations was that my son (then 4) was diagnosed with autism. It changed my outlook utterly. I didn’t need dark, I needed light.

  4. That's interesting, Ian. I work as a college lecturer with students with learning disabilities, many of whom are on the autistic spectrum. I know what an ongoing struggle it can be for many of the parents so I can only admire your determination to 'accentuate the positive'in your writing.