OFF AT A TANGENT
Roy Fisher and Ian Duhig
University of Warwick 14.01.04
Review: John Alcock
Depth, wit and dramatic landscapes
The first reading in the Spring Term Warwick Writers series was given jointly by Roy Fisher and Ian Duhig. Born in Birmingham (Birmingham is what I think with.’), Roy is one of our most celebrated national poets as well as a jazz pianist extraordinaire. Now living on the fringe of the Peak District National Park, he commenced his reading with some as-yet unpublished work in progress’, developing themes from his earlier book The Dow Low Drop. This is a dramatic landscape of giant outcrops, hill farms and a vast quarry (Half the population farms it and the other half cuts it away.’) but what is striking about his descriptions of a seemingly static subject is the animation, the swoop and flight of furrows, stone walls and stands of pine. On a more intimate scale, a poem such as The Dead Speak’ catalogues discovered artefacts of the Bronze Age and what they reveal of the ancient peoples who first settled in this terrain.
Returning to his earlier poetry, Roy established a major reputation with City Poems, set inevitably in Birmingham long before President Clinton wolfed chips in a trendy canal side brasserie. This is a gritty, man-made landscape of gas, coal and blue-brick walls although someone may since have taken enough notice of A Street Half-a-Mile Long’ (a prose piece) to propose the restoration of elegant Curzon Street Station.
Ian Duhig’s reading inaugurated his residency at Warwick. Twice a National Poetry Competition winner, he is currently on the shortlist for a Forward Prize for The Lammas Hireling, from which he read. As he said, if Birmingham is what Roy Fisher thinks with, his thoughts are equally informed by the North. His poetry is often witty and lyrical, even jokey at times (later, in discussion, he compared the composition of poems to creating jokes) but this can be misleading. His work is deeper than this may sound, with a cutting edge of social comment. However, it is hard to take issue with a poet who confesses to manufacturing his own bovver boots’ (in the poem Blood’) or regards string vests as the Duhig tartan’ (A Dream Of Wearing String Vests Forever’), a practical and yet symbolic garment that unites him with African and other ethnic cultures. His sense of commitment revealed itself in other poems: There Is No Rose Of Such Virtue’ is his appraisal of the Lake District in the grip of the foot and mouth epidemic, while The Stake’ contemplates a memorial to a soldier shot for alleged cowardice.
In discussion, Roy declared his affinity with Basil Bunting while Ian accepted the suggestion of parallels between himself and Les Murray. Roy also considered what relationship might exist between his worlds of poetry and jazz. Improvisation, however, belonged for him at the keyboard not the on typewriter, although he agreed with Ian that the liveliest poetry was that which went off at a tangent’, sometimes surprising the writer as much as it startled and stimulated the reader which both poets succeeded in doing for their audience tonight.
Roy Fisher (1996), The Dow Low Drop, Bloodaxe
Ian Duhig (2003), The Lammas Hireling, Picador