Man Does, Woman Is
The Mad Islands and The Administrator, Two Radio Plays
There are ten pieces or so in Graves’s latest volume which I think he will want to preserve in any future editions of Collected Poems. The rest, to greater or lesser degree, show a falling off, manner without manna, so to speak, as here, the unconsciously comic (the poet is addressing a woman): “Light as a bird now, you descend at dawn/ From the poplar bough or ivy bunch/ To peck my strawberries…,” or, “Befriend us, Time, Love’s gaunt executor!” These poems conclude a sequence Graves began a few years back and which—as he notes in that decorous old-fashioned lingo seemingly employed simply not to be in fashion—dramatize “the vicissitudes of poetic love,” love walking “on a knife-edge between two different fates”—love requited and unrequited, presumably. Of course, right now, and at long last, Graves is very much “in.” By poets of the Movement, for instance, he is frequently invoked when set against the gloomy bulwarks of modernism.
His poems are generally regarded as sunbursts of sanity. But they seem to me a good deal more complex—tricky, I should say. His friend T. E. Lawrence wrote: “You are a queer mixture. You scold the world like a slutty Joan Keel-the-pot, in one line and append a poem like ‘to the Galleys’ a minute later…You are a psychologist in one eye, and jaundiced in the other.” And in Shenandoah’s symposium salute (Winter 1962), G. S. Fraser recalls that “an expert on Giorgione, an admirer of Berenson, confessed to me he found both Graves’ poems, and the personality revealed in these poems, desperately unpleasant; he thought the poems might possibly have prevented Graves from going mad, but that was all that could be said for them.”
Unpleasantness of another sort has been evident elsewhere: Graves’s critical thunderbolts unleashed against Nietzsche and Freud, or Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, twinkle with panache, pedantry and, I think it may be said, spite. If it is true Graves won’t suffer fools gladly, it is even truer he suffers his betters not at all. His betters represent modernism, a bête noire; Graves can be bluntly idiosyncratic, but he is essentially still in what he himself calls the Anglo-Irish tradition. Compare him with Joyce: both suggest the cunning of an exile, both are myth-minded. Graves’s “the sea like a cat with fur rubbed the wrong way” is a bright muscular observation; Joyce’s “the snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea” exists in a different world altogether. Nor has Graves, however ghost-ridden, quite forsaken the castle-building of the Georgians. The Hodgson-like tremulos (“…Soft words of grace he spoke/Unto lost desert-folk/That listened wondering…”) reappear in later things, “Alexander and Queen Janet,” for instance, and more than once in the volume under review. Of course over the decades Graves’s diction has toughened remarkably at times to a kind of tight naturalness, yet that naturalness is not really contemporary even when essaying colloquialisms. From Man Does, Woman Is, here is “Not …