Grace-Notes: the Poetry of Andrew Waterman
Grace-Notes: the Poetry of Andrew Waterman
One of the new poems in Andrew Waterman’s Collected Poems 1959-1999 bears the intriguing title ‘Sylvanshine’. A little googling brings up the information that sylvanshine ‘is an optical phenomenon in which dew-covered trees of species whose leaves are wax-covered retroreflect beams of light, as from a vehicle's headlights, sometimes causing trees to appear to be snow-covered at night during the summer’; the phenomenon was first named and explained in 1994, which makes it likely that Waterman’s poem (dated 1998) is the first to include the term, let alone to describe it in detail. The poem concludes:
Still it answers something,
This spectacle of form and light—our ache
For object matched to the sheer gladness that
Most things we’ve thought to lavish it on mar.
At least in the inner journeys we all make,
Where fitful love and faith daze routes we travel,
And maps disintegrate as the years unravel
Nor anyhow tell where sylvan miracles are.
There is much that is characteristic of Waterman’s poetry in these lines. For a start, there is the natural curiosity of his gaze. As has been observed by critics, he has a great delight in things, as exemplified here by the telling words, ‘our ache / For object’. And although his poetry often recounts the personal pain wrought by ‘fitful love and faith’, there are many poems that testify to a capacity for ‘sheer gladness’. The poem ends with a rueful statement on the ravages of time, but at the same time the very force of the final rhyming word, despite the earlier negative, somehow gives the line an overall note of affirmation; it is as if the poet, while wryly accepting the disappointments of life, nonetheless continues to nurture a deep-founded belief in the existence of ‘sylvan miracles’.
Perhaps the most characteristic feature of the whole poem is the attention it pays to a phenomenon of light. Few poets have observed and described so closely the qualities of light and the effects of changes in light. Knowing the problems Waterman has had with his eyesight (described with such fortitude in a poem like ‘Shorelines’), it is hard not to make an association with Milton, recalling the great paean to light in Book Three of Paradise Lost. However, Waterman’s attention to light is to be found also in his earliest works, long before the deterioration of his eyesight. We find it in the opening line of ‘Cautionary Tale’ (dated 1960): ‘To the boy, the wide sky was ecstatic with light. . .’ In ‘December Song’ (1962) the nocturnal winter-scene is pictured almost entirely in terms of lighting effects, concluding with these striking lines:
Violent violet the night
above South London on the right;
across the valley, tracts of black,
intractable, stare blankly back,
until the passing clouds allow
the lucid moon to form below
with fluent light a calmness, real,
eternal and ephemeral.
A number of poems around this time describe the allure of London for the young poet from the suburbs, using an effective combination of images of sexual attraction and images of enticing luminescence:
where you are a glow to the north at night, generating
rumour and myth to heat armchaired families.
. . .
are entranced by the casual necklace of river you dangle,
and hang round your crookedest smile, rotting tenements
where like gold fillings gleam evenings of girls and laughter. . .
. . .
Yet when in soft rain falling past the streetlights
you comb down your golden hair. . .
(‘Because I’m a Londoner’)
Despite the ironic undertone (‘like gold fillings’) and the awareness of the deceptiveness of the allure, there is an undeniably romantic quality to these descriptions, and this is even more noticeable in his poems about the western suburbs, where he lived in the 1960s. ‘High Tide at Richmond’, for example, contains the alliterative lyricism of a such a line as ‘Lissom the light alive on the water’, and proceeds:
Like a lyric, the suburbs adorning the river:
Kingston, Kew, Twickenham, Hampton, all summer
all windows open, receptive to summer;
expanding like stanzas adoring the river. . .
This same sensitivity is to be found in a poem describing a London railway terminus, where changes in light are seen as having a transformative quality, giving an otherwise unglamorous environment a touch of ‘sylvan miracle’:
There is an evening moment when
the terminus cools. Oranges
glow from a kiosk, and light
lies unbroken in dust again. . .
Light can exercise the same magic on an otherwise uninspiring suburban landscape:
Booting a ball about, white shirtsleeves pumping
vivid on the summer dusk, until beyond
the trees red car-lights came flickering on
and the corner garage burned violet. . .
