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Reading Modern Lyric: Ford Madox Ford and "The Starling"

Basil Bunting was particularly interested in Ford’s “The Starling”. He chose it to open his 1970s selection of Ford’s poetry (Selected Poems, Pym-Randall Press, 1971) and, in his talk, “Precursors”, from the 1969-70 series of lectures he gave at Newcastle University, it is the poem that Bunting chose to exemplify Ford’s work: he praises Ford and then reads the whole poem to the class.

As with his role in the American publication of Ford’s Selection, Bunting’s public recognition of Ford within modernist history, that mention of Ford in these lectures shows what an unrecognised champion of Ford both sides of the Atlantic Bunting was: in the history of Ford’s reassessment, he really was an early and I believe discerning critic who never forgot Ford’s literary significance and was able to re-ignite interest in his work when he had himself been re-connected to a broader audience of readers.

Nevertheless, at first look “The Starling” is on a subject basis an odd choice for asserting Ford’s modernity – it has a medieval, villagey, aspect to it and so would appear to be precisely the type of poem Ford casts doubt on in his preface to Collected Poems (1914) . However, Ford’s own advice elsewhere in the Preface warns the reader not to take a rural mis-en-scene as intrinsically backwards. For example, he justifies his admiration for Hardy and Yeats whatever the location of their poems (which he characterises as rural) and asserts the primacy of “the genuine love and the faithful rendering of the received impression” wherever the setting. “The Starling” is also, as I’ll briefly go on to show, a disavowal of a previous village-based life. In that way – and in others – it is actually a portmanteau poem, a manifesto poem, and so surprisingly well-suited as an illustration of Ford’s aesthetic. Ford includes “The Starling” in the Collected Poems and, like Bunting in the Selected, positions it right at the start of the book. It is also placed at the start of the collection it originally came from, High Germany.

So Bunting may be paying homage and respect to Ford’s sequencing, and perhaps remembering the impact it made as he first began to read Ford. Introducing the poem at Newcastle he said: "[…]Pound is not merely being loyal to a friend when he insists on the part Ford played in changing English poetry in the earlier years of this century. Ford at his best uses language that is not merely current but conversational. Ford at his best names things and lets them evoke the emotion without mentioning it. He had not the gift of monumental brevity, but he uses repetition for a kind of hypnotic effect: uses it quite consciously, without trying to disguise it." (from “Precursors” in Peter Makin (ed.), Basil Bunting on Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp.105-117. Passage quoted, p.111)

“It’s an odd thing how one changes...” Ford begins his poem “The Starling.” There’s a three-dot ellipsis at the end of that sentence, one of those pre-Pinter pauses Ford comically but sincerely codified in transatlantic review as an essential part of English speech, something “by which the Briton – and the American now and then – recovers himself in order to continue a sentence.”. Angus Wrenn in his essay on Ford and Pinter doesn’t mention the connection between this pause and Pinter’s prosody – Wrenn is more concerned with situational and structural similarities - but it is surely a mark of significant affinity; it’s the hard-wiring they share. (See Angus Wrenn, “Long letters about Ford Madox Ford: Ford’s afterlife in the work of Harold Pinter,” in Paul Skinner (ed.), Ford Madox Ford’s Literary Contacts, Rodopi, 2007. pp.225-235)

As well as the signalling of an emotional or cerebral breathing space, the pause in the poem alerts us straight away to a time signature, warning us that the text is likely to modulate. The rhyming couplets Ford uses for much of the poem make this transmission once or twice rather clumsy, especially when two short lines follow each other as they do soon enough:

It’s an odd thing how one changes...
Walking along the ranges
Of this land of plains,
In this month of rains, [...]

Plains and rains? Oof! – that is a rocky lift-off for the poem, half nursery rhyme half elocution lesson – it sounds as if cranes, drains and Spain will be just around the corner. It is not a serious opening for what is, as it turns out, a relatively serious poem.

Before the rhyme crime though, let’s go back to that very first sentence’s “It’s an odd thing how one changes...” That’s an unpoetic thing to say, too, but it’s type of unpoetry is much more interesting than plains and rains. Taken literally it really isn’t poetry at all, it’s surely seven words of a single sigh, one of those arresting sighs you might make to have a listener turn to you and say, “come on, what’s the matter?” and later you’d feel, when you had unburdened your heart and your interlocutor was now perhaps wishing you hadn’t, that you could still declare with some honesty, “well, you did ask...” So it looks like a low-key and even an inept beginning to a poem but I think that first line in particular is actually something of a disarming lure.

