Leslie Norris’s Water Voices
The Collected Poems of Leslie Norris was published in 1996, ten years before his death, and presents a remarkably unified poetic oeuvre. It began with one of his best-known and most characteristic poems, ‘Autumn Elegy’, from the 1967 collection The Loud Winter, published when Norris was in his mid-forties. For those who knew Norris’s work, it was appropriate to open in an autumnal mood. For those who had yet to discover it, it set the tone for the rest of the book.
‘Autumn Elegy’ was certainly a good place to start, but opening the Collected Poems as it did, it appeared to present us with the poet more or less fully formed. He had chosen his mode and mastered his influences; he had his subjects and was beginning to perfect his technique. Though he would develop and extend his range in the work to come, Norris had found his orientation.
Norris was a strict self-critic. None of his earliest work was allowed into the Collected. Books such as Tongue of Beauty (1943) and Poems (1946) had slipped away. He regarded them as juvenilia, and in most part he was right. But in sweeping one’s early work under the carpet, one also blurs one’s beginnings. It is in the nature of writers to blur their beginnings, and in the nature of readers to want to know where the writer began.
Norris was, to say the least, ambivalent about his early work. The 1940s were a period in which many writers wrote poems they regretted, and Norris was hardly alone in falling under the spell of Dylan Thomas or in writing to the Zeitgeist of the ‘New Apocalypse’ and ‘New Romantic’ movements. Some poets, such as WS Graham or Burns Singer, were strong enough to absorb these influences and shape them into their mature work, to get beyond them without needing to dismiss them. Others, like Norman MacCaig, called his poetry of the late thirties and early forties a ‘vomitorium of unrelated images’ and disowned his first work in what he called his ‘long haul back to lucidity’. Norris, while not so unforgiving of his younger self as MacCaig, falls into his camp, thinking of his 1940s poetry as a false start rather than a formative one. But poetry is not a race, and there are no false starts; even mistakes are formative. As Thom Gunn wrote in his elegy for Robert Duncan, ‘You add to, you don’t cancel what you do.’ In this respect, this new Complete Poems adds to our sense of Leslie Norris’s work.
We must also remember that the poetry of the 1940s looks different depending on whether one is assessing it from Wales, Scotland or England. In Wales and Scotland it produced a lasting body of work, not just in terms of individual poets but in terms of magazines and literary group-formations that played a central role in the development of Welsh and Scottish poetry. In a specifically Welsh context there was not just Dylan Thomas, but Vernon Watkins, Glyn Jones, Idris Davies, Lynette Roberts and her husband, the poet and literary entrepreneur Keidrych Rhys, editor of Wales magazine and of several anthologies of Anglo-Welsh poetry. The other Thomas, R.S., published his own first collection, The Stones of the Field, with Rhys’s Druid Press in 1946, the year Norris brought out his second book. As far as Welsh poetry in English was concerned, the 1940s were a crucial decade.
In the 1940s Norris was a young poet finding his voice during a formative period in Anglo-Welsh poetry. Many of his poems of this period are apprentice pieces, and many – though by no means all – bear the imprint of the Dylanesque high style: congested, grandiloquent and full of unworked images. They bear little resemblance to the sparer, more understated and reflective work for which Norris became known, but it would be wrong to ignore the signs of the poet he was to become.
One of the most achieved of the early poems is ‘Verlaine and Rimbaud’, written in 1946. This poem is written as a monologue in the voice of Paul Verlaine, that most autumnal of French poets (his ‘Chanson d’Automne’, or ‘Autumn Song’, is one of the classic Symbolist poems), about his relationship with the adolescent firebrand and proto-surrealist Arthur Rimbaud, whom he shot and nearly killed in a Brussels hotel room. This is a telling poem in all sorts of ways, especially in the context of the dominant Apocalyptic/New Romantic aesthetic of the time.
