Have you ever wondered what it would be like to attend your own funeral, and to hear the kind (or other) words of your friends? For Roy Fisher, sitting in a full house at the John Thaw Studio Theatre, there must have been a flavour of that macabre pleasure last night.
Ian Pople introduced him as ‘the most appreciated under-appreciated poet I know.’ Fisher’s work was quoted, discussed and celebrated by fine poets including Fleur Adcock, Jon Glover and Michael Symmons Roberts. Their own styles are markedly different, but they were unanimous in their gratitude and warmth for a poet who has influenced them all. Jon Glover spoke of Roy’s technical innovations – his circular poems or sequences, his collaborations with artists like Derrick Greaves – and of his humour, quoting The Billiard Table: ‘Have you ever felt/ We’ve just been issued with each other/ Like regulation lockers/ And left to get on with it?’
Anyone of whom Fleur Adcock can say, ‘He’s a real poet and the rest of us are just shuffling along, pretending,’ might allow his head to swell a little. Yet each poet spoke of his modesty, and I got a glimpse of it too. I mentioned to Roy a mutual friend who had played with him in a jazz band. ‘I don’t suppose he knew I wrote poetry,’ said Roy. ‘Well, you can’t go on about it, can you?’
I rather wished that Robert Sheppard shared that approach, as he delivered a short lecture (and not that short either) of deep textual analysis which made no concessions to a live audience. Sheppard spoke of ‘epistemological anarchism’. Others reminded us of the range and scale of Fisher’s work – the long and influential poems City and A Furnace which showed so many poets how to tackle the ‘dirty radiance’ of real places that we belong to, and which belong to us. Jeffrey Wainwright brought us right back to the coal face, with prose poem Uncle Jim’s Will. It’s quirky, wilful, mischievous and masterful. Jim leaves his Certificate of Unfitness for Military Service to the Imperial War Museum and his mistress to his son, ‘without responsibility for maintenance.’ It was a brilliant reminder that funny poetry can be serious, and vice versa.
The ‘precision of generosity’ that runs through Fisher’s work was much quoted, and much in evidence. Peter Robinson quoted John Ash: ‘In a better world, Roy Fisher would be as highly thought of as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.’ As Robinson wrily added; ‘There is no such better world – and so we had better appreciate him in this one.’
To listen to Roy Fisher’s Birmingham River, click here