'Dense with association': reading and remembering Roy Fisher

John Goodby

I first came across Roy Fisher’s work as a teenager in Kingstanding Library a couple of years before going to university in 1977. I had a typical adolescent's taste in poetry - the Keats, Rimbaud, Shelley, Ginsberg rebellion thing - but it was rather eclectic too, and on the top shelf of the poetry section was City, alongside Lee Harwood's White Room and one or two other items an enlightened sub-librarian had smuggled onto the acquisitions list. I was fascinated by it and took it out several times, trying to make sense of it. I didn't succeed at that stage of my encounter with it; nevertheless, reading City at that time of my life meant that he has a special place in my personal pantheon. The slightly baffled attraction I felt back then also included the fact that we shared a native city. Handsworth, where Roy grew up, was just three miles away from where I lived, on the same 90 and 91 bus route that passed near my home.


Not that I read City in a literal, descriptive way even then, but I could see that at one level it dealt with the wholescale redevelopment of the Birmingham I lived in, and which was still going on apace. Its demolished Victorian terraces reminded me of Aston, the district adjacent to Handsworth where my grandmother had kept a corner shop, and what was replacing them was writ large in Spaghetti Junction, the tower blocks of Perry Barr, and the Rotunda and the Post Office tower serrating the city skyline. But the other levels of City - its phobic, solipsistic air, its disconcerting oscillation between realistic and subjective - I wasn't as well equipped to deal with, although I recognised a wry wit and amused stoicism, the flipside of Brummagem ebullience, which resembled my father's deadpan humour. I appreciated its apocalyptic flavour too, although I could see that it was of a drily undemonstrative kind. I liked also that there was none of that nostalgic craving for uncomplicated belonging which often accompanies the mapping of local co-ordinates in poetry. If City put Birmingham on the late modernist map, it did so in a rather abstract way which could apply to many other cities, never naming the place. If the attention it paid the city was a form of homage, it was backhanded: 'This could never be a capital city for all its size. There is no mind in it, no regard. The sensitive, the tasteful, the fashionable, the intolerant and powerful, have not moved through it as they have through London ... Most of it has never been seen.' This ambivalence matched my own feelings at the time. To me, what was distinctive about Birmingham was that it was a junction, a crossing point in the middle of the country - a nexus, rather than any kind of special, static space. A few years later, in the final year of my English BA degree, I wrote my extended essay for the Modern Poetry 1930-1970 course on Roy's work. It hadn't been taught on the course, but I felt that doing was a necessary assertion of my own identity.


Fast forward about a decade and, after being side-tracked into PhD research on more conventional poetry than Roy's, I found myself in my first teaching post, at Leeds University, and in charge of something called The Poetry Room. This involved organising three-four poetry readings a year. For most of these I took suggestions from my elders and betters; Roy was my choice, the only one I got to make on my own. He duly came and read, and read well. I don't remember anything much more about his visit, except that the turnout was low, undoubtedly as a result of my poor organisational skills, and that he read A Furnace in its entirety, which meant there was no time for him to read anything else. He was on something of a mission with it, as it had been published fairly recently, and was new to everyone there. He told us it was the best thing he'd written, and said, half-joking, that we should teach it on a contemporary poetry course. He was right on both counts, although it never became a set text. If some of us were sceptical, it was probably because we were disappointed he hadn't read poems we knew, such as 'The Entertainment of War' or 'The Thing About Joe Sullivan', or - a personal favourite of mine - 'Barnardine's Reply'.


Jumping another decade, and not long after another reading, this time in Swansea with Gael Turnbull, following which we'd briefly chatted, I realised that 2000 would be Roy's seventieth birthday. I'd recently undergone something of a Damascene conversion to innovative poetry, which I'd neglected since my teens. Reading Ted Berrigan, John Wieners, Denise Riley and Drew Milne I was reminded of my early interest in Roy's work, even though theirs was very different. So, when I heard about a trio of books being published to mark the occasion, I offered my services. I reviewed The Thing About Roy Fisher and news for the ear for Poetry Review, and both of them, plus Interviews Through Time, for - I think - Poetry Wales. A few months later I had an email from Roy thanking me, and mentioning that John Kerrigan, through whom he had tracked me down, had lent him a copy of my first collection, A Birmingham Yank, which had appeared a couple of years previously with Arc.


It was exciting to learn this, but unsettling too, given that I'd recently revised my notions about poetry so radically, and I mentioned this in my reply to him. The problem was that Yank was shaped by what I'd studied for my PhD - all well and good in itself, but it meant the poems in it were in regular stanzas, usually pararhymed, chock-full of proper nouns and historic figures, and rounded off with ringing final lines. Not Roy-ish at all, in other words, although the title could conceivably be taken as a condensed description of him and his influences. It is actually an Irish term I'd picked up in Cork when I taught there in the early 1990s; it's applied to a returned migrant, full of swagger and cash, who claims to have been in the USA, but in truth only made it as far as Birmingham. A fake, in other words, which is how I feared I might appear. Even so, I couldn't resist sending Roy his own copy.