Verlaine is the delicate, elegiac ex-Parnassian poet, the embodiment both of the French formal tradition and of all that was most flexible about it. Since Norris would have been in his mid-twenties, we might instead have expected the poem to be written from the point of view of Rimbaud, the enfant terrible of French poetry. Rimbaud was a much-invoked figure at the time; indeed if Dylan Thomas, the ‘Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive’, was the high priest of the Apocalypse school, then Rimbaud himself was its absconded deity. Norris’s Verlaine recalls ‘He spoke his poems and the words were moths,/ Brilliant and gaudy in the fleering candles’, lines that would have been an apt description of Dylan Thomas’s verbal effects on and off the page.
‘Verlaine and Rimbaud’ may be read as a transitional poem in which we see the young Norris coming to terms with his influences and exploring the aesthetic choices open to him. His sympathies are with Verlaine, the traditional poet of loss and regret, of half-tones and diminishing shades – dazzled by the Rimbaldian pyrotechnics but not in sympathy with them. There is a case for seeing this poem as an obliquely-angled reckoning with the influences of one’s youth; if not quite a laying to rest of the Apocalyptic ghost, then certainly a step out of its inebriating orbit.
There are other early poems where Norris comes near to the voice that will become his own. Notable among these is ‘The Great War’. Many of the poems of the forties are unsurprisingly concerned with war, but many of them were written in a Dylanesque style. ‘The Great War’ is an altogether more limpid, more controlled approach to the subject: ‘My father spoke to me of the Great War often./ Or rather to himself, but I was there’ it begins. In those two lines we have the germ of a whole story of death and loss and disrupted relationships: the father who is alone in his trauma even as he tells it, and the son who hears but who is never really addressed, who, puzzled at his father’s excited tone turns to see, in fact, ‘his eyes, a boy’s bewildered eyes’.
With the early poems restored to their place, ‘Autumn Elegy’ appears all the more singular and impressive an opening onto Norris’s mature work, not just because it marks a break with the earlier styles but, paradoxically, because it also reveals continuities of theme and mood and technique. It displays all of Norris’s strengths: his elegiac mode, his observation of nature, and his attentiveness to the minute and barely noticeable processes of change that are always final and always irrevocable. His voice too has found its timbre: just a degree or two above ordinary speech while maintaining the sense of ceremony. It opens:
September. The small summer hangs its suns
On the chestnuts, and the world bends slowly
Out of the year. On tiles of the low barns
The lingering swallows rest in this timely
Warmth, collecting it. Standing in the garden,
I too feel its generosity; but would not leave.
Time, time to lock the heart. Nothing is sudden
In Autumn, yet the long, ceremonial passion of
The year’s death comes quickly enough […]
The poem begins in the manner we become accustomed to in Norris: elegiac, commemorative, but also celebratory, able to draw the beauty out of Time’s annihilating sweep without relying on false consolations. In this poem the speaker recalls his friends and contemporaries who died in a war in which he himself briefly served (in the RAF) before being invalided out. Norris is a war poet manqué, and his allegiance is as much to the dead as the living: his own generation but also that of his father, already scarred by the first war (if they were lucky enough to survive it) and now facing losing their own sons in another. ‘Autumn Elegy’ is freighted with all this loss, which the dying year ritualistically invokes. ‘I am not accustomed to such opulent/ Panoply of dying’ he reflects, before slipping back in time not just to the nineteen-forties of his youth, but to the way he wrote then: the Dylanesque lines ‘Young men of my own time died/ In the Spring of their living’ and the final stanza’s
[…] Now as the trees burn
In the beginning glory of Autumn
I sing for all green deaths as I remember
In their broken Mays, and turn
The years back for them, every red September.
