pressed to visit it anyway), but it might be thought an advantage to grow up on the fringes of Wordsworth country, where there was already an acceptance that poets can matter – something rare on this side of the Irish Sea.
Nicholson tells the story of his childhood in his memoir, Wednesday Early Closing (recently reissued as a Faber Find), and what emerges is a voice whose innocence is perhaps the key to its endangered status. Interestingly, he first acquired a taste for poetry through his skill in recitation, and he made his name locally as a reliably entertaining performer before his father decided that he must ‘cut out’ such frivolities in favour of school work. But then tuberculosis struck (his stepmother’s indifference to vegetables and snobbish resistance to anything home-made cannot have helped) and for a good many months young Nicholson could only whisper, and was confined to bed. He was never going to be striding the heights with Wordsworth; but by the time the Second World War had broken out, he had found a voice that the master might have recognised. And his debilitating condition would eventually prove one of his richest subjects (the title poem of The Pot Geranium for example, and later ‘The Whisperer’).
Nicholson claimed that his first true poem – and here’s another link with Heaney – was about blackberries. It was included in his first collection, Five Rivers (1944), which is more characteristic of the period than of the author and reads as though it was designed to please Mr Eliot. There is an overtly religious note and more than a whiff of fashionable (if, considering the date, understandable) apocalypse, although the collection already shows the emerging loyalty to his home territory and his gift for industrial elegy. This continues in Rock Face (1948), where there is an increasingly literary dimension, too – poems on Cowper, Gray, Emily Brontë – and deeper experiment with allegory, notably in the gripping, if rather Eliotic, Duddon sequence, ‘Across the Estuary’:
It is not the eyes of the past That stare through the mist, But the eyes that belong to now.
It is not the faces of a dream That bulge through the gloom, But the faces of the waking sight.
It is not the voices of the dead That leave the word unsaid, But the voices of those who live.
What has not yet become audible is the Nicholson free verse line, the conversational tone, the witty deployment of what he calls ‘the remark’, which make his later volumes so delightfully idiosyncratic. Nicholson is essentially a happy, goodhumoured poet, never more at ease than when picking some surprising memory of Millom life or folklore and elaborating on it. By the time he published The Pot Geranium in 1954, he had found a way of sounding like himself.
Nicholson prefaced his last and best collection with lines from Auden: ‘A poet’s hope: to be, / like some valley cheese, / local, but prized elsewhere’. The distinctive flavour of his mature voice came not just from the associations with West Cumbria – its stories, its characters, its imagery – but from his readiness to listen to what he heard there. In Sea to the West (1981) there is a bleaker scratching of pebble, glacier, scree, but in the 1950s he was beginning to tune in to something more comfortable, which he had been hearing all his life – the conversation around him:
‘They dug ten streets from that there hole,’ he said,
‘Hard on five hundred houses.’ He nodded
Down the set of the quarry and spat in the water
Making a moorhen cock her head As if a fish had leaped. ‘Half the new town
Came out of yonder…’
(from ‘Millom Old Quarry’)
Such poems, opening with a casual ‘remark’, begin to be a recognisable feature of the Nicholson landscape, and it could be argued that they inclined to the formulaic in his last decades, so predictably do they end as they began. A local man who remarks ‘I’m having five minutes’ is a sonnet’s length later ‘Having five minutes to the end of time’, and one who says ‘It’s late so soon’ in the first line of ‘Haytiming’ is by the end repeating: ‘That’s the trouble with summer – / It’s late so soon.’ This is a trick learnt from Edward Thomas, of course, who in turn stole some moves from Wordsworth – the most important of which was to stop and listen to the beggar or leech-gatherer in the first place. And it is indicative of Nicholson’s interest in cycles, too: how even things that seem to have escaped inevitably return. Particularly poignant is the last poem in his last book, which describes Halley’s Comet, anticipating its arrival (‘My father saw it back in
1910’) as if it were one of the travelling salesmen who regularly called at 14, St George’s Terrace:
And what of me, Born four years too late? Will I have breath to wait Till the long-circuiting commercial
Turns up at his due? In 1986 aged seventy-two…?
In fact, the poet certainly had a chance to see the comet. He died in 1987, aged seventy-three, and is buried in Millom a few yards from the house where he was born and to which his orbit kept returning him.
Whether a voice like Norman Nicholson’s can be properly appreciated today or has anything much to say to twenty-first-century readers is difficult to judge. The times that have changed seem to have left him stranded rather like the jellyfish that litter the shores of his beloved Duddon estuary. That his Collected Poems is now only available as a Faber Find (a digital print-on-demand service, or in Faber’s words ‘an imprint whose aim is to restore to print a wealth of lost classics’) adds to this impression. Those same anecdotal pieces that felt refreshingly plainspoken in the sixties and seventies sound increasingly quaint, although ‘Rising Five’, for example, still appeals to all ages, and none of Nicholson’s poems is less than entertaining. He never lost the old musichall skills that he had perfected in the Methodist School Room in 1924. (‘I did not want to be a solitary poet… I wanted an audience,’ he wrote in his memoir. ‘I wanted to make people listen.’) In ‘Nicholson, Suddenly’, he recounts (with just the right degree of dead-pan and wryly rhymed amusement) how he came across the obituary of his ‘other’:
So Norman Nicholson is dead! I saw him just three weeks ago Standing outside a chemist’s shop, His smile alight, his cheeks aglow. I’d never seen him looking finer: ‘I can’t complain at all,’ he said, ‘But for a touch of the old angina.’
