Selected Poems, by Robert Graves, edited by Michael Longley. Faber & Faber, £15.99

Superb artistry marks the verse of a writer who survived the trenches and built his own myth

Sean Obrien
Saturday 07 September 2013 10:12 BST

Michael Longley, editing this selection from Robert Graves, takes it for granted that anyone who reads poetry ought to read Graves, but it’s hard to tell who actually does so. When the proliferation of poetry blogs often reveals a hole where the history of the art should be, if anything can alert people to Graves, or make the sceptic reconsider, this generous sample, superbly introduced, should manage it.

In “Alice”, which imagines the journey through the looking-glass, Graves describes the mirror-world as “true as anything you’d swear to, / The usual three dimensions you are heir to”. For Graves the imagination was not a framer of secondary worlds but an inhabitant of an underlying reality where a fundamental narrative, “one story and one story only”, was always in progress: the poet’s enchantment in the service of the White Goddess, in the worldly form of a Muse.

If this sounds like a contraption, it was flesh and blood to Graves. The effect on his poetry was galvanic, because along with the erotic mystery there developed a verse technique which no one since his death in 1985 has quite matched. “Sick Love” concludes: “Take your delight in momentariness, / Walk between dark and dark – a shining space/ With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.”

The number of variations of metre and stress in these ten-syllable lines is astonishing. The ear is never allowed to settle and switch off. The hard consonants of the second line seem to prefigure a conventional conclusion which the third line’s diminuendo simply transcends. Selected Poems is packed with such examples, where Graves’s ear educates the reader in the perpetual tension between expectation and event. The bolt-on neo-Formalism of recent times sounds boxy in comparison.

Though he espoused a single subject, Graves’s range is wide. There are eerie poems, half-meant for children, like “The Untidy Man” and “Lollocks”. There are jokes, like the famous shaggy-dog story “Welsh Incident”, and crisp, witty summations like “The Persian Version”: “Truth loving Persians do not dwell upon/ The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon”, alluding to the titanic stalemates of the Great War, where “Despite a strong defence and adverse weather/ All arms combined magnificently together”.

There are direct poems about war. The trenches haunted Graves like many another. Mistakenly declared killed in action on his 21st birthday, for years afterwards he feared the smell of gas and dived for cover when a car backfired.

To some, the White Goddess might look like an alibi, but the power in the poems shows not only the value of the myth but Graves’s sense of being inhabited by it and thus at times able not only to appease the Goddess but to know what the cost of betrayal might be. In “The Cool Web”, he writes: “if we let our tongues lose self-possession,/ Throwing off language and its watery clasp/ Before our death, instead of when death comes,/ Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,/ Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,/ We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.” This is to stake a great deal – in Graves’s case, everything – on poetry. The results vindicate the conviction.

Sean O’Brien’s ‘Collected Poems’ are published by Picador

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