Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Word and flesh: the good poetry of the Irishman Rodgers

“Recently I’ve been reading good poetry by the Irishman Rodgers. Do you know his good poem about Christ on the waters?” asked W S Graham in a letter of August 1946.

“Bertie” Rodgers at the BBC microphone

Well, not too many of us do know the work of the Ulster poet W R Rodgers, though here and there in the blogosphere there twinkle isolated instances of appreciation. At one time, “Bertie” Rodgers was almost the other half of Louis MacNeice, and a key name in Ulster regionalist writing. His 1941 collection Awake! was much applauded. A former Presbyterian minister, he moved to London in 1946 to work for the BBC, becoming better known as a reviewer and broadcaster. In late 1947 Graham sent him a copy of his own The White Threshold, and sought his advice on his own forthcoming American visit; by now they were obviously on good terms. In 1952 Rodgers’ second and last collection, Europa and the Bull, appeared. After that the poetry tailed off somewhat, though some later items were included in a 1971 Collected. The selection Poems is currently advertised by The Gallery Press, but otherwise Rodgers’ poetry appears quite out of print. The online introduction to Rodgers’ papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland includes a useful biography, and a published biography by Darcy O’Brien is also obtainable.

Awake! is an uneven collection, but it includes some substantial and considered pieces from the late ‘thirties that are pretty Audenesque both in their language and in the aerial detachment of their social viewpoint:

It is a pity that distance releases us
From the quick retort, the tight resistance,
The press and prison of sanctioning wills,
Unseals the quivering and undriven heart
That in the burrows of imagination
Runs from the kennelled hound and hears the horn
Of to-morrow’s hunt; distance enlarges it,
Lets loose the schoolboy to spit and jeer,
Lets loose the arrogant engineer,
Allows assault upon a serene people
And clangs death’s bell in every heady steeple.

 (“The Far-Off Hills”)

Despite the very clanging death’s bell and the rhyme too far of “steeple” in the last line, this is most intelligent and well crafted verse. However, as the earlier run of “burrows”, “kennelled hound”, “horn” and “hunt” might hint, Rodgers was sometimes too ready to chase the extended metaphor. His long poem “End of a World” kicks off with a circus image that parades the lion-tamer Discipline, the snake-charmer Sentiment, the lariat Intellect and the sly Illusionist. At this point he runs out of big top turns and unaccountably throws in the wild pig of Contempt, closely followed by locusts of hate that eat everyone’s fig-leaf sensitivity and grass-skirt insularity.

A few years later, this straining of conceits has been succeeded by a much happier straining of language, presumably under the influence of Dylan Thomas. A very fine example is the “good poem” that caught Graham’s attention, “Christ walking on the Water”, which first appeared in Horizon for September 1943:

O what a cockeyed sea he walked on,
What poke-ends of foam, what elbowings
And lugubrious looks, what ebullient
And contumacious musics. Always there were
Hills and holes, pills and poles, a wavy wall
And bucking ribbon caterpillaring past
With glossy ease. And often, as he walked,
The slow curtains of swell swung open and showed,
Miles and smiles away, the bottle-boat
Flung on one wavering frond of froth that fell
Knee-deep and heaved thigh-high. In his forward face
No cave of afterthought opened; to his ear
No bottom clamour climbed up; nothing blinked.
For he was the horizon, he the hub,
Both bone and flesh, finger and ring of all
This clangorous sea.

“Miles and smiles” is maybe a pun too far, but it’s easy to see why Graham enjoyed the tumbling and audacious exuberance of the language here. (It would indeed sound good done in an Ulster accent.) The poem finishes as Christ, his confidence draining fast, clambers into the boat:

                                    Looking over the edge
He shivered. Was this the way he had come?
Was that the one who came? The backward bowl
And all the bubble-pit that he had walked on
Burst like a plate into purposelessness.
All, all was gone, the fervour and the froth
Of confidence, and flat as water was
The sad and glassy round. Somewhere, then,
A tiny flute sounded, O so lonely.
A ring of birds rose up and wound away
Into nothingness. Beyond himself he saw
The settled steeples, and breathing beaches
Running with people. But he,
He was custodian to nothing now,
And boneless as an empty sleeve hung down.

He falls asleep in the bottom of the boat, “curled like a question mark”. The full text, on the Horizon page, is here, and well worth reading. Other Christian pieces collected in Europa and the Bull are similarly admirable, but we can’t finish without acknowledging the complementary side of Rodgers’ work, the blatantly and cheerfully erotic, as in “The Net”:

Quick, woman, in your net
Catch the silver I fling!
O I am deep in your debt,
Draw tight, skin-tight, the string,
and rake the silver in.
No fisher ever yet
Drew such a cunning ring.

Ah, shifty as the fin
Of any fish this flesh
That, shaken to the shin,
Now shoals into your mesh,
Bursting to be held in;
Purse-proud and pebble-hard,
Its pence like shingle showered.

And so on for four more verses. Crikey. Rumbustious stuff for a Presbyterian parson … I shall never look at a trawler in quite the same way again. And “cunning” is a great pun here. The poem’s closing lines “draw the equal quilt over our naked guilt”. Maybe “guilt” is pronounced with a bit of a wink, but there is still some tension here; this is not quite the fully reconciled “credal sexuality” of Jack Clemo, but one has to admire Rodgers’ attempt to bring together the Word and the flesh.  Awake! and Europa and the Bull are not too easily found on the second hand shelves, though when they are, they are not often expensive. They’re well worth a browse; there is much to dig out and admire in Rodgers’ “good poetry”.

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