Saturday, October 25, 2014

`You Celebrate What Is, and God'

Some writers cast a magnetic field across the bookish world, attracting like-minded readers and fellow writers, and repelling others. Both services are useful. Since I belatedly discovered C.H. Sisson (1914-2003) several years ago, he has served as a sort of literary Consumer Reports. His tastes are less often incorrect than almost any critic I know. In this he resembles Yvor Winters. Both share a Johnsonian bent for common sense and plainness of style.  Both possess first-rate bullshit detectors. Neither is infected with niceness, always fatal in critics. Neither is out to make friends but both inspire readerly loyalty. Here’s an example of Sisson’s judgment, from a 1990 review of Donald Davie’s Collected Poems: 

“Davie does not write for effect, or to enlarge his own claim to consideration. He writes what he thinks is true, however awkward it may be.” 

Incidentally, the words apply with precision to Sisson’s own work. In “Summer Lightning” (The Batter Wife and Other Poems, 1982), a poem addressed to Seamus Heaney, Davie writes: “Dread; yes dread—the one name for the one / Game that we play here, surely. I think Sisson / Got it, don’t you? Plain Dante, plain as a board, / and if flat, flat. The abhorrent, the abhorred, / Ask to be utter plainly.” Sisson published his translation of La Divina Commedia in 1981. In Under Briggflatts (1989), Davie collects three essays devoted to Sisson, including a review of the 1980 poetry collection Exactions. He praises its “astringent pleasures” and says Sisson’s poems are “a further tightening of English as practiced by for instance Swift and Defoe in prose, and by any one of his fellow citizens speaking under the stress of extreme experience.” 

Thanks to Sisson I learned of the South African poet David Wright (1920-1994). In On the Look-out: A Partial Autobiography (1989), Sisson writes: 

“…you would recognize from the first gesture, certainly from the first words, that you were in the presence of l’authenticit√©, le seul luxe, as de Montherlant—himself less certainly authentic—called it. For a moment one might be shaken into believing in the existence of the human personality. If there were such a thing, this would be a specimen. Whether or not there is such a thing, there is, under the name of David Wright, a literary instrument of precision.” 

In turn, Wright composes “Horse Fair (for C. H. Sisson)” (A View of the North, 1976) and “A Letter to C.H. Sisson” (Poems and Versions, 1992). In the latter Wright writes to and of his friend: 

“The vision, spare and authentic,
Of an intellect I now know
As savage, luminous, and just.” 

And this: 

“For all that you appreciate
The underlay of the absurd
Beneath each surface, comedy
Of things as much as lacrimae
Rerum, I’d say your outlook is
--Although justified by log—
One that, to what I call my mind,
Appears inordinately bleak:
Nihilistic would be the word,
But that, against all evidence,
You celebrate what is, and God.” 

Sisson has sent me back repeatedly to Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Barnes, Hardy and P√©guy, not to mention Horace, Catullus and Lucretius. He’s an enormously energizing writer, one who spurs me to read more and write better. Here is an early poem with a Dantean title, “In a Dark Wood,” appended by Sisson to the beginning of his novel Peter Homm (1965):     

“Now I am forty I must lick my bruises
 What has been suffered cannot be repaired
 I have chosen what whoever grows up chooses
 A sickening garbage that could not be shared. 

 “My errors have been written in my senses
 My body is a record of the mind
 My touch is crusted with my past defences
 Because my wit was dull my eye grows blind. 

 “There is no credit in a long defection
 And defect and defection are the same
 I have no person fit for resurrection
 Destroy then rather my half-eaten frame 

 “But that you will not do, for that were pardon
 The bodies that you pardon you replace
 And that you keep for those whom you will harden
 To suffer in the hard rule of your Grace. 

 “Christians on earth may have their bodies mended
 By premonition of a heavenly state
 But I, by grosser flesh from Grace defended,
 Can never see, never communicate.”

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