The Sunday Referee may not be Britain’s best remembered weekly, but for a while in the ‘thirties it ran a “Poet’s Corner” hosted by the eccentrically ‘nineties figure of Victor Neuberg, perhaps himself best remembered as an early magickal collaborator with Aleister Crowley. Six monthly the Referee sponsored a first collection. First winner was Pamela Hansford Johnson, girlfriend of Dylan Thomas, later a novelist and academic and to marry C P Snow. The second recipient was young Dylan himself, his 18 Poems (Parton Press) quickly a sell-out, followed in 1935 by Proem (Unicorn Press) by Arthur Llewellyn Basham. Arthur who?
Basham, born in 1914, was a talented young man – an accomplished writer and pianist who later had a notable career as an orientalist, best remembered for his encyclopaedic The Wonder That Was India of 1954. He died in 1986. His brief ‘thirties flaring of poetic fame was soon extinguished; he must have decided that poetry was not his career choice. But his poems are not forgettable scrap; a few are well worth picking out of history’s dustbin for a bit of a brush down.
Neuberg’s verbally ornate introduction to Proem explains next to nothing: “unlimited versatility … marvellously extensive … epicurean tongue … has lived vitally” etc. But he does claim Basham as a modernist of sorts: “modern without eccentricity … wholly a son of his century.” Though Neuberg also implies an agricultural focus, referencing Basham’s “great love … for the soil and peasantry of his adopted Suffolk” and “new … panegyrics to old furrows”, in fact hardly any of the poems touch on soil or peasantry. A slightly limp frontispiece portrait shows Basham as a beardless and sensitive youth.
Despite Neuberg’s judgement, Proem is not whole heartedly twentieth century. There are Yeatsian and moralistic throwbacks; “Symbol”, the poem that actually won Basham the Referee Book Prize, is indeed cloyingly and annoyingly symbolist, with its wingclipped horses, dim forms rising and stars glancing in fallen oceans – all without redeeming irony. But when the healthy influence of Auden asserts itself, Basham lurches into the twentieth century with a vengeance, producing some vigorous urban writing that is not entirely derivative and that surely deserves a small corner in any ‘thirties canon.
Some of his early-Audenisms are not helpful; syntax can be baffling, and some obscurities simply don’t stand up. Few pieces are entirely right. But try the opening stanza of “Vestiges of a Pleasant Evening” (which later dips into moralising over a copulating couple):
Notice the spider hurrying,
the cigarette carton in the levelled grass.
Here as it stirs intently in the dust
conceive diminuendo of an evening,
the fatuous stars.
The Audenesque injunctives (“Notice, conceive”); the anti-romantic pairing of “fatuous stars”; the key image of the discarded cigarette packet: all these signify the modern, loudly and effectively.
Or take the heavy materialism of the rather fine first section of “The Garage”:
As yellow as the metal plates
placarding red-encircled walls,
proclaiming tyres or gasoline,
light from the silver arc-lamp falls,
where corrugated iron and tin
with inscribed globes, in a grey dusk,
pump the new year’s heart blood in
to metal arteries, that thud
and spread narcotic musk.
Yellow, red, silver, grey, iron, tin, metal, tyres, gasoline, lamp, thud, spread – all excitingly celebratory and physical, before, once again, the poem tail-ends in symbolising and judgement.
In “Holiday”, the nice young middle class poet explores, to his own cost, his ambivalent and uneasy relations with proletarian youth along a promenade “strewn with woodbine ends”. (Basham has a thing about “gaudy seaside towns”.) The poem is marginally spoiled by a friendly but unpleasant use of the term “Jewboy”, but it touches some interesting nerves along the way:
I say: “But Paolo and Francesca
vortexed in such a crowd as this.
I am one who has known Hell,
so tell me, Lever, what there is to tell
of between last week and to-morrow, when you sit
for the final time on the beach at night, or lie
unsleeping in lodgings.”
A face, pitted like corroded rock,
opens on Avernus, grey with smoke and slime:
“You’re talking poppycock!”
She winks an eye gleaming like molten lead:
“We’ve had a gorgeous time” she confesses as they pass.
“Deep Sea” gives a surprisingly tough, sailor’s view of Manila, like an Edward Burra painting of a dockside dive:
… gramophones strike up as business starts.
Behind the hills the lightning threads and stitches.
The Filipino girls are warm as hell,
but mind your step, they’re vicious little tarts –
knife you as soon as look at you, the bitches.
“Meditation in the Park”, an extended panorama of Audenesque modern life, is perhaps Basham’s best piece in his Modern mode. It is not totally even, but many passages carry real impact:
Chimneys and masts swagger below the park.
about the nation’s prosperous peak
flap from the factory flags.
Above, the reservoir broods among allotments
mating a single spire to bleed the sky …
… These are the flustered, the industrious weeks
when boarding house keepers burnish their apartments,
lay in new store of linen.
The spring winds, north this year, unload their soot
on cinemas and beaches of the south,
and worry matrons through their sinister nights,
distraught with sirens, and clatter of ribald bells.
The poem rounds off with an incantatory call to action, not overtly party-faithful as in Auden’s “Brothers, who when the sirens roar”, but comparably anti-capitalist and apocalyptic:
You young men on corners, salt-rusted sailors,
ribald in dockside bars,
time to quit your pintpots, your dog-eared cards.
Purseproud forces, essentials of corruption,
all the gloved powers are marshalling their jailers;
the black ensign darkens their yards …
… Girls cycling from factories, riveting mechanics,
an hour forget the power-loom, drop the mask and welder.
Remember the gas-drill, the artificial panics.
Imagine the air turn sour.
The times are in a hurry, you must do more than worry
if you want to save your skins and your houses.
Get going with that city and don’t waste time on pity,
come to grips with the critical hour.
This is good stuff, and Basham’s vision of the just city – “one candid in the sun … clean as a canine tooth” – may even anticipate that of Auden.
One Audenesque element that I have touched on already in my post on Wargaming with WHA is the uncanny anticipation of civil war or invasion:
They are surveying the coast already, sounding the defences,
the strategic importance of the cinema;
plan sandbags on the promenade,
a bombproof shelter under Woolworth’s.
“The strategic importance of the cinema”: with our hindsight neatly boxed in decades, we take such Dad’s Army touches for granted. But given that this was almost certainly written in 1934 or earlier, while the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, and the Japanese invaded China the following year, what precisely generated this fear of invasion, this undercurrent of prophetic imagery of gas drills and sweeping bombers? Just the general climate of rearmament?
Grigson seeks a candid opinion
Into my copy of Proem was tucked a message, on the back of an Art Trade Press Ltd slip, in the elegant handwriting of combative poetry impresario and critic Geoffrey Grigson. It’s addressed to “Dear Hugh” – perhaps the novelist Hugh Walpole:
“Thank you so much for your well chosen present. Here are some poems with my sincere wishes for Christmas & the New Year.
I should be interested to hear your candid opinion of Basham.
My warmest greetings to your family.”
Why did Grigson seek a “candid opinion”? The tone of his own work is not too far from Basham at times. Did he approve of the Audenisms, or find them ersatz? His New Verse set itself up as a scourge of the sham. Maybe a Grigson review will turn up at some point and shed some light.
In any case, Basham’s collection includes a good half dozen perfectly anthologisable “modern” pieces. They are as worthwhile as many comparable by other hands, and better than some. It’s a pity he didn’t persevere. In the event, Proem proved a preamble to nothing.