Issue 6: Adam Piette on Bernard Spencer

Review of: Bernard Spencer: Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose, edited by Peter Robinson (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2011)

Prose poetry came of age in the modern world the moment Baudelaire dreamt of a city-bound poetry, opening the urbane and slippery-sublime petits poèmes en prose with his Stranger in the Parisian attic room, watching the clouds float by:

Whom do you love best, enigmatic man, tell us! Your father, your mother, your sister or your brother?

–    I have no father, no mother, no sister, no brother.

–    Your friends?

–    You’re using a word the meaning of which has escaped me to this day.

–    Your country?

–    I have no idea at which latitude it is situated.

–    Beauty?

–    I would gladly love her, goddess and immortal.

–    Gold?

–    I hate it as you hate God.

–    So what do you love, extraordinary stranger?

–    I love the clouds … the passing clouds … over there … up there … the marvellous clouds!

Poems may resemble clouds as evanescent breath but here they are registered by the poet who is estranged in the city, a compositional space made prosaic by the incessant interrogation of Descartes’ demon (the one who forced Cogito ergo sum out of the philosopher). The demon is a city spirit of enquiry, relentless like a journalist hunting for a celebrity’s secret, the quick-fix clue to core creativity. Baudelaire’s Stranger resists all assumptions, like Christ denying his mother and brothers. He resists ascription of national identity, ordinary allegiances, conventional desires. Does the poet write for money? Only a godless devil would ask such a question. You must love beauty. Yes but only if I had a cliché-ridden mind like yours. Like a crazy Bob Dylan fielding idiot questions from Time Magazine, Baudelaire’s poet will not play the celebrity game, will not confess to the usual objects of desire in the gallery of conventional emotion. He will not, especially, tell the interviewer what the source of his poetry might be; except, that is, as enigma, as sky-sign, as watery, cloudy, heaven-floaty dreaminess; except for the clouds, at once an obvious gesture towards lyric poetry’s sublime and fugitive inspirations, and as a properly parodic riposte to the obstinate questioner’s received idea of poetry (using Hamlet’s tactic with Polonius: pretend to be mad by pointing to the clouds as important forms, but secretly mocking the old man with Aristophanic satire of the sophistical cloudiness of all pretentious idea-merchants). Only by posing as an enigma will the poet not suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous questions.    

       But, and this is Baudelaire’s prose-poetic point, the pose is already a concession, already a collusion with the Cartesian demon of doubt, already a truckling with the enemy so severe that the poem disappears, and prose dominates the page. The city speech intimated by the prosy dialogue has taken over at the moment the poet defends his cloudy craft. The poet, as a result, is no longer dominant seer and prophet and bard of love; but reduced to the creature in the garret making too much of the tiny little patch of sky which is his poverty-stricken view. His nation may not be situatable; but the poet is: he is in Paris, in an age of mechanical reproduction. Poetry (as in the line or lines ‘I love the clouds … the passing clouds … over there … up there … the marvellous clouds!’) is constrained down to a textual space at the edge of a prose dialogue. In French the line(s) read: ‘J'aime les nuages... les nuages qui passent... là-bas... là-bas... les merveilleux nuages!’ which hint at alexandrine rhythm  (‘J'aime les nuages’, potentially a hemistich if the two terminal e’s are sounded + ‘les nuages qui passent’, potentially six syllables too if the terminal e of ‘nuages’ is sounded); but are lost in translation into the city space of the garret-room, under surveillance by the demon of the metropolis. The poet’s vision (poetry) is situated in modern Paris (prose), creating the enigmatic hybrid, the prose poem: which intimates lyric intensities at the same time as it voices the free rhythms of the prosy new world.

       Baudelaire thought something could be made of the hybrid, though: in his preface to Petits poèmes, he asked the question which inaugurates city-lyrical psychogeography, the age of the flâneur, city-lyricism as rhythmic and chameleon energy:

Which of us has not, in his ambitious days, dreamt of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple enough and shaken-up enough to adapt to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the undulations of dreaming, to the sudden shocks of consciousness? It is mainly through living in the enormous cities of the modern world, through the criss-crossing of countless number of relations which such cities generate, that give rise to this obsessive ideal.

The supple, shockful poetic prose dreamt of by Baudelaire is not loosely mimetic of the modern city: but can adapt its language field so that some of the contradictions, cross-hatching flows and interferences of metropolitan relations can be captured and relayed as verbal energy.

       The influence of Baudelaire’s practice and preface was considerable: it helped foster the move to free verse (partly, as Clive Scott has shown, by popularizing the free prose translations of American poets like Poe and Whitman, and therefore ‘Americanizing’ French versification by suggesting stress-based beat-timed lines even in non-stressed French); it revolutionized prose poetry and gave it credentials as an urban-modernist genre;  and it gave poetry more generally an embattled (and comedic) role to play enacting and resisting the heckling voices of the city of late modernity.

