Robert Nye died last week. He was a poet.
He was many other things too. His main income came from novels, not poetry, and at one time he was poetry critic for The Times, and regular reviewer poetry and fiction for The Scotsman and The Guardian. Many a writer has been proud to have a quotation from Nye emblazoned on their jacket. He was a generous reader and a good friend to poets.
But now he is gone. His ‘calling’, as he put it himself, was poetry, and it is for his poetry that he would want to be remembered. He was sometimes described as ‘Gravesian’ although now the number of readers who know what that might mean is dwindling too.
I don’t know that Robert Nye’s poems do resemble Robert Graves’s in style. To some degree, perhaps. The two poets share a high regard for plainness combined with lyricism: they are lyric poets writing consciously in an ancient tradition. And of course, both found far more readers through their novels than their poems. Graves’ The White Goddess, which explores the long tradition of the poetic muse, was undoubtedly a powerful influence on Nye as a young man, and so were two other poets connected with the Graves tradition and what they referred to as ‘truth-telling’: Martin Seymour-Smith and James Reeves.
Robert only died a few days ago and yet already this catalogue of names sounds irretrievably like The Past. Who remembers Martin Seymour-Smith as a poet? Who reads James Reeves? Who openly admits Graves as an influence? Moreover, if you look at Nye’s last collection (An Almost Dancer, Greenwich Exchange 2012), you’ll see each of his lines begins with a capital letter. The poems follow a clear metrical pattern and often also a rhyming form. So Robert Nye was one of the Old Guys, then? Maybe.
Certainly he believed, in the oldest sense, in inspiration – in the idea that poetry has a mysterious source. The poem compels the poet, not the other way around. Writing poetry (unlike novels) is neither a matter of choice nor education. In ‘Runes’, an autobiographical ballad, he writes
It was the muse of poetry
Who held me in her spell
And made me measure all my steps
And dance for her as well.
Before I ever wrote a line
I was her small liege-man.
Playing the fool on the way to school
Is where my verse began.
He is quoted on the jacket of his 1989 Hamish Hamilton collection saying ‘As for poems, I hope never to write more of them than I have to.’ He was not being coy. The statement was factual. He wrote poems when a compulsion gripped him and at no other time. As a result, his entire opus was relatively small, though the range of his poetic reading was vast.
His friend James Reeves said that to be a poet was ‘to say nothing when there is nothing demanding to be said’ (Commitment to Poetry, Heinemann, 1969). Robert Nye did just that. And so what came to him, when it came, was sometimes curiously fragmentary, snatches of something retrieved from God knows where, like the three lines of ‘A Matador Past His Prime’ which comprise the entire poem:
Honour the fat and stumbling matador
Who having lost one shoe kicks off the other
And turns to face the bull in his stockinged feet.
Where did that come from? From wherever Robert’s poems found their source, which was as much a mystery to him as anybody else. His novels won prizes. His poetry collections did not. It didn’t matter in the least. What mattered to Robert was that some poems were written and some insightful, sympathetic readers were found. He was a dedicated and loyal letter-writer (alas – there will be no more letters) and communicated over the years with a large number of poetry friends. This circle of readers mattered to him intensely, and he was an important private responder to the work of others, just as they were for him. He did not pay much attention to fame or fuss. He was interested in the poems that he was interested in, which were of value according to his own intransigent standards, not the award criteria of the day.
Back to James Reeves:
Large profits and quick returns, philanthropic grants and radio attention, state subsidized prizes, book society recommendations and awards by festival committees – all these are irrelevant, even antipathetic, to the spirit of poetry as are interviews in Sunday supplements and publicized television appearances.
That was written in 1964. Lord knows what Reeves would say now! And while in private Robert Nye might have chuckled and agreed, he made no public comment about such things. It was irrelevant to him. He was a self-contained person and interested in poetry, and horse-racing, and his family and friends. For what it’s worth, I think his best poems – like all the best poems – are timeless. But that’s for the individual reader to put to the test. The poems are ready and waiting, though their author is gone.
Nye was the most serious of poets. Obituaries in the Telegraph and New York Times already confirm this. He was not, however, above wicked fun and although it is not (and should not be) the poem he will be best remembered for, I will end with a rare piece of satire, from his 1989 Hamish Hamilton collection and also included in the more recent Greenwich Exchange volume, The Rain and the Glass (2004). Though written some decades ago, it seems to me to have worn rather well.
What’s it like, though, being you?
The old dog growls and bristles. This is his favourite question.
Answers win prizes. Nothing interests him more.
Inspired by the pursuit of his own tail
He has written his poems to find out what he smells like,
And now here’s another dog, a dog-fancying thoroughbred,
Just down from Oxford, trained to the minute,
On heat and eager to do some of the sniffing
For him, and to declare the crap remarkable.
Woof woof, the old dog says, bow wow.
I’ll show you where I buried my gift!