William Oxley: Feyyaz Fergar's English Poetry

Born a Turk but educated at the French lycée of St. Joseph in Istanbul, Feyyaz Fergar's first language was French. When he became a naturalised British subject he stated in an interview that he `started writing in Turkish'. Even so, his first book published in his country of adoption was called Gestes à la Mer and was written in French. It was published by the Grey Walls Press, the most active of the small presses of the 1940's in Britain: a press that was in the forefront of the Neo-Romantic Movement. For years afterwards he then wrote short stories which were in Turkish and which, eventually, made him a famous prose writer in Turkey. Finally, and late in life, he began to give the world -- in the Eighties and Nineties -- poems in English. Poems of such economy and deftness of form -- a form sculptured yet free -- poems full of brilliantly suggestive imagery and wit, all so organised as to be always saying something and never merely decorative, as to vie so well with the best of contemporary English poetry that they impress all who read them. It is to try to account, in some measure, for Fergar's remarkable command of English that I share with you the following observations of one English-born poet on the work of a Turkish poet miraculously re-born (courtesy of the British Passport Office) as an English poet.

If free verse has not been adequately defined in the seventy years since Eliot, Pound and their friends first began to talk of its possibility, it is probable that it is now beyond definition. Eliot -- even at the beginning -- aware of the difficulties inherent in the concept played safe by saying that: `No verse is free for the poet who wants to do a good job'. The problem being one of form, a later critic, R.P.Blackmur -- fellow traveller of the Thirties' `New Critics' -- spoke of `expressive form' when criticising D.H.Lawrence's notion of `spontaneous form': by which both Blackmur and Lawrence meant what Coleridge had originally called `organic form' to distinguish it from the mechanical regularity too often associated with traditional or settled verse forms which have individually received names like blank verse or heroic couplets or sonnets.

Formally-speaking, this is the modern tradition -- going back in theory at least to the Romantics (c.f. for example, Coleridge's `conversation poems') -- within which Feyyaz Fergar wrote. And had I not been so attracted to his poetry, I would not have been moved to suggest that the technical shaping of his poetic utterance -- his form -- is one of spiritual gesture which aims to offer insight into things (in his own words: `Words are at their best when needed to open things') expressed in a vehicle which derives its shape from the inner or living gesture of things. What we have in Fergar's poems is what we have in all of nature: the gift of a living shape to what would otherwise be chaos. The ultimate gesture of art reflected in all his poems, whether urban or non-urban, making them both an expression of nature and an addition thereto. In the very best sense good poets extend reality; and this is what Feyyaz Fergar does.

The modern movement -- which, as I suggest, has its roots in the 18th century Romantic Movement -- has always been anti-naturalist or anti-realist. But these terms and this statement need careful pondering; and as an aid to this I would have you consider these words of the painter Van Gogh: `Romance and romanticism are of our time, and painters must have imagination and sentiment. Luckily realism and naturalism are not free from it. Zola creates, but does not hold up a mirror to things, he creates wonderfully, but creates, poeticises... So much for naturalism and realism, which nonetheless stand in connection to romanticism'. (Letter to Theo, Oct. 1885). Understand those words of the greatest of modern painters, and you will -- like me -- begin to understand something of the way Feyyaz wrote, and the tradition to which he belongs. The line (from the Romantics) being quite clear down through the Symbolists, the German Expressionists, the Imagists, André Breton's Surrealists, even unto the Cambridge School and the Vitalist Poets of the early 1970's, and into the shadowy reaches of so-called post-modernism. The poetry, in fact, that is firmly on the side of the Imagination as against Reason. Which is why I suggested in my foreword to Feyyaz Fergar's first book of English poems, A Talent For Shrouds (Rockingham Press, 1991) that his work was decidedly out-of-step with the likes of the Movement Poets and their successors. This is not to suggest that the poet was in any way out-of-touch with, or necessarily hostile to, the so-called `real world' or, as I would prefer to call it: life as we experience it. It is just that Feyyaz's concept of it -- judging from his poetry -- was larger and more magnified in view and expression than rationalism allows. Let me quote you four lines of his:

`He had a way of being
in touch with trees
of sharing with them
the shining gifts of air.'

That sort of metaphysical symbiosis is not characteristic of the social realist school, for example; nor of the so-called post-modernist L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets for whom language is the only reality and who have no such affirmation to offer.

It has been rare in our tradition of English poetry to have a Non-Briton -- a foreigner -- writing an English which is pure and as natural as anything homespoken. The great exception, in any literary genre, being, of course, the Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad. And today, too, we have the exceprionally gifted Polish poet Milosz also writing a fine English. But I would suggest that Feyyaz Fergar's English is as perfectly homespun an English as any ever written by Conrad or Milosz or, indeed , by any English-born poet.

