Though now little noticed, the British writer C.H. Sisson (1914 – 2003) is a poet worth studying for the force and vigor of a handful of fine poems, especially those derived from classical sources. Not to be confused with the Sasson, a poet of the First World War, C. H. Sisson was 40 when he published in first book of poems in 1955, written while he carried on a life-long career as a civil servant in the Ministry of Labor.
The Poet’s Classical Education
As BBC and American TV satires have done in recent decades in The Office, and as Eliot did in the 1920s, Sisson satirizes conventional office life in “The Spectre,” a poem from his 1968 collection Metamorphoses: “Naturally he was suitable for the best employments / Where every cultivation is required. / He was hired . . .” – suitable because he has studied “Some French, a few experiments called science / In defiance / of ignorant traditions which preferred the classics.”
Sisson, as you might guess, did study in the “ignorant traditions,” and even became, in the estimation of the scholar David Perkins a fine translator of the Roman poets—Catullus, Horace, Virgil, Ovid—as well as a poet in his own right. As with other poet-translators–like A.M. Juster or Rhina P. Espaillat, for example–the sources nourish the original, creative work. In Sisson’s case, poets like Catullus seem to have lent his translator a touch of savage wit, as here in his valediction to “Catullus,”
Catullus my friend across twenty centuries,
Anxious to complete your lechery before Christ came.
Mythic Personas in In Insula Avalonia
While these potent lines may not speak to us or for us, another of Sisson’s poems derived from classical sources may, as it captures a sense of one’s frustration and powerlessness in except perhaps the most basic gesture of resistance. In section 7 of his poem In Insula Avalonia, centering on the myth of Persephone, Sisson disclaims for himself the mythic roles of Orpheus or Eurydice, and gives instead a remarkably vivid self-portrait as the guard-dog Cerberus:
I stand and roar and only shake my chain
The river passes and gives others sleep
I am the jaws nothing will pass between.
Like an English poet of an earlier generation, Robert Graves— a very different poet in all other respects— Sisson is willing to admit aspects of interior life not often acknowledged to others. Here is another example of Sisson’s intense self-scrutiny:
What am I?
The man inclined to larceny
Who stops at envy.
Sisson wrote on other topics as well, of course. Here he writes more savagely, if possible, in the poem “Gardening”—
. . . How can I turn
This aging sorrow to a biting wind
To catch me like the tangle of your hair
Gone and imagine? How can I turn
This burrow in the crumbling earth to peace?
Like a worm under stone?
His poems, like those of his contemporaries in England, tend to be discursive, realistic, sensitive, and sometimes satiric and humorous, as well. Some poems lack clarity, but even in a poem as puzzling as “Every Reality is a Kind of Sign,” the lines can be as haunting as “What blindness remains to me? And I cannot live without it.” But Sisson is distinguished from his peers on the other side of the Atlantic–as well as from American poets of the time– in his drawing from earlier, classical sources.
A Poet Worth Further Study
It is unfortunate that Sisson is not included in anthologies of Modern poetry. His books are hard to find; they are not in the stacks of library sources to which I have access. His Selected Poems, with a foreword by M.L. Rosenthal, published by New Directions, is still in print, but your best bet is his Collected Poems from Carcanet, available on Kindle.
Despite of the differences in their educations and ambitions, Sisson, with his unflinching gaze on reality, may have been thinking of himself when he drew his portrait of the Spectre,
He wrote books, I cannot tell you how many;
They were reviewed, praised, and rapidly sank from sight.
As was right
These notes are composed in the hope that C.H. Sisson’s will not.
Zara Raab, May 26, 2021