Beckett The Poet
The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett Edited by Seán Lawlor and John Pilling. Faber and Faber, 499pp. £30
IN SAMUEL BECKETT’S unpublished short story Echo’s Bones, the anti-hero of More Pricks Than Kicks, Belacqua Shuah, returns from the dead and watches a groundsman open his grave only to find a handful of stones. As Beckett’s archive continues to open up, it has discharged not just a few stray fossils but a veritable quarry of material, with two volumes of letters since 2009 and two more to come, not to mention the prospect of Echo’s Bones and Beckett’s German diary of 1936-7.
While some authors’ posthumous work threatens to swamp their published oeuvre (Philip Larkin springs to mind), Beckett has yet to reach any such tipping point, and with the publication of his Collected Poems we at last have a reliable text of all the poetry Beckett published in his lifetime and the fullest picture to date of his uncollected and unpublished poems: it marks a key moment in Beckett studies, joining the revised editions of his prose that have appeared in recent years and with the bonus of a full scholarly apparatus.
In later life Beckett was highly intolerant of his pre-Murphy prose but always looked fondly on his early poems, or the published ones at least. His hyperallusive juvenilia will continue to baffle most readers, butterflies of poems trapped at the larval stage with little prospect of ever taking wing. In Casket of Pralinen for a Daughter of a Dissipated Mandarin he despairs of his obscurantist muse: “I am ashamed in the end / of this dud artistry, / I am ashamed of presuming / to align words, / of everything but the ingenuous fibres / that suffer honestly.”
With Echo’s Bones (the 1935 poetry collection, not the short story) the redundancies and “loutishness of learning” begin to fall away. The parched beauty and delicacy of The Vulture, Alba and Dortmunder place them among his best poems, while the hectic narratives of Serena II and Serena III (“keep on the move”) show a Beckett chained to the “oar of my fidgets” with exquisite masochistic fury.
Twelve French poems from 1937-9 represent his first creative breakthrough in his adoptive language, while the postwar years produced a clutch of serenely eerie lyrics, including my way is in the sand, what would I do and (perhaps his single most perfect poem), Saint-Lô:
Vire will wind in other shadows
unborn through the bright ways tremble
and the old mind ghost-forsaken
sink into its havoc
As a soundtrack to apocalypse, Derek Mahon has suggested, the music of these lines encompasses Schubert, Messiaen and Ligeti. Mention of music should remind us that Beckett was a poet of the jazz age too, as we see in one of his most interesting translations, of Ernst Moerman’s Louis Armstrong, which originally appeared in Nancy Cunard’s Negro Anthology.