The enigmatic Samuel Beckett still thrills

The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett - review.

Samuel Beckett.
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: Getty Images

The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett
Edited by Seán Lawlor and John Pilling
Faber & Faber, 528pp, £30

Samuel Beckett’s poems may well constitute the least-known part of his literary output. Nearly 23 years after his death, Beckett’s plays continue to be performed around the world and there is no reason to suppose they will drop from the repertoire. His novels retain a strong, if cultish, following and are currently being reissued in corrected editions. The later, very short prose texts – dry, spare, unaccommodating fictions, or meditations on the futility of fiction – hold on, too, to their sui generis status, impossible to ignore. The poems, however, have pretty much fallen from view.

The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, edited by John Pilling and the late Seán Lawlor, presents as strong a case as could be made for re-evaluation. It is, first of all, a labour of scholarship, establishing definitive texts for a body of work that was produced sporadically and scrappily over a long lifetime and that passed, in the process, through some notoriously wayward printings.

One has to wonder if the author greatly cared about such matters, when he was so ready to disparage his own verses: “turds from my Central Lavatory”, he once called them. But, given the scatological vein that runs throughout his oeuvre, it is possible that he meant this as an expression of pride.

Rumours and myths about the poems obscure the matter further. The first known, “Whoroscope”, was, by the author’s own account, composed – all 98 lines of it – in the course of an evening, with a break for supper, to meet the deadline of a poetry competition that it then won. The last, “what is the word”, is sometimes said to have been a deathbed gasp. Rather than seeking to arbitrate, Lawlor and Pilling merely give us the pertinent documentary and bibliographical evidence, from which we can draw our own conclusions. This seems the proper, scholarly procedure, measured research and care not to overstate a case being in themselves marks of respect, even tenderness, towards their subject.

Editorial notes make up a good half of this volume and one steps across to them, from the frequently exasperating poetry, with the satisfaction of placing one’s feet on more or less solid and helpfully signposted ground. The earlier the poems, the greater the need for notes. “Whoroscope” is characteristic of Beckett’s apprentice manner, combining heavily worn book learning with a strident, in-your-face brand of modernism. The present editors don’t supply answers to all its puzzles. The poem starts:

What’s that?
An egg?
By the brothers Boot it stinks fresh.
Give it to Gillot –

and immediately we ask: who are the brothers Boot? Who is Gillot? The notes don’t tell us, even though they guide us through what is known of Beckett’s reading of Descartes, who is revealed to be the speaker of the poem and whose taste for half-hatched eggs is the donnée of the opening outburst. The sheer oddity of this and the strenuously maintained obscurity of what follows are possibly the main point.

How Beckett arrived at such a style is worth considering. The misbehaving, satirical Pound of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius may have set an example, and yet the general tone of “Whoroscope” and of Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935), Beckett’s first published collection, far exceeds anything hitherto achieved by the older poet in terms of ostentatious rebarbativeness. Joyce, whose Work in Progress – later to become Finnegans Wake – would have been a recent discovery for Beckett, is another arguable father figure; but Joyce, even at his most enigmatic, wishes to charm the reader, while there is no hint of charm in the disdainful, jarring, swottier-than-thou rhetoric of Echo’s Bones.

The Beckett of this period seems bent on producing work as baffling as anything to be found in the clown scenes of Elizabethan drama, with their lowlife argot and throwaway topical allusions; only here the argot is a studiously wrought confection and the allusions, as often as not, are to aspects of Beckett’s life about which he alone could have known. The editors’ notes are especially enlightening in this regard.

After a period, roughly the middle and later 1930s, in which Beckett for the most part put aside poetry in favour of his novels, he returned to the genre. The development towards ever greater spareness of diction and suppression of drama that the novels enact is reflected in the changes we see in his poetic manner. Experience of the Second World War seems also to have had its effect – the four-line poem “Saint- Lô”, prompted by the cataclysmic bombing of the Norman town through which the River
Vire runs, is outstanding:

Vire will wind in other shadows
unborn through the bright ways tremble
and the old mind ghost-forsaken
sink into its havoc

This is not without its obscurity, or ambiguity, but we are at least able to feel that, whatever information has been withheld, the essence is not forbidden to us and can be distilled if we just keep these syntactically elusive, yet hauntingly cadenced, phrases alive in the mind. Tiny as it is, the poem is an aural event, beyond anything that the early work, for all its strutting and straining, ever achieved.

Snippets, scraps and squibs now became Beckett’s preferred poetic forms. Some were written in French, others in English, and they might be translated by the poet himself, with his infallible sense of idiomatic licence, either this way or that. The 1970s were a particularly fertile time – if that’s not too un Beckettian a way of putting it – as it was then that he produced a series of poems that he referred to as his “mirlitonnades”, which typically combine an off-the-cuff, doodling air with epigrammatic incisiveness. They are slight and it would be absurd to make extravagant claims for them, but, though often dour or drear in the sentiments they express, they are paradoxically sparky.

there
the life late led
down there
all done unsaid

goes one; and another:

rêve
sans fin
ni trêve
à rien

While holding the potential for a “late style” of profoundly experienced and exquisitely turned negativity, they soon, however, fizzled out. So it is all the more surprising and pleasing that Beckett’s very last poem, “what is the word”, should turn out to be the finest thing in the book. It feels like the sublimation of all – verse, drama and prose – that preceded it. An ingeniously sustained, 53-line stammer, it begins:

folly –
folly for to –
for to –
what is the word –
folly from this –
all this –
folly from all this –

and falters on down the page with a cumulative effect of deeply touching musicality. The voice we hear exemplifies the stoic injunction “Fail again. Fail better” of Worstward Ho – also a late work – but, more than that, it shows how beauty can be won from a vision as bleak as any other to be found in world literature.

Christopher Reid’s “Selected Poems” is published by Faber & Faber (£12.99).