Friday, November 4, 2016

Elizabeth Smither on Brian Turner

The 100th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1995 issue: the cover featured a portrait of poet Jenny Bornholdt by Annelies van der Poel. From the first issue we had a monthly column by Bill Manhire called “The Poetry File”, in which he would discuss a particular poem: 24 of these columns were reprinted in his 2000 non-fiction collection Doubtful Sounds. For some reason Bill couldn’t do a column for this issue, but Elizabeth Smither stepped in with this radio talk about “The Pebble Population” from Brian Turner’s first collection, Ladders of Rain, which was published in 1978 and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

“The Pebble Population” by Brian Turner
The Auckland poet CK Stead has said that the poet needs to work on himself, not the poem, and I take this to mean that to write good poetry a poet needs to attend to his own character which will then affect the poem in a way that mere considerations of technique cannot. And sometimes, and perhaps this is a continuation of this idea, unspoken qualities of restraint, scrupulous observation, scepticism — the things that are said behind and between the lines — can be as effective as the words themselves.

This has always seemed to me a characteristic of the poetry of Brian Turner. It is a poetry of restraint but humour, open-mindedness and rigour, pessimism (sometimes) and warmth. It is certainly poetry that never fools itself; the opposite of high-flown; though not without passion, it seems to scorn vagueness.

Brian Turner often chooses subjects that resemble his own poetic character and in “The Pebble Population” there seems a perfect blending of poet and subject. It’s also a perfect example of his manner of working. Listen to it as a very gentle but soundly-researched theory. Each word as it appears on the page keeps its distance from the neighbouring word, each pebble is separate.

It begins conversationally and casually. There have always been pebbles. Presumably they have had a long history. And if you’ve had a long history, pebble or human, it probably means you’ve been peaceable. Think of those empires that collapsed by not being like pebbles. If there were wars and sacrifice for pebbles, and music and revelry, they would surely have different attitudes to it. Attitudes of not burning themselves out. A bit like Mother Courage.

Pebbles don’t move about much, a bit like inhabitants of a sleepy English village who think travelling 20 miles is too far. They have a philosophy. They must mate because there are so many of them, but it’s outside our ken. The passion of it isn’t. They suffer like us.

You can see the poem running through all these thoughts and conclusions and discarding them one at a time. Man simply cannot be a pebble. Then at the end there is a surprise, an O Henry twist, and pebbles and man fall off the universe together, almost hand in hand. This is roughly what the poem is about.

Notice how the humans in the poem appear as inferior: “we saccharine humans” or “meeker than a brow-beaten son-in-law”. Or if we share pebble characteristics, ours are of a more diluted kind: we are meek in this brow-beaten way whereas the pebbles’ meekness has the virtue of stoicism.

As the poem progresses, the pebbles become heroic. This happens after the word “philosophy”, as though something has hardened in the pebbles themselves. Suddenly you almost see a Buddhist temple with bare bending heads. And when the pebbles “grate together” there is a sense of the strangeness of Eastern music.

But if this flavour is there, Brian Turner always writes from the viewpoint of Western man. You feel he wishes he didn’t have this Western romanticism which is always threatening to break out and which needs to be kept in control if we are to have any proper or useful understanding of nature. How do pebbles love compared to us? Do they have a better chance of success? It seems they may, for they take “one hell of a long time to get to know one another”. You may notice here how the colloquial follows a summit of emotion. In a lesser poet it might be a purple patch followed by a piece of gruffness. Sometimes when a poem has cut loose in one place it is necessary to bring it back to ground again. This is a feature of English itself; emotion followed by withdrawal, a re-defining, and then it can begin all over again. After this rather gruff stanza:

You can’t hurry
                        a pebble.
take one hell
            of a long time
to get to know
            one another

the lyric bursts out again just like the “unpredictable madness of river travel” mentioned earlier in the poem, one of two methods of pebble travel.

As the poem goes towards its end, the pebbles have become more than pebbles. They have added human qualities, they have the faces we would have — “stubborn expressionless faces” — if we were pebbles. At this point the poet seems to have given in, after some resistance, the attempt to keep his distance. He thinks how awful it is for them to be rained on:

The irony of it,
                        all this grief
pouring down on them.

It reminds me of the Edith Sitwell poem “Still Falls The Rain”: “Still falls the rain/ With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer beat.” How still and stoical they are in this “mushrooming century’? — surely a reference not just to the mushroom clouds of atomic fallout but also to the mushroom speed of this century’s implacable change and stress.

If this is the case, what can we learn from pebbles? The instability of the century we live in separates poet and pebble at the end and a detachment returns. What could we have in common? And here’s the answer: we can all crack. For all their stillness, silence, inwardness, pebbles can be cracked and shatter as easily as heads or hearts. Just the blow of another stone will do it. So they are like us. So the poem that starts on an observation ends on a similarity, which is sympathy.

Listen to the careful choice of words, the way a stone would choose them if it spoke, but most of all to the mood — elation, identification working against the desire for detachment, so by the time the poem ends there has been a small revolution and something gained. .

The Pebble Population
You would agree,
                        wouldn’t you?
that from
            the beginning of time
there have always
                        been pebbles.

To be a pebble,
is to have
            a long,
            peacable history —
a mother
            could safely
                        and proudly
send one off to war —
to state
            the obvious,
                        is more
than we saccharine
can claim
            for our goodselves.
A pebble’s music
                        is not
plink plink
                        plunk plonk.
            don’t move
too far
            from home
                        of their own accord,
                        the unpredictable
            of river travel
                        or the slow
            of glaciers.
            seem bland
                        and stolid
and meeker
            than a brow-beaten
            then they’ve good reason,
don’t you think?

                        The pebble philosophy
   might as well keep your mouth shut
   you’re going to get hurt anyway —

the classic
            ‘grin-and-bear-it’ syndrome.

            pebbles sometimes shift,
move in the wind,
            roll over,
                        grate together.
Theirs is a painfully shy
                        brand of lovemaking,
almost an unseen cringing.
                                    if this
is love
            it must be the most
passive copulation
                        of all.

You can’t hurry
            a pebble.
take one hell
            of a long time
to get to know
            one another.

When the heavens cry
                        tears stream down
their stubborn,
                        expressionless faces.
The irony of it,
                        all this grief
pouring down on them.
how can you be unfair
                                    to a pebble?
            in their own terrible embrace
theirs is the pity
            of silence,
the pitiless cry
            out of the heart
of this mushrooming

            won’t talk, can’t talk:
they just stare
            and stare,
but I shall go on
                        watching them
in case
                        or something
prises open
            their mouths,
their muteness.
are really like humans,
                                    one crack 

and they’re gone.

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