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Ian Brinton reviews R.F. Langley

R.F. Langley – Complete Poems

(Ed. Jeremy Noel-Tod, Carcanet Press: Manchester, 2015. Paperback, 144 pp., £12.99. ISBN 9781784100643.) 

On 12 February 2011 at the Memorial service for Roger Langley being held in Bramfield Church, Suffolk, Tom Lowenstein recalled that ‘While the peaceful Mrs Coke lay beyond in the chancel, all the speakers in their different ways brought us face to face with Roger, often hilariously, always with gratitude, also sadly.’ That sense of the ‘face to face’ is central to Langley’s poetry and it evokes what he admired about Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere (O.U.P. 1986) with its focus upon both looking at the world and living in it. 
Eric Langley had introduced the memorial service with a short quotation from  ‘Mariana’, a poem first published in Arts Report in May 1985. Quoting the phrase ‘soft fuss’ from that poem he went on to say:
‘Don’t make a fuss,’ was just about the only instruction Dad left us when it came to planning for today. So I hope that this memorial, this remembering, this recollection, can be taken as no more than a ‘soft fuss’, because as he told us in his journals ‘you really don’t need much ceremony’ if there is ‘authenticity’—what he called ‘the stripped down’, the ‘bright particulars’, the ‘nothing much’.
The ‘bright particulars’, a careful and exact record of the external world, is central to Langley’s poems and at Bramfield Church on that bright February day his long-term friend Jeremy Prynne expressed it with unmistakable clarity:
[For Roger] the smallest things were absolutely everything—if you knew the difference between a martin and a swift you knew everything—not just something—you knew the whole universal truth of things if you knew one thing deeply and exactly and carefully. What this means is that Roger’s special signature of stillness and silence were marks of the profoundest spiritual intensity. His ability to focus silently and without motion upon the intensity of the moment was quite extraordinary and exceptional and exemplary and inspiring. I learned everything from his silence because it was deeply communicative. You knew when he stood motionless as that Journal entry describes, full of humorous self-amusement, that the profoundest intent and encounter in his mind was in full swing.
Distinctiveness is what is emphasised in Langley’s own 1994 ‘Note’, first published in A Calendar of Modern Poetry (edited by Michael Schmidt), that sharpening sense of things being separate from each other; the sense of focussing upon what is really here:
‘Nooks and ends.’ A flycatcher. A nest in the hammerbeams. Ford Madox Brown in August 1855 painting in the fields at Hendon, determining to ‘make a little picture of it’, while the clouds alter the light and the farmer carries away the corn Brown had chosen for his subject. He decided, eventually, it was better not to ‘dream of possession’. But entertaining the dream is trying for more than a ‘mock-up of consciousness’. It calls for testing all available strategies. ‘Not things, but seeing things.’
In the interview with R.F. Walker which originally appeared in Angel Exhaust 13 before being republished in the Salt anthology Don’t Start Me Talking, Langley emphasised the importance of his being led ‘by things extrinsic to the poem’ and liking to ‘get the outside world in: first of all from the stuff that goes into journals, the actual experiences that I’ve had. And if I haven’t got one of those in the poem I feel that the poem runs the risk of being slack in some way. I feel that it ought to contact some sort of a reality in a simple Wordsworthian sort of a way.’
Hence ‘Matthew Glover’, first published in Hem (Infernal Methods, 1978) and Langley’s interview comments upon the writing of that early poem which is so influenced by the work of Charles Olson:
Then Matthew Glover, yes, is the man who didn’t know whether to vote for the Open Field system, or for redistribution of the fields in 1800 in one particular parish near here. So he’s a man who didn’t know, which seemed to me at the time to be a crucial frame of mind to be in: not to know. But to gather together ways of looking at it. So we needn’t say too much more about that. That’s got actual descriptions of the parish, of course, and it’s got some more birds in, fizzing and so on. I can remember the evening when I saw those, they were in some willow bushes on the edge of the parish in the dusk. On the boundary. Then it’s got Clare in it. Quotations from Clare, as he was objecting to the enclosure movement.
‘Matthew Glover’ does not exhaust the subject of land enclosure but it magically brings to life a development over time and a precision of detail concerning one moment. The opening three lines set a scene:
To start with throve heavy forest
this district, on its marl
thick blue marl
The density of virgin forest is caught in these lines with ‘throve’: past tense of ‘thrive’ which probably derives from Old Icelandic ‘thrifa’, to clutch, grip, grasp before being adopted by 1200 as ‘thriffen’, to flourish or prosper. The pre-civilized quality of this land is emphasised with the slow rounded ‘o’s and ‘v’s of the first line which quickly shifts its implication by line two with the word ‘district’: from Medieval Latin districtus, restraining of offenders, exercise of justice, jurisdiction, area of jurisdiction. Another source in Langley’s reading here was Mircea Eliade’s 1959 book, The Sacred and the Profane, in which he suggests that a sacred place has a unique existential value for religious man, whereas for non-religious man space is neutral:
A universe comes to birth from its centre; it spreads from a central point that is, as it were, its navel…just as the universe unfolds from a centre and stretches out towards the four cardinal points, the village comes into existence around an intersection.
In a talk given at Barrack’s Studio, Newcastle-under-Lyme, 6th May 1995,  Langley quoted from Adrian Stokes’s recollection of clearing his parents’ house at Lower Stoneham, ‘Art and Literature’, 1964.
Traces of our occupation were disappearing fast: many symbols of absence came together: the experience was painful, confused, and discoloured by the rush of time. I went finally into the garden where this mental state was shaped and limited by taking on the character of a thing. For, in the quietness of Saturday lunchtime, the gardener had left burning a steady bonfire that smouldered easily. It simplified the confused feelings I had felt in the house concerning ‘the clean sweep’. But the spectacle was itself appealing because of the intense, directed and simple action it contained…Such is a work of art vis-à-vis emotion. I was grateful to this bonfire as if to a remaining, administering person. It performed a ritual I felt was needed: I took pleasure in the palpable image outside me of all I felt: IT, a concrete form, was my feelings, yet calm, noble, wrapt and also more vivid than they, without the confusion or successiveness of feelings: it was new and disinterested.
Carcanet has done a terrific job with this new volume and Jeremy Noel-Tod’s editing is unobtrusively exact: very much as R.F. Langley would have wanted it, no more than ‘soft fuss’.
26 November 2015