Roy Fisher, one of the significant British Modernist poets of the mid- and late twentieth century, is a poet who perhaps never courted a large readership, or a trajectory you could call a ‘career’. He was rumoured to have stopped writing altogether for a time when he first discovered that people he didn’t know were reading his work. But his reputation has continued to grow, and he is ripe for rediscovery by a younger generation.
Roy Fisher was born in 1930 and grew up in Birmingham, in the Midlands of England: a place he has described as being "supposed to be nowhere at all". He went to school and then university in Birmingham, and his first full-length book was an innovative mixture of prose and poetry evoking the city – and entitled City, as he sought to avoid the stereotypical negative associations the name 'Birmingham' would have had for readers.
Fisher taught English before retiring from the University of Keele in 1982, and since then he has been a freelance writer and jazz musician. He has published over thirty books of poetry, and several more have been published on the subject of his work. But although he is recognised now, his early work came up through the countercultural small press movement of the fifties and sixties, well outside the mainstream of British poetry. City, which is – typically in Fisher's work – a long poem, rather than a collection of poems, ranges from urban description to surreal vision, by way of various stylistic devices. Written in plain English that, as Marianne Moore said of William Carlos Williams, even "cats and dogs can read", Fisher's poetry never departs from the primacy of the image. As WC Williams famously said: "no ideas but in things".
Thus Fisher gives us "brickdust in sunlight", "a dry, epic flavour, whose air is human breath". The 'thing' in Fisher is place, landscape, the physical conditions that pertain – that we have made, or that have made us. In 'The Thing About Joe Sullivan' (that so-difficult thing to write, a poem about music), he gives us a physicality of sound – sound as a sort of process of landscape:
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous . . .
In 'The Memorial Fountain', he shows the people in the landscape:
bitten against the air.
in the presence of things,
no matter what things;
people on the public seats
embedded in it, darkening
intelligences of what's visible;
private, given over, all of them –
Fisher's ambitious book-length poem A Furnace is regarded by many as his most important work. Published in 1986 by Oxford University Press, it was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation – a long way from his first, small-press publications. The book carries on the work begun in City as a response to the industrial past of the city – Birmingham again. The poem is heavily influenced by the Welsh writer John Cowper Powys (variously described as "that gigantic mythopoeic literary volcano" by Philip Larkin or, apocryphally, in an article by his biographer, Dr Morine Krissdottir, as a "crackpot mystagogue").
The presence of Powys – also the book's dedicatee – is significant; his ideas were central to the conception of the book. As Fisher writes in his preface: "the idea that the making of all kinds of identities is a primary impulse which the cosmos itself has"; and "the description of a lost poem which gains its effects by the superimposition of landscape upon landscape rather than rhythm upon rhythm".
and there is seeming ancient;
new, and seeming new –
venerable cancer, old as the race . . .
Parable of the One and the Many. Presences
flaring out from the wet flints
at Knowlton ruin,
multiple as beans, too small and irregular
to distinguish or call names. Divide:
Some god, isolated
by a miscalculation, cut off
from his fellows, hauled in
across the bank to clear the green
ring of its demons; churched over;
and in his time forsaken.
They ate him,
and drank him,
and put his little light out and left.
In this quest for a version of Englishness that defies time, overrides trends, sees through to the Ancient, Fisher is in spirit here with Basil Bunting – that other brilliant UK Modernist, whose long poem Briggflatts defines a genre – or even the Geoffrey Hill of Mercian Hymns.
upon landscape. The method
of the message lost
in the poetry of Atlantis . . .
This harks back to a memorable, slightly surreal, as if cartoon-animated, passage in City, which feels like a platform for Fisher's vision:
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since 2005, Fisher has received the Andrew Kelus Poetry Prize, the Cholmondeley Award, and the Hamlyn Award. His collection Standard Midland was shortlisted for the Costa Prize in 2010, and the judges' statement serves as an apt summation of his position in British poetry: "Witty, profound and moving . . . ; a wonderfully varied testament to a very English blend of imagination and reserve."
Roy Fisher lives in a village in Derbyshire.
The Long & the Short of It: Poems 1955-2010, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2012
Standard Midland, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2010
The Long & the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 2005
The Dow Low Drop: New & Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, 1996
Poems 1955-1987, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988
A Furnace, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986
City, Migrant Press, Worcester, 1961
Roy Fisher: Nineteen Poems and an Interview, Grosseteste Press, Pensnett, 1975
Peter Robinson, ed., An Unofficial Roy Fisher, Shearsman, Bristol, 2010
Peter Robinson and John Kerrigan, eds, The Thing About Roy Fisher: Critical Essays on the Poetry of Roy Fisher, Liverpool University Press, 2000
Tony Frazer, ed., Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose, Shearsman, Bristol, 2000
Robert Sheppard and Peter Robinson, eds, News for the Ear: a homage to Roy Fisher, Stride Publications, Exeter, 2000
Review of Fisher's Selected Poems in The Nation
Fisher in conversation with John Tranter for Jacket magazine