The Long And The Short Of It: Poems 1955-2005, by Roy Fisher

A maestro who moves to the beat of the American avant-garde
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The Independent Culture

Born in 1930, Roy Fisher has worked as a teacher and academic, as a gigging jazz pianist, but above all as a poet. He has not put himself about as a critic, or as a member of any literary scene, but he is highly esteemed among his fellow writers.

His early books were published by small presses associated with what might be called the "oppositionist tendency" to mainstream poetry in the Sixties and Seventies. Fisher is often compared to the Americans Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, and it is true that his work was profoundly influenced by American poets. Where most British, or at least English, poets write on a small scale, Fisher has formed a massive body of linked work.

He is a contemporary of Ted Hughes, but where Hughes fashioned a mythical and increasingly mystical view of nature, Fisher is a poet of the city and industrial landscape. His dense imagery can seem sometimes like the reports of excavations. Literally so in the passionate and angry "Wonders of Obligation" where he describes how he saw "the mass graves dug/ the size of workhouse yards/ into the clay/ ready for most of the people/ the air-raids were going to kill".

There are long sequences in this book that are complex, deeply layered compositions. They deserve and reward close reading. Although none is written in conventional verse, they are not formless. If the reader trusts the poet, what at first looks forbidding yields up its complex music. But there is also a lot of wit and knockabout in such poems as "A Modern Story" and "The Poetry Promise", the latter a hilarious mission statement for poetry.

A few years ago, Fisher made a series of very funny radio programmes about his years as a jazz pianist, and there are some fine poems about musicians he admires. However, the perception of him as some combination of Americanised avant-garde poet and jazz musician has not eased his way into the canon alongside Larkin, Heaney and Hughes. He has wryly described his own position as "in charge of his own off-shore island in the middle of England, hung in deep international space somewhere off Spaghetti Junction".

Bloodaxe are to be congratulated on this handsome new Collected Poems, and on restoring to print so much superb work. It is time that we began to celebrate Roy Fisher and, more importantly, to read him.

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