Reviews Peter Robinson’s
Collected Poems: 1976-2017 (Shearsman, 2017)
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In Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (2010), poet and critic Peter Robinson records a hope that ‘people can display in life what art might choose to invoke’.
His own poetry over the last forty years — now superbly gathered together by Shearsman for Collected Poems (2017) — finds ample space to consider both what art might display, and the range of people, places, and poetics it might invoke in the process.
A 1981 self-portrait adorns the cover, and it calls up William Hazlitt’s maxim — quoted elsewhere by Robinson — that unlike writing, ‘one is never tired of painting, because you have to set down not what you know already, but what you have just discovered’. In this sense, Robinson is one of poetry’s painters: we never tire of the work here, in part because it can be so humble, subtle, or generous about its discoveries.
As you follow Robinson’s work across the decades, an architecture, language, and recognisable poetic landscape come into view, like a bark rubbing. This is a world that thrums with the caw of indifferent birds (the pigeons in Whiteknights Park, the scavenging gulls of Bristol, a group of heron-watchers disturbed by a military operation in Palm Beach), and glistens with wet leaves (final cherry blossom, fallen magnolia on pavements, petals stuck with rain water).
‘Leaf-Viewing’ is the title of a 1989 poem, and its ‘looking back and forward’ suggests an oeuvre of ‘seasonal differences’. Indeed, Robinson’s voice is usually lyric, and tends to the ruminative. It takes its cue from epigrams, translations, foreign travel, political upheaval, explores the intellectual and ethical puzzles of music, painting and writing, and often listens in to the quieter moments of city, coast, and country.
Because Robinson’s work has always looked in both directions, its mixture of retrospect and vision draws exquisite patterns across the collection, like spiders spinning their way into time travel.
Individual poems often choose a significant date in the personal or political diary, perhaps ‘today’s date or interest rate’ (124) to wander through the thickets of the past, or what ‘Red Wednesday’ calls the ‘need / to hold in mind each cherished feature / from the years we had laid waste, / and even for the sake of some lost future / keep faith with that past’ (162-3). Collected Poems keeps faith by offering a lived chronology.
In ‘Dirty Language’, from Robinson’s first collection Overdrawn Account, a crabbed older poet is unmoved reading ‘somebody or other’s Collected Works’ (56): his hairs clog the bathroom soap, and the poem’s narrator, a long-suffering helpmeet, notes ‘it makes no difference what I say’.
In ‘Vacant Possession’, another early poem, life is hollowed out and the poet fills the air with mournful sputters of nostalgia (84). Yet these first summons of the poet’s late effects, or the speaker who perpetually looks back, belie the acute and distinctive eye of Robinson’s subsequent poet-narrators, who offer vital sketches (‘Epigrams of Summer’) or open questions (‘On a Training Chart’) — as ‘Doppelgänger’ puts it, old age is neither ‘mentor’ nor ‘memento mori’ (465).
While the lyric I is meditative, the plangent is often kept at bay by the unusual drum rolls of rhythm and rhyme (‘debts’ / ‘majorettes’ in ‘Marking Time’), and the gnomic brilliantly offset by ellipsis and wry humour: the ‘Ringstead Poems’, new for this collection, call up John Cornford’s relief that he might ‘stop pretending to be an artist’ (473).
Robinson has always been able to place considerable pressure on the throwaway phrase or the casual aside. In ‘By the Way’ — framed thoughtfully here into a section which gathers poems from Anywhere You Like (2000), Selected Poems 1976-2001 (2003), and Ghost Characters (2006) — he thickens the title into a thick, rich paint: the poet charts a plein air painter setting his easel ‘by the way’ near a concrete path that ‘centuries of feet / have trodden down before’ (242).
The narrator’s own walk to work tracks a similar journey, passing tree trunks which record a deepening process of ‘recession, progress’ (243). Feeling itself slips ‘by the way’ in the final stanza, ancient enmities or aggressions dissolving like leaves as they detach from ‘personal things’. The position recalls Stevie Smith’s ‘Pad Pad’, the speaker exonerated from anger as the years remove their taste for it. In its place, we hear only the sharp sound of ‘a monkey’s cry / heard through tyre or engine noise’ (243).
By the poem’s conclusion, the poet has walked us through the titular phrase so casually, it is neither a location, interjection, or something incidental. Like much in the Collected, it widens into other meanings, subtler hints: he gives the words new traction and texture.
In the perfectly pitched poem ‘Hearing Difficulties’, the patient cajoles themselves with the thought of ‘jokes about a poet going deaf’ (171). Yet the fear of not being heard is often tempered by the fear of saying too much (‘but my word you do go on’). The poems give us cause to listen again.
The byways of Robinson’s speakers walk us round the globe. These poems travel well and age well though, true to his own interest in the language of economics, both come at a cost. Often, they turn their attention to the ‘Transit Lounge’, the spaces of delayed departure or frustrated trip, or to borders, nations or spaces called up by translation and exiles.
The poems tend with care to the poet’s time in Italy and Japan, and his habitual returns to Liverpool. But the Collected also reminds us of Robinson’s skill in tracing a line around his native country. He summons up Larkin’s ‘Here’ to catch the ‘colours merging’ from the Sheffield to Reading train on the day of the 2015 election (491). England’s archipelago is sketched out from Shanklin to Solent Water in the deft ‘Our Island Suite’.
The poems offer some of their sharpest insights on realisations long-delayed and closer to home, the ‘one great unknown / under my nose’ (356).
While Hazlitt saw the poet as doomed to write what they already know, Robinson’s Collected Poems help us map the marvel of what we have failed to know, or long understood but never made clear to ourselves.
Will May is an Associate Professor in English at the University of Southampton. He is the editor of The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith (Faber, 2015) and Reading F.T. Prince (Liverpool University Press, 2017), and author of Stevie Smith and Authorship (2010). He is currently writing a study of poetry and whimsy.
 Peter Robinson, Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), p.68.
 William Hazlitt, ‘On the Pleasure of Painting’, Table Talk (1824), The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 21 vols, ed. P.P. Howe (London and Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1930), viii, p.7.
 Peter Robinson, Collected Poems (Bristol: Shearsman, 2017), p.146.
Peter Robinson has a bio note at the foot of this page here.