The green deaths and broken Mays are also those of the young men he knew, while the poem ends on the same word as it began – September – starting the cycle again. What is noticeable about this poem, and a sign of what is to come, is the unobtrusive way in which Norris creates his effects. There are those long, reflective sentences taken across several line-endings at a time, never crowding out the line and never losing their momentum. Correspondingly, each of the stanzas in turn spills into the one that follows, reinforcing that sense of continuity and flow even in the midst of the poem’s formal limitation. We notice also those rhymes and half-rhymes, so natural-seeming but at the same time appropriate: ‘slowly/timely’, ‘opulent/silent’ and that overdetermined but in this context wholly congruent ‘remember/September’. September opens and closes the poem: the natural cycle of seasons goes on, as do our rituals of mourning, but those we mourn are lost irrevocably. There is no cycle for them, no eternal return for us. The reason we are drawn to images of seasonal succession and rebirth is not that human life and human experience correspond to it, but that they do not. Norris’s poems understand that – we could say it is their subject, their reason for being – and it is an understanding that defines also Norris’s major influence, Edward Thomas.
Edward Thomas, dedicatee of two of Norris’s poems, ‘Ransoms’ and ‘A Glass Window’, is the single most decisive presence in Norris’s work. There are others of course – the Welsh poet Alun Lewis is an early and un-rejected influence, Thomas Hardy, Robert Graves – but Edward Thomas is the guiding spirit for Norris as he is for much of what is best in the ‘native tradition’ of twentieth century British poetry. Thomas’s poetry showed a Georgian sensibility confronting modern change and modern catastrophe, something Norris would certainly have responded to in his own Welsh contexts not just of war but of the hardships of heavy industry, poverty and economic and cultural decline. Some critics have seen Norris himself as writing in the ‘Georgian’ tradition, but this is an inexact term if by ‘Georgian’ we mean a poetry that averts its gaze from the unforgiving realities of life. In fact, Norris writes unsparingly about life in industrial South Wales, not just in his poetry but in his short stories, another genre in which he found success with his understatement and precision. Like his stories, his poems describe – without idealizing - communities and places he knew and lived in, and the men and women who people his work are drawn mostly from ordinary experience. The recipients of his elegies are not just Dylan Thomas and Alun Lewis, but schoolfriends, neighbours, and, in one of his finest mid-career poems, Lyn James, the Pontypridd boxer who died of brain injuries sustained in the ring.
Like other Anglo-Welsh poets, Norris is conscious of the close proximity of the industrial landscape to the ‘natural’, the town and the country in Wales. Twentieth century Welsh poetry in both language has been acutely aware of the closeness of the two, and Norris himself in his autobiographical writings always insisted on it. A cycle ride away, a bus journey, a healthy walk from the centre of Merthyr or Swansea or Cardiff, and one is in the countryside. That sense of nearness, but also of mutual dependence, of economic and cultural entwinedness, characterises Anglo-Welsh poetry, which has never taken to the easy town versus country opposition the mainstream British tradition inherits from the Georgians. Norris’s own poetry is as much at ease with the industrial landscapes and the world of coal and steel as it is with the world of rural smallholdings.
Of the Welsh writers in English who influenced his work, perhaps only Alun Lewis and Glyn Jones had a lasting effect on his writing, the latter especially on Norris’s short stories, notably the collections Sliding and The Girl From Cardigan. In later years, Norris was to translate from the Welsh, notably Dafydd ap Gwilym and the twentieth century poet Gwenallt, and edit the Faber memorial volume for Vernon Watkins. Though no-one would mistake Norris for anything other than a Welsh writer, he kept his distance from the Anglo-Welsh literary scene. This was hardly surprising: he left his native Merthyr in 1948 to take up a series of teaching jobs in the south of England, before making his first visit to the United States in 1973. This was to be the decisive move: after several periods as visiting professor and writer in residence, he took a post at Brigham Young University in Utah in 1983, where in 1989 he was made professor of creative writing.