I needn't have worried about his response. I'll quote it in full, partly because I think it sheds light on his own work, partly because it testifies to his characteristic generosity even towards someone whose stuff must have seemed pretty uncongenial:


You were right to say it's not up my street, but only in the sense that mine's a street where there are no names on the shops (or indeed on the streets) and in which nothing of any importance, ever, perish the thought, ever happened or could happen. The Great Ones of our civilization always did their things elsewhere. But I think you handle your bundle of wonders with tremendous brio. I remarked to John Kerrigan that there was no room for false steps in that kind of writing. I got an image of a poet talking, talking while walking at speed backwards into - ie straight through the scenery - a stage set where cabbagy people were sitting around watching an untuned TV. I don't know whether they paid any attention. It'll be interesting to see whether the new direction you said you were working in carries the Crack with it.


A lot of this confirms what we know, I think - including Roy's unequivocal rejection of authority and officially-defined 'importance' ('perish the thought'), something I'd not fully grasped the extent of in my politically callow first encounter with City. But what's most revealing to me, reading it now, is how the Goodby scenario so swiftly turns into a Fisher scenario - the 'talking, talking' poet who is going 'backwards' metamorphosing into one who breaks through the surface of empirical reality to enter what seems like the domestic-surreal space of Ten Interiors with Various Figures of 1966. 'Cabbagy people sitting around watching an untuned TV' could be an out-take from 'Experimenting', or 'The Wrestler'. It's the best kind of nudge in a different direction while at the same time brilliantly insightful about certain aspects of Yank.


Something Roy and I must have discussed along the way were our Birmingham links, the extent of our social and cultural consanguinity. It turned out there were two main areas where our trajectories touched and overlapped. One was the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter. This is located in Hockley, a district between Handsworth and the city centre; it was where Roy's father and grandfather had worked, and also where my father's father had worked. My father and brother still worked in the Quarter at that time, and I knew from a day I'd spent going through microfiched parish records in Birmingham Central Library, years before, that our line of Goodbys had lived in and around the area as far back as the mid-eighteenth century. Numerous male members of the family had been jobbing jewellers, or active in the related trades of toy-, button-, and pin-making. The history of the Fishers, though over a shorter period, had been much the same. Roy and I were taken with this, and I vaguely recall exchanges involving the respective merits of the Roseville Tavern and the Jewellers' Arms, the names of firms on Vyse and Spencer Streets, and the clepsydra mechanism of Chamberlain's Clock - not to mention the Lucas' factory in Roy's poem 'For Realism', where my grandfather and two of my uncles on my mother's side had worked. Less anecdotally, I also seem to recall us discussing how the nature of Birmingham's industry - much of it small scale, workshop-based, semi-skilled ('The City of a Thousand Trades') - had shaped the structures of feeling of its inhabitants, and whether it had entered his writing in some way.


Second, there was Kingsland Road Infants and Juniors School. This was where I went between 1963 and 1969, and it dawned on me that during his time training teachers, in the 1960s, Roy might have had to observe trainees in action there. When I asked him it turned out that he had (I think this kind of inspection trip may what he's engaged on, 'between two calls', in the trolleybus journey described in the 'Introit' section of A Furnace). Hence - there was no way we could be certain (but then what could be more Fisheresque than that?) - the possibility that our paths had crossed decades before. I imagined myself, the seven year-old future reader of City, sitting in a classroom just in front of the recently-introduced stranger, Mr Fisher, there to assess the pedagogical skills of, say, Miss Parker (soon to give up teaching thanks to the likes of Paul 'Porky' Bagshaw, who once filled the pockets of her coat with used chewing-gum in the morning break). I told him it was a poem I felt I would have to write some day, and he seemed to approve.


