Thursday, May 21, 2015

`The Twig Has Lost Its Sap'

C.H. Sisson’s "The Pattern" is a poem of thirty stanzas of four lines each, published in 1993 by the Enitharmon Press of London as part of its Enitharmon Pamphlets series. It’s a stark and elegant little book, set in 10-point Garamond Light with a cover the color of vellum. The copy in my university library is fitted with a tacky cardboard cover, but I understand. Otherwise, it would be filed away on a restricted shelf and I would only be permitted to visit it, like an inmate in prison. This copy is number 164 of the two-hundred printed.

Expressions of futility, like suicide notes, tend to be brief. One doesn’t rhapsodize at great length the stringency of existence. “The Pattern” is as grim a statement of the vanity of human wishes as I know, yet oddly bracing because of Sisson’s immunity to the blandishments of cant:     

“The days seem long now, and life is long
Although the years hurry away to death;
No-one can daunt time; the young and strong
Are weak before it draws their dying breath.”

And that’s just the first stanza. What follows is a recapitulation of a life, womb to tomb. Sisson echoes “Aubade” by Larkin, a poet Sisson had little use for: “No calculation helps the man who dies.” Larkin writes: “This is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels.” In his late years, Sisson often writes in the spirit of Because I was Flesh (1964) by Edward Dahlberg: “My life was now so hopeless that I wrote a book.” Dahlberg, born in 1900, was writing about himself as a young man. Sisson’s poem first appeared in the November 1989 issue of The New Criterion. He turned seventy-five that year, and “The Pattern” is the opposite of a young man’s poem. Young men romanticize their yearning and despair. “The Pattern” is grim but free of self-pity. Another anatomist of despair, Samuel Beckett, died in December 1989, a month after publication of “The Pattern.” He’s another writer, like Larkin, we suspect Sisson would have avoided. Who is the author of this line?: “The twig has lost its sap, the word its meaning.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

I'm guessing it's CH Sisson. Would be very interested to hear Sisson's views on Larkin.