Perfect imperfection - lessons from the poetry of Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts in 1945
Readings: Matthew 5:43-48

On Reading Some Neglected Poets
by Michael Roberts (1902–1948)

This is a long road in a dubious mist;
Not with any groan nor any heard complaint
We march, uncomprehending, not expecting Time
To show us beacons.

When we have struggled on a little farther
This madness will yield of itself,
There will not be any singing or sudden joy,
But a load will be set down.

And maybe no one will ever come,
No other traveller passing that way,
Therefore the load we lifted will be left,
A milestone, insignificant.

Poem for Elsa

That day the blue-black rook fell pitifully dead
You wept and stormed, tossing your lovely head,
Hurling commiseration into broken skies
That wept and wept, vainly as any eyes.

You pitifully wept, nor would be comforted
Till a bedraggled robin chirped unfed
Begging for comfort-crumbs, and sought your aid
To mend a world you had not made.

You who compassionately wept, be with me still,
Though the wind lash the dark, the wooded hill;
The hand that let the wild wet creature ache
Moulded the heart that grieves, but shall not break.

The “parable of the bowl and pitcher” by George Kimmich Beach, a contemporary Unitarian theologian:

. . . as a potter you form a lump of clay, you make many decisions, exercising your freedom both consciously and instinctively, to one end, a finished ceramic. [. . .] The original decision in pottery making is not unlike the original decision in faith: once a direction is set, soon it will be too late to change your mind. Choosing a bowl excludes a pitcher. Now choices are being made within an ever narrowing range; necessity is closing in on the maker. But this is the miracle of creation: a reversal is also in progress, for the embrace of necessity gives birth to a greater freedom. With each new choice, new, more refined choices arise; creative freedom I growing exponentially. [. . .] The perfect end to the exercise of freedom is perfect necessity. We think: This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be! (In Walter P. Hertz, 'Redeeming Time', Skinner House Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 99-105)

-o0o-

We still find ourselves in the season of the New Year's resolution, that annual call to that hope for perfection in our lives. But, whilst I quite understand the healthy benefits of responding seriously to the call to repent of our bad ways and habits I must admit that I struggle with an underlying tendency in all this that haunts our generally Christian culture.

The spectre is, perhaps, best glimpsed in the common interpretation of one of the sayings attributed to Jesus, namely, the command found in Matthew's gospel to: "Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5.48).

It has become problematic because of our culture's tendency to think (onto)theologically in which God is traditionally accorded three "omnis" - God is a being who is believed to be Omnipotent (all-powerful), Omnipresent (all-present), and Omniscient (all-knowing). It is, of course, absolutely impossible to be as perfect as God is perfect if this is the case. Our own general powerlessness over most of what occurs even in my own limited lives, our own limited geographical presence in the world and our own overwhelming ignorance of so much, was (and remains) evident to us on an almost hour by hour basis. The perfection of such a God is not ours to be had and yet Jesus seems to be suggesting that we should seek this. This is surely to live a kind of Sisyphean nightmare - one in which we are forever doomed to fail in our task.

(Sisyphus, you recall, was a king who was punished by Zeus for his hubris and general deceitfulness by being forced to roll an enormous boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down to the bottom and to continue to do this for all time.)

I am sure that my early recognition of the impossibility of achieving any kind of success in the striving after such a divine perfection was key in my decision to explore other, more radical, immanent, wholly natural and non-theistic, understandings of God, the divine and the sacred - understandings which explored the idea of God as more akin to open creativity and process. They certainly led me to dispense with ideas of divine perfection with its Omnipotence, Omnipresence and Omniscience.

It was only because I was able to affect this move that I was, much later, able to rehabilitate and re-appropriate something important and healthy that seems analogous to Jesus' teaching and it is this that I would like to bring before you today for your consideration. It is the real, if always difficult, possibility of achieving the perfection - i.e. the completeness - appropriate to your own kind of being.

I first came across what this idea looked like in the real world when I was in my mid-teens by which time I had developed a deep and abiding passion for poetry. My English literature teacher - Mrs Hill - had done a pretty good job of introducing me to the "perfect" pinnacles of English poetry and, naturally, these examples gave me - and indeed, gave our whole culture - the primary, accepted bench-marks for my own efforts. I tried so hard to match their perfection in my own poetry but I failed, again and again and could not even feel, as Samuel Becket encouraged us, that I had at times "failed better". Instead I simply seemed to fail worse every time and this was a matter of great concern to me.

Although, at times, I thought about giving up my ambition to write poetry myself I had not at all run through the powerful irrepressible energy of youth and I continually found myself irresistibly drawn into every second-hand bookshop I came across to spend considerable time browsing through their poetry shelves. In one shop (sometime in the mid-eighties) I stumbled across a volume called "Michael Roberts: Selected Poems and Prose" (Carcanet Press, 1980) and, after reading through some of it, I was sufficiently struck by a couple of the poems to risk purchasing it. The one that struck home the deepest was "On reading some neglected poets"

Part of the reason for buying it (in addition to the picture on the front which I loved and which not only has graced the wall of my study since then but also appears towards the end of this post) was that I knew Roberts had been the editor of the first edition of a highly influential anthology which, thanks to Mrs Hill, I knew well, namely, "The Faber Book of Modern Verse". A book which opened up for me a wealth of new writers to explore. I figured that a man who knew so much about poetry would, himself, be a pretty good poet.

But, on asking around and looking up his name in other places, it became clear to me that Roberts was considered to be very much among the "second-rank" of English poets.

In the introduction to the book I bought that day Frederick Grubb tells us that Kathleen Raine (a friend of Roberts') wrote:

"His style lacks grace, but it is virile and firm. His imagery is not brilliant, like Auden's, or analysed to the last decimal point, like Empson's. He has no song, nor dance." 

Whilst C. A. Millspaugh in "Poetry" (Vol. 48, No. 6, Sept., 1936, pp. 343-345) reviewing Roberts' 1936 collection of poems wrote:

"When in 1930 Michael Roberts published These Our Matins, he appeared as a faulty poet, and now in 1936, with this new book to guide judgement, we find him essentially unimproved. Though these pages record a greater range of experience in a style that on the surface approximates the approved methods of the current English renaissance, they also prove that subject, however timely, cannot substitute for talent."

Ouch! It seems that he just wasn't up there with Eliot and Auden et. al. and, in the mind, and now memory, of the literary establishment he is now best known (if he is at all known), not for his own work, but for that anthology.

But the more I read him, the more I liked him and his work. I knew enough about poetry and its mores and prejudices to see why he was labeled "second-rate" but, as I continued reading, these reasons seemed less and less persuasive and the ranking system just seemed to fail to see something important about his work.

What I was beginning to see in reading Roberts was someone who was able to flourish in a way appropriate to their own unique and highly specific knowledge, conditions, time and place and what I found was admirable, intriguing and exciting. I remember suddenly realising that what I needed to copy was not so much a poets actual style or themes but their simple willingness to be themselves in a best a fashion as was possible.

The perfection Roberts seemed always to be striving to achieve was not a Platonic perfection - some pre-existent divine, God-like perfection - but rather the kind of perfection only possible in the unique, actual, highly limited human-life we have been given.

I know of no better parable which speaks of this kind of life than that offered by George Kimmich Beach - the parable of the pot and the pitcher.

Beach notices that for us the creation of the best kind of life - the perfect, most complete life we can have - is not one which succeeds in achieving ultimate omni, omni, omni stuff but, oddly, something almost exactly opposite to this. It is achieved by becoming less and less omni in almost every kind of way - it is not to enlarge ourselves to cosmic proportions but to narrow down our range to become, most fully and most perfectly, the person we not only might be but also, can be.

But a recognition of this important truth of in what human perfection or completeness consists does not mean everything in our life will always be felt to be perfect or satisfactory by us. Roberts helped me learn this lesson, too.

In the poem "On reading some neglected poets" it seems clear to me that Roberts is talking about himself. He has, of course, respond to the call to write poetry - after all this is a poem! - but he carries with him a powerful sense that his own attempts at poetry are highly likely to be anything other than left by the roadside, "a milestone, insignificant". There is little doubt that a deep, melancholy regret can be felt in this poem.

But Roberts' work as a whole clearly reveals that he knows this is not the whole story and, as the other poem of his I read ("Poem for Elsa") he is alert to the fact that "The hand that let the wild wet creature ache / Moulded the heart that grieves, but shall not break." Roberts understands, as little Elsa does not yet - what kind of beings we are, namely, the kind of beings of whom William Blake spoke in his "Augeries of Innocence" in which "joy and woe are woven fine". As he says, "We were made for joy and woe, / And when this we rightly know, Through the world we safely go."

Roberts knew this perfect imperfection intimately and he allowed it to shape his own life. We may see a glimpse of what this looked like in his own life in the moving introduction to his "Collected Poems" (Faber, 1958) by his wife Janet Adam Smith (1905–1999) where she points to their shared love and experience of mountaineering:

Michael Roberts at Val d’Isère in 1935
"There is . . . the alternation between the effort of the ascent and the peace of the summit reached; between the tension of finding the route and happy relaxation when all difficulties are over, the rope is coiled, the pipe lit, and there is nothing more than an easy walk down to hut or inn. There is the further alternation for - as life implies death, and good evil, each postulating and completing the other - mountains imply valleys. [. . .] And . . , though he hardly ever wrote poetry in the mountains, [Michael's] days on mountains were the poetry of his life, for in them he found intelligible shapes for his deepest impulses and visions. Rock-ridge and ice-fall gave him exhilaration through effort and struggle; alp and mountain lake serenity through satisfied achievement; and the exhilaration and vitality, the satisfaction and serenity, were carried over into the journeys and resting-places of his life. I see it in terms of a journey to the very end, the last stage, in hospital, taking him to the limits of his body. It took him to a destination which was no more final than the dark hamlet we came down to one winter night with William Empson, or the Mountet hut after we had traversed the Zinalrothorn in a snowstorm" (pp.38-40).

Roberts short life and work remains, for me, a perfect example of a less than perfect life that was, because it was fully itself, was full of the perfection that Beach points to when he says "This bowl, or this life, can only be what it must be!"
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