Looked at more closely it gives up a bit more. It’s a line about aloneness and pace. That “one” hovers between an indefinite anybody (so bringing in all readers to sympathise – they are invited to agree, ‘Isn’t it though?’) and a more commanding, authoritative statement – the use of an upper class third person replacement for a first person pronoun. It is, by the way, a circumlocution, a class-based sleight of hand, that is very similar to the tactics of emotional avoidance that take place in The Good Soldier. What then happens in the poem is that several kinds of non-human plurals, groups, are described, contrasting to the speaker’s solitariness and to his sense of almost waking to find that he has been overtaken – not just by the feathered friends of the eponymous bird but by changes in his own behaviour over time; he’s been overtaken by his consciousness of his own singleness.

There are those plural ranges, those plains; even the weather – the rains – is happening severally (and exotically). Then there are the “the poplars [that] march along” and finally “With a rush of wings flew down a company, / A multitude, throng upon throng, / Of starlings, / Successive orchestras of song, / Flung, like the babble of surf, / On to the roadside turf.” Not just one bird orchestra – “successive” ones, a travelator of them!

This contrast, between the silent speaker full of thoughts, and between apparently unthinking groups, now fully and variously vocal, is the contrast of the poem. Later in the poem the two shortest lines cut the word “I” off at the end of the line – each line being only two syllables in any case – the subjective particularism of “but I,” and then, later, the phrase repeated, “but I.” But before these we have another of those improvisational “nebulosities” that Bunting described as part of Ford’s genius – this time the comic attempt to gauge the distance of the moving starling flock “And so, for a mile, for a mile and a half – a long way, / Flight follows flight”.

It might be a nebulosity but that surely captures something of the difficulty of such a measure – it isn’t an inarticulacy, it is a super-articulacy because it is conveying the distance in as far as it can be estimated, conveying the flocks’ movement away from the speaker, and conveying the speaker’s honesty as he modifies his assessment ‘live’: it’s still faster than the status designations on Facebook and Twitter (ornithologically enough). This is something that it’s easy to miss if you are not attuned to Ford’s poems as dramatising speech, or thoughts dramatised as speech: they offer a different kind of linguistic density which is not necessarily visual, nor necessarily attractive as savourable vocabulary, but which, perhaps because they are not snagged by those effects, offer a different sort of sequence-of-events sophistication altogether. The opening sentence then comes back in the third stanza –

It’s an odd thing how one changes...
And what strikes me now as most strange is:
After the starlings had flown
Over the plain and were gone,
There was one of them stayed on alone
In the trees; it chattered on high,
Lifting its bill to the sky,
Distending its throat,
Crooning harsh note after note,
In soliloquy,
Sitting alone.

Chatter, dandyism, and apparently a fascination with the grating “note after note” – there seems to be self-identification and a manifesto in this, an interest in the solitary being paradoxically all loquaciousness and volubility, an interest even in what might conventionally be regarded as ugly sounds. Ford goes on to describe the starling’s ability to mimic (Ford the master of pastiche). However, after dwelling on this and – in the mechanics of the poem, executing a fair bit of it, too – Ford’s speaker turns away from the starling with a near stutter of the me myself I –

But I,
Whilst the starling mimicked on high
Pulsing its throat and its wings,
I went on my way
Thinking of things,
Onwards and over the range
And that’s what is strange.

The reader never gets to know what the speaker is thinking about, as such – again the tender-comic banality, the blocking, of “thinking of things”: as the speaker descends into a village, which is pulsing with a multiplicity of life in anticipation of a wedding party, the reader can only infer that the speaker’s rueful avoidance of both bird and then festivities – his avoidance of “a dance / With the bride in her laces / Or the maids [...] / [...] in the stable...” – has everything to do with his inner thoughts, with what he has done in the past. He is no longer that sort of man, he bumbles, refraining from the starling’s display behaviour, refraining from love and passion (while strongly signalling his enduring interest in them), until he is left finally only with himself – “And I… I stand thinking of things.” – that double “I” and the long pause within it: dot dot dot.

After all that refraining, it is only his own poetic refrain he has for company: “And I... I stand thinking of things. / Yes, it’s strange how one changes.”

This is an extract from a chapter which appeared in Ford Madox Ford, Modernist Magazines and Editing edited by Jasson Harding.

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