Former leading New Zealand publisher and bookseller, and widely experienced judge of both the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, talks about what he is currently reading, what impresses him and what doesn't, along with chat about the international English language book scene, and links to sites of interest to booklovers.
Thursday, August 09, 2012
The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett ed by Sean Lawlor and John Pilling: review
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst traces Samuel Beckett's imaginative DNA, reviewing The Collected Poems, ed. by Sean Lawlor and John Pilling.
Samuel BeckettPhoto: Bruce Davidson
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
The Telegraph - 08 Aug 2012
When Samuel Beckett was asked to write the libretto for a short opera in 1958, he managed to complete just one line before abandoning the project: “Je n’ai pas envie de chanter ce soir” (“I have no desire to sing tonight”). He was even less enthusiastic about his poems, describing them at different times as “worthless”, “spittle” and “turds from my Central Lavatory”. Yet from his early collection Echo’s Bones, to the haunting lyric “What is the Word” he wrote shortly before his death, Beckett produced a thin but steady trickle of poetry. In some ways this was the imaginative heart of his career.
Writing poetry allowed Beckett to reconcile his deep love of language with his equally deep distrust of it. Here he could indulge his taste for opulent phrasemaking within a form that was always at risk of breaking down, before finding the strength to continue. As a poet, Beckett repeatedly found himself saying, like the narrator of his 1953 novel The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
A similar ambivalence marks this “comprehensive (if not complete) edition” of Beckett’s poems. On the plus side, the editors have done an excellent job in providing corrected texts of poems previously available only in slightly dodgy versions, unpicking their tangled textual histories, and supplementing them with a generous selection of notes.
Less happily, presumably to prevent a chunky volume from becoming an unmanageably bloated one, they do not translate the many poems Beckett wrote in French, while other poems are represented only by teasing references in the notes. The “little-known lavatorial squib” Beckett wrote in adolescence, for example, is hardly likely to become better known if his editors refuse to print it.
Putting these caveats to one side, collecting so many poems into a single volume makes it much easier to trace the patterns that are worked into Beckett’s imaginative DNA. He is especially fond of the tonal blankness of “ah” and “oh”, little bursts of sound that are caught between lyrical cries and private sighs: “ah to be back in the caul now”; “Miserere oh colon”. These sudden switches between the highbrow and the downbeat also reflect a more general fascination with the body, which Beckett’s poems circle back to with a characteristic mingling of disgust and delight. While he pays careful attention to blood, bowels and feet (“my ruined toes”), he is notably resourceful with the scrotum, which in his hands is both a peculiarly vulnerable part of the male anatomy (the “pommelled scrotum” of a cyclist) and a helpfully baggy metaphor, like the “whole scrotum of tricks” he urges lovers to lay aside. Full review at The Telegraph