Norris remained especially distant from the cultural politics of his native country, as we see in his most controversial poem, ‘A Small War’, from Mountains Polecats Pheasants (1974). Here he addresses the question of Welsh cultural politics in the context of the proposed flooding of the Senni valley in 1970. The flooded valleys are symbols of cultural powerlessness, a ‘drowning’ of Wales, and several of these events (notably Tryweryn and Capel Celyn) are commemorated in important poems in Welsh and English. Many of Norris’s contemporaries wrote about them, notably RS Thomas, Harri Webb and John Tripp, and these reservoirs remain potent symbols of cultural and linguistic violence. The early 1970s were politically febrile times, and Norris’s poem – according to some critics – was a gross refusal to stand up and be counted. It is ironic too that a poem designed to be apolitical should cause at least as much controversy as a political one.
The speaker – Norris’s poetry always looks written in propria persona, but it would be more exact to say that he writes from versions of himself, using one of his voices – remembers the Senni valley which he knew as a young boy, ‘an Eden fourteen miles from home’. After an idealising description of the cycle ride from Merthyr to Breconshire, he evokes his cousins who lived there and who were sent to war. This in turn makes him, the survivor, think about what he might fight for.
I would not fight for Wales, the great battle-cries
Do not arouse me. I keep short boundaries holy,
Those my eyes have recognised and my heart has known
As welcome. Nor would I fight for her language. I spend
My few pence of Welsh to amuse my friends, to comment
On the weather. They carry no thought that could be mine.
It’s the small wars I understand. So now that forty
People lock their gates in Senni, keeping the water out
With frailest barriers of love and anger, I’d fight for them.
Five miles of land, enough small farms to make a heaven,
Are easily trapped on the drawing-board, a decision
Of the pen drowns all. Yes, the great towns need
The humming water, yes, I have taken my rods to other
Swimming valleys and happily fished above the vanished
Fields. I know the arguments. […]
According to James Davies in his book on Norris in the Writers of Wales series, it was first sent to Poetry Wales in 1970. Norris’s covering letter, according to Davies, claims ‘it’s typical of most Welshmen: we’d fight happily for our own bro, but for little else’. In these politically-charged times, such an assertion was guaranteed to cause controversy. It was rejected by Meic Stephens, the then editor, and has since been the subject of considerable critical excoriation, notably by Tony Conran, who makes a cogent case for the poem’s being both an artistic failure and a fundamental failure of nerve.
The poem stance, or lack of it, is one thing, and not necessarily a bad one. But the real problem for critics is its crashing passage from political apathy to overblown self-righteousness when, in the final lines, the speaker declares ‘When I turn on the taps in my English bathroom/ I am surprised they do not run with Breconshire blood.’ This is a puzzlingly poor ending, and Conran is passionate in his denunciation of it: ‘I for one want to cry out “Come off it, who do you think you’re kidding… emotionally he eats his cake and has it too.’ What Conran means here is that the poem’s speaker capitalises on a sense of himself standing above the petty national disputes, the ‘parish pump politics’ (as one Welsh Labour MP dismissed the grievances of those whose communities were being drowned) of his small country; but on the other he wants to tap into the anger and the grief, to inject some of its fire into an otherwise even-tenored poem. He does so by setting the local, the bro, against the national, and some readers have sought to justify the poem by suggesting that the bro as a microcosm could be said to stand for Wales the place. What is clear however is that the poem moves too quickly from scepticism and reason (‘I know the arguments’) to outrage to convince us of its authenticity of feeling. It does not convince as an emotional argument, though it gives us some insight into Norris’s far from straightforward relations both with his country and with the Anglo-Welsh poetry of his time.
There is perhaps a context for Norris’s refusal of the political. In The Girl from Cardigan we find a subtle, humorous comment that touches on Norris’s own scepticism about politics. His narrator begins his tale:
We lived in a small town in Monmouthshire, at the head of one of the coal valleys. Unemployment was endemic there, and enforced leisure gave rise to protracted bouts of philosophy and politics. Most men leaned toward politics, since it gave an appearance of energy and deceived some people into believing they possessed power and influence. It was, if you like, political theory, imaginative and vituperative. The hills about our town were full of men giving their views and airing; eloquence was commonplace.