From 1968 until 1997 Waterman taught at the University of Ulster and when he describes his affection for the landscape of Northern Ireland it is noticeable that the quality of the light is one of the first features he points to:
But you do not consider how long I have lived in this country.
Its skies move through my skull, and the changing light
over the water. . .
(‘From the Other Country’)
In the poem ‘Paper Boats’ Waterman states that when he remembers the past (and there is a good deal of remembrance of things past in his poetry), it is usually in pictures; and these pictures are prevalently ones that are remarkable for striking effects of light:
Forms like a glow, as clear transparencies,
Are pictures: the lit Thames from a midnight train
Grinding across a railbridge; pools of white
Pavement petals hushing footfall; rain
Golden in lamplight past my window. . .
When musing in Lincoln Cathedral, during a visit there with his small son, on questions of religious belief and faith, the lighting of a candle is described as an ‘answer that makes sense to you, / a glow that carries on when out of sight’. It is notable that his moving elegy for his mother is entitled ‘Towards the Light’. And in his poem ‘In the Planetarium’, which is equally remarkable for the concentration of its form (trimeter terza rima) and the vastness of its subject matter (a meditation on the extinction of our solar system, fusing classical mythology with astronomical observation), he concludes with these surprising lines:
Let such extinction be
not mere cold ashes, dearth,
invisible in night,
but that other aftermath:
compressed to essential weight
a pulsar flashing forth
pure lighthouse beams of light.
It is as if the notion of the survival of a source of light provides some kind of consolation for the thought of the extinction of our cosmos.
His poems frequently touch on such vast scientific and philosophical concepts, as he broods on our origins and our destinations. These meditations are nearly always carried out with a redeeming note of humorous irony—as, for example, in the opening stanzas of his long poem ‘Out for the Elements’, where he places himself on a beach at night-time, his eyes and mind drawn out to sea, our primeval fons et origo, and then to our present home on land, and then up to the stars:
Starry tonight, and repetitious
sea harassing the empty strand,
as when it first cast adventitious
staggering life upon the land;
through sleights of wondrous generation
since to attain a consummation
in filaments of light. . .
What saves the poem from becoming ponderously pretentious or over-solemn is precisely the note of self-deprecating humour, as the poet places himself so realistically on the beach, at the heart of these reflections. The effect is similar to the one created in some of Larkin’s poems, where the narrator depicts himself as ‘awkward, in cycle-clips’ or even ‘groping back to bed after a piss’, and thus subtly and skilfully offsets the metaphysical reflections that follow or precede. After five meditative and descriptive stanzas Waterman introduces the personal note:
Which brings me to myself, revolving
such matters on a starlit beach
on Ireland’s northern rim, and solving
none of my problems as I reach
perhaps my own half-way, at forty.
Pure romanticism, each sortie
risking its leap before the look
jells, has run into Life’s left-hook
absurdly often. Once more home is
dwindled to little more than these
shoes I stand here in, where the sea’s
belling as wind gets up, and foam is
whitening now to topple sheer.
There’s plenty of the void round here.
Waterman presents himself as the deracinated poet, at the Dantean midway point of life’s journey—but the tacit comparison is offered with rueful humour, echoing an image from a P. G. Wodehouse novel (‘. . . has run into Life’s left-hook. . .’). The offhand humour (‘There’s plenty of the void round here’) does not, on the other hand, detract from the suggestive power of the imagery of the sea, which will return at key points during the narrative.
His poems frequently move between the extremely personal and the grandly impersonal. On his website, in a section entitled ‘Life / Letters’, Waterman declares with wry understatement, ‘More than an inkling of my life is in my poems’; perhaps if he had been born a couple of decades earlier and across the Atlantic he would have been numbered among the ‘Confessional’ school. In his poetry he tells us, in detail that can even verge on the embarrassing, about his marital problems, the struggle for custody of his only son, his love-affairs, his troubled relationship with his adoptive mother, the moving discovery of his biological father late in life and his numerous moves around the British Isles, as well as his holiday destinations. However, he is never solipsistic; many of his personal poems are most effective in their descriptions of other people he encounters, whether they are his mother, his son or any of the many friends to whom he pays tribute. In such poems as ‘In Memoriam Reggie Smith’ and ‘In Memoriam Dermot Nolan’ he proves both a fine elegist and a skillful portraitist.
