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For a long time “City” was Fisher’s best-known work. This collection is a mixture of prose and poetry, and gives an account of the Birmingham he grew up in during its post-war redevelopment. Peter Barry describes it as “…the most powerful literary account we have in poetry of the widespread experience in mid-century Britain of urban loss and destruction”. Barry describes this destruction as a process comprising, first, the Blitz during the Second World War, then the wholesale ‘redevelopment’ and ‘slum clearance’ of the 1950s and 1960s, and finally the de-industrialization of the 1970s and 1980s and points out that in Birmingham this process was particularly stark. As Fisher put it in “The City”:

“And when destruction comes, it is total: the printed notices on the walls, block by block, a few doors left open at night, broken windows advancing down a street until fallen slates appear on the pavement and are not kicked away. Then, after a few weeks of this, the machines arrive.”

The poem also comments on the new consumer society that grew up in the wake of this:

“Already, half-built towers
Over the bombed city
Show mouths that soon will speak no more,
Stoppered with the perfections of tomorrow.”

In 1963 Fisher wrote the prose work “The Ship’s Orchestra” (published 1967), one of the few examples of a British poet producing surrealist, or at least surrealist-inspired writing, and he pulls it off brilliantly. “The Ship’s Orchestra” highlighted Fisher’s continuing interest in psychological states, and is shot through with his characteristic humour. His other main prose work, “The Cut Pages”, published in 1971, is even more radical - it is literally cut-up sections of a personal journal composed during a period of personal crisis – and has been praised by Marjorie Perloff, among others.

Fisher’s poetry spans conservative and radical tastes; but whether he’s writing humorous narratives or experimental prose, a common theme is that the experience of being in the world is sometimes very strange, and that communicating this experience to others is a prime motive. As he says:

“my life

keeps leaking out of my poetry to me
in all directions. It's untidy
ragged and bright
and it's not
used to things.”

These lines are from the opening poem of this volume, “Wonders of Obligation”. This meditation on the Birmingham he grew up in, and of the passage of time in his own life moves seamlessly from the lyrical of:

“We know that hereabouts
comes into being
the malted-milk brickwork
on its journey past the sun”

to the stark realism of:

“I saw
the mass graves dug
the size of workhouse wards
into the clay”

and this combined with a gentle humour:

“I want to remark formally, indeed

stiffly, though not complaining,
that the place where I was raised
had no longer deference for water
and little of it showing.”

This poem, published in a collection of 1980 lays the ground for what many regard as Fisher’s masterpiece, the long poem “A Furnace”, published in 1986. The different aspects of Fisher's work – ranging from the experimental and challenging to the accessible and conversational - are brought to bear and synthesised in this poem, which is a complex layering incorporating invocations of past lives, the ghost-like presences of which are interleaved with the present:

“riding in the flux with no
determined form, cast out of the bodies
that once they were, or out of
the brains that bore them”

the poem invokes

“the sense of another world,
not past, but primordial”

Lyrical descriptions of the processes of perception, or the sense of another, parallel world incorporating the presence of the dead in our own consciousness, are focused into specific instances:

"Timeless identities...like William Fisher,
age ten years, occupation, jeweller,
living in 1861 down Great King Street
in a household headed by his grandmother, my ancestress"

The poem is dedicated to the novelist John Cowper Powys, and in an essay called "’Coming into their Own’: Roy Fisher and John Cowper Powys", Ralph Pite has examined the extent of Powys’s influence on Fisher’s work as whole. Pite discusses the influence Powys’s animism, in which "animals and plants, even stones and minerals, are not only all alive, but each kind of living thing possesses its own quality of consciousness and seeks to become as completely itself as possible". Certainly the descriptions of buildings and natural objects in “A Furnace” have a luminous, extra-real quality that reflects this:

“The stones are waters
the stones are fires
dragged in a swirl across the core

…ice and sunlight, and blackened
crusts, lichen and heather sweeps”

“A Furnace” also contains some very strange, hallucinatory passages which you would never find in Charles Tomlinson’s work:

“Another wind,

steady and slow from the north, freezing
and far higher; and, with it,
rising from behind the ridge, gigantic
heads lifted and processing along it, sunset-lit,
five towering beings
looking to be miles high,
their lower parts hidden, their lineaments
almost stable in their infinitely slow

It’s worth mentioning here Fisher’s preoccupation with mental states and with altered modes of consciousness (although not at all associated with the 1960s penchant for that phrase). In his autobiography of his youth, called “Antebiography” he describes a phase of his life, as a teenager, when he, in his own words, “left the world and stayed away from it for three years”. He describes how he developed a belief that he had a terminal illness, which he had to keep secret, and which affected all his negotiations with life until the delusion suddenly disappeared at the age of nineteen. It seems likely that the preoccupation just mentioned, which surfaces in much of his writing, can be traced to this period. As for “A Furnace”, this aspect of strangeness and of altered perceptions combines with the more rational, discursive mode to create a richness and depth that marks it out from the ordinary.

