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IN SAMUEL BECKETT’S unpublished short story Echo’s Bones, the anti-hero of More Pricks Than Kicks, Belacqua Shuah, returns from the dead and watches a groundsman open his grave only to find a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text of all the poetry Beckett published in his lifetime and the fullest picture to date of his uncollected and unpublished poems: it marks a key moment in Beckett studies, joining the revised editions of his prose that have appeared in recent years and with the bonus of a full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.
Other people’s poetry inspired Beckett the translator in ways that prose and drama did not, and while his experience with the Unesco-funded Anthology of Mexican Poetry (patchily represented here) was not a happy one, other outstanding translations include his version of Apollinaire’s Zone and the scabrous “doggerelizings” of Chamfort he published in the 1970s. Translations are heavily represented in the new items here too, with versions of Mallarmé, Henri Michaux and André Breton reprieved at last from the pages of Transition.
Among the other new items in Collected Poems are a sprinkling of juvenilia, including a stirring salute to the human backside, Seats of Honour, a German version of Cascando, the missing mirlitonnades in English and French, and some late Epitaphs (“ochone ochone / dead and not gone”). To My Daughter predates his tryst with Mary Manning Howe by several years and is therefore categorically not addressed to any hypothetical child of that relationship. The satirical Antipepsis is firmly assigned to the 1940s rather than the preceding decade (Edith Fournier has insisted that it is Beckett’s response to the banning of More Pricks Than Kicks), while the Petit sot sequence of French poems, whose authorship remains disputed, is omitted.
Beckett wrote “Keep! for end” on the manuscript of what is the word, though in the event he did not have much keeping to do: it and its French translation, comment dire, were his last completed works. Beckett’s later writing concertedly strips away genre distinctions, but it is none the less revealing that he should have ended his writing career as he began it, 60 years previously, with a poem. Eschewing question marks throughout, what is the word ends by repeating its title across a stanza divide, the second line shedding the closing dash of the first. Is it even a question any more? Perhaps “the word” has been there, hidden in plain view, all along.
Reviewing Denis Devlin in 1938, Beckett punningly misspelled “Gelehrte” (scholars) as “Geleerte” (hollowed-out people), but Beckett has been served supremely well by the attentions of Seán Lawlor (who died in 2011) and John Pilling. The encasing greatcoat of scholarly apparatus, amounting to half the book, is impeccably tailored: this is an edition to compare to Haffenden’s Empson or Ricks’s Eliot. “Schopenhauer says defunctus is a very beautiful word,” Beckett wrote to Thomas MacGreevy in 1930, but even when playing dead, as it frequently does, Beckett’s poetry is full of the same feverish and unearthly energies that animate his fiction and drama.
What is the word? Those in search of the answer could do worse than start with these wonderful poems.
David Wheatley is a poet and critic