But solipsism is principally avoided by his reflections on the grand themes of history and science. In this way his personal life and problems are forever set within larger—often terrifyingly larger—perspectives. In such long poems as ‘Out for the Elements’ and ‘The Millennium Letter’, his autobiographical reflections are framed by the Irish Troubles and civil war in Yugoslavia; in his most recent volume The Captain’s Swallow, his time spent in the Aeolian Isles (which he has visited regularly over the past ten years or so) is set against the events of the Gulf War. In other poems he shows a gift for the encapsulation of history to rival that of Auden. In the poem ‘Whirligig’, his son’s enjoyment of a spinning-top sets in motion a series of reflections on human history:
I let the Sunday papers drop,
and watch my child pump at his top,
regenerating spin; it hums,
successively each colour comes
to perfect circle, blurs, then dies;
usurped by what next clarifies.
An accelerated paradigm
of history’s images: each time
form coheres, illusory stasis,
some gathering shade within displaces
it. New definitions break.
He proceeds to give us a series of beautifully chosen historical vignettes, taking us from the fall of the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages, the age of exploration to the twentieth century and the threat of nuclear holocaust. When the child ceases pumping at the top, father and son walk out of the house into the countryside, where the serene air and sunlight restore a sense of hope for the future:
Through your delight I relive grace-
notes squandering in this casual place:
petal, hedge-dapple, shade unfurled
on gleaming slope; world within world.
Pouring me back to what might be
our ancestor at gate or tree
inwrought to such inheritance,
trusting its dynasties of chance.
May they enfold you. Some day too,
somewhere, your children after you.
This is one of a number of poems which focus on the viewpoint of a child and which clearly derive from Waterman’s own personal history. In these poems, where he is not afraid to sound a note of unabashed emotion, the idea of continuity between generations gives particular edge to his ruminations on the purely random nature of life (‘this casual place’). Here the hopes for some kind of redemptive meaning to life are provided by what he terms ‘grace-notes’, a word that recurs in his poetry. Here it refers to those signs of unwarranted, perhaps undeserved beauty that nature bestows so freely on us; he uses the verb ‘squander’, in its intransitive form, with the meaning of ‘disperse’ or ‘scatter’, but obviously with all the overtones of sheer extravagance inherent in the transitive form of the verb. The ‘petal, hedge-dapple, shade unfurled / on gleaming slope’ are just such grace-notes.
The term is a musical one and refers to musical ornaments that are not essential to the main melodic theme. The musical connotations of the term are naturally important but probably Waterman also wishes to draw on the religious connotations of the word ‘grace’. His poetry is firmly agnostic but like so many contemporary writers and thinkers he is troubled by the void that the absence of God leaves us with—and in particular by the resulting lack of a sense of any meaning to existence. ‘Grace-notes’, as we find them in his poetry, seem to stand for moments in which life, even if not divinely wrought and purposed, offers at least the compensation of purely intrinsic beauty. If we have to live within chaos, it is of some consolation if the chaos has its ornaments—purely arbitrary and random ones, but beautiful and beneficent, nonetheless.
And so, in the opening stanza of ‘Out for the Elements’, the sea from which came ‘adventitious / straggling life’ is described as ‘a weird grace- / note shimmering on time and space.’ In the poem ‘Cushendun’, he observes an apparently idyllic village by the sea, depicting it as ‘[t]he place one has always sought, a / miraculous refraction / above its shimmering water’, but then reflects, as he reads the news of violence in the papers, that ‘[n]owhere a paradise is / untainted. That blue Moyle screens / our nuclear submarines. . .’ This bitter reflection comes to a conclusion in the final two stanzas with a determination to accept at least the momentary compensation offered by the idyll of peace:
Fragile in time and place
on this planet our heuristic
aggrandisements may blow
life off or waste through slow
entropy, a grace-
these Arcadian fragments stake
irrefutably green claim
to a world that keeps some room
for images we make:
waters for heart’s retroflexion,
contours shaping direction.
