A sensitive priest will reassure you that seeming distractions – all the unbidden sensations, anxieties, stray and sometimes unworthy thoughts that crowd in as soon as you bend a knee – are actually part of prayer, or should be made so. Poetry is like that as well. In its idealised form, it should be an address to the Almighty, in whatever form he comes to you.
The late Roy Fuller, a former Oxford Professor of Poetry, told me on a postcard that while his poems were always intended to be about ‘one Big Thing’, they generally concerned themselves with ‘bits and bobs’.
Douglas Dunn, who has also professed poetry in the academy, at the University of St Andrews, is not merely a noticer. The bits and bobs are usually connected to something larger, whether a strong memory of someone loved and lost, or a lifelong commitment to social justice. Significantly, his cue in this 75th birthday collection is a passage from a John Donne sermon. ‘I throwe my selfe downe in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels for the noise of a Flie, for the ratling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore…’ Isn’t that a perfect description of the eternal compromise the poet has to make, eyes lifted up, but conscious of nothing more elevated than ‘a straw under my knee’?
So is the idea here that Dunn – who shares the spoken name – is a kind of ‘meta-physical’ who finds profound or salacious meaning in a fleabite, who has the ability, in the words of that famous put-down, to yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together? There’s a less famous definition of so-called Metaphysical poetry which characterises it as ‘strong-lined’ and that works much better for Dunn, as indeed for Donne. Both have the ability to think rhythmically, to make the idea and the expression of it equal. Dunn had the misfortune to have a kind of succes d’estime with his very first collection Terry Street, and the double misfortune of embarking on his public career as an apparent protégé of Philip Larkin, his sometime boss at the university library in Hull. In 1964, with T. S. Eliot in his final weeks of life, and W. H. Auden reduced to pottering About The House, Larkin and Ted Hughes were the new headline voices in English poetry and the Faber catalogue. Dunn has made it clear that while he shared certain things with Larkin, a love of jazz and of whisky maybe foremost, there was little overt tutelage (Larkin would occasionally drop in unexpectedly just to make sure that his junior was at work and not just ‘posing in a dressing gown’) and very little meeting of minds. Larkin’s cold and unwelcoming universe had little room for God and certainly not for a listening God. Churches were for awkward visits, not spiritual communication. Prayer was what came out of a saxophone bell.
And yet, Dunn has always had something of Larkin’s ability to invest the most conversational of lines with music. His seriousness of purpose and occasional dourness of aspect led him to be rechristened by Clive James as ‘Douglas Dunge’, who appears in ‘Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World’ as a ‘moralising bard of wide remark’. That was both spot-on and strikingly wide of the mark, for Dunn doesn’t much indulge in moralising. He simply collapses the distinction (which old Eliot said was an invention of the generations after Donne) between thought and the aesthetic sense. Dunn feels ideas as concretely as he feels straws under his knee.
There are flies, and other insects, in the new volume. It begins with four lines about unhearable and unreadable things – ‘The flap of a butterfly. / The unfolding wing of a resting wren. / The sigh of an exhausted garden-ghost. / A poem trapped in an empty fountain pen.’ – and enters its final sequence fifty pages later with a childhood memory of writing verses in invisible ink on paper his uncomprehending father brought home from the tyre factory at Inchinnan. There’s a fly poem, in both senses, called ‘Bluebottles’. This is Dunn-as-Donne, done with a pawky brilliance. ‘A black piece of innocence, commonly found irritating’, and associated with death and shit, but closer up found to be rather beautiful, ‘Metallic but weightless energy, black with a blue shine, / One-hundred-per-cent committed to / Its singular identity, its life-without-options’. It’s hard to read the description without thinking about a bottle of blue-black Quink on the poet’s desk, and the bluebottle’s ‘frantic patrols’ as the poet’s desperation to visit and taste every part of experience, and fly-spot it with his verbal leavings. Dunn has always written beautifully about the business of writing. There’s an earlier poem, from 1993’s Dante’s Drum-Kit but also in the New Selected, where he meditates on ‘Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History. Faber & Faber, £14.99’, a nod across the publisher’s lunch-table to a fellow-writer, but also an indication of how profoundly Dunn, maybe thanks to Larkin, regards poetry as work, an artisan trade that requires tools. And also a certain workman-like solidarity. At the end of ‘Bluebottles’, like a cheery-grim Beelzebub – Lord of the Flies, another Faber reference! – he despatches his familiars to ‘dine where you can, / And pester the cruel ones of mankind.’
