Friday, 11 May 2012

Whatever Sends The Music Into Time

Todd Swift on Leah Fritz's New & Selected Poems from Salmon

There are a number of Americans who have come to London over the past 100 or so years, and made an impact - one thinks of Robert Frost, Eliot, Pound, and then later, Donaghy.  Today, there are a good dozen excellent American expat poets who mainly publish in the UK, and are better known, sometimes, here than "back home" - Liane Strauss, Kathryn Maris, Tamar Yoseloff, Katy Evans Bush, Ruth Fainlight, and Leah Fritz, come to mind.

Fritz is a very interesting instance of this expatriation.  Before she moved to London in the mid-80s, in her 50s, she had been a very vocal and visible member of the feminist movement in America, based for a time in New York, writing articles and books in the 60s and 70s. For instance, Andrea Dworkin's great work, Intercourse, is dedicated to Fritz.  Fritz's archives are at Duke University.  When she settled near Sylvia Plath's final flat, in Primrose Hill (purely by accident), she began to discover her true vocation was poetry.  What followed were several decades of writing poetry, and being a very welcome and benevolent presence on the London poetry scene.

Fritz's poems, gathered here in a handsome edition by Irish press Salmon Publishing with a striking cover image by the poet's artist husband, Howard Fritz, have had a frustrating reception history.  While several of her best poems have, over the past 25 years, appeared in PN Review, Poetry Review, Acumen and Ambit, her collections were with small presses, including the particularly odd Bluechrome, whose publisher seems to have literally disappeared.  It has struck me as eccentric or a little unfortunate for such an excellent poet to be marginalised with small Bristol-based presses - but that is how the British poetry world often works.  It is rare for American and Canadian poets of even the first-rank to be published by established larger presses in the UK, even if they live here (Salt and Seren have somewhat altered that story of late); nor was she published much in America during this time.

That lack of always-fortunate mainstream publication has now changed with this superb overview of her poetry oeuvre, which has come at a key moment in her late career, at the moment she is writing her best work.  Fritz, who is in her early 80s now, has, perhaps without many people realising it, become a poet of minor greatness.  That is, while no claim for her being a major American poet of our time would be fully credible, it is hard to read these 160-odd pages of poetry and not feel a thrill of recognition: Fritz has become a brilliant minor poet of the first rank, one that all American poets and critics (at least) need to include in their thinking.

What Fritz does best is thinking aloud, in poems that are often musical and usually formal.  It is as if The New York School had fused with The Movement.  These are poems of the city, of art, of desire, of remembrance, of atheism, of fear of death - and also, politics. And also, it must be said, reflections on the act of being a poet. There is a verve and tang to the diction which is American, but the shaping lyric intelligence owes far more to a British sensibility.  Many of the poems are satirical, but enough are lyrical, and compassionate, to surprise the reader.  An excellent example of her stylish brio can be found in a new poem from the selection, 'Conundrum', reprinted in full below:

Often I veer from wanting to be good
to doing what is right, and back again.
They're not the same.  To open up the flood-
gates of my heart may simply drown my brain;
to stem that tide with reason, just restrain
a passion that has instinct on its side.

And what accounting must I make for pride?
To attract new friends and keep the old, to please
my love beyond the argument of skin,
must I consider each antipathy,
concur with every shibboleth?  How thin
is such affection!  What's then left of me?
But, truly, would I ever surrender love
when there's no other cause I'm certain of?

This poem is a fine instance of the Fritz mode: elegant, rhetorical, discursive, and formally poised - it's also smart, and infused with a sense of the irony of poetic tension.  Fritz, indeed, yokes together many unusual tendencies into one poetic imagination - atheist and seeker of social justice, lover of old movies, and modern art, formalist, and radical - her reading of contemporary English poets, especially, has raised her game, to the point where perhaps ten or more of the poems collected here in Whatever Sends The Music Into Time, including the title poem, might be possible classics of a kind, the sort that would not look out of place in the next Norton anthology.  It is certainly hard to imagine a more intelligent, committed and witty American poet now writing in her 80s.  I would like to end with the opening poem in the book, which I think is very subtle and moving in its enjambments and mirroring, and its sly references to Crane and Yeats, titled 'Where Were You':

Where were you when I needed you, the year
the old man died, the year I got the plague
of womanhood, the year the sailor jumped
me in the park, the year I started out
to think of love, hugging my schoolbooks to
my breast?  You weren't one of those who hung
out on the corner of my eye, who stood
apart and held me when the old man died.

And when I started out to think of love
and caught the plague of womanhood, where were
you when the sailor jumped me in the park?
Where were you when the boy who looked so like
you stood apart and held me quietly
the day the old man died, that fourteenth spring
when everything changed, everything?

Fritz combines poetic craft with craftiness, and is a poet all readers who enjoy subtle poetic ratiocination and feistiness combined (a rare marvel that) should seek out.
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