That line ‘enforced leisure gave rise to protracted bouts of philosophy and politics’ is beautifully withering, if unjust - after all, Welsh fiction of the twentieth century, not to mention a great deal of its poetry, has portrayed working people grappling with the social, cultural and economic conditions of their lives. But we must remember it is Norris’s narrator speaking here, a figure within the fiction. ‘A Small War’ claims to be proud to withdraw from the great historical grapplings or pseudo-grapplings of the Anglo-Welsh tradition, but it does not quite have the courage of its own lack of conviction. It overplays its hand in those last lines and instead of getting the best of both worlds it gets the worst. Readers can judge for themselves, but what is clear is that Norris never wrote another so poem so explicitly engaged in political events.
It is characteristic that Norris should take on the Anglo-Welsh tradition with a poem about water, the defining element of Welsh poetry. This is not to the place to embark on a discussion of the poetics of water in Welsh literature, but it is enough to say that water – for cultural and historical as well as basic meteorological reasons – plays a defining role in Welsh poetry in both languages. There are deluges and floods, wells and sources, rain and seas and rivers; there are still lakes and stagnant pools, the polluted streams and the pure ones; but there is also water in its suspended states, mist, ice, fog. And the symbolism of water is equally versatile and equally protean: cleansing, annihilating, reviving, erosive; its connotations can be religious or secular, it can represent the pool of Narcissus or the Heracleitan stream that we can never re-enter.
Norris’s poetry is more than most alive to the possibilities of water as a trope. Water is his element, though it never stays the same, and never means the same thing. ‘Eagle and Hummingbird’ (from the 1980 collection Water Voices) is one of Norris’s finest poems. It describes his favourite pastime, fishing, in ways that bear usefully on his poetic technique and his attitude to the poetic craft. The second stanza begins:
I stand midstream on rock, its roots in water,
Using the air to fly my singing line,
The burning spindle drifting through the river,
The river alders burning in the sun;
United elements, the one forgiving world
In whose veined heart I stand in a blue morning
Beneath the flash of hummingbirds, the smoulder
Of fishing eagles. Water and sun, fire
And reflected fire, the hundred suns
The river’s mirror carries under the trees,
Buoyancy of the light birds, all’s here,
All, all is here. And my thin line holds now
The lure of the hummingbird, its spinning
Breast, and the hooked voice of the eagle.
The poet imagines himself midstream, though ‘midstream’ is a loaded word in this context. We spatialise Time, and as Heraceitus knew, nobody steps into the same river twice. Our metaphors for time are all reliant on space, and in poetry especially Time is measured both in the place’s changeability (its refusal to abide by our needs and experience) and its permanence (its indifference to our own passing). Norris , like his mentor Edward Thomas, knew this better than most, and shaped his poetry accordingly: poetry that is made from, but also against, the ravages of Time. Here he stands on a rock, still, while the water flows around him. He has the illusion of being out of time, though his poetry knows that one is always in time. Many of his poems are set on bridges, shores, on the edge of the land, watching the flow, finding the patterns in the water’s weave or the destruction in water’s wake. This particular rock, though insensate, is also rooted – another loaded word, since it touches on all those metaphorical connotations of roots (family, place, people) that recur in Norris’s work.
Norris is fond of evoking poetry through metaphors of intricate construction and craftedness. Here the poem is about fishing, but the singing line is of course poetry, and the line sings most clearly in the way Norris manages syntax over line ends, flowing but never overflowing. There is nothing forced in this poem: it remains a poem ‘about’ fishing, and fishing is never subordinated to the poetry it stands in for. At its best, Norris’s poetic line holds it all, the tension, the disruption, without ever breaking: ‘all’s here, / All, all is here’ he writes, the line threatening to run aground on its own fullness, registering a moment when the speaker is (or seems) lost for words, caught in his own wonder. The poem registers a moment of plenitude, a moment when everything fits: the river mirrors the sky, the water meets the sun, the fisherman’s responsiveness matches momentarily with the vision he is given of ‘united elements’.
