Article: David Herd

Emptying, Holding, Settling:
The Poetry of R.F. Langley

At the end of R.F. Langley’s poem ‘The Upshot’, the speaker, who we can think of as the poet, offers the following remark:

We leave unachieved in the
summer dusk. There are no
maps of moonlight. Things
stand further off. We find
peace in the room and don’t
ask what won’t be answered.
We don’t know what we see, so
there is more here. More. Here.

During the poem the speaker has observed spending time in a church in which he has contemplated, among other things, a series of poppy-head bench-ends, what he calls ‘the eight absurd captains’. The poem is a recollection of a visit therefore, but is more so – as Langley’s poetry is always more so – a record of the act, or rather process, of seeing that the stillness of the visit made possible. The lines quoted, the final stanza, are a further reflection on that process, and on the conclusions it is possible for a person to draw: ‘We leave unachieved’; ‘There are no/ maps of moonlight’; ‘We don’t know what we see, so/ there is more here’.

On the face of it, what the poem thus arrives at is a series of negative statements. What those statements constitute, however, are an affirmative position; a position that is critical to the way Langley’s poems proceed. One way to understand such a position is, as the critic Jeremy Noel-Tod suggested, through the Keatsian notion of ‘negative capability’. Another way, especially if we shift the language slightly, and if we think not in terms of a position but of a positioning, and better still, perhaps, in terms of a stance, is through the Olsonian idea of ‘projective verse’. As Olson puts it, in one of the strongest moments of that manifesto, and with regard to what he calls the ‘stance toward reality outside a poem’:

For a man is himself an object, whatever he may take to be his advantages, the more likely to recognise himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use.

It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets objects share.

As a sixth form teacher (at Shire Oak Grammar, Brownhills, Woverhampton Grammar, and finally Bishop Vesey’s Grammar, Sutton Coldfield) Langley introduced his English students to Olson and projective verse. This is a rather wonderful thing to contemplate in itself, in the age of the centralised curriculum: the advantage Langley gave his students by introducing them to such richly contemporary thought. To refer back to Olson here, however, is not in any narrow sense to suggest an influence. Of the forty-six poems Langley published – in Collected Poems (2000), The Face of It (2007) and latterly in PN Review and The London Review of Books – only one, ‘Matthew Glover’ could be said to recall Olson in its manner. What ‘Projective Verse’ affords here, rather, is a constellation of terms that speak to the disposition Langley arrives at in the final stanza of ‘The Uphsot’. To be ‘contained’, as Olson sees it, to demonstrate humilitas, is to be capable of ‘listening’, of ‘a hearing through himself [that] will give him secrets objects share’. It is hard to think of a writer more capable of such a listening than Langley, more committed to the containment such a listening requires. Which is why, through its negations, ‘The Upshot’ can arrive at an affirmation; not that objects, in Olson’s rather grandiloquent sense, share secrets exactly , just that, because the poem takes the stance it does, there is in fact, ‘More. Here.’

What both listening and seeing call for in Langley is a gesture he refers to as ‘emptying’. It is a term from the poems, but it crops up frequently also in the journals he kept from 1970 onwards, some of which he published in PN Review and a selection of which Shearsman published in 2006. The entry of 10 August 1982, for instance, records an exchange with a woman he had met while walking towards Diffwys, part of the Rhinogydd in southern Snowdonia:

That need for getting further up and seeing more, however worried the dog might be. I will get a good blowing up there, she tells me. Whatever is important, one senses, is up there. The lower regions seem like antechambers, full of distractions. Emptiness is, I now see this, the real goal. Above the vaults of eikasia. But today I turn back down to Gelli Rhudd.

On this occasion, in the mountains above Harlech, Langley turns back at the prospect of emptiness, making a retreat that he allows to seem allegorical and which indicates the difficulty of achieving such a state. The reference to the Platonic idea of ‘eikasia’ (being the realm of false human appearances), is intriguing since it seems to imply a transcendance that one does not readily associate with Langley. What it suggests here is that in some sense the real goal of ‘emptiness’ can be likened to an ascent. Maybe. Certainly in ‘The Upshot’ it is a state the poet struggles to arrive at. ‘I won’t leave it empty’, he says, in the fourth stanza, as he catches himself becoming distracted. Or again in the penultimate stanza:

Now, when I need it, I’m so close
to emptiness. But I know too much about
each of those eight fixed faces.

There is no short cut, in other words, to the mental state of emptiness, to the state of listening, or seeing, in which the world can be properly registered, and sometimes, as partially in this poem, the writing is a record of the difficulty of achieving that note. At other times, however, the note is more plainly arrived at, as in the last poem Langley published, ‘To a nightingale’:

one note, five times, louder each
time, followed, after a fraught
pause, by a soft cuckle of
wet pebbles, which I could call
a glottal rattle. I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.

The phrase ‘stopped at nothing’, must mean two things. It means, as Noel-Tod has said, that the poet has stopped at something that many another person would just have passed by. What it must mean also, because Langley’s phrases are placed so as to echo their various meanings, is that the poet has made every possible effort; that in becoming, or to become empty, he has ‘stopped at nothing’. The upshot, to return to the phrase, is a rendering of the nightingale as precise as language is likely to be capable of; a listening, as Olson suggested, equal to the object.

