This volume is a Complete Poems in the sense that Elizabeth Bishop published her Complete Poems in 1969: these are the poems which Roger Langley completed for publication. This volume is also similar to Bishop’s book in that it is full of poems which seem both perfected and perfect. Perhaps Langley, for whom Pound was a guiding light, would be averse to further comparisons with Bishop, but comparisons there are. Both Bishop and Langley were obsessed, that much is clear, with looking and seeing clearly. Jeremy Noel-Tod in his comprehensive introduction to this volume quotes Ruskin, ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way,’ to indicate how Langley might have voiced a credo on this matter. Langley’s poetic roots are clearly in that aspect of the Romantic tradition; Noel-Tod quotes Langley as citing Coleridge’s ‘conversation’ poems as an important influence on the writing of the poems, and in particular Coleridge’s ‘This Lime-tree bower my prison’.
Another, and very different influence on these poems is Charles Olson, whom Langley discovered together with his friend, J.H. Prynne, while they were both undergraduates at Cambridge. Apparently, as a school master, Langley was wont to give Olson’s ‘The Kingfishers’ to his sixth-form students; clearly, very, very bright sixth-form students! There isn’t a great deal of Olson’s ‘open-form’ amongst these poems; Langley often uses stanza forms or long poems which run seamlessly down the pages. But Langley isn’t afraid to break a line between an article or a preposition or an adjective and its following noun. And Langley is Prynnite enough never to be afraid to disrupt syntax or phrase structure: ‘This./ Must. And so must this. In bitter little/ frills and hitches./ About in a suspicious/ twiddle are the tips of someone’s ten/finger which could, sometime, touch/ mine.’ ‘The Gongoneion’. There is something of Prynne’s gorgeousness about those lines, and not just in the repeated short ‘I’ sounds; Langley, like Prynne, is a very sensual poet and the poems are full of his running through the senses and their engagement with the ‘real’ world.
To adduce Bishop again, there is, as with Bishop’s Complete Poems, a wonderful sufficiency to this book; a lifetime’s work on 180 pages including the introduction, notes and indexes. Sufficient as this book feels, it is clear that Langley’s death at 72 robbed the world of a poet who was at the height of his powers. Not simply ‘To a Nightingale’ which finishes this book and which won Langley a posthumous Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2011. Other poems in the second half of the book show a writer who was completely at home with his gifts. One such is the utterly magnificent ‘Achilles’; which walks us up the path and into a church where the majority of the poem is an examination and meditation on the marble tomb of one Elizabeth Havers, ‘In sixteen-thirty-three, when she was/ twenty-five, on a creamy marble slab/ in the south aisle, they drew Elizabeth/ Havers.’ The ambiguity of ‘drew’ here seems perfectly poised, coupled as it is with ‘when she was/ twenty-five’. But then the shock of, ‘The/ kylix has been cracked. The mend in it spoils/ this cheek-piece and his mouth, but there is still/ his eye, under the helmet’s rim, as he/ stabs her from the right. She reaches up to/ touch his chin.’ Langley’s ‘intrusion’ of Achille’s killing of the Amazon queen, Penthesileia is undoubtedly odd, even shocking, as is Langley’s other depiction of Elizabeth Havers’ being sixty-five when Newton was making his experiments on the prism and the spectrum. But Langley’s extraordinary ability is to control his material and create a fitting inevitability about it all. ‘Achilles’ finishes with an exquisite description of a heron wading through sunlit water. And, yes, I, too, had to look up ‘kylix’ – a broad, flattened drinking cup, as well as ‘alizarin’, and ‘gamboge’, which also occur in the poem; ‘gamboge’ comes a number of times in the book.
This is a book of many wonders and profound pleasures to which the reader will return and will savour again and again. Perhaps the British, too, have a ‘poets’ poets’ poet’.