In May 1980 Samuel Beckett was in London at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, using it as a rehearsal space for Endgame about to be performed in Dublin. For twenty minutes I watched Beckett quietly, yet emphatically, directing the actor playing Hamm. It was captivating: akin to a conductor instructing a chamber orchestra. The music of the dialogue being as important as its sense. ‘The man came crawling towards me, on his belly. Pale, wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of-‘ Beckett asked for a greater stress on the ‘r’ in ‘wonderfully’ to make it almost sound like ‘wondrous.’
Afterwards I approached him and asked him if he would sign my hardcover of the Beckett trilogy (Molly, Malone Dies and The Unnameable.) As he held the book, and took out his fountain pen, I said I greatly admired his work. Then I dared to add a qualifying ‘but.’ That his prose slightly appealed to me more than his plays. At that he paused, in the signing, looked kindly at me, and almost, but not quite, smiled in agreement.
Looking back I suppose I might have been cheeky and added that his prose was preferable to his poetry. Would he have agreed? Maybe he’d have repeated what he once said of his poetry collection Echoes Bones (1930) that is was the ‘work of a very young man who had nothing to say and the itch to make.’ And that poetry was not his true medium of expression?
Re-reading Beckett’s Poems, 1930-1989 I still feel the same way about them. That Beckett, the poet, was a brilliantly erudite man who reveled in his influences – Jonathan Swift, the German Romantics, Dante and very strongly T.S.Eliot. Their influential wit and melancholy combating oddly with Beckett’s passionate interest in French philosophy, especially Descartes and Pascal.
Beckett’s early 1930 verse, and to a lesser degree the later poems, have a hermetic density requiring foot-notes and scholarly elucidation. It’s not that these are bad poems but frustratingly forbidding. You can glimpse the emergence of the authentic Beckett voice. But I feel that poetry, as a literary form, constrained him. He is not a great poet. Yet he is undoubtedly a very great, poetic writer and real ‘poetry’ sings out wonderfully in his plays, novels, short stories and prose fragments
For me there are seven poems and two translations that I absolutely cherish. These are Alba, Cascando, Saint-Lo, Dieppe, my way is the sand flowing, what would I do without this world, I would like my love to die, Drunken Boat (from Rimbaud) and Zone (from Apollinaire). As for the rest of his oeuvre? Of course being a Beckett completest I own a copy of the poems. If only to tackle the more hermetic verse for its incidental pleasures – a solving of puzzles. So I’ll deal with the forbidding ones first.
The poetry set in London (eg,Serena 1) has an eccentric charm that’s much better realized in his very funny, London-based comic novel, Murphy (1938 ). Whilst Whoroscope (1930) for which he won a poetry competition is apparently based on a 17th century biography of Descartes. It concerns Descartes liking of his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days. If the eggs were shorter or longer than that, then he thought them disgusting. Some intermittent, mad comic moments, try to liven up this long, and rather show-off, poem. Lovely gems like ‘Them were the days I sat in the hot-cupboard throwing Jesuits out of the skylight.’or ‘he buttoned on his redemptorist waistcoat.’
‘Slobbery assumption of the innocents/two Irish in one God’ and ‘Where the arms of girls are bare as jets of water.’ Again arresting lines. One funny. The other lyrical. You’ll find other such striking assertions in most of the poems. Yet all the time be longing for them to fully engage your attention, work as poems. Only on returning to my seven selected poems and two translations, is Sam’s poetry redeemed. Here are some major Becketian statements.
Sample this poem from 1947.
‘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
My peace is there in the receding mist / when I may cease from treading these long shifting thresholds
And live the space of a door / that opens and shuts
That’s a piece of stark, profound simplicity. It’s as if Dante and Eliot were meeting Beckett at a crossroads to hold a conversation about the brevity of life. Eventually telling Beckett to ‘gladly take from us both, and go that way with your own voice, Sam.’
Or experience Saint-Lo (1946)
Virs will wind in other shadows / unborn through the bright ways tremble / and the old mind ghost-forsaken / sink into its havoc
Here’s the Beckettian mind-set, of his characters, right on the very edge of appearing in print. Molly and Malone of his 1951 novels, Molly and Malone Dies, will experience such mental havoc and physical discomfort, gratefully punctured by Beckett’s bleak, but deeply compassionate, humour.
I don’t want to quote from the other poetic successes. Buy the complete poems. Agree or disagree with my choices, my comments. You’ll have your own favourites. And can maybe prove to me that overall Beckett is a more consistently accomplished poet than I have made him out to be. Yet I suspect that you will return more to the stronger voice of his other writings. A deeply poetic voice ( in my mind I still hear Beckett’s calm Irish brogue ) that said so much that was unerringly true about our human condition.