There is inevitably a somewhat elegiac tone to The Noise of a Fly, since it comes from a period during which Dunn has downed tools as an active professor, though he continues to teach and supervise. It is a different elegiac mode to that of his tenth collection, dedicated in 1985 to his late first wife Lesley Balfour Dunn. Elegies introduced the wonderful term ‘Transblucency’, and the recognition, confirmed by Duke Ellington and by the blues, that sorrow will crush you unless you make something beautiful with it. In the same way, The Noise of a Fly declines to be valedictory, or even creaky with advancing age. Instead, transblucently, Dunn has fun with growing old. ‘An Actor Takes Up Gardening’ is a brilliant caprice on one of those ‘born into the ranks of Rep’, who’s had maybe a couple of parts on radio and played ‘a week-dead corpse / On Morse’, who’s now ‘Part Donald Sinden, part gardening tosspot’. It’s brilliant, knockabout stuff, part-Larkin, part-Prufrock. There’s equally good characterisation in ‘An Alternative Map of Scotland’, in which Dunn explores the secret geography of a professional tramp he encountered in boyhood, who leaves behind a little text, a note of no metaphysical import but with the vital knowledge that the old dear who lives by the bridge will repay a simple task with a generous supper.
There’s no clearer sign of ageing than the feeling that remembered childhood experience is more vivid than what happened last week. But Dunn isn’t finished with the world and love yet. For all his studied insistence on his own Polonius-like verbosity – there are a lot of teacher poems in this collection – and meditations on mortality like ‘Remembering Friends Who Feared Old Age and Dementia More Than Death’, there is a steady turning towards experience, even erotic experience, and not, like Prufrock, shudderingly away from it. One of the best, but easily over-looked, poems in the sequence is ‘Senex on Market Street’, which starts with an unattributed line from Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 1’. Dunn perfectly evokes that poignant reaction of the old who suddenly find themselves in the presence of the young, and of sex. He’s being overtaken by a new generation, quite literally so. ‘Posh totty totter past on serious heels’. These are St Andrews students, and some of them really do turn up for Shakespeare seminars in Louboutins. And the teacher, who just a couple of pages earlier in ‘Thursday’ has been rhyming deprecatingly about his own boring delivery, this time addresses the students more personally: ‘Young women, and young men, I, too, was young – / Believe that if you can – but years go by / Until, one day, you find your songs are sung’. It would be worth dwelling for a moment or two on the punctuation of those three lines. As Dunn knows from listening to Lester Young solos, it’s where you place the pauses that makes the music. The ending of the poem is devastating, and each time I’ve looked at the book I’ve had to put it down at this point. ‘I loved a woman who dressed as well as you;’ – no commas needed this time – ‘But I can’t give the past false emphasis, / For even old love is for ever new. // When she walked out she dulcified the air; / And so do you. To say so’s only fair’. Here, the only valid descriptor is ‘Shakespearean’, and in years to come ‘Senex in Market Street’ should be printed in new editions as Sonnet 155.
Though not exclusively a noticer, when Dunn’s eye is in he’s unbeatable. The Forth Bridge, seen on the approach to Edinburgh Airport, is a ‘queue of dinosaurs’. Perfect. More arresting, though, is the ability to recreate the personality of another, like the tramp in ‘An Alternative Map of Scotland’, or the dead old friend in the long ‘Near Myths’, which is a kind of love poem, full of honest admiration, laddish recall, shared experience too private for other eyes but laid out for us generously by Dunn ‘In my Zhivago hut, nursing arthritis / With whisky, note-book, pen, and ink,’ wearing a Churchillian siren-suit and writing with his gloves on. He’s reached a peak of art and wisdom that now means he doesn’t really need to write with the gloves off.
Some of the most arresting lines in Terry Street were like the wind that blows into Hull (and maybe St Andrews, too) straight from Siberia, lines about tarts and trawler-men, dog-shit frozen on the streets. The gift of sympathy, if not always of empathy, was already there, but it has deepened and extended over the years, and with it a steadily strengthening conviction that the poem, or the picture, or the music isn’t everything but it’s pretty much all we’ve got to mitigate the chaos and pain. Back in 1974, in a wonderful poem ‘I Am a Cameraman’, which manages to allude to the Auden/Isherwood generation, Dunn recalled the insufficiency of mere observation, of observing suffering with documentary detachment. Film, he says, there, using film as a metaphor for all kinds of ethical and artistic response, is ‘a silent waste of things happening’. There is no call to arms here, no injunction to become engaged. ‘Politics softens everything. / Truth is known only to its victims. / All else is photographs – a documentary / The starving and the playboys perish in. / Life disguises itself with professionalism.’ This is the best possible pre-text for The Noise of a Fly, whose core insistence is that life can’t be professionalised; it just has to be lived. The only item here that smacks of a public poet writing public poetry is ‘English (a Scottish essay)’, which in striking ways recalls the long prospectus-poems of his St Andrews colleague Robert Crawford. It isn’t so much out of place in this collection as worthy of a chapbook, broadside or pamphlet of its own.
For the rest, the cadences and rhythms of The Noise of a Fly could hardly be more perfectly realised. Roy Fuller used to say that verse should be read in exactly the same way and at exactly the same pace as fictional prose. Here’s an example for which that sometimes wishful injunction really works, a poetry book that cries out to be read and re-read, end to end, with just a little eye-prickling stutter at the end of the sonnet on page 19 and a chastened sense that, in the words of the other Donne, ‘So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spirituall things, perfect in this world’. This is his gift on his own 75th. Happy birthday, Douglas Dunn. Happy birthday, us.