Thursday, February 11, 2010

Roy Who?

Roy Broadbent Fuller was born 98 years ago today – and if you’ve never heard of him before, join the party.

Still, we should know about him – and that’s the injustice of literary evolution – the survival of the swankest, perhaps?

Right now I’m grooving on “A Reader’s Manifesto,” an essay which first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Atlantic Monthly by B.R. Myers. (The following year Myers turned around and expanded it into a book of the same name.)

In the great vein of cranky critics – such as Yvor Winters – Myers takes on the modern pantheon of the perceived “literary” novelists. His basic argument comes down to this – good writing is not dictated by who gets the most notice or discussion time in scholarly journals and classrooms, but by who can actually write well-constructed sentences, tell a good story and maintain a certain level of consistency from book to book.

His hit list of notorious offenders includes Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Annie Proulx, Don Delillo, Paul Auster and David Guterson, to name a few. If you don’t know any of these names, then chances are you’re doing well, as far as Myers is concerned.

On the other hand, some of his thumbs-up writers might surprise you as well - such as Stephen King, Louis L'Amour and Ken Follett.

Who knew?

Myers was dismissed as a crank (they always are) at the time the essay and book appeared, but I tend to think he was distressing his critics' vanity even as he was dressing down the emperor for his new clothes…

So what does all this have to do with Roy Fuller? His novel The Second Curtain happens to be one of the books Myer holds up as an exemplary work of neglected brilliance.

Like Alan Tate, Fuller was first and foremost a poet who also wrote happened to write novels – but unlike Tate, he was well known for his novels – and this is part of Myers’ point – at least at the time he was writing them. He took the opposite tack of Thomas Hardy, who began as a novelist and turned to poetry later in life.

But interestingly enough, Fuller also had a life outside literary circles. He was ambiguously associated with The Movement which included this Gerasene member's personal favorites Kingley Amis ("Lucky Jim") and Philip Larkin (Everything!) among its numbers. Having lived through the war as a special intelligence officer in the Royal Navy (1941-1946), Fuller took up work as an earnest solicitor (that’s English for “lawyer”) for a building company and made quite a name for himself in the professional world (much like Wallace Stevens at Hartford Insurance Co.).

Fuller was associated with the movement because his style was marked by the same sort of discipline in meter and imagery which served as The Movement's reactionary stance against the earlier generation of poets best embodied by Dylan Thomas. War, postwar conditions and general suckiness in the world had turned The Movement’s members against the free-wheelin' updated Romanticism of the Welshman’s loosey-goosey Christianity-on-Freudian-steroids imagery. While this style propelled Thomas to fame, making him a virtual rock star (sans musical instruments) in the 1950s, it registered nothing but a disconnection of sensibilities among the war-torn veterans who were writing verse.

However, Fuller was never completely associated with the movement, probably because, to be frank, he didn’t have the time. Between his lawyering and being named Professor of Poetry at Oxford (1968-1973), he probably had better things to do than hang out with fellow poets. After all, most poets, we're all painfully aware, usually have nothing better to do than drink, smoke, play cards and write on blogs about other poets…

Why the Critics Have Neglected Roy Fuller – or, How a Slow, Steady Burn Trumps a Flash in the Pan Every Time…

It is easy enough to note what Fuller has not done. In his period he has not written the most original poetry, nor the most lyrical, nor the profoundest, nor the most humorous, nor the most vibrant—the list could be extended—for one must take into account Ted Hughes, the venerable Robert Graves, Philip Larkin, Sir John Betjeman, and Stevie Smith among others. If it is possible to generalize about poets as diverse as those named, then it can be said these artists succeed on the whole by working a narrow and particularized approach. This is by way of identifying Fuller as a normalized generalist. Fuller's high profile representativeness is both his strength (and value) and limitation as a poet. Fuller does not lift the reader out of his being and does not afford him unusual or striking ways of apprehending experience; he does enable the reader to comprehend more penetratingly and feelingly a reality approximating his own sense of it. If he does not take the reader out of himself he permits him to more fully possess himself. Fuller has a worldliness, a flexibility, a balance, a totality of being not found in Hughes or Graves or Smith. This may make, finally, for a less impressive kind of poetry in a literary sense, but produces nonetheless moving and meaningful work in a humane one. Is it a fair kind of analogy to suggest that one would be more excited to meet Hughes or Graves than Fuller, but one would choose Fuller for extended personal friendship? – from a critical essay on Fuller by Allen E. Austin

Exemplary Poem by Roy Fuller

The Middle of a War

My photograph already looks historic.
The promising youthful face, the matelot's collar,
Say 'This one is remembered for a lyric.
His place and period – nothing could be duller.'

Its position is already indicated-
The son or brother in the album; pained
The expression and the garments dated,
His fate so obviously preordained.

The original turns away: as horrible thoughts,
Loud fluttering aircraft slope above his head
At dusk. The ridiculous empires break like biscuits.
Ah, life has been abandoned by the boats-
Only the trodden island and the dead
Remain, and the once inestimable caskets.

Roy Fuller Writing Assignment

Read a book or essay about one famous battle in history and find the “middle moment” when the tide turns and write about that moment in either a short story, a poem or an imaginary letter from a soldier in the battle. The piece of writing ought to be more than journalism – it ought to show the battle unfolding in real time. For inspiration, vide The Iliad, The Aeneid, Tolstoy, Churchill, Foote, etc.

POSTSCRIPT: This assignment was in part inspired by the fact that I was born in Freehold, NJ, which was the site of what many consider the "turning point" of the Revolutionary War - the Battle of Monmouth. The engagement itself resulted in a stalemate - but it was the first battle in which Washington proved he could actually bring a disciplined army onto the field - and in fact hold the field. Fought on a stifling 100+ degree summer day, the battle saw many on both sides die from heat exhaustion. Thus when Mary Hays took to the field with her pitchers of water, only to see her artilleryman husband fall to British bullets, she took the tamper and kept the cannons singing... She thus became known as Molly Pitcher.

Molly Pitcher was naturally a part of my native mythology. But I actually had to check to see she was a real person and not a figment of my own imagination. At any rate, Mary Hays may or mayn't have been Molly Pitcher (the current wisdom says she was a "composite" of several women who were bringing water to the continentals that day.) But her story remains fixed in my imagination (compare, by the way, the inclusion of women in battles in Herodotus, Thucydides, and Virgil.)


  1. Hi JOB,
    What's the scoop on the site? General theme? Is it permanent?

  2. CB,

    The word "commitment" was used. There's no theme - just having fun wishing our luminaries of the word (some of which also have a subscription to the Word) a happy birthday.

    I guess I'm also trying to see if I can come up with enough writing assignments that my children might actually benefit from them at some point in their rhetorical education...

    Thanks for tuning in - and stay tuned....