Peter Riley

Seán Rafferty had a very unusual career as a poet, and it is difficult to know exactly what poetry meant for him. It is obvious that he took himself seriously as a poet in the 1930s, when he was respected by his Scottish peers and considered a 'modernist', but perhaps not again for a long time. The only text to survive from this period, 'The Return to Wittenberg' (in Poems, Revue Sketches and Fragments) is crammed full of echoes of Eliot and Pound, in tone and stance as well as phrase. Then everything went underground.

Rafferty might be the most echoic poet I've ever read. Perhaps this was what worried him, that he was writing as the sonic rebound of others. When we next have him he has largely eradicated those particular echoes, but the echoic sense is still strong; there is a sense of familiarity, you keep thinking 'I've read that line before' though you can't usually identify a particular echo. He emerges from the 1940s onwards more as person than as poet: theatre entrepreneur, then innkeeper, both socially active roles: one sees him at the heart of active and even bucolic company, and the poetry is taken casually, now and then, not trying too hard, not pushing forward. This retraction, if that is what it was, from the modernist urge, produced the kind of rhyme-led and prosodically obvious poem which must have seemed normal to most people at the time, and the sense of familiarity derives, I think, from that renunciation of exceptionality, as well as his constant trafficking in stage lyrics. The presences which speak loudest from these poems are in fact the extenuators of 19th Century lyric and pastoral modes: de la Mare, Binyon, Edward Thomas, Masefield, Sassoon and such-like – specifically or not, these spirits haunt a great deal of what he wrote in his second phase. Or sometimes something half way between them and Dylan Thomas, thus rather like Edith Sitwell. Yeats is a strong presence too, to emerge again at the end of his career, and maybe there is an occasional touch of French formal sophistication, but with the Scottish accent emerging, as far as I can see, only in one short poem. This is not to say that these poems were failures, for indeed all those poets were capable of impressive performances, and were recognised as being capable of such, before the modernist Mafia shut the doors on most of them. What is notable is Rafferty's refusal to mimic the successful alternative mode of his own generation, the cool decorative detachment of Auden and his followers, for even when most second-hand his poems are consistently passionate, the only exceptions to this being the revue sketches and stage songs, which fulfil the demands of the genre in always bearing a certain facetiousness.

The innkeeping, as I understand it, collapsed as a direct result of Rafferty's own uncontrolled bonhomie and generosity, and we are left with an old man with no visible support, taken in and supported by the Ted Hughes establishment in Devonshire with the task of looking after the chickens. The end of the road, you might say. But here, I think, is where the whole enterprise came together. At least ten of the longer poems in section IX of Poems, identified by Nicholas Johnson as 'his last cycle of writing', are what Seán Rafferty was sent here to do.

Nobody else could have written them. And few as they are they give a cumulative sense of a world which was peculiarly his, and had he lived longer this might have grown to a more extended and varied theatre, but if you really get going only at the age of 82 I suppose you might not have 'a substantial body of work' as a very likely achievement before you. Several of these poems are direct representation of Rafferty's condition, but even in this short space he also worked in dramatic forms, the poem spoken by a vaguely mediaeval magician or travelling mountebank, or emerging half in half out of the voice of Sappho, or spoken by dispersed entities who may momentarily be Rafferty or not. The more passionate and purposeful the 'I' becomes the more it participates and shares itself.

It is by the verse, which includes the echo, that these poems attain their freedom. It is as if all those decades of rhyming and all that stressed alliterative rhythm had gained for him an intuitive skill which could dispense with the effects. All the potential he always had as a poet is realised, the song measures are objectified into knowledge of the worth and pain of remembered song, openly declared, tying the soul to lost people. The theatricality of the revue sketches emerges transformed, without the satire of typicality, each poem a carefully managed scene, situation, story or aria, grounded now on the absolute and authentic particular: the old man alone in thought, and so fired that the poem is the only stage you can mount that on. There are still echoes, most of them more openly avowed as quotations or references, but in the closeness of the writing he now echoes himself from line to line --

Take a song.
Take a song for example a song
sung in the summer shows
was pounded
by four bit bands
to dust in provincial palais
and was introduced to the West
by a busker
working the theatre queues

Until one morning
one autumn morning the milkman
whistling its opening bars
in his doorstep to doorstep medley
signalled a final rendition
by a glacial crescendo of empties.                                           [p.142]

How the verse urges the poem forwards, repeating word or phrase until it yields the next. He'd always had a rather endearing habit of repeating a phrase to get the next part of the poem going, but this is more than that, here he's chanting his own words, his own syllables, short-term echoes off a nearby wall of silence that impel him forwards. The first cluster of sibilants cancelled by an opposing cluster of plosives and then it all evens out and spreads as the poem moves away from the stage into the street. These are song techniques, and song is precisely what it is all about now, how song hooks itself on memory and fashions a narrative, until it too passes away, is relinquished in the landscape of birth and death, or milk and ice.

That urging forward, that self echoing, is the mark of the request of these final poems: 'one day more'. The whole set or cycle is this plea for one more day, this spring which 'may be the last' as if a new gift has been discovered which must be exercised in the short time remaining: 'But an old man can summon shadows to his side or they may come unbidden' [p.137]. [This is presented as a quotation, but is untraceable.] It is like someone suddenly seeing a distance and a spread of light in what seemed to be a closed space, which is the story emerging out of stasis. Nowhere more so than in the occasional reminiscences of lost persons, such as 'Helen at Kleinfeldt's', where the same echo-ridden technique is that of her own distant voice --

I laid my hand
over her outspread hand.
(She wore no rings.)
If they, she said, if they
pushed a piano
pushed a concert grand
an Erard pushed before me
I could play.                                          [p.144]

The insistent repeating is also of course a hesitation, a struggling to remember, an unwillingness to remember and be hurt ('And she, the girl you spoke of? She died young'), an unbelief. The episode here is a period piece, it is almost painted ('her Manet barmaid's hairdo' ... 'A boy's straw boater...') – the echo is also visual. Urging himself into the memory, the poet watches it fade away, with an echo from another poem of his ('Some song, that summer, whistled in the street') ending of course where the walls close, and the rest is silence, echoed from Shakespeare.

'Thrush' which ends the group, the song of the old man baby-sitting a young child, is perhaps the most moving of these directly staged performances, rehearsing again but in a different story that same birth and death of song as the resolution of the ache of distance. But we shouldn't forget the fictive theatre of a poem like the first, 'Salathiel's Song', and the truly professional flare particularly evident at the ending, where the forgotten figure of the entire story suddenly emerges (dark and silent but connected) as the 'feminine' resolution of a tight chant of vowels and consonants, adjectives and nouns, hypnotic monosyllables breaking into a new tune that scoops up the entire image cluster --

Dark elm
far owl
faint star
my mother.

My mother dark as the night. [p.119]

Seán Rafferty looked after Ted Hughes's chickens. You don't have to believe some poet is a cultural pandemic virus, the revolution of perception, in order to admire a bunch of uniquely achieved poems for what they are. You could say Rafferty did much less than Hughes, but he never committed Crow.

(All page references are to Seán Rafferty, Poems, Etruscan Books 1999)

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