Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: poetry

“I think Larkin was wrong …”: Bill on Phil

For five and a half years, until his too early death in May 2018, I exchanged continual emails with poet Bill Bennett, an old friend rediscovered. We began with the poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and finished in mid-thread with Housman, but covered an awful lot of other ground along the way, not all of it poetic.

One persistently recurring theme was Bill’s need to take apart Philip Larkin, whose current popularity presented itself to him as a problem demanding to be solved. “Like worrying at an old dry bone,” he said. Or “a scab that needs picking”. Bill was constantly puzzled by the tolerance, even fondness, offered to Larkin and his work by many normally sensible and decent people. He felt keenly the duty to denounce and resist the false consciousness, the erosion of common humanity, that he saw in Larkin, and the life-denying forces surviving in his writings. And not just in the letters: “I always thought it was perfectly clear from the poetry what an unpleasant bastard he was in so many ways.”


I urged him to string together his thoughtlets into something more considered. He announced a start on “an expanded and semi-coherent piece on The Explosion”, but I’m not sure that it ever really took shape.

So here instead is my compilation of some of his thoughts on PL, snipped from our emails and roughly parcelled into clumsy sections, in a loose sequence. As it’s a bit of a collage, at times linking remarks originally months or years apart, it lacks some flow, and a good few of these points will no doubt have been chewed over extensively by the critical machine already – I wouldn’t pretend to know. But Bill makes some important observations and judgements, and he makes them with his habitual insight, wisdom and wit.

Towards the end, Larkin’s morbid obsession with individual mortality took on an added resonance when Bill was forced to confront his own health issues; the final snippet here (which made me laugh aloud) tells of an unnerving coincidence in a hospital waiting room.

To read on, click the first tab up top after “Home”, or just go here …

Ezra Pound and the universal poem of common humanity

The cages: Pound’s, reinforced, is visible at the extreme left.

In the spring and early summer of 1945 the poet, anti-Semite and fascist collaborator Ezra Pound was confined to a six foot square open steel cage (specially reinforced) at the US Army’s Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) near Pisa, Italy, and then to a tent in the medical compound. He was obliged to pass his imprisonment within earshot of continual but disparate moments of surrounding conversation and exclamation. The names and fragmented voices of his fellow detainees (mostly African American) and their guards are scattered across his Pisan Cantos:

Hey Snag wots in the bibl’?
wot are the books ov the bible?
Name ’em, don’t bullshit ME. (Canto 74: 175)

“c’mon small fry” (74: 406)

“ah certainly dew lak dawgs,
ah goin’ tuh wash you”
(no, not to the author, to the canine unwilling in question)  (79: 34)

(WordPress formatting, unfortunately, doesn’t cope with the complex indentations of Pound’s lines in the original.) The poet seems to have been enormously impressed by the versatility of the inmates’ restricted dictionary of obscenities (Canto 77: 203):

“If you had a f….n’ brain you’d be dangerous”
remarks Romano Ramona
to a by him designated c.s. in the scabies ward
the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words
one verb and participle one substantive  ὕλη   [“hule”, Greek for “matter” or “shit”]
one adjective and one phrase sexless that is
used as a sort of pronoun

Though vast tracts of The Cantos are just clusters of unappetising crossword clues unprovided with solutions, in this case there can be some amusement in trying to work out the exact terms Pound has in mind. A bit further on, at line 232, he returns to the topic of army vocabulary, which now prompts an enigmatic recollection:

there are in fact several coarse expressions used in the
army and Monsieur Barzun had indubitably, an idea, about anno

domini 1910 but I do not know what he has done with it
for I wd/ steal no man’s raison

Henri Martin Barzun

“Monsieur Barzun” is Henri Martin Barzun, French experimental poet and solo proponent of simultanéisme, a promotion of “orchestral” or polyphonic poetry as drama, articulating the voice of the crowd, the modern hymn of collectivity. Barzun settled in the USA after the Great War, where his son Jacques Barzun became a successful and well regarded historian and writer. Barzun senior went on to found an experimental drama school in New York, and continued to write and publish under the brand of “Orphism”. He died in 1973.