The idea of a poetic emptying can be too straightforwardly stated. In the silence that emptiness suggests, what it can seem to imply is that things – birds, spiders, church interiors – will simply make themselves heard. Imagined this way, what the goal of emptiness seems to propose is an elimination of language. When Emerson became transcendent on Boston Common, it was that kind of freedom from language he seemed to imagine. Langley’s poetry tells us otherwise. What it shows is that the kind of listening ‘To a nightingale’ entails is not a silencing of words, but a much more careful registration of what they say. This is what Peter Riley pointed to in his obituary of Langley when he said that in his poetry, ‘The dazzling techniques of modernism are brought to bear on quiet rural pursuits’. This can seem like a contradiction, that which dazzles being apparently at odds with that which is quiet. To shift the image, what it means in practice is that a Langley poem constructs itself as something like an echo chamber.

One hears this, or is invited to hear this, all the time. ‘The Upshot’, is a conclusion, the outcome of a consideration. What reverberates through the term also, however, is the instinct towards the transcendant which is one of the poem’s concerns. The upshot, then, is also a shot at that which is somehow higher, a state of understanding that a different kind of poet might make mysterious, but which for Langley comes of a careful listening to the language we ordinarily use: ‘upshot’.

Such ordinariness matters hugely in Langley. Frequently what the poems show are things in their – or an – ‘ordinary light’, where it is the ordinariness of the lighting that enables the object to be seen. The aspiration of the first poem of Collected Poems, ‘Mariana’, is precisely this: ‘the pure relief/ of ordinary light’. As in Roy Fisher, however, and as Riley suggests, the point of Langley’s writing is that all the resources of the poem are brought to bear on the achievement of such ordinariness, on the hearing and the sounding of ordinary words such that the fullness of their meaning comes through. To get to the ‘More. Here.’ then, to the point of real appreciation that ‘The Uphsot’ makes possible, Langley constructs a final stanza whose whole apparatus – internal rhyming, pacing, line breaks – are as peparation for the resonance the close of the poem brings through. Which goes to the question of achievement, and what it can mean for that poem to say, ‘We leave unachieved’. Which goes back in turn, perhaps, to the question of emptiness. The purpose of a Langley poem is not the achievement of the poet, but the achieving of a language by which intensified perception becomes possible.

Just how that occurs, and just what relation there is between ‘the dazzling techniques of modernism’ and the quiet pursuits that Langley attends to, differs considerably from poem to poem. Thus whereas his friend, and contemporary at Cambridge, J.H. Prynne has consciously developed the sequence as a mode of poetic exploration, what one has with the collected works of R.F. Langley is a series of discrete works. Poem by poem, this is to say, what Langley presents are quite singular linguistic worlds in which quite different ways emerge of answering the poet’s abiding questions. ‘Mariana’, then, recalls the variations of Stevens in its way of handling the relation between the ‘dazzling’ and the ‘quiet’, such that the techniques of perception and that which the poem is looking to perceive become quite separate objects of contemplation.

A later piece in Collected Poems, ‘The Gorgoneion’, is an entirely different kind of expression. A gorgoneion was a pendant that showed the gorgon’s head, the purpose of which was to create horror. Langley’s poem addresses the more ordinary, but perhaps not less extreme horror of waking, panic-stricken, in the middle of the night, of

the menace of the small
hours and of coming to light
and of each sharper complication.

It is not made clear by the poem what has produced the anxiety it records. Perhaps (though this isn’t possible to affirm), the poem doesn’t exactly know. What it does know, because it reflects so carefully on the state, is what that anxiety feels like:

… A sorry moth. Sheet
web on copper pipes. I catch my whisper
that I won’t be coming back. This still
increasing presence is for the last time.
Then the beginning of an immense grip.

It is the interlocking echo of ‘increasing presence’ in ‘immense grip’ that makes Langley’s rendering of this anxiety so recognisable. The poem is a making sense, where, as with the objects in the church, and the call of the Nightingale, the object of the writing is a coming to terms. The poem sounds anxious, or rather, it sounds anxiety, and what is required, as elsewhere, for that sounding is an acute sense of the resourcefulness of words.

What the speaker of ‘The Gorgoneion’ hopes for is a kind of holding. In the waking terror of the experience itself what that means is human contact, and so the poem ends mercifully when

… a hand is laid down and
another turns itself upward to be clasped.

There is a larger holding, however, that is the work of words themselves: the holding together of all kinds of perception. In a journal entry dated just ‘August 1982’, in which Langley this time recalls an afternoon on the beach at Harlech, he concludes his remarks by considering the various elements of the situation he has recalled:

Imagine the beach empty. The castle manned. The reduplicated houses gone. The empty shell of an urchin. Little, wafery skulls, which thought would darken and melt. Empty sockets, tilted to every corner of the sky. A sore neck touched by a ruggy shirt collar. Sticky hair. The breaks in sentences longer, this year. The eyes glazed in mid remark. The names vanish, and there is a yawn in the voice. What can string all this together?

The answer to the question, as the passage has just established, is language. Langley’s poems are forms of holding; ways of looking in which objects, in all their ordinariness, might be properly regarded: held up.

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