Is this, then, the true Norman Nicholson? It has to be said that his main street and ironworks and estuary never quite achieve the mythological resonance of Heaney’s well and pump and bog. Yet Nicholson in full, jaunty flow in a poem such as ‘Weeds’ is likely to prove perennial. And our partic-
PN Review 202 ular age may well return to ‘On the Closing of Millom Ironworks’ (‘whichever way it blows it’s a cold wind now’) or ‘Windscale’, which contemplates the after-effects of a nuclear leak, ‘Where sewers flow with milk, and meat / Is carved up for the fire to eat / And children suffocate in God’s fresh air’. Or it could be Norman Nicholson’s late studies of beck and wall and dune and shingle and mountain, those striking shortlined pieces at the beginning of Sea to the West, that – by looking above and beyond Millom – keep their freshness for a new generation.
FRANK KUPPNER Random Souvenirs of a Fleeting Return to the Continent
Very often, the mere fact that the author later died is itself already a sufficient comment on the absurdity of the eternalist pretensions inherent in his work.
There is something ‘absolutely ultimate’ which is going to be the right answer to one of our particularly inspired questions, is there, Dear Master?
The main problem surely is that practically everything, including thought – (including thought about transience!) – seems to be being produced on the assumption that these wonderful people here and hereabouts aren’t really all going to die and go away completely.
(For which of us, tell me, has never really lived at the single most vital, most important moment of History? You, perhaps? Me?)
Or perhaps everything is fully intelligible only at ten past four in the morning?
In your ignorance, cretin, you thought the true number was a mere zero – whereas in fact it was an endless string of zeroes!
(‘But if I had known my life was going to be like this, Doctor, I’d have to have been somebody else already!’)
I would be somebody else, but for the fact that, most unexpectedly, I turn out to be me. (And with this delightful sense of failure too!)
Oh, we would all like to be someone else, I dare say. But who?
No-one ever goes beyond himself. It is always still you, whatever it is.
A thing in itself? What thing? Do you mean that thing there? If not, what?
[The very notion of the thing-in-itself is a conceptual/linguistic trick of the light.]
How the Universe actually is, even now, is how the Universe is in itself.
As if, for instance, it could even be conceivable to know an apple as it is in itself. What apple?
Might it perhaps (really, as it were – somehow, deep down) be something else? Something else entirely? So – not an apple? What the human concept of X really is in itself! When no longer a human concept, apparently.
(To experience it as it would be if there were no experiencer there to experience it! And what could it possibly be like then?)
‘What is ultimate reality?’ Well, for that matter, what isn’t ultimate reality? As far as I can make out – which I suppose need not be very far, I admit – there is nothing but ultimate reality.
The sense that something unutterably great is happening, my father always used to say, is nearly always an illusion.
(Oh, yes. That familiar, haunting pop-song from my youth. My Old Man’s A Continental Philosopher. Already something of a contradiction in terms, is it not?)
Supernatural. Superficial. It all comes to much the same thing very soon indeed.
(The sense that something unutterably unimportant is happening is probably always an illusion too.)
Still, Dad. No doubt the Cosmos is something of a special case.
But, I suppose, in the end – (if that is quite the phrase) – your parents are merely the particular people who happened to produce you. (Yes; you. (Try to be good, by the way.))
So. I’m alive. Thou art alive too. How very surprising (all things considered). (Forgive me both my anachronisms. (Isn’t the entire sentient Universe – (at least!) – rather an anachronism, by the way, Your Honour?)
As for ‘going beyond oneself’ – well – perhaps it’s the sort of thing one can build up to gradually. First of all, say, bravely stretching a toe out beyond one’s initial limits – and then, as it were, taking heart, and extending the foot even further. (Then maybe the other foot? And there, eventually, you are!)
‘To become itself.’ Such a reverberant turn of phrase! (Of course, at times one again rather fears that the entire Universe has somehow failed to become itself.) (My over-arching plan is – to become myself! Not a grossly hubristic project, one might at least suppose.)
Nothing is not the meaning of the Universe.
Nothing transcends the world.
(Or: There is nothing that transcends the world.)
Absolutely none of us can ever in any way get any deeper into it than the acutest actual human thinkers can manage, flaws and all. (Higher Exam Question: ‘What does “It” in the previous sentence refer to, children?’)
Nothing is not the meaning of the Universe.
(This means something quite different now of course.)
Careful, my child! Try to keep authentically close to Being as such! There’s a good boy! (Er – good girl, sorry.)
Are we not nearly all, Sisyphus, more or less working non-stop doing our best to make sure we receive our invitation to a sublime unending final party which is in fact never even going to be given?
(But surely non-Being must itself also be the great non-problem?)
Hello there. I wish to penetrate deep into the nature of Being. (But first things first! Is there by any chance – erm – a, you know – a free toilet anywhere in this bloody place?)
It seems to me, Joseph, that just about anything could just about end at just about any point. No?
Frank Kuppner: Random Souvenirs of a Fleeting Return to the Continent