His major work, L’Universel Poème, or L’Orphéide, was never published in its entirety, though the Barzun Wiki page states that typescripts survive, and notes the publication of three excerpts in 1913, 1929 and 1930. It seems unlikely that Pound would have been acquainted with Barzun or his work “about anno domini 1910”, but it’s conceivable that during his time in Paris in the early ‘twenties he would have become aware of the  influence of Barzun’s spatial, typographic poetry on the Dadaists with whom he was then engaged. One might also see some diffuse influence in the fragmentary, multi-voiced scripts of The Cantos themselves, despite Pound’s avowal that “I wd/ steal no man’s raison”.

In fact, a fourth excerpt from L’Universel Poème was published in 1939 in Eugene Jolas’ celebrated magazine transition, the inter-war mouthpiece of the European romantic avant-garde. Pound was well aware of transition; in late 1926, writing from Italy, he advised James Joyce to submit the instalments of his “Work in Progress” (to become Finnegans Wake) to Jolas’s first issue. (Pound was himself wary of publishing Joyce’s “circumambient peripherization” in his own new literary magazine, The Exile.)

From October 1938 to April 1939 Pound was visiting London, and in April and May of 1939 New York; transition had distribution centres in both places. transition 27, containing the Barzun extract, is dated 1938 but was actually published in February 1939, just in time for Pound to discover and read it in one or the other city. The volume included, without comment, a “Fragment de l’Universel Poème”, credited simply and without explanation to “Barzun”. It may have been only a fragment, but it required an impressive eight sheet fold-out to be specially printed and bound into the pages. It seems entirely possible to me that Pound had seen this in 1939 but by 1945 had lost the memory of it, the polyphony of the detention centre then triggering what then seemed like a more remote or general recollection.


The passage in the “fragment” (as far as my French is up to it) is a complex chorus of heroic exhortation to “pioneers” (poets, engineers, navigators and so forth) to assault the heavens; it would not have been out of place in the late symbolist context from which Barzun emerged. It appears to be “scored” for about three dozen voices, arranged vertically, and no doubt can only be fully appreciated in performance, if that were feasible. (Only at one point, on the uppermost lines, does conventional language give way to sounds – “rrrr  rreu eu …  ero  vre”, an elision of “hero” and “œuvre” – that hint at any connection with Futurist or Dadaist sound poems, but even here the two words implied are entirely meaningful.)

Though intended to be read from left to right, the fragment as presented may have more value as an early suggestion of a modernist poem as a visual, spatial structure, with obvious relevance for parts of The Cantos. Though there is no central point for a listener, the multiple voices on the page can be understood as caught in fragments, arriving at different times from different directions and at different distances. And in this respect we are back in Pound’s compound.

Given that throughout this period and later Pound remained a virulent, even hysterical, advocate of fascism, and a bitter and unreconstructed anti-Semite, his feelings towards his fellow detainees, mostly black, seem remarkably sympathetic. At several points he likens their situation (and his) to that of their slave forebears in the middle passage:

magna NOX animae  with Barabbas and 2 thieves beside me,
the wards like a slave ship (74: 393)

in limbo no victories, there, are no victories –
that is limbo; between decks of the slaver (77: 174)

Louis Till

John Tytell’s 1987 biography notes that on his way to the Disciplinary Training Center “Pound was handcuffed to a soldier accused of rape and murder”. This may well have been Louis Till (“St Louis Till” as Pound heard his cage-mate call him – a clever pun), of whom he records drily in 74: 171:

and Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings

I wonder if the second line is in Till’s own words, answering Pound’s whispered query as they sat handcuffed together in the van? Elsewhere (76: 85 and 77: 270) Pound records a snatch of overheard conversation where one of the two in Till’s death cell, so possibly Till himself, insists that he has studied Latin, an accomplishment that obviously impressed Pound. Till was hanged in July 1945; as his Wiki page notes, the strength of the evidence against him has recently been called into question. In 1955 Till’s 14 year old son Emmett, accused by a white woman of offensive behaviour, was brutally killed, and his murderers acquitted. In 2017 his accuser finally admitted that her “evidence” had been invented. The Emmett Till murder became an important stimulus to the Civil Rights movement.

