Books: When the fizz goes flat

Michael Glover admires the wintry vision of a veteran classicist
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The Independent Culture
Collected Poems

by C H Sisson

Carcanet Press, pounds 12.95, 525pp

SOME POETS impress their personalities - and the temper of their times - upon their writings like muscle-strapped farriers at the forge; others are much more ghostly presences, scarcely discernible except by the consistency of their preoccupations. Charles Sisson, now in his 85th year, belongs to the latter gang. He was a late starter into print. Though he belongs to the generation that includes John Heath-Stubbs and George Barker, those two were well into their careers as disreputable, Soho-crawling men of letters before Sisson began to publish at the beginning of the 1960s. And what an inappropriate moment to choose for a man of such reserve and classical temper!

And so it has gone on. Sisson has always seemed a man out of key with his times; a poet, to continue quoting Ezra Pound, who has been striving to resuscitate the dead art of poetry in miserably inclement literary weather.

There is this whole business of personality, for example, and what it has meant to poets who have taken their cue from those jocular and fairly sentimental anecdotalists who came out of Liverpool at the time that Sisson himself was emerging. To these poets, the individual was a shooting star, something to be marvelled at.

To Sisson, the problems of personality, in poem after poem throughout his life, have usually been presented through sinewy abstract argument in the manner of the poets of the 17th century. What exactly is it that distinguishes us from the rest of nature? And what is the point of all this self-glorification if it all ends in death anyway? Are we not all, the puffed-up as much as the dead-beat, as insubstantial as breath?

This is woebegone, knell-tolling stuff in the extreme, but it is Sisson to the core, and Sisson as he has been from start to finish. Poems, he would point out, are not records of many experiences. There is nothing new to be discovered about the subject matter of poetry in these unruly, abject times. Its subject matter is the subject matter of Horace. Human beings have remained the same throughout the ages: poor, contemptible creatures, groping after a little light. The excitements of modern life are largely illusory.

All this sounds somewhat gloomy and sermonisingly finger-wagging, and so it is if read at a stretch. But not always by any means. From time to time - such as in that lovely early poem, "The Un-red Deer" - there is scope for flights of fancy that seem to edge in the direction of the celebratory.

Sisson has spent a great deal of his life since he took early retirement from the civil service translating the classics: Dante, Lucretius and others, and these tremendous labours of love have confirmed him in his view that poetry is not the fizz of the moment, but a collaborative endeavour in which the poets of all ages link hands one with another. And what will Sisson discuss with all these revered great ones by and by? Metrics, I'm sure. There would be no point in wasting breath on human nature.