Reel by George Szirtes Winner of the 2004 T S Eliot Award
By Michael Murray
Having been born into an age of pipes
We knew integrity by its sour smell.
Our parent’s friends were intellectual types
(from The Pipes)
The tone is anecdotal, Audenesque, and immediately accessible to the ‘general reader’, in that no great sensory nor intelligence-shifts are required to understand the narrative of the piece. Literary tropes, particularly metaphor are currently out of favour; the shifting qualities of images seem especially out of favour: readers seem to need to know where they are and what is what.
Also note, the Capitalised lines; very much a traditional style long since abandoned, as though the capitalised line were to depict some authoritarian stance of the writing. Indeed, I have seen this reason used. It is as though one aspect of a poem’s presentation could override all else; it may be that an authoritative stance is being parodied, or questioned, or investigated by the context of the poem. No part of a poem stands alone; no part can be taken as the determinant of the whole; no poem employs a single rhetorical technique.
And the rhyme scheme is Dante’s terza rima, a narrative form Szirtes has made all his own.
Reel is a book of two (really three) parts, the first, Flesh, is autobiographical and deals with family backgrounds, growing up in other counties, and the reverberations of the author’s first country (Hungary). All is exceptionally well handled and utilises a variety of traditional forms; as the T S Eliot Prize judges said, the book exhibits an ‘unusual degree of formal pressure exerted … on … themes of memory and the impossibility of forgetting’.
The second part, The Dream Hotel, is much my favourite, especially his poems based around painters and colours: Pompeian Red, The Gods of Tiepolo, Naples Yellow etc. I read these as a kind of attempt at the sublime using earthy, grounded instruments.
Pompeian Red won me from its opening cadences:
These are the mysteries and this is the house
Of the mysteries. This is the red earth below
And this is the flower we no longer know
That the woman holds. The dancers carouse…….
And anyone who has seen the House of Mysteries at Pompeii can attest to this, that this indeed is so. There is a formal elegance to the language, and how it shows/does not show the scaffolding of rhyme and metre, that is wholly fitting to the subject matter. The Shakespearean sonnet form seems to form effortlessly at his finger-tips.
Reel: where does the title come from, and how does it apply? It connects up with the Flesh part of the book in a filmic sense. What we have here are episodes, vignettes of people, almost jump-cuts of a life. The filmic sense also ties-in with Clarissa Upchurch’s very filmic and lit paintings, of which one is the cover of the book.
There is also perhaps the sense of Reel as a reel holding the twine of one’s fate; the autobiographical element featuring strongly.
Where Flesh relates to family ties and contexts, The Dream Hotel is very much the metaphysical part of the person: the hopes, dreams, and responses to the world, inimically coloured by self.
And yet George Szirtes is the least autobiographical of poets. I have mentioned Auden as a reference point, who else does he look to and learn from? Peter Porter is usually mentioned, and Joseph Brodsky, James Fenton. All these poets take on the world and their responses to it, in their writing; they deal in complexities. For Brodsky the lyric was always more elegy than singular in its response: he saw the world through multi-faceted lenses.
For these writers the personal is a facility for exploring the impersonal.
Peter Porter’s metrics, he has commented, are based on: “… no longer the foot, but the cadence…”; his aim, “…to get the best of the old (regular patterns of) authority… along with the best of the new freedom of expression.” . Cadences again, and authority.
So how can one write the complexity in an accessible manner? This is where strict forms help. As Seamus Heaney said: writing to a rhyme scheme helps one think. The act of writing also helps one discover what is in, and on, one’s mind.
Words discovering themselves, their relationships; very much the Peter Porter effect.
The opening section of the book before Flesh, consists of four poems: Reel, Meeting Austerlitz, Noir and Sheringham. The significant image for these poems is that of collage; the poems are painterly collages of contemporary experience. This is also a filmic technique, used expressively where narrative has broken.
Szirtes‘ use of terza rima helps him explore identity, its relationship to memory and experience. In ‘Austerlitz’ he is seeking parallels to compare and contrast his own, and by extension european, identity.
In each their own way these poems become the setting for a sort-of subProustian recall, that reminds one in its intent of Heaney’s ‘Station Island’, which itself is a take on Yeats, and Yeats on the classics.
Everything is always a part of something else; our contemporary feelings of emptiness no more than a momentary loss of balance.
George Szirtes home page.
Poems and recordings at the Poetry Archive.