Prisoners at the DTC

The “universal poem”, in Barzun’s conception, seems to be essentially an affair not of discord but of solidarity. To whatever extent Pound’s temporary situation inspired in him some feelings of solidarity with that of the African Americans with whom he shared his imprisonment, his anti-Semitism remained at the heart of his “political” convictions until his final period of melancholy silence and disavowal of The Cantos. A piece by Michael Reck in an Evergreen Review of 1968 records a remarkable conversation between Pound and Allen Ginsberg, who, like other Beats, admired Pound’s work and – despite everything – the independence of his convictions:

‘Any good I’ve done has been spoiled by bad intentions – the preoccupation with irrelevant and stupid things,’ Pound replied. And then very slowly, with emphasis, surely conscious of Ginsberg’s being Jewish: ‘But the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism. All along that spoiled everything.’

Tytell finds this a moment of “ritual penitence”. Who knows? Suburbanism or irrelevance are hardly the worst points on which we might condemn a sympathy for the Holocaust, but one would still like to take this as a recantation, a request for forgiveness. Myself, I’d hope that even now, Ezra Pound may be standing, as that fine old hymn has it, amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. If so, that centre of specificity must surely be surrounded by the poetic polyphony of humanity in solidarity, restored to a whole new dimension.

“Let the Gods forgive what I have made,” reads a final fragment of The Cantos. In 1959 Pound revisited the site of the Disciplinary Training Center. It had become a rose nursery.

(It’s quite likely that the Barzun and Till references in The Pisan Cantos have been discussed to death already by Pound commentators; I wouldn’t know. The image here of Henri Martin Barzun has been lifted without permission from gentlerereader.com, a site devoted to Jacques Barzun. That of Louis Till appears at findagrave.com.)

The one good poem of Jacquetta Hawkes

In the ‘forties anyone could write poetry, and did. It was a version of democracy, I suppose, appropriate to a People’s War. Which means there’s still an awful lot of it around on the charity shop shelves. This encourages, let’s admit it, the occasional gratuitous purchase. So how best to approach what, on closer examination, starts to look like an unwise buy? Well, at least this person had a book of poetry published, which is more than I’ve done, so I have to respect that. And then, tucked away among so many disappointing pages, there could always be the odd small gem. Let’s honour that hope.

My latest ‘forties punt is Symbols and Speculations, the one book of poetry by Jacquetta Hawkes, much published and popular archaeologist and writer (Oxfam chazzer, £2.50). Jessie Jacquetta Hopkins was born in 1910.  Graduating from Newnham, Cambridge, she worked in archaeology, marrying fellow digger Christopher Hawkes in 1933, but during the war fell for prolific poet and marginal Bloomsburyite Walter J Turner, taking to poetry herself in 1942. Turner died in 1946. His work –

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land …

– is understandably ignored today, but one suspects that his hand is heavy on Hawkes’ poems, and with it a version of the metaphysical idealism of Yeats, the master by whom Turner was encouraged. (Hawkes’ father, Cambridge biochemist – and discoverer of vitamins – Frederick Gowland Hopkins, was a first cousin, once removed, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but that doesn’t seem to have counted for much.) Also in the background of Hawkes’ poetry, more interestingly, is the shade of William Blake, though not always with the happiest results.

Walter J Turner

Symbols and Speculations was published in 1949 by the Cresset Press, which had a bit of literary cachet, publishing Denise Levertov (as Levertoff) in 1946, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1949, and – year after year – the anti-modernist poetry of Ruth Pitter. Hawkes’ poems were selected by John Howard, a founder of Cresset Press and its perpetual literary adviser. (Her Foreword actually says “Hayward”, but this has to be a slip.)