As to how he achieved this has to be partly a miracle. But one of the reasons has to be mimesis; but extending the Aristotlean dramatic term to include the capacity to mimic both spoken and written English. A basically fun-loving nature will frequently possess this gift. This `sense of humour' which often leads to the sense of humour itself: to an ability to mimic and easily imitate accent and tone. And those of us who knew Feyyaz were aware of his fun-loving nature; and such as read his poetry which is, of course, also full of serious ideas, will detect the fun-loving too. It is a subtle and witty form of humour that is both self-subverting and a way of converting and absorbing -- through a serious irreverance -- the language one is trying to master. I would like you to listen carefully to this poem, so apposite to what I am trying to say, called `De Profundis Ahoy' -- a faintly wry title: and beginning with a serio-comical epigraph from the modern Turkish poet, M.C.Anday, which runs: `Stay put my soul/ Heaven is no place for you' -- something, the force of which Feyyaz will now be fully aware of!:

`Oh my good chaplains, priests, preachers,
Shamans, belfried prophets, faith-sprayers,
Wet-nurses of fonts, searching for addicts
In telephone directories, electoral registers,
How many trees have you baptised,
How many fallen leaves have replaced
The pages of your books?

I do not like the bright boys of deities,
The pantheon-spivs ganging up on me.
Not for me the triplicate frills
Of their endowment immortality.
Not for me the ecology of their fervent deadends.
            Simple first aid would do.

Doctrines and religions were nuclear
Long before the coming and the coming of the bomb,
The only difference being
The holocaust was slow-motion,
Too much under the thickness of recruited skins
For instant historical awareness.
            Familiarity breeds not contempt
            But a kind of incestuous acceptance
Of surrender and dying.

I hear keen, eager voices asking:
`De Profundis ahoy, ahoy please
What is the weather forecast
For our next perdition?'

Heaven is a costly place,
A Las Vegas of anointed croupiers
Where you can lose more than the shirt of your soul
And be trundled away in eternity's cattle-trucks.

Stay put my soul,
Heaven is no place for you.'

Note the seriousness and the wit; note the flawless choice of contemporary demotic English used without excess or for affect; note the wide register the poet commanded, even unto the capacity for faintly echoing (`Oh my good chaplains, priests... etc.') half-forgotten tones of literary English (once spoken English but going way back); note, too, the judicious employment of rhetoric (`How many trees...' `How many fallen leaves...') in the first stanza. Observe the fact that here we have a didactic poem: the most difficult of poems to hide one's alienness in, because the poet is making statements, and statements are a sure give away not only of one's particular prejudices, but of one's rece or `foreignness' as well. In a didactic poem one cannot hide behind the images. It is in poems like `De Profundis Ahoy' that one has real proof of Feyyaz Fergar's mastery of English.

Feyyaz Fergar's first published work in England was, as I've said, written in French; and I, myself, translated a piece of René Char's in conjunction with Feyyaz. Now, before there existed `free verse' as a notion in English poetry, it was called vers libre in France. And, to be honest, the French have done much better with the thing than we old stick-in-the-muds, the English. In fact, unlike ourselves, the French can -- out of their freed verse revolution -- claim at least one distinctive, nameable form to set beside the sonnet and the villanelle, and that is the prose poem. (Indeed, many of the older traditional verse forms were of French origin, like the couplet, the triolet, the cinquain, etc.) And it was a prose poem of René Char's that Feyyaz and I translated together. Consequently, the final point I wish to make, a propos Feyyaz Fergar's English style of poetry, is that he managed -- and who else has succeeded at it save Eliot with Laforgue and Corbière, and David Gascoyne with Eluard and others? -- to perform a sort of miracle of translation, which yet goes beyond translation. In the English poetry that Feyyaz made, he succesfully imported, transposed and re-made something of those qualities everywhere visible in the work of French poets of the modern world like Valéry, Char, Jabès, Bonnefoy, St. Pol Roux and many more. Indirectly, he has really nourished and enriched English poetry -- in a way that, say, Golding's Ovid translation from the Latin, or Gongora untranslated and read in the Spanish of the Golden Age, nourished Shakespeare, Lyly, Sidney and so many others -- translating subtly, by a process of ingestion, all those features of modern French poetry, particularly its metaphysicality and language pre-occupation. So that one may describe Fergar's style as that of European: a French-flavoured English stamped all over with his personal voice. A modern poetry true to all the old realities of beauty and truth, yet open to the new. Can one say more of good poetry? I don't think so.

[being the text of an address given to the Inter-Cultural Forum for Arts at the October Gallery, London, 16 October 1993]