Thunder on the Right
by Alan Hodge
A Map of Verona: Henry Reed. Cape. 3/6.
One merit is shared with Mr. Campbell by the other poets under review, and that is an entirely wholesome freedom from apocalyptic slop. Few books could be more thoroughly different from Talking Bronco than Henry Reed's A Map of Verona, but the authors of both have in common a rare respect for the literal meanings of words. It is a welcome thing in these times of knotted and confused imagery to read a first book of poems that move clearly and easily and that make sense.
Mr. Reed's world is one of reflective emotions; his book is full of brooding about journeys and quests, with seas, ships, ports, rocks and deserts as the properties of his soliloquies. Because he lacks a turn for the biting and epigrammatic phrase, his poems are difficult to quote: they build up an atmosphere slowly in slack rhythms out of lines which taken separately look blunted and uncompel1ing. Here are the beginning and end of Judging Distances, a moving poem about an incident in army instruction which the publishers fatuously describe as comic:—
Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape ....
(The instructor then supposes that two lovers have been observed):—
... Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.
Well that, for answer, is what we might rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are important.
The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.
There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
A guess that between me and the apparent lovers,
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished),
At seven o'clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.
There is much dry charm as well as quiet wit in this sketch of the soldier cut off from civilian pleasures. But it is half-way to being a short story in prose. Mr. Reed's poetic weaknesses are evident; he is diffuse and not sufficiently accomplished to be able to make a success of rhythmically loose lines with run-on endings. Nor does his skill improve in the later poems of this book. More ambitious in subject—Tristram and Iseult, Philoctetes—they diffuse a delicately romantic twilight, but the lines flag and droop as if written for one of the more mournful-voiced poetry-readers of the B.B.C. And I see no sign of Mr. Reed's acquiring a rhythm of truly distinctive stamp, for never far away are echoes of Mr. Eliot's Quartets.