Roy Fisher Interviews through Time, ed. Tony Frazer, (Shearsman Books, £9.95)
Roy Fisher, An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013, (Shearsman Books, £12.95)
It is often suggested that Roy Fisher the interviewee is a somewhat slippery customer. Kenneth Cox remarks in an essay on Roy Fisher’s poetry that reading an interview with Fisher is like watching a magician offering to show you how a magic trick works, only for the explanation to turn into another trick. The jacket of this edition of Fisher’s Interviews through Time reprints the photograph which adorned the cover of the previous edition. The picture is of table at a street party in Kentish Road, Birmingham in 1938. Fisher is picked out, by the author, as the eight child along on the right side of the table; what one sees is a pixelated blur. Comments from reviewers on the previous edition quoted on the back cover of this edition note the ‘vacillation’, ‘mimetic skepticism’, ‘anarchic distaste for system’ of Fisher’s comments.
Such vacillation on Fisher’s part is actually an acute involvement with the range of complexities of writing poetry in English in a post-modernist world. That involvement has allowed Fisher the poet to produce a vast technical range of poetry from laugh-out-loud light verse, some of which deals with the poetry business itself, through to a poetry which brings to its subject matter an extraordinary phenomenology. Thus, Fisher comments about his surreal long poem The Ship’s Orchestra that ‘the thing had to be grounded in sensations and in refinements of sensations’. And one of Fisher’s most important contributions to contemporary poetics is a willingness to engage with an art which has sensations and, as he puts it, ‘bodily analogues all over’. Thus the vacillation in these interviews is less indecision than a sense that a contemporary poetic master is exploring the minutiae of his vocation with a series of acute and informed interlocutors.
One such exploration is his, Fisher’s, relation to the ‘I’ in his poems. How close is the authorising consciousness of the writing to the ‘I’ of the poems? In one of the earlier interviews, Fisher talks about the ‘I’ in his poem City being ‘afflicted in his sensibilities and his self by this sensation [of dramatization]. I would tend to enjoy it now, just to watch that.’ This contrast seems to suggest that the ‘I’ in the early poems was the creation of the authorising consciousness of the poems, an ‘I’ somewhat set on edge by what it perceived. In the later work, that authorising consciousness seems to allow itself to take a more direct responsibility for the first person in the poems. The ‘bodily analogues’ are led by what Fisher, rather disingenuously, calls ‘blind appetite’.
The ‘I’, that sensibility, and the warmth and congeniality of voice are what drive many of the prose pieces. An Easily Bewildered Child collects a range of Fisher’s published prose along with much that has not hitherto been easily available. The big, ‘standard’ works are all here; his ‘Antebiography’ detailing his family’s lineage and life in pre-war Handsworth; ‘Fisher on Fisher’, a spoof self-review first published in the Rialto, and the wonderful ‘Licence my Roving Hands’, which describes his ‘other life’ as a jazz pianist working small clubs and dives and ‘an accompanist for sudden strippers in tough spots’! But other, just as interesting pieces are brought together here for the first time; his necessary essay on Pound in which he comments, ‘In language my specialism is in the pathology of soft tissues, transient and perishable substances; when it comes to bone I’m out of my element. I’ll still turn to Pound for a reminder of what hardness is.’ And his essay on Basil Bunting where he pins that particular butterfly with devastating precision, ‘…there was also the inaccessible sense of a demon of delinquency and improvidence – the absences, the goings-to-ground, the impulsive initiatives, the periods of yielding to circumstance in a curiously – I’m tempted to say suspiciously – passive manner. A sort of anti-matter countering the will to achieve good things.’ However, Fisher pays an appropriate tribute to Bunting in connection with his own long poem A Furnace, ‘… had ‘Briggflatts’ not succeeded formally I’d have been unable to conceive of [A Furnace] at all’.
The central tension of Fisher’s work, it seems, is between the need to ‘tell it as he sees it’, and the sheer intellectual brilliance with which he realises that is not possible. The poetry that arises from that tension adumbrates a world that has mostly vanished; the post-war urban, and the industrial sublime Fisher can find there; the urban, usually skilled, working class in which gender is not discriminatory but archetypal; landscape deeply so imbued with history that even the hills and valleys are a kind of palimpsest. Fisher is at once both profoundly English and sweepingly international. These two books are both wonderful insights into one of the most important poets to have been writing over the last fifty years.