       Its influence can be felt even many years after, and within a more formally organized poetry. Peter Robinson has edited a new collected poems by the Auden-group (and neglected) poet, Bernard Spencer. Spencer moved from the 1930s radical poets into the maelstrom of the war as part of the Personal Landscape group working out of Cairo, many of whom, like Durrell, had had to abandon Greece. After the war, Spencer worked for the British Council in Cold War hotspots in Germany and the Middle East; and preserved the careful, sharply self-conscious and visionary semi-dramatic lyrics he had perfected in the 1930s, but lightly adjusted and transformed by the registered political pressures of war and Cold War. Robinson’s edition will, surely, establish Spencer as a significant voice of the 1930s-1960s, a poet of breath-taking craft and clarity of language, sustaining the lyric against impossible odds that are acknowledged and dramatized in special formal fissures cracking across the poems. This is such a welcome edition of a major-minor poet, and should be read by anyone interested in poetry as living response to real occasions. One of the unpublished poems Robinson edits here is relevant to the Baudelaire prose poetry tradition; it’s an extraordinary, witty, richly seen poem, that revisits the city-situated poetics Baudelaire dramatized in Petits poèmes. I quote it in full (with thanks to Peter Robinson and to Bloodaxe for their kind permission to do so):

The Top-Storey Room

Above London sailed my room

with clouds and evenings.

Tidied from day to day

by the woman with the low voice and the sad mouth,

its emptiness assumed by character

and watched me like my portrait.

To blind my room

I lived the disorder of London

hoping that in some bar or entrance-way

among the years of brick

a face would suddenly flare into the truth;

but there were only the faces.

                              Then at night

it was good to unlock my room, to find

my papers, the cheap desk, my books

waiting by the bed.

                              Yet sometimes

potent with memory, on the morrow of storms,

morning grew wings, the seagulls came

blown across dreamed of waves and miles to visit

the flagposts, or to wheel

across my window pane, and dazzle

the air like juggler’s knives.


Baudelaire is signalled through the proximity of the garret to the clouds, and the Eliot of the free verse epics of modernist self-consciousness, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, ‘Prufrock’ and 'The Waste Land’, are alluded to lightly with the bleak references to the portrait, the sad-mouthed cleaning-lady and ‘the faces’ of the city. We are in Grub Street, but it is a poet’s grubbiness, and we are locked into a writerly urban hellhole with the figure’s papers, cheap desk, and books.

      And, just as the clouds ambiguously enact both the heckler’s assumptions and an attempt at some residual lyric uplift for Baudelaire, so too do the gulls, bringing intimations of rhythm and otherness and oceans, present an image of lyric poems wheeling into the mind of the poet from what Robert Graves called the ‘other where’; but also hinting at the saltimbanque marginalization of poetry in an age of brick and flare with the image of the juggler. The image of the poet as juggler implies self-pitying assent to the modern city’s indifference to poets; but it also has edge, like the knives. The poems being conceived, by the depressed poet at bay in his bedsit, ‘dazzle / the air’ – they create flashing images in the ‘air’ of the poem-on-the-page, images which may be fleeting, bizarrely out of place like seagulls in suburban London, but which also have menace and danger. They may cut the juggler up, but his craft is admirable because of the risk this implies. The poet is neither juggler nor seagull, but a juggler-gull, a hybrid creature of flight and panache, and the poems are hybrids too: lyric poems which have been absorbed into the prosaic ‘disorder of London’, yet dazzle the air still.

       The lines Spencer has crafted from his dark and dangerous emotions acknowledge the situatedness of the poet in the age of city-machines: the bedsit’s emptiness watches the poet like a portrait because the room defines and confines the lyric potential. But it also finds a certain dazzling virtuoso energy in the wheeling, dreaming cross-rhythms (‘blown across’, ‘wheel / across’) generated by the city-bound poetics in the imagination.  The lines read as lazy free verse, but the last section, from ‘yet sometimes’ on, stirs up an astonishing rhythmical sentence sound across the lines, moving through the four-four-four-two-four-three beats of the last six lines with potent, stormy energy, lighting up with light sound-effects (‘sometimes’-‘storms’-‘came’; the lovely way ‘knives’ recalls ‘waves and miles’). Like Baudelaire watching his swan twisting its head up to the ironic, cruelly blue sky (‘Le Cygne’), Spencer watches the seagulls and discovers a fusional form, otherness here and alive, musical and supple, wheeling across the London clouds.