In a later poem, ‘Thoughts of Blaise Pascal in East Anglia’, a holiday with friends gives rise to ruminations on the part played by chance in their personal destinies:
You’ve settled here; your visitor, I live
in Ireland now. Willed quests? or quantum grace-
notes, siftings from some cosmic sieve?
Our species a chance stanza flung on space?
The image in the last line is not a casually chosen one and is clearly linked to the concept of the ‘grace-note’. ‘Stanzas’ are seen as some kind of response to the sheer randomness of existence. Poetry can serve both to preserve the experience of ‘grace-notes’ and to confer some kind of order, however provisional, amidst chaos. We are clearly not far from Frost’s notion of the poem as a ‘momentary stay against confusion’.
Waterman states the notion very clearly in a longish poem, ‘For My Son’:
Art seeks to forge atoning sense
and shapeliness from violence
and hurt we may be powerless
in life to help. These lines confess
sheer impotence, as they complete
their formal pattern, to defeat
or solace discord which has ripped
you from your home and father, stripped
away known places, play and friends;
yet while it cannot make amends
for wrong endured, the poem sustains
truths life would void; by taking pains
composes our essential form,
inviolable through the storm.
It is a strong declaration and one that explains his predilection for elaborate forms of poetry. While Waterman’s first three volumes are mainly in free verse, his subsequent four, from Out for the Elements (1981) up to his Collected Poems (2000), were almost entirely in strict forms. He himself has declared: ‘What I did not realise when I wrote Out for the Elements was that using a rhymed form for that long poem would trigger my using rhyme (which I had not done before) for the huge preponderance of what I was to write during the next twenty years’ (personal e-mail).
The inspiration to write Out for the Elements came from his reading of the new translation of Eugene Onegin by Charles Johnston (1977). This translation (which was to prompt two other major works in the same stanza form during the 1980s—The Illusionists by John Fuller, 1980, and The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, 1985,—together with a number of shorter works by such poets as William Scammell, Clive James and Jon Stallworthy) clearly opened Waterman’s eyes to the possibilities inherent in intricate forms. He has written:
I realised that that fourteen-line stanza was ideal for what I wanted to do—fast-flowing (more so than, say, the Spenserian stanza, or Byron's ottava rima), and sort of 'omniverous' in what it could accommodate, able to modulate from lyricism to character and dialogue, reflective passages, etc., as occasion arose.
It was his first experiment in the form of a long journal-like poem, and clearly he felt the need for some kind of strong binding element. He was looking back perhaps to Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron and to Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (seventeen years later he would borrow the metrical form of the Journal directly for a poem entitled ‘A Letter from Taormina’). In the poem he interweaves personal reflections and memories with contemporary events, and the flexibility of Pushkin’s stanza-form is essential to the success of the poem. The form itself, with its nimble tetrameters and constant alternation between masculine and feminine rhymes, has, as Charles Johnston himself wrote, ‘an infectious vitality of its own’, which seems to stimulate a kind of mental athleticism, resulting in provocative associations of ideas. Waterman himself has said: ‘I did (do) find that when using rhymed forms, the technical demands can be a help in that the need to solve them can take one deeper into clarifying what it is one wants to say’ (personal e-mail).
A mere glance through his Collected Poems reveals the variety of forms that he has adopted, many of them challengingly intricate. He has used the Spenserian stanza for two long poems, modifying it in his second attempt (‘Millennium Letter’) by adopting pentameter rather than hexameter for the final line, since the shorter line is more suitable to the overall movement of his poem, which, as he puts it, is ‘zigzag like a ski-slalom’. However, despite this declaration, some of the more memorable moments in this poem have a quality of rapt stillness, as if he were interested in what manages to persist amidst change. A fine example of this quality can be seen in the penultimate stanza, in which he addresses his imagined reader in the future:
I like to think your time will still have leisure
(I know, you have a million different and
Electronic forms of fun) to know the pleasure
Of days at seasides doing things unplanned;
Watching (as I’ve watched mine) your child just stand
Squirming bare toes at the sea’s edge for hours
To lose his feet but for the clasp of sand;
Or roam marsh burnished by rain-waves, sunshowers
Between grass head-high flecked with purple flowers.
