Colin Falck: Post-Modern Love

visited by Michael Peverett

Colin Falck's Bishop Blougram is a teacher of poetry, some ten years younger than the author himself, living in Notting Hill Gate and describing the long decline of his marriage to a young post-grad who eventually goes to bed with him. The dramatic monologue is shaped into free-flowing Petrarchan sonnets, whose feats of unobtrusive rhyming I intensely admire. Our host is supposedly fuelled only by tea, but I think he must have had a couple of gins at lunchtime.

  – Do you know the story of Carmen?

                                                              ¡Mujer de fuego!
  – Your sexy, 'bohémienne' black-haired florecita...
  Poor Don José! He's obsessed with her – ¡Carmencita!
  She loves him – and wrecks his life...
                                                             Then it's hasta luego,
  And she gives herself to a brainless toreador –
  Olé, and the rest. But it ends in death.

  Saw death in this innocent tale by Mérimée
  And gave us the music to love and die with...

  Y muerte
                     It's there in that plunging mezzo-soprano;
  It's in Tristan; – or Mahler, or Ravel...  It's even in Sinatra
  In those midnight hours...    Every breath you take.   – Alors,
  From Shakespeare to Berlioz, from the madrigals to Chopin's piano
  To most of opera...  – Delilah, Amneris, Cleopatra,
  Sending their men to their deaths. L'amour: la mort.

Post-Modern Love veers sharply, as any modern book involving sonnets is bound to do, between burlesque and seriousness. This I suppose is what Dana Gioia meant by calling the book "uniquely disquieting". The burlesque colours, however, rather tend to run and obscure the serious ones.

One of the more enlivening things about this performance is that the professor's chief opinions on literature and society are recognizably Falck's own; yet they are flung out as mere bald dicta, or laid alongside crashing commonplaces and bizarre errors some of which (like the astonishing view of Mérimée's Carmen in the sonnet above) are later pointed out in the notes; though a host of others, like the intrusion of Wilson Pickett into Sinatra's wee small hours, are left for us to enjoy disentangling. We gather that any haziness over details isn't going to stand in the way of a punchy exposition. The professor, despite his background in a 1960s counter-culture that Falck detests, is nevertheless a kind of loose-lipped burlesque of Falck himself. Curiously there is a sort of Mr Sludge effect - disarmed by the utterly compromised nature of the medium, I find I'm actually entertaining notions that, in Falck's literary-critical books, are not worth a second thought.

                                          (You know, I've just thought?
  Another reason why modern literature's dead?
  It leaves out kids - or just treats them like desperate nerds –
  Yet they're more important than 'art', or being good with words,
  Or even than doing post-modernist things in bed...) 

I think this is meant to be a burlesque of Falck's beloved Wordsworth. The word "kids" implies a treatment of its own, no doubt - clearly it already pre-empts the solution, or rather converts it into describing the experience of being a parent; the poet who is trapped in a poetic of the contemporary experiential "I" can't really help leaving out other people, whether it's these statistical "kids" or the bedmates that the professor attracts so readily but finds so hard to characterize in the poem except in the forms of fantasy and betrayed fantasy. But perhaps I am going rather too far in this, since what is more characterizing than sanding floors?

  The house took ages to do. It was a long, hard haul,
  And we sometimes lost heart. At night I'd be soldering bends
  In pipes that leaked; she'd be sanding floors. At week-ends
  We'd be mending drains, or rebuilding a garden wall...

"I'd" is an indicator word of mainstream poetry; sleeves-rolled-up directness and material drawn from the past habitual. Like many another convention of talk in poetry, it is not so often heard in real talk, possibly because most listeners don't accept the past habitual as something worth talking about; by definition, it is not cutting to the chase. The limitation about characterizing is a limitation of the kind of discourse that the professor indulges in. Determined to work with long vistas of time, he has no bent for quoting conversation, unlike those whose narrative skills are honed on what happened to them in the last couple of days. The professor is no reporter, content to let chunks of experience make their own effect; befuddled by intellectual debris, he seeks to come up with a grand interpretation; in Hegelian world-historical terms, as Falck the annotator points out.

  Something went wrong, in the Sixties – it needs to be said.
  (I've said it already, I guess, but there was so much more...)
  – That strange, lost world before the end of the Vietnam War!...
  It was all so positive – yet there was something spiritually dead.

  Part of the trouble was language. There was this endless drone
  Of Dissolvespeak: everything was something else
                                                                                      This might seem
  Revolutionary! – but we had a bad old script: the Rousseauist dream –
  That without 'the oppressions of society' we'd come into our own...

The basic ideas are Falckian, e.g. the claim of contemporary spiritual deadness, but they're expressed with an enterprising lameness that self-instantiates the prevalence of "Dissolvespeak"; which (I dream) suggests a valuable insight, but glimpsed as it were from a hotel in Bayswater. Nothing really suggests that the professor took on board anything from the Sixties to back up the claim - it sounds more like a concession - that "It was all so positive"; at any rate, we see the sonnet decline into reactionary bitterness:

                                                             So the vacuous 'love'
  Turned to hate. You got the 'political correctness' gang:
  Our Thought Police of the Nineties – the commissars and liars. 

Considered as analysis, it's disastrous; considered as a sonnet sequence, it's great entertainment.


1. Colin Falck merits several footnotes in a history of the British mainstream. He became friends with Ian Hamilton at Cambridge and was involved in Hamilton's combative Review in the early 60s. At around the same time, Falck and Hamilton proposed and exemplified in their poetry the shortlived "Neo-Imagist" school (also David Harsent, Hugo Williams, Michael Fried...), supposed to be characterized by extreme concision and plainness, memorialized here by John Fuller in "To James Fenton" (from Epistles to Several Persons, 1973):

What about Neo-Imagism
      Impossibly lyrical. 

Such knowing brevity needs patience: 
As unfastidious Croatians 
Upon quite intimate occasions 
      Shun body-talc, 
So leave your interpersonal relations 
      To Colin Falck

For poetry to have some merit he 
Requires it to display sincerity, 
Each pronoun to convince posterity 
      With deep emotion 
And an invigorating verity 
      Like hair-lotion. 

Well, that’s unfair. I’m glad he lives. 
Just think of the alternatives! 
Those whose verse resembles sieves 
      Or a diagram, 
And foul-mouthed transatlantic spivs 
      Wooing Trigram.

(I extend the quotation to incorporate that interesting reference to the Benvenistes.)

Falck has subsequently managed long-running poetry workshops in Hampstead and Morley College, meeting-places of younger mainstream poets: Don Paterson, Michael Donaghy, Vicki Feaver, Selima Hill, Eva Salzman, etc.

He is also the author of the philosophical Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism (1989, 2nd edn. 1994) and the literary-critical American and British Verse in the Twentieth Century: The Poetry that Matters (2003), fierce onslaughts on modern tendencies whose implausible central tenets (modern poets aren't interested in reality, modern literary academics hate poetry, etc) go un-self-questioned; more seriously, whose treatments of "the poetry that matters" (Eliot, Yeats, Jeffers etc) are too incapacitated by the author's aversion to new ideas to venture anything new themselves.

2. On a planet deep beyond Sirius, a new world dawns.

This is the line with which the Epilogue (mingling epiphanic but ill-matched scraps of Arnold, Meredith and Kipling into a thoughtful post-coital wander round the house at night) comes to an end, and perhaps the main function is to marshal some plangent harmonies signalling the imminent FINIS, such as "deep". In July (1992), the time of the poem, Sirius would not be visible from anywhere near Notting Hill Gate. When it is visible (in winter in the UK), it is the brightest star in the sky, mainly because it's so close (8.6 light years, the seventh nearest star); most of the universe, therefore, could be said to be "deep beyond Sirius". A sentimental reading could see the planet as metaphorical of life beyond the cynicism of the dog days, like the soft-thighed post-grad. Or the planet might be the reconceived Earth itself, the obvious planet to mention in the Sirius vicinity.

Post-Modern Love was published by Stride in 1997 (ISBN 1 900152 16 9).

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