‘Eagle and Hummingbird’ is a masterpiece of underplayed virtuosity, in which every word and every image works twice over. Even the title is full: in the eagle and hummingbird we have the small and the large, but also the hovering and the swooping, a sense of poetry that both holds static in the air and that swoops down lyrically onto its subject or its defining experience. There is the eagle’s flight, vertical and dramatic, and the humming bird’s ability to remain still while stretching every muscle and every bone into a frenzy of stasis.
Finally, there is the poem’s ‘I’. Who is this ‘I’? Norris? A poetic persona? The person one becomes as one writes, oneself other-than-oneself? We are certainly struck, as we read him, by how many poems are experienced through this speaking voice, the apparently standard first person singular of traditional lyric poetry. But it is remarkable how unsolipsistic and unself-regarding it is, and how, despite the spectrum of feelings the poems explore, we rarely feel the intrusion of an ego. Like many Norris poems, ‘Eagle and Hummingbird’ has all the trappings of the personal, even the anecdotal. But his speaking ‘I’ is never just writing about itself. It is more a conductor for experience than an ego celebrating its own sensitivity. We might almost say that Norris (again like Edward Thomas) uses the ‘I’ to hide behind rather than to assert himself. Norris’s ‘I’ does not look into the pool and see itself reflected back; it looks into the moving stream and sees Time itself embodied, movement ready to be given form in words.
Another exemplary poem, not just in how it reveals Norris’s skill but how, perhaps, we might view his poetic persona, is ‘Bridges’. It opens:
Imagine the bridge launched, its one foot
Clamped hard on bedrock, and such grace
In its growth it resembles flying, is flight
Almost. It is not chance when they speak of
Of throwing a bridge; it leaves behind a track
Of its parallel rise and fall, solid
In quarried stone, in timber, in milled
Alloy under duress. A bridge is
The path of flight.
This is Norris’s familiar shifting territory: the water, the bedrock, the bridge, the stone and the timber and the concern with making and shaping and, in this case, joining the two opposing banks of the river. Even the first stanza ‘throws’ its own bridge across the page space into the next: ‘A bridge is// The path of flight.’ And what is a rhyme in a poem but a sound thrown ahead of itself, hoping to be met, later on and further ahead, and by its reflection, ready to join with it and bridge the different lines of the poem?
‘Bridges’ has its comedy too, as the speaker recalls a failed bridge, built by a wartime friend, whose two halves fail to meet: ‘separate/ Beginnings of different bridges, offering/ The policies of inaction, neither coming/ Nor going’. In the last stanza the poet-speaker returns to his own small patch:
I have a bridge over a stream. Four
Wooden sleepers, simple, direct. After rain,
Very slippery. I rarely cross right over,
Preferring to stand, watching the grain
On running water. I like such bridges best,
River bridges on which men always stand,
In quiet places. Unless I could have that other,
A bridge launched, hovering, wondering where to land.
This is Norris at his characteristic best: clear, direct, colloquial but resonant; his imagery perfectly-judged, concrete and precise but full of unforced significance. He observes the ‘grain’ of the water, which, like wood, needs to be worked with and not against if anything is to be made of it. But Time too has its grain: it passes, whether fast or slowly, whether it trickles or bursts its banks, it is always movement away. Norris’s poetry knows that.
As for roots, we might also consider the irony that a poet with such a sense of place – Wales, England, America – should also be a poet who aspires to placelessness, who seeks out – for himself and for his art – the intermediary zones, the borders, the places of betweenness. That half-thrown bridge, a no-place from which all places can be observed, along with that moment out of time from which time’s relentless flow can be mometarily stilled in words – this is where Norris’s poetry is at once rooted and still suspended: ‘launched, hovering, wondering where to land.’