There is a Gerard Manley Hopkins quote that has been much overused and misunderstood, in which he claims that the poetic language of any age should be the “current language heightened, to any degree heightened and unlike itself…but not obsolete.” The closing statement is vital. Hopkins’ intention was to avoid the use of a bygone language for the sake of effect. He argued, instead, for the common tongue of the poet’s era intensified, deepened, startled into a more awake, more expressive version of itself. It’s been rather unfashionable for some time now to follow Hopkins’ advice. The so-called “mainstream” in the chief English-speaking countries has favoured a current language that can broadly be recognised as poetic but which is careful to avoid any intensifying that would, purposefully or otherwise, exclude too many readers. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, given the necessity of investment in the audiences that bring poetry to life. None the less, one consequence can be the fossilisation of poetic language in quite a different way than Emerson meant when he spoke of “poetic fossils”. Rather, poetry can start to sound too much of its age and, more frustratingly, can become predictable in its means of energising and exciting language. It is this, far more than obscurity, that ultimately lies at the heart of the many arguments made both for and against “difficult” poetry.
The British poet, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, has recently published his first full collection, “Terror”, with Faber. As far as can be measured at this stage, the poems have not yet gained the audience they deserve in his homeland. There can be no doubt that this is largely because, on first glance, they are demanding, both mystical and mystifying. They are the kinds of poems a reader cannot grasp on a first run-through. They are not wilfully avant-garde but nor are they straight-forwardly gratifying. They will not do for the “Saturday Poem” in the newspaper, which one might read over a morning coffee and a croissant. They ask the mind to still, the brain to launch its search-party for meaning. They might embarrass some readers in their effortless shift between archaisms, almost painfully earnest religious engagement, modern turns of phrase, and even a good deal of fun. None the less, along with a small group of contemporaries, Francis Leviston and Meirion Jordan, to name two, they are some of the most exciting poems to emerge from Britain in recent years.
The three poems published here for the first time, loosely forming a trio of untitled pieces, are representative of all Martinez de las Rivas has to offer. Beginning with the first of the three, we have much that is formally beautiful: “the gorgeous first-light-of-winter dawn”. There are moments of immediacy and playfulness: “I was sitting in the back of the car. / O, my dizziness! I was sick / All over the Scirocco’s faux velvet.” Scirocco, by the way, despite its fancy pretensions, is a rather ordinary-looking modern Volkswagon coupe. There are intimate moments, “My father shouting in sheer delight!” There are also many demands. The twentieth century Basque philosopher and writer, Manuel de Unamuno, appears in the midst of the poem. It’s doubtful that many of us will be familiar with his oeuvre. Nevertheless, through seeking Manuel de Unamuno, we can make sudden sense of the following line “each man holds within himself a Lucerna of the mind”, if we know that it refers to Valverde de Lucerna, a mythical village in de Unamuno’s short story, ‘Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr’. According to Martinez de las Rivas, the story turns on a priest who, on beginning to lose his belief in the central tenets of his faith, continues to uphold the tenets among his parishioners in the hope, erroneous or not, that it is better to avoid the resultant crisis of truth. Manuel Bueno’s denial and conservatism is mirrored in the anxiety of the poet, whose own battle with the psychological threat of death beautifully concentrates in the image of his “garden sculptured to ruin”. It is also of note that de Unamuno came to a perspective, later in his life, that international influence was not always to be encouraged culturally, and that he believed that Spanish culture (and presumably that of other nations) contained world enough within itself to gift any literate individual with a sufficiently universal take on the world. What are we to make of the universal and the parochial values that define us? Are these values to be preserved at all cost or, if left unquestioned and unchanged, do they slowly harden into falsehoods? The skilful placement of the historical figure of de Unamuno makes these questions the chief challenge of the poem.
In the second poem, Martinez de las Rivas furthers his portrait of an individual life made of both international, inter-historical elements and fleeting and personal ones. It is a poem about a ritual formality, the ordinary and everyday moment of a friend’s marriage, made utterly strange by de las Rivas’s vision. There are intimate references to two of his friends who’ve recently married, Arin and Simon. We gain a sense of place through the poet’s observations of landscape: “aconites burn the hedge”. When he gives us our bearings and situates us somewhere geographically, he uses an Americanism, the voice of his generation, who’ve grown up throwing out expressions like this without awkwardness: “The sky over Berwick / is awesome.” Perhaps more than the other poems in this set, the moments of archaic diction risk sounding forced. A veil, for instance, “covers no inch of nervous / Radiance”, a construction that strays a touch too far from modern diction. But this is his voice to the core. He snaps shut a welding mask and takes his blow-torch to the language at hand, his current language and experience, in an effort to get as much out of it as possible. Some will find it over-wrought but this is largely because we have become so unused to the kind of emotional engagement with idea and experience that Martinez de las Rivas demands of us.
Finally, his method comes together in a love poem set in Slovenia that ends the loose trilogy. Again, there are memorable, exquisite moments: “The day rises & a kestrel is calling / into its vague, unsettling stillness.” There are thorny references that push us off to the encyclopaedia (or, more truthfully, Wikipedia), in an effort to elucidate further. Some of us may have heard of the Roman emperor Vespasian, but few will have at their fingertips the knowledge that he expanded Roman territory into Britain and acted mercilessly against Jewish peoples. Even fewer will know of the history of the Slovenian island of Gottschee, referenced next, a cultural isolate, with its own singular version of German called Gottscheerisch, which came to an end in the first years of the Second World War, when Germany invaded Yugoslavia and resettled the entire population, whose ancestors had inhabited the region for 650 years. Each of these references light on a part of Slovenia’s history, the embrace of a pair of lovers rising above a complex, troubled past of which they are a poignantly insignificant part. In a wonderful few lines, Martinez de las Rivas asks of us, “How is history consummated in us…/how are all things it flows through held to account, remembered, / set down in their final moment?” These are neither trivial questions, nor are they easy to answer or dismiss. The next reference is to the poet Ted Berrigan and his sonnets, which contorted the Shakespearean form and allowed modern experience and idiom to infiltrate. It is a clue as to how we are to take Martinez de las Rivas’s poems (presumably, these, too, are reimagined sonnets?), as well as a significant segue from history into poetic expression. By using form and influence, he conjures Berrigan but there is more to it than this. “I see now that what we shared was a form…” he begins, which we can take to mean the sonnet but which goes onto to refer to something more. They share a form of agapé, we are told, the ancient Greek idea of love. “…that when I reached across / the darkness that divided us it was agapé,” the definition of which we are told can be sexual yearning but also “deep care”. This reaching across, similarly, can suggest the stretch to reach the embrace of a lover, but also that of the gulf between one individual’s moment in history and that of another, the strangeness of the divide between one current language, and all its significance, and that of another. It is an immensely difficult and immensely rewarding poem. It is a reminder that our words are worlds and that the intensifying of them, if we are willing to put the effort into the poetic results, not only allows us to cross the gap that exists between individuals but to redouble our efforts to make sense of the setting down of history. This channelling of history and intimate moment yields this particular kind of poetry and counsels us that to deepen meaning is also to deepen our capacity to care.
Melanie Challenger is a British writer of poetry, non-fiction, and libretti. Her first collection, Galatea, was short-listed for the Forward Prize, and her non-fiction book On Extinction was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2012. She is currently based in the Philosophy department in Durham University, where she researches ethics and the living world.