Howard’s jacket blurb hails Hawkes’ “warmth of sensibility which has resisted the cold, intellectual east wind of Cambridge”, but to my mind “sensibility” (a quality too often demanded of both women and poets) is the problem here, and a bit more cold east wind might have helped. Much of this sensibility is aimed at the natural world, where rooks give their old haunting cries, elegant gazelles race on frail hoofs,  twinkling throngs of linnets fly, and so on. These creatures are at the good end of an inverted Chain of Being that descends nastily to brutalised modern humans via some unspecified Fall; for Hawkes archaeology seems to be a form of Golden Age romanticism, in which the painful toil of our more remote forebears is more than redeemed by their admirable authenticity, borrowed (for a while) from the animals.

Jacquetta Hawkes

Oddly, for a body of poems written between 1942 and 1948, the War never makes an appearance. Humans may now be “herded in alien ways” along “the hollow sockets of the street”, but there is no need, thank goodness, to organise a better society; all that’s required is to dig down to the remains of previous, better streets and to commune a while with the spirits of our forebears until we touch again our lost innocence.

Hawkes’ longest and hardest worked poem, “Man in Nature”, recounts an excavation in Palestine in the ‘thirties in which a prehistoric skeleton is uncovered. A promising enough subject, but it all goes terribly exotic and oriental, with the approaching silent feet of camels and somebody playing Mozart on an oboe in the tomb. (Mozart? An oboe?) At the climax Hawkes experiences some sort of epiphany:

Now from my rock I heard the passing bell,
Silence fell back behind the silent feet,
And as towards the moon I bared my face
From those full tears that hung below each lid
There sprang a track, straight-sided, into space
A shining track that through my vision slid
To span all reaches of the universe.
It seemed, as under me the great globe swung,
I knew some answer, unambiguous –
But that was long ago, and I was young.

Yes, things were so much simpler back at the beginning of time. If only we could remember it! This isn’t ‘forties neo-romanticism; in fact it’s not neo-anything. It’s still somewhere in the eighteen nineties, all so time-fluxed, so universalising, so theosophical.

But it’s all too easy for me to sit here mocking this stuff. If Symbols and Speculations is not headed for the recycling bin, what am I going to salvage from it? There are, admittedly, some good opening moments. For instance:

Far to the north, here on the earth’s pale forehead,
Through the green mapwork of the Orcades
The boat leaves land behind it, more land lies before it,
We are lost between shifting sky and shifting seas.

That’s fine; I like that. Unfortunately, stanzas two, three and their successors are already lined up at the cliff edge. Or take the first half of “Intimations” (a too typically dreadful Hawkes title):

What was it that just before the event on Salisbury station
Christopher Wood caught between a muslin cap and the ocean?
What is it that Greco’s Christ greets from the garden?

That’s more like it! Especially the Christopher Wood bit. But then the last three lines deliver the answer:

There was something my beloved knew when, a seabird, he was borne on the silence above me
And which opens its wings across the evening sky when I ride home wearily.
What is this invisible butterfly that lures man even along life’s narrowing alley?

No. Noooooo … However, just as I’m about to give up, throw the book away and ride home wearily myself, following my invisible butterfly along life’s narrowing alley, I come across this, tucked away at the bottom of page 20:

DRESS

She who must suffer most
Her dress shall be the best,
Neglecting not at all
Slim glove or slender waist.
She who must suffer most
Goes like an eager bride
Being in love’s own dress
Suitably crucified.

Yes. At last. I think she’s nailed it. Something simple, direct but affecting, sparse but graceful, in a lyrical, Blakean mode that is not whipped up into kitsch, but is entirely appropriate to the personal pain in which the poem is founded. And personal pain is, as we know, rarely a wise stimulus for poetry that aims to be anything more than therapeutic, so all credit here. (It is also, in the best sense, if I can say this, a woman’s poem, befitting an archaeologist who proposed that the Minoan civilisation was ruled by a dynasty of benevolent queens.) Thanks to this one, rather anthologisable little gem, Symbols and Speculations is saved, earning its centimetre back on my shelf. Phew.

At about this time, Hawkes met J B Priestley, marrying him in 1953. By all accounts it was a most loving partnership. In 1958 she helped found the CND. She published no more poems.

Do the character and underlying philosophy of her poetry throw any light on the validity of her professional interpretations as an archaeologist? That’s a good question, but one I