ONCE, AS THE QUOTATIONS ASSEMBLED on the back of Popping Fuschias remind me, I remarked "Perhaps more than any other Canadian poet, (Robin) Skelton belongs not to one part but to the whole of the English poetic tradition."
Now in his Popping Fuschias (Cacanadadada $12.95) we find Skelton going beyond the bounds of English poetry and using as structural exemplars forms derived from quite other poetic traditions. He draws on medieval Provence, that troubadours' fountain of lyrical invention which already inspired Pound and the Imagists at the beginning of the century. And within the borders of his own native island he goes to the original linguistic tradition, and writes poems in several of the traditional metres recognized by the bards at the great eisteddfodau, the gatherings of Welsh poets.
All this gives added interest to what is an exciting and highly re-readable late volume of verse. For, without abandoning free verse, Skelton has of necessity been reasserting the validity of more or less fixed and traditional poetic forms. We need them all, he is virtually saying in his "Afterword", for the scope of our poetry to project the variety and the endless evolution of thought and language. Many of the great modernists in poetry came near to Skelton's viewpoint. Eliot, Auden, Spender, Thomas, Fuller, all of them turned back to traditional format least partially at the height of their careers. And I personally, to whom poetry has for long been avocation rather than vocation, have found in resuming it as a vocation the need to try myself on sonnets and sestinas just to make sure that free verse is not an idle habit into which I have fallen and that I can still perform the traditional poetic exercises.
All this display of poetic versatility--for such Popping Fuschias is--reminds us of Skelton's ever-wider importance as a moving influence in Canadian writing for many years, and of the wisdom one finds exemplified not only in the playful gravity of his work but also in the insights that so often permeate his words and actions. There is a kind of all-embracing knowledge ability that provokes an awe of Skelton in those who know him. Skelton has also been a good editor on several levels. His Malahat Review was the only truly international literary review published in Canada and one of the best of this country's magazines. His editing of the plays of J. M. Synge was impeccable, and as well he wrote two first-rate books on the Irish author as well as a good book on Ruskin.
But perhaps most of all one thinks of Skelton as the author of regular books of poetry over the years, endlessly honing the language in search of words' full power and meaning, and of the heretical troths they contain. It is enough to keep to the book under review and point to the extraordinary virtuosity in Popping Fuschias. It is combined with an almost archaeological sense of the importance of a poetic tradition, not only in providing models, but also in transmitting a line of resistance to power and its distortions that marked the poetic ages which Skelton's present experiments revive in one's mind.
The bardic tradition in Wales, stemming from Taliesin, was the only successful continuation of the Cymric resistance under Arthur and later Llewellyn to the Saxon and then the Norman invaders. Many Provencal poets were fervent adherents of that marvellous Gnostic heresy of Catharism which Simon de Montfort, ironically celebrated as a defender of the rights of the English, suppressed with such cruelty in the name of a dogmatic and then highly corrupt Church of Rome. One might regard Skelton as the same kind of poetic rebel in the cause of ancient values through his exposition and indeed his practice of Wicca, the ancient witchcraft cult which one can roughly associate with white magic, a positive connection with the natural and spiritual worlds that, like most good movements and attitudes, has long been maligned.
It is perhaps from the inner calmness of that tradition, which has made Skelton a notable healer (as I can bear personal witness) and has led to his writing books on talismans and spells, that he can write poems of such simplicity and insight as "By the Grave."
Standing beside this grave I look for things to believe. What has gone has gone easily as illusion,
as for me it will go
the sky all over blue, the green grass
and the cat and every verse I wrote
emptied, a water skin
spilled upon the desert stone snow vanished in the sun a far faint echo gone.
Yet I must celebrate head and hand and heart, sight and touch and taste, and listening and light, ephemeral though they are, keeping myself aware of how this that will pass must keep a human house.
There is a great tradition in English and even American poetry (think only of Emily Dickinson) of expressing spiritual thoughts, the truths of death or faith that brush against one as insubstantially and yet as strongly as the wind, in quiet, unelaborate style.
It seems to me that in "By the Grave" and in other poems of Popping Fuschias Skelton has done this. He is serious, ingenious and profound. What else can one ask of a poet in this or any age?
George Woodcock is a Kerrisdale anarchist, historian, critic and poet who has written more books than many people read in a lifetime.
[BCBW, Summer, 1993]