In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle salutes a fine twentieth-century poet
At Loughborough University where I have my day job, I teach a final-year undergraduate module on twentieth-century poetry. The 12-week semester allows for some marginal non-canonical figures such as the radically daring Hope Mirrlees, but if you’re going to cover the major movements and figures, whether it’s Eliot, Larkin, Plath, or Hughes, there’s only so far you can wander off the beaten track. Yet I’m always on the lookout for twentieth-century poets whose names, let alone poems, my students are unlikely to have heard of. Poets whose work, despite its relative obscurity, conveys something, in such a way, that it commands our attention and respect. Roy Fuller is one such poet.
Born in Lancashire in 1912, Fuller began his career as a poet in the 1930s, early enough for a couple of his poems to feature in the famous Penguin anthology, Poetry of the Thirties (Penguin Modern Classics). Although his experiences and service during the Second World War may have helped him to become a better poet, the war didn’t necessarily produce his best poetry. I found the ‘wartime’ section of his Collected Poems – which runs to nearly 100 pages of the 240-page collection – no less technically adroit than his other work, but there’s a sense that Keith Douglas and others covered this terrain more sharply and effectively.
But this is true of many poets who came to maturity in the 1930s, with the notable exception of Auden: MacNeice was always at his best when dealing with everyday themes rather than engaging more directly in the political moment of 1939-45, even though many of his best poems were written under the shadow of impending war. And Fuller, born in 1912, was closer to that generation of ‘Poets of the Thirties’, Auden, MacNeice, Spender, and Day-Lewis, than he was to Douglas, Keyes, and other WWII poets.
In many ways, Roy Fuller became a great poet only when he stopped having anything to write about: he was at his best when dealing not with big themes like war and love, but with the world of the small and overlooked, the little and little-written-about. One of his most famous poems, ‘The Image’, opens with the words which give this blog post its title: ‘A spider in the bath. The image noted:’ The colon is like two black marks in a notebook, jotting down the observation.
And the notebook itself is an image that turns up in a number of Fuller’s poems, most obviously in ‘To a Notebook’. He revels in the small but refuses either to trivialise it for comic effect (though he can be witty) or to treat it with a grandeur which would strike us as forced or ill-suited. Other poems of his post-war era see him writing his own obituary (with a brilliantly judged tongue-in-cheek tone), a poem for the family cat, the autobiography of a lungworm, and a ‘poem to pay for a pen’ after he lost his own while travelling on a flight from Nice; he even wrote a poem about jelly babies (yes, the sweets).
All of this had been foregrounded in an earlier, pre-WWII poem, ‘Centaurs’, which was my ‘gateway’ into Fuller’s poetic world and persuaded me to invest in a second-hand copy of his Collected poems, 1936-1961 (pictured right). This poem, written when Fuller was still in his mid-twenties, is enigmatic and beautiful: it stands out in the famous Poetry of the Thirties (Penguin Modern Classics) anthology for not being an obviously political poem (although I confess that there may be some political subtext I am unaware of), and if anything, has more in common with William Empson’s modern metaphysical poems from a decade earlier than it does with much of what Auden or MacNeice was writing at the time.
And mythology appears to have remained a constant source of inspiration for Roy Fuller: towards the end of this original Collected Poems, and marking perhaps his finest poetic achievement up to that point, are the ‘Mythological Sonnets’, a sequence of nineteen poems dedicated to the poet’s son (John Fuller, himself a poet of note, as well as the author of a book right up our street here at IL Towers, Who Is Ozymandias?: And other Puzzles in Poetry). These sonnets address various aspects of Greek and Roman mythology, but once again it is Fuller’s eye for the minute and overlooked detail that gives these poems their quiet power.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edith Sitwell disliked Fuller’s opening line about the spider in the bath. Everything about it – the everyday subject-matter, the regular iambic pentameter rhythm, the plain speech of the wording – is at odds with Sitwell’s highfalutin, highly performative verse. Yet although he wrote about simple things and employed a plain style to explore them, I think it’s a mistake to view Roy Fuller’s poetry as ‘simple’: his masterly control of poetic syntax means that, like a slightly later poet, Philip Larkin, Fuller can tease out the various strands of thought, the internal conflicts and tensions, in flexible yet highly controlled lines of verse.
Collected poems, 1936-1961 is now long out of print: a beautiful André Deutsch paperback with an arresting turquoise cover depicting, appropriately enough, a floral classical design in the style of a Greek vase or fragment of Roman pottery. There’s only one problem with the book: it’s too short. Published in the early 1960s, it thus ended up being superseded by the longer (or should I say ‘fuller’) Collected Poems of 1985. Even that didn’t mark the end, as Fuller continued writing until his death in 1991. I’ve ordered a copy of the later Collected Poems, so will blog about the later Roy Fuller … later. Until then, here’s that spider poem. Happily, Roy Fuller’s poetry is back in print courtesy of Carcanet’s Selected Poems, edited by the poet’s son.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.