Waterman is clearly fascinated by the quality of resilience, by what remains steadfast amid the upheavals of time and the turmoil of personal and political troubles. It is clear that poetry, with its formal demands, constitutes for him a way of both celebrating this quality and of embodying it. The poems often capture such moments and keep them ‘inviolable’ through the storm.
Many of his poems consist of attempts to preserve memories, often moments of personal and familial happiness. As he says in ‘By the River Wensum’, one of the poems published in this issue of Able Muse, such moments are ‘how lives define themselves’. He has a superb ability to pinpoint such spots in time, moments that are obviously of intense personal significance, and to communicate this significance to the reader. Childhood memories are as important a subject in his poetry as in Wordsworth’s; in his poems about his infant son, he often varies the focus by adding to his own meditations on the moment a speculation on how the same moment will be remembered by his son in the future. For example, in ‘Tenby’, about a seaside holiday, we find these lines:
Still through your life
Things you gazed at when perched
On that cannon, or did—
Beach football, rock scrambling—
Will come back, amid
All accretions, erosions;
Keynotes. To such, all
Our years reattune.
Once again he adopts a musical metaphor to render the idea of the intense significance of the moment. In this poem the tight rhyming scheme, with the short-lined stanzas, adds force and intensity to the concept. The word ‘keynotes’ comes as a highly effective synthesis of the two grandiose adjectives that constitute the whole of the previous line.
In his more recent poetry (since the Collected Poems, that is) he has frequently adopted less strict metrical forms, although the verse, as he himself has said, generally gravitates around the pentameter, or at any rate five-stress lines, with occasional four- or six-stress lines for variation. It is the supple but dense verse of someone aware of the power of form to concentrate meaning, even while adopting more flexible metrical patterns. The theme of memory persists, and it is probably the case that he reverts even more frequently to childhood or youthful memories. It is just such memories, for example, that give a special poignancy to ‘By the River Wensum’, which is an elegiac poem for the death of a friend’s father:
Flashback: I’m nine again, pressed to the pane
staring out as rain pelts garden laurels,
pierced by such greenness and a blackbird singing.
That’s what goes. When any person dies
a whole world dies: first day at school, first kiss,
sunlight on the handlebars freewheeling,
certain jokes, and friendships,
that dingy street stunned into sudden beauty
by jazz flickering from a cellar grating—
the myriad disparate moments intermeshed,
configured to a singularity
no-one else can ever live in.
Here he attains his effects by moving carefully between memories common to all (‘first day at school, first kiss’), abstract concepts (‘certain jokes, and friendships’) and specific memories centred on sudden visual or aural transformations of the moment; the final stanza quoted here achieves a lyrical intensity in surprising fashion by combining diction of seemingly scientific abstraction with language of utter simplicity. And the reader knows exactly what the poet means.
The poet expresses a hope for his friend’s dead father, which has all the intensity and power of a secular prayer:
I hope for your father that at last complete
the world he had become, which could not be
without him, brimmed into lucidity.
Those final words, ‘brimmed into lucidity’, are a perfect expression of the intentions, but also the qualities of Waterman’s own poetry. Despite all the problems of his own eyesight, his poetic vision remains sharply focused, and, as these lines make clear, lucidity is, for him, closely bound up with the idea of completeness. We are close, once again, to the notion of ‘sylvanshine’, which somehow gives meaning to the randomness of existence. The poem concludes beautifully with a hint at the imminent arrival of spring, in which the as-yet unbudded daffodils carry the promise of a ‘gold blaze’:
Turning for home as the low orange globes
of lamps come on, I stoop to look: through grass
still strewn with skeletons of autumn leaves
clusters of green blades thrust, stalks
paling to tips not swelled to buds yet, barely
divining their gold blaze as daffodils.