Bloodaxe Books comes in for heavy criticism at times for
the sheer amount of titles it continues to unleash upon the poetry market (if
such a thing exists), but here is a truly impressive gathering of the work of
Roy Fisher. At well over 350 pages for £12.00 it represents considerable
value when placed alongside slim volumes emanating from Bloomsbury, too.
In terms of content, it includes material which would be very difficult to
trace: Fisher's four Fulcrum Press volumes from the late 1960s / early 1970s,
'City', which is now over forty years old (first appearance: Migrant Press,
1961), the two much later OUP collections, A Furnace (1986) and Birmingham River (1994) and much else besides. In other words, an
excellent, chunky introduction to the whole range of Fisher's work
which supersedes earlier 'Collected' volumes, now themselves out of print.
This volume contains all you need to begin to investigate Fisher's work. He
can't be easily 'placed' or conveniently grouped on the map of English poetry
: contemporary with Larkin and Hughes, he sought out another poetic route
through figures such as Olson, Creeley, Basil Bunting, Edwin Morgan and Gael
Turnbull. I had originally planned to describe these poets as 'marginal', but
that can't be right : marginal to what? Well, the central
Larkin/Hughes/Motion dynastic thrust of late 20th-Century poetry, I suppose,
but even thinking in such terms seems wrong-headed and any reader of Peter
Redgrove, Thom Gunn or Geoffrey Hill knows that any centralised idea of a
canon in this sense needs challenging. Anyway, I linger over this because
placed alongside late Hughes or some of the 'Children of Albion', Fisher's
serious intent and achievement begins to assume considerable substance, and
yet the demise of the Oxford Poetry list at one point almost conspired to make him invisible again.
Naturally,a poet as playfully serious as Fisher has thought about this :
...as for my
I suppose it
inclines more to the
side of Ted Hughes's looks...
As for his poetry, there is no one-sentence summary capable of covering his
entire output. There is the Fisher exploring layers of urban topography,
usually in Birmingham:
Wars that have come down the streets from the unknown city and the
world, like rainwater floods in the gutters. There are small shops at
with blank rows of houses between them; and taverns carved only
the massive walls. When these people go into the town, the buses they
stop just before they reach it, in the sombre back streets behind the
and the great insurance offices.'
There is Fisher the lifelong jazz buff and musician - the
Larkin side of him, if you like - here describing the pianist Joe Sullivan:
sound against idea
hard as it
slams at the
beat, or hovers,
along its spikes;
(from 'The Thing about Joe Sullivan')
- this continues for some time, relevant to Fisher's own technique, too.
There is also a more experimental, absurdist side to Fisher: he has said he
writes in blocks of ideas, systems, shapes, incrementally acquiring a ballast
of information in his poetry. If this sounds too seriously experimental, let
me also say that he can be quite an accessible, witty writer. He has
described himself as a 'sub-modernist',
whilst being as wary of the whole Modernist project as he is of any other
The sequences in this gathering of texts are not tethered chronologically, as
a conventional 'Collected Poems' would have them. Instead, several are grouped
together because of shared subject matter: Section V, for instance, contains
poems dedicated to, or about other writers. Other important sequences such as
1991's 'Texts for a Film' and 'A Furnace, from the mid-1980s, are scattered
about. This serves to underline how consistent Fisher's interests have been,
but it also prevents the inattentive reader making any quick assumptions
about poetic development. In interview,
Fisher himself tends to downplay this, presenting himself as someone bumbling
along, lacking discipline or drive, but this seems suspect, to say the
least. Nevertheless, the
industrial landscapes of the Midlands loom large: 'Birmingham's what I think
with' as he says at the beginning of 'Texts for a Film', and the usefulness
of the place, as a tool for prising open layers of archaeology and development becomes clear in
'Birmingham River', the second part of the sequence :
out of town in the policed calm
under the long legs of the M6.
These living waters
watered the fields, gave
low-powered mills, shoved
Works into motion...
There is a powerful sense of anti-pastoral shot through these poems, and at
times, this betrays his roots in the 1950s, the 'Movement' poets and other
Interviews with Fisher often suggest a quiet sense of under-achievement and
self-deprecation and there are times when he sounds somewhat Larkinesque: 'On
the Open Side' with its train-framed view, for instance, the quiet precision
of 'Continuity' or the narrative tone of 'If I Didn't'. His openness to
analysing perception or experimenting with phrasing sequences, however,
usually work to balance this out, not to mention the relatively avant-garde
sequences 'The Cut Pages' and 'The Ship's Orchestra'. Nevertheless, an early
poem like 'The Hospital in Winter' (1959) can seem alarmingly similar to
Larkin's 'High Windows' or the quietist defeat of 'Ambulances', underlining
how some of Fisher's work is remarkably accessible and accommodating:
beyond the engine-sheds,
ponderous, their rotting reds
towards night; from windows
horizon flare as the light goes.
whispers across the town,
high panes are bleak;
pink of coral
sinks to brown;
a dark bell
brings the dark down.'
The links here to be investigated are probably further from the Midlands -
Olson and Williams' Paterson - but
others (August Kleinzahler, for instance) insist upon a more impressionistic
realism, perhaps seeing the construct of Fisher's Birmingham as nothing more
convenient than an ur-city,
serving his purposes even as it is named, district by district, in his lines.
What are these lines, then? In 'Linear', an early poem, Fisher describes
travelling 'always through eroded / country, amused by others and other
worlds // a line like certain snail tracks / crazily long and determined' -
here are the tracks for lucky readers to trace, explore and enjoy. After all,
as Fisher admits somewhere, there are more miles of canal in Birmingham than
© M. C.
1. I would, however, recommend News for the Ear (Stride, 2000), Peter Robinson and Robert
Sheppard's homage/ celebration of Fisher, which includes his valuable jazz
prose-memoir 'License my roving Hands'.
2. News for the Ear, p. 119.
3.See, for example, John Tranter's instructive Fisher interview at http://jacketmagazine.com/01 for an
excellent, lengthy discussion.