I'd promised Roy that if he ever wanted me to ask my father anything about the Quarter - since he'd worked there since 1947 and was still going strong - I'd be happy to oblige. Our last exchange dates from 2005, when he emailed to ask if my father remembered the firm of Goode, where his grandfather had worked 'from about 1880 to 1930', and did he remember which street it was in. The query arose from 'a flurry of ancestral quarrying' into the Fisher genealogy in which, Roy said, certain things fitted Birmingham's boom years exactly:


A pair of no-doubt-impoverished farming people came in the mid-1820s from what had been centuries of immobility in the villages around Edge Hill, travelled up the A41, found work in the button trade and bred. A daughter married a bastard (literally) called Fisher, an electroplater, probably at Elkington's, and had ten children. A further large generation followed. The interesting thing, by its very ordinariness, is that for three generations all of these people seem to have lived their entire lives quite securely within a single square mile of Lozells-Hockley, in newly-built and pretty uniform terraced housing; an area now gone but which I once knew well. Men and women alike were employed in the fancy metal trades, first brass then gold and silver. ... Nobody moved until my generation, born between about 1916 and 1936, had education thrust upon it, and the inevitable diaspora. The generations have dwindled dramatically, and have no members in the city. ... I get very interested in the minutiae of the local map of homes and workplaces. We [Joe, Roy's son] use old maps and obsolete A-Z street maps, and my childhood memory, which is of course now much clearer than my control over comparatively recent PC files.


Unfortunately, my father had no memory of Goode's, and I told Roy - somewhat apologetically, as I'd set my father up as a fount of all knowledge - that I'd drawn a blank. I don't think this was due to some lacuna in my father's memory; rather, it's most likely that the firm went bust between 1930 and 1947. There was no reply, and I felt it would be pushy to follow up after a silence. This was probably an error on my part; Roy was conducting his researches with his son Joe, and I think a response may have slipped between the cracks of their joint effort. In any event, it was the last time we were in touch - the next thing I heard about him was when he died, twelve years later, in 2017.


But he's still occasionally on my mind, chiefly because his poetry is a body of work I keep returning to, and possibly also because I've slightly conflated him with my father; they were contemporaries (my father was born in 1932), looked roughly similar, shared certain traits, and died at almost the same time (my father's death was just a year before Roy's, in 2016). Perhaps the two things come together in Roy's approach to genealogy and the past, summed up in his well-known phrase 'Birmingham is what I think with' - his interest in it being, of course, like his sense of Birmingham as a place, not for the usual sepia-tinted reasons. He had no truck with idealisations of the lives of the working poor, or the usual kind of memorialisation of them, or in redeeming them in his poetry. Rather, his interest seems to have stemmed from the personal necessity we all share of having to come to terms with our own mortality, and which therefore grew stronger over time, and a concern with obliquely recognising and restoring some measure of dignity to those lives, those forebears. The political aspect of this is already there in the early poetry: City's focus on 'marginal people', and the cold contempt for them of their rulers, reflected in 'The Wonders of Obligation' and a memory of the Blitz: 'the mass graves dug / the size of workhouse wards / into the clay // ready for most of the people / the air-raids were going to kill ... provided / for the poor of Birmingham' (the killer phrase is 'provided for'). Here again there is overlap, since a great-grandfather, John Henry Goodby, died in the bombing of Birmingham, just as Roy's aunt and her family do in 'The Entertainment of War'; and when her father eventually succumbs to the grief of losing his favourite daughter - 'Then he walked out and lay under a furze-bush to die' - the furze-bush was in Sutton Park, where I played as a boy. The sympathy, like the anger, is undemonstrative, creative, and feels close.


As several critics have noted, this concern for the way the dead and living comingle, the dead never really going away, the living so often leading zombie-like existences which are death-like in their unfulfillment, accounts for the gothic feel of some of the poetry. But this inter-involvement has its positive aspect too, and recognising the hauntedness of the present is the way Roy's poetry grants the dead their measure of dignity. The figure for this, which is a process rather than a static state, is the double spiral which structures A Furnace, but which occurs in slightly different form in earlier works too, most notably the 'coil' and 'whorl' of the opening of The Cut Pages, a seminal work of 1970 which in its odd way may be considered the link between City and A Furnace.


The emphasis on process rather than a fixed condition is strongly reminiscent of a poet we might not readily associate with Roy; namely, Dylan Thomas. And yet, as he told John Tranter in a Jacket interview, the very poem he wrote, 'when I was nineteen', was 'a cheap trip through Dylan Thomas's stage properties'. In a letter to Jim Keery of 1998 he confirmed this: 'it was reading Thomas that enabled me to start. It was like one of those astronomical events where a body is struck by another and kicked out of its familiar orbit into a new one, by way of a violent wobble. ... It was ... the spectacle of something apparently quite primal ..., a sort of linguistic/imaginative magma, unsuspected innards, the breaking of taboos one hadn't known existed, that shook up my innocence.' All of which, given my own deep involvement in Thomas's work, is another connection with Roy. It's also another kind of haunting, since it reveals Roy's roots in 1940s Apocalyptic poetry and the larger issue of how, despite its critical demonisation, that poetry secretly shaped many of the more interesting poets of the last seventy years, from W. S. Graham to Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The tale of that 'interfluentiality', to use Jim's nicely flowing word, like my poem about my possible early encounter with Roy, is one that remains to be written.




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