Prac Crit

Not That Only

by Michael O’Neill

Deep Note

by Michael O’Neill

‘Not That Only’ belongs to the unlovely sub-genre of possibly muddled self-exculpation. One of my favourite examples in this vein is Donald Davie’s ‘Rejoinder to a Critic’ in which he takes issue with a reviewer who’d regretted the absence of ‘feeling’ in his poetry. Among Davie’s best pieces, the poem draws its force from compounded impulses: anger that after the horror of the Second World War anyone can see ‘feeling’ as an unmitigated good; awareness that all poetry will involve some expression of feeling, as is admitted by ‘Appear’ in ‘Appear concerned only to make it scan!’. One might also think of Shelley’s poised stanzas at the head of The Witch of Atlas, in which he teases Mary Shelley as being ‘critic-bitten’ for wanting him to put ‘human interest’ more at the centre of his poetry.

That is to mention in much the same breath my paltry apologia and things that are infinitely greater. Still, poetry is an exercise in folly, and writing about it, especially one’s own work (Narcissus on Narcissus), even more so. If Byron wanted Coleridge to explain his explanation, I’m now engaged, it would seem, in trying to justify my justification. My point of departure is an acquaintance’s comment. In the poem I found myself using the third-person ‘he’ (and also the second-person ‘you’) partly because of the hunch or hope that this person is a self not wholly identifiable with me. Something happens in the act of talking about your own feelings in a poem. Rhyming, for example, or trying to make it scan are forces that drive a poem along its seemingly self-appointed track, and that’s a major fascination for me of form in poetry. I like Emily Dickinson’s comment, in this regard, that the word ‘I’ in her poems means ‘a supposed person’.

The comment quoted at the start of ‘Not That Only’ stayed with me or the person, for the poem’s sake, I ‘supposed’ myself to be; it made me wonder what I’d been doing with Italian settings and, more generally, ‘abroad’ in my second collection Wheel (2008) and my third collection Gangs of Shadow (2014). Kingsley Amis’s ban on poems about foreign cities and Charles Tomlinson’s robust reply belong to a previous generation’s quarrels about poetry and its purposes. But if you started writing in the 70s, there’s no doubt that class, social realism and the ‘condition of Britain and/or Ireland’ were ‘privileged’ as subject matter. A deftly embittered consciousness and conscience seemed to be required. And that requirement frequently left me uneasy about the obligations it imposed and the rhetoric it seemed to demand.

That’s not to say I dislike rhetoric, by which I mean ‘an evident attempt to create resonance’. I don’t, even if the word ‘resonant’ is used a touch ironically in the first stanza. It’s more a conscience-on-the-sleeve effect that generates mistrust. Certainly, there is quite a lot of rhetoric in ‘Not That Only’, more than I might allow myself in a different, less ‘ventilated’ piece.

The poem consists of five ten-line stanzas, made up of couplets in sometimes loosened iambic pentameter. There’s not really a model for this form that I know, though Marvell’s eight-line octosyllabic couplet stanza is familiar in contemporary poetry because of its use by Lowell and Mahon. The ten-line stanza recommended itself as giving a lot of room for manoeuvre; a less flattering view would be that it provides plenty of rope with which a poem can hang itself. More positively, for the poet, like Italy for the speaker, the stanza provides ‘a / canvas he could paint himself in and out / of with a less strong sense that inhibiting gout / had seized poetic feet’.

In the first stanza the speaker asks himself why he turns to foreign countries when there’s matter for a ‘resonant simile’ on his doorstep. Depicting ‘misery’ as possible copy, the poem is conscious of the callousness that can seep into poetic representation; it’s already in an uneasy mood, sending up as well as voicing the accusatory super ego. The second stanza brings in Dante, the initial hints of a diffuse mockery growing high-spirited, in support of the idea that to write about the here and now a poet needs to turn elsewhere. ‘Reasons mount up why / anyone might flee towards imaginary / places, or towards a real place recast / to vindicate the restless soul at last’. That ‘restless soul’ may have stolen in through a window left ajar by the mention of Dante, but it suggests an unappeased impulse in the poem. ‘Vindicate’, however, is knowingly circular; the ‘restless soul’ constructs scenarios in which its ‘restlessness’ can be ‘vindicated’.

The end of the second stanza and all the third stanza develop a sense of what it is that incites the impulse to find ‘vindication’. They locate a condition of ‘betweenness’. The word ‘between’ starts off as an explanation, but it soon turns into a predicament. It’s as though saying the word several times makes it less a marker of freedom than an indicator of being flummoxed, cut off from the visionary speech associated with Keith Douglas in ‘Desert Flowers’: ‘Lay the coin on my tongue and I will sing / of what the others never set eyes on’. The poem ruefully alludes to this achievement, which takes the reader back to the ‘ghastly river’ of the second stanza, before it concludes the third stanza with an image from the ‘hospital’ mentioned earlier: ‘more like blockage, in fact, than the saving stent’.

The following stanza goes off in a different tack, liberated from various anxieties through the act of having expressed them. There’s a shift towards a more declarative style in this stanza, which tries out the notion that ‘A poem’s ultimate nation is Utopia’, a no-place given a local habitation in language. The idea may be this: that a poem is a striving beyond more than a bedding down, a flight (not necessarily an escapist one) more than a dwelling. I imagine that any journey towards Utopia involves a stopping-off point called ‘Venchimera’, a word that couples the first syllable of ‘Venice’ with a word meaning ‘an unreal creature of the imagination; a mere wild fancy; an unfounded conception’ (OED 3b). If this neologism sounds dismissive it’s meant to be and yet the poem hopes, too, against the evidence of the word’s surface meaning, to name somewhere that has a kind of reality.

Much of the rest of the poem has a comparably double aim: this section refers to the ‘mixed intentions’ of poems setting themselves in a different place, and it asks that those mixed intentions should be granted their validity, ‘acknowledged’. The poem proposes that poetry wishes to ‘speak of a day that’s absent from the week’, but it also invites the thought, in the final stanza, that the otherness broached in previous poems about Italy is still in touch with experience, that ‘death / is in Arcadia too’. Pastoral and tragedy coexist. The poem concludes with a final distancing and also an opening up. Ariel’s loneliness may prompt his ethereal journeys. But the last three words – the poem’s title – indicate that there’s more to be said about the impulse to look elsewhere than is implied by compensation. ‘Not That Only’ ends on the brink of another poem, a poem which, at the last minute, it glimpses it might or should have been.

Not That Only

by Michael O’Neill

‘Don’t like the Italian poems so much’
the email growled. The nerve it tried to touch
just slumbered on, but later he’d to ask,
‘Why write about Venetian scene or masque
when there is plenty enough misery
for you to shape a resonant simile
from in the street: cemented shore
wealth’s tides have ebbed from?’ And, yes, the poor
faces that turn up for cutback benefits
– they conjure pity as they lower spirits.

Dante would have put it better! Yet to write
about his now, the Florentine had to fight
through throngs of shadows on the ghastly river,
exile himself from time to where forever
is the present tense. Reasons mount up why
anyone might flee towards imaginary
places, or towards a real place recast
to vindicate the restless soul at last.
Such reasons might include never belonging
to a city your being seemed to be wronging,

or finding yourself often sprawled and torn
between the living, dead and the unborn,
between the farm and hospital, north and south,
between, between… the word lies in his mouth
like a dumb stone, not like an obolus
displayed on the Stygian water-bus
that will allow him the chance, Douglas-like,
to sing of what the others never took
notice of – more like an impediment,
more like blockage, in fact, than the saving stent.

A poem’s ultimate nation is Utopia.
He’d travel there sometimes through Venchimera
but would want the pull towards redesign
to be acknowledged, the way in which each line
passes the baton of its mixed intentions
to every syllable. A poem’s inflections
belong to the language that we cannot speak,
speak of a day that’s absent from the week,
entangle themselves with crazed artifice,
concoct a lyric draught of fire and ice.

And yet, re-reading his lines, he sees that death
is in Arcadia too, that the same breath
animates them as comes from working lungs,
that freedom is limited, that tongues
of fire descend or don’t in any quarter,
that what he wanted was not escape, but a
canvas he could paint himself in and out
of with a less strong sense that inhibiting gout
had seized poetic feet.
                                    Ariel was lonely
but had the air to fly through. Not that only.

First Published by Prac Crit.

Related articles

Rae Armantrout

“It’s about realizing that there’s something in your environment that you didn’t notice at first. I like to reproduce that in a poem somehow. There’s something over your shoulder, a shadow over there that you didn’t notice.”

David Sergeant

“ dares from the reader an act of belief and of empathy – both of which are also intrinsic to the act of hearing a story. But you have to give yourself over to it, commit to the world that is being created...”