In the past few weeks, the poetry world has been going through one of its cyclical fits of the conniptions. In the estimable PN Review, the poet and critic Rebecca Watts launched an eloquent broadside against the best-selling and fashionable work of such poets as Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur. It was yet another iteration of a debate – or standoff – that has been going on in poetry for about 300 years. There is – or ought to be – an ongoing interplay between the blatant and the ornate, the polemical and the elusive, the outspokenness of Ginsberg, McGough and Lochhead and the riddling, askance work of Lowell, Moore and Prynne. I sighed when I saw it rearing up against a backdrop of diminishing readership, even though, to be frank, and in a personal capacity, I have always been on the side of the complicated. It is feasible to understand style and technique and yet critique the results.
It seems fortuitous that Robin Robertson’s new book comes out as this maelstrom of vehemence blows around in its china tea-cup. Robertson’s The Long Take shows it is perfectly possible to write poetry which is both accessible and subtle, which has a genuine moral and social conscience without sacrificing the polished nature of the language to soundbite and cliché. Even more remarkably it is written in a hybrid form that seems as alien to the finger-jabbing elements of the spoken word scene as the lapidary lyricism of the avant-garde: the long narrative poem.
At the end of the last century there was a brief spike in interest in the long narrative poems, with such works as Vikram Seth’s novel-in-sonnets, The Golden Gate, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune, Anne Carson’s Autobiography Of Red and Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie, up to (in the 2000s) Alice Oswald’s Dart. (It was also coincidentally the period of “televisual poems” such as Tony Harrison’s V and Simon Armitage’s Xanadu, works that pre-empt the multimedia aspects of the spoken word scene). It was not a renaissance. The poetry world still oscillates between the harangue and the prayer.
Robertson’s previous collections have featured ballad-like, goose-flesh-inducing modern supernatural narratives. But The Long Take is on a different scale – and continent – entirely. Nearly 230 pages long, it follows Walker, a veteran of D-Day who grew up in Nova Scotia, from 1946 to 1953. Instead of returning to Canada, his journey takes him from New York (where he works in the docks), to Los Angeles and San Francisco. He becomes a journalist with two especial interests, being on the “City Desk” – urban regeneration and homelessness. It is clear from the outset that Walker is a damaged individual, and part of the momentum of the poem is a quest for redemption, of being able to put himself back together after witnessing and committing atrocities.
In some ways, Walker resembles the enigmatic Robinson persona who appears in four narrative poems by the equally mysterious Weldon Kees. He is a drifter, he is conflicted, he seems at right angles to reality. From the outset we know he has post-traumatic stress disorder. “A dropped crate or a child’s shout or car / backfiring, and he’s in France again, / that taste in his mouth. Coins. Cordite. Blood”. Those concrete, sensual images to invoke an almost spiritual despair seem to me very typical of Robertson’s previous poetry, and there are many other sections in a similar vein – lines like “the brown / stars of blood leading down the alleys”.
If in his previous work Robertson has reimagined the gothic, here it is film noir that is the dominant aesthetic corollary. There are men with secrets and designs, low-down bars, a greasy feel of dread about things. One question keeps returning: when propositioned by women of negotiable virtue, Walker is almost prim. He is, in the great phrase of Raymond Chandler, a “shop-soiled Galahad”.
Italic sections give us flashbacks to the war and to Nova Scotia; interpolated letters hint at a broken heart elsewhere. Some sections deploy a bricolage of words mirroring the overwhelming “textness” of the city. One problem with the narrative poem is that some lines just have to move things from A to B – there is no dazzle in and of themselves. That said, Robertson manages a remarkable strike rate for keeping the language unsettling and honed, often by judicious assonances and alliterations. Although this is in free verse, with some prose sections, it seems as if the predominant mode of the poetry is a kind of sighing line. Although much of poetry in English has gravitated towards a ten-beat pentameter, I was struck by the prevalence of 11, 13 and 15 syllable lines. There is an undeniable beauty – and appropriateness – in this strange over-going.
Formal dexterity counts for little unless you have something to say. In Walker’s odyssey across America – both geographically and socially – Robertson is acute. “At least in the war there was some common purpose – / in the same boat, all in it together, y’know? / Now here we are, in our own country / scrambling over each other, just / trying to stay afloat”. I think the word for that is “resonant”. This is a major achievement, and will linger long in the reader’s mind.
The Long Take, by By Robin Robertson, Piacdor, £14.99