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Review: A Casual Knack of Living: Collected Poems, by Herbert Lomas

Alan Brownjohn, The Knack, Poetry Review Volume 100:1, Spring 2010

The title of Herbert Lomas's large, exuberant - and overdue - Collected Poems, a four hundred-page volume easy to browse and enjoy but hard to summarise, comes from an unremembered, yet once re-read unforgettable, early poem by Alan Ross, Survivors. Rescued from an icy sea with the ship burning in their eyes, the sailors on an Arctic mission taking supplies to a Soviet Union landlocked by war later recall the confusion and the oily dead, and sense how casual the knack (an inspired word) of normal, moment-to-moment living actuality is.

More later about the appropriateness of Lomas's title to the contents of his book. It's interesting to note first that in a brief preface (called simply A Word) he emphasises that his sixty-year output may be lightened by
humour but essentially reflects an incredibly cruel and mismanaged world, and the horrors and / the mismanagement are still going on.

He wants his poems to present a developing observer of his age, not only the wider horrors he can do little about but his profound personal loss and sadness. We soon see that they will not be a record of, or commentary on, events, but a series of strategies he has somehow acquired for coping with them - through a knack of understanding?

Born in 1924, Lomas saw army service on the north-west frontier (the boredoms and humiliations of soldiering subsequently recorded in A Useless Passion (1998)), went to Liverpool University, taught in London and Helsinki (receiving a notable honour for translating, and spreading the word about, Finnish literature), became an attentive and charitable critic for Alan Ross's London Magazine and Ambit, penned a short polemic on money- worship; and constantly produced poems' The earliest to reach a general readership were six with a distinct sixties pop poetry flavour in Michael Horovitz's Penguin Underground anthology Children of Albion in 1969, the same year as his first book, Chimpanzees are Blameless Creatures, was published. Only one is preserved here; Lomas was no follower of fashion and already more interested in asking questions and pursuing ideas, sometimes prophetically: Can we make buying and selling money / the main business till the big bang / reverses and contracts / towards the crunch?

In the mid-Seventies and Eighties the poems become more meditative, more rueful, although several spirited versions of Horace odes suggest the benefits accruing from translation work. This is a sensual poetry, full of, yes, a casual delight in living, but sometimes occasionally trapped in worried argument, as in Hamlet: What we really want to do / Is write, find / Verbal solutions for the universe. One important influence is gratefully acknowledged in one of his very best poems, Auden at his Villa on Ischia, in Public Footpath (1981). But Lomas charts a less relaxed progress into his Christian faith than the master, and it is not only readers who don't share it who find the variable fifty-two sections of the Dantesque Letters in the Dark (1986) a harder proposition: a modern man groping for security in religion without the infrastructure of certainties in a Herbert or Hopkins.

With his adjournment to life in Aldeburgh in his Sixties he finds not only a focus for some of his most approachable - and finest - later work, but time to explore and expand the memories of childhood and early manhood that lurked as small, poignant or sinister, reference in the early books: The Vale of Todmorden (part 1981 and part 2003; thus a remarkable achievement of his late seventies) finely recreates, in commanding detail, both a personal world and one familial- to his forebears; as in Depression:

malignant spirits materialise at will [...]
they hang about outside my bedroom door [...]
I feel safer in clothes.

I get in bed with them on. In the photo my face is pale, overtired,
with dark rings round the eyes,
knowing the black-winged bat behind me

filling the pavements with the unemployed.

The world remains mismanaged, but readers of this rich and formidable Collected will feel rewarded by the strategies - the clothes? - Herbert Lomas offers for surviving in it.