Shadows, ghosts and havoc


POETRY: GERALD DAWEreviews Selected Poems 1930-1989by Samuel Beckett, Faber & Faber 192pp, £12.99

BEFORE HE WAS anything else Samuel Beckett was a poet. He wrote poetry as a young man, living a somewhat bilocated life, first in Dublin in the 1920s and early 1930s, between home life and college life – at Trinity College, where he had rooms – and between Dublin, London and Paris, where he eventually settled and remained, from his return there after the liberation to his death, 20 years ago, in his early eighties.

The poems Beckett wrote in the 1930s were published in “little magazines” in all three cities, and he made a name for himself as a poet in the small avant-garde groups that clustered around publications such as Dublin Magazine, transitionand TS Eliot’s the Criterion, before George Reavey, the northern Irish poet, translator and editor, published Echo’s Bones and other Precipitatesin 1935, through his Europa Press, based at 13 Rue Bonaparte in Paris.

In the preceding five years Beckett had published with the Hours Press the provocatively obfuscating Whoroscope(1930), the succinct and stimulating essay Proust(Chatto Windus, London, 1932) and, with the same publishing house, More Pricks than Kicks(1934), a collection of interconnected stories that, with his novel Murphy(1938), included some seriously mocking gibes at the expense of the Dublin literary scene from which Beckett was slowly but ineluctably withdrawing. Beckett was also translating poetry from French into English and beginning to write poetry in French, the language in which he would later write all his major fiction and drama.

In the years leading up to the publication of Echo’s BonesBeckett had resigned from his lectureship at Trinity, experienced the loss from tuberculosis of his cousin Peggy Sinclair, to whom he was much attached, and also lost his beloved father to a fatal heart attack (in 1933). “He was in his sixty first year,” writes Beckett in a most poignant letter to Thomas MacGreevy, his fellow Trinity graduate and Paris-based poet, “but how much younger he seemed and was . . . He lay in bed with sweet pea all over his face, making great oaths that when he got better he would never do a stroke of work . . . All the little things come back . . . I can’t write about him, I can only walk the fields and climb the ditches after him.”

During this time too Beckett had psychoanalysis and was afflicted with an extraordinary range of physical conditions and complaints and psychic pressures that seemed to culminate in the random attack on a Paris street when, in 1938, he was stabbed by a street pimp in Montparnasse.

Throughout these travails the landscape and voice of his home life in south Co Dublin – the views and rituals of his Protestant upbringing there as much as the social and religious customs of the upper middle class – started to work their way through the fug of his scholastic self-absorption and the heavily juiced influence of Joyce – with whom Beckett had established, via MacGreevy, a deep and “un-explicatable” artistic relationship.

The 1930s, in other words, made Beckett, and in his writing of the time we can hear the changes take place as he first reaches inwards to find, or release, the sound of the voices that would, by the 1950s and 1960s, become known worldwide as “Beckettian”. Solitary, brave, broken, ludicrous, end-of-the-tether, tenterhooked voices, male and female, at times androgynously free of body but instead like quirks of spirit, will o’ the wisps looking down on us or communing astrally from some place of memory.

But first Beckett had to get clear of the likes of this:

Faulhaber, Beeckman and Peter the Red

come now in the cloudy avalanche or

Gassendi’s sun-red

crystally cloud

and I’ll pebble you all your hen-and-a-half ones

or I’ll pebble a lens under the quilt in the

midst of day.

In Echo’s Boneshe started the purge and produced, alongside the abstruse and arcane, some poems of real emotional depth, with sound values that could withstand the test of time rather than depend upon a lexicon of encyclopaedic reference:

I trundle along rapidly now on my ruined feet

flush with the livid canal;

at Parnell Bridge a dying barge

carrying a cargo of nails and timber

rocks itself softly in the foaming cloister of

the lock;

on the far bank a gang of down and outs

would seem to

be mending a beam.

Selected Poems 1930-1989, edited masterfully by David Wheatley, with a model and refreshingly lucid introduction, accompanied by smart, unfussy notes, is an ideal introduction to Beckett the poet as he goes on his journey between and within cities and cultures, translating what he imagines – in Rimbaud Le Bateau Ivre (Drunken Boat)or Apollinaire Zone, for instance – to his own shocks and survivals, as in the war-blasted landscape of Saint-Lôthrough which the river meanders:

Vire will wind in other shadows

unborn through the bright ways tremble

and the old mind ghost-forsaken

sink into its havoc

Shadows, ghosts and havoc are all Beckett’s stock in trade, but we should never discount the “bright ways” that he saw and heard as an artist, the laughter in the dark and the images of his family, their community and the shared if fraught home that he could never leave behind:

my way is in the sand flowing

between the shingle and the dune

the summer rain rains on my life

on me my life harrying fleeing

to its beginning to its end

Approaching 75 years since the publication of Echo’s Bones, and now with this valuable and portable Selected Poemsto hand, Beckett’s time has come around again, for sure.

Gerald Dawe’s Country Music: Uncollected Poems 1974-1989and The World as Province: Selected Prose 1980-2008were published last month. He teaches at Trinity College Dublin