Despite the complexity of some his poetry, Fisher maintains a sense that the language of speech and the language of poetry are one and the same; a fact which has ensured his readership is evenly distributed across traditional/radical divide.

Throughout this book there is a feeling of a humane presence, which balances out the more stringent and difficult aspects; the presence of an author who doesn't take himself, or the personae he invents, too seriously:


'Stranger, in your own land
how do men call you?'

'I will tell you, men call me Roy
Fisher. Women call me
remote.' “

Fisher is adept at "light" verse which most poets of his academic stature would shy away from. In "The Nation" for example:

"The national day had dawned... Though
festivities were constrained by the size of
the national debt, the national sport was
vigorously played all day
and the national drink drunk."

Similarly, "A Modern Story (a prophecy 1981)" is a hilarious satirical account of setting up and running a poetry competition, and “The Poetry Promise” is recommended reading for anyone familiar with corporate mission statements and the like; like much of his humorous poetry, it’s a cutting satire which manages to appear remarkably good-natured.

This is Fisher’s third Collected Poems (after Fulcrum Press in 1968, and Oxford University Press in 1980), and he has also had a New and Selected (“The Dow Low Drop”) from Bloodaxe in 1996. This book includes quite a few new poems that weren’t in “The Dow Low Drop”, and it’s the first truly complete Collected; a number of works in it haven’t been seen in print for a long time – it has the first complete version of “The Cut Pages” for example since its original publication. It is organised thematically into nine sections, which somehow seems to work better than the chronological ordering of “The Dow Low Drop”. “The Long and the Short of It” is a demonstration of the amazing variety of Fisher’s work and a confirmation of his status as one of our most distinguished poets; as such it couldn’t be more highly recommended.


1. Roy Fisher,
Interviews through Time and Selected Prose. Shearsman Books, 2000. 148pp. ISBN 0 907562 26 4. £10.00

2. Nate Doward,
Review of Three Critical Studies on Fisher. Jacket Magazine (http://jacketmagazine.com). July 2000.

. Ed. John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson The Thing about Roy Fisher: Critical Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000. 377pp. Hardback: ISBN 085323-515-5, £34.99; paperback: ISBN: 085323-525-2, £16.99.

4. Barry, Peter
“Birmingham's what I think with": Roy Fisher's Composite-Epic.
The Yale Journal of Criticism - Volume 13, Number 1, Spring 2000, pp. 87-105 pub. John Hopkins University Press.

Acknowledgments are due to Poetry Nottingham, in which this review
was first published (issue 60/1). Copyright © Alan Baker, 2007

Alan Baker

Roy Fisher: The Long and the Short of It. Poems 1955-2005. pub. Bloodaxe. 398pp. £12. ISBN: 1-85224-701-0

In this part of the world Roy Fisher is known as a patron of literature festivals, judge of competitions, jazz musician and teacher; a benevolent senior figure. He started his career in the 1960s in very different circumstances, as a serious young modernist, going against the current of the established British poetry of the time, and looking to the United States for inspiration. He was published by Fulcrum Press, who also published Basil Bunting, Lee Harwood, and American poets like Ed Dorn and Jonathan Williams.

His first collection "City" (1961), based on his native Birmingham, is in a modernist tradition harking back to Carlos Williams's "Paterson" and to "The Waste Land". In this sense, Fisher's career parallels that of Charles Tomlinson, another poet who, in his early years, rejected the prevailing British orthodoxy and looked to trans-Atlantic influences. And much of Fisher's poetry shares similar concerns with Tomlinson’s, namely close observation combined with precision of phrase; qualities ultimately learned from the early work of William Carlos Williams. In Fisher's work there are also elements of poet as medium for the numinous, which are not unlike those found in the writings of Jack Spicer (a later influence on Fisher’s work).