Swimming and Drowning

Submitted by Reddebrek on November 2, 2017

THE EARLY DROWNED and other poems: Hilary Corke. (Secker and Warburg, 1961).

AMONGST THE BOOKS OF VERSE WHICH HAVE APPEARED IN BRITAIN during the sixties Hilary Corke's first collection stands most conspicuously away from group and style. The publisher's note tells us that Mr. Corke went from Charterhouse to Oxford, spent the last four years of the war in the field artillery, and lectured later at Cairo and Edinburgh: the pressures there to settle any man but Mr. Corke's poetry, at any rate, hasn't been impressed. It is notable for its diversity and non-conformity; a rather appealing nature shows through it.

He separates himself instantly from the majority of modern poets by an uncompromising introductory note and by the fact that he isn't afraid of the effect of a little light verse on his persona. In Mr. Samuel Bunce he teases officialdom—

Our rules and regulations,
Our poly-purpose plan,
Are wrecked by gross evasions
On the part of natural man.

He will not use BLOCK CAPITAL;
Signs off the dotted line;
And ladies will not wrap it all
In the swimsuits we design.

In Sailing to India and in The Rage of the Water against Hastings we meet another humour, bizarre and fascinating, not easy to compare with anything in vogue.

A good deal of his work is love poetry in two or three characteristic veins. Anyone with a taste for the pre-Elizabethan lyric will be haunted by At Chelsea, which in mood and imagery and in awareness of loneliness and identity makes something new from that tradition. In general he writes about sexuality and love without reticence or self-consciousness; he has the romantic's abandon but a delicacy that comes with sincerity helps him to avoid extravagance. One or two of his poems are about the sort of despair commonly associated with adolescent love: a theme poets seem to evade nowadays, because of its flatness and finality perhaps, but as proper as any other — if it resists analysis it still deserves description.

Mr. Corke enters these pages, however, not purely for the general interest and distinction of his poetry but rather for an undercurrent becoming apparent in his more recent work. It shows most clearly in asides, less obviously in areas of interest. "The tree of state may live on hate for sap," he reflects in one poem; "Last night we spoke of the Bomb, of the perilous statesmen," he admits in another. He asks, in Pompeii, where a man can run to — "now the whole world is one volcano grown". In Rosslyn Chapel he looks at an old carving of Lust and would have a more bitter word for the Church if weren't unnecessary now: "This tigress' claws are drawn". Perhaps today, he persuades himself in one piece of wish-fulfilment, a politician will admit self and party entirely mistaken on some issue: "I dream of that awhile, then sick at heart/Go down to find the newspaper on the mat." He watches The Procession go by (it bears no reference to "any specific government or occasion" he points out in his notes) and his laconic comment is — "Myself would be more willing to clap, if."
Mr. Corke might be outraged to see his work searched for anarchist attitudes and one takes risks in writing about him for he rebukes unsatisfactory reviewers — he was a gunner, I've mentioned, and if I remember rightly he shot down David Holbrook and Al Alvarez. This does not deter us. It is perfectly clear that he has that libertarian temper (a disenchantment with institutions; a disaffection towards the power-state; a liking for the informality of the natural world; and admiration for that uniqueness, that freedom, that sometimes shows like energy in a man or woman) which agrees to almost all but the name of political anarchism — which often enough wrestles for these attitudes in privacy or torment but may be piqued or even refuse to listen when told that they are recognised, are not uncommon, are subsumed in this one distasteful word.

I make this point because the one complaint I have about Mr. Corke relates to it. In his lonely position, looking at the forces massed against him, he's found a dusty answer: courage, he thinks, and endurance are all we have left; you can't win but you can be brave. He applauds his ancestor "who saw the joke beneath the mammoth's foot". Well, that sort of courage is an interesting and a rather affecting human characteristic. But, really, it isn't only useless: it's irrelevant. Are we to offer the fags around with a wisecrack when 1,000 roentgens is registered? Surely, when men can find a space for courage and principle in living we need not require them to die with dignity. In fact, life in Britain today can pose several tests to consciences crippled sometimes by an obstinate sensitivity or an ingrained decorum. Mr. Corke has a very striking lyrical gift and he is obviously a man of integrity; he knows well that the oppressed are "our proper concern"; but a background sense of community and purpose might strengthen his work, might give it force and direction. After all, the acknowledgment of a position sustained and fortified so fine a poet as Brecht — who would have preferred to write on other themes had he lived in a happier time ("Ah, what an age it is / When to speak of trees is almost a crime / For it is a kind of silence about injustice! ").

In conclusion, one of Mr. Corke's poems is worth particular mention. Children Playing is an extremely beautiful and sympathetic observation on the child and society. It doesn't tell the whole truth about children, naturally — it has to be read against Lord of the Flies. But in its scepticism about received educational values and in its orientation towards spontaneity and joy it expresses perfectly an anarchist position. "You are in the right of it, children, in the right. / They buy you and they tie you to their wheel:" he declares. And, subversively, he advises: "Play seriously and frivolously work".

Learn how the earth moves, not in books but blood,
And how the leaf is so, the flower is signed;
Forgetful of the debaucheries of talk,
Forgetful of the sarcasms of the gown
And all that blackboard rubbish, copied down,
Of sine and cosine, adjectival clause,
The salts of iron, the attributes of God,
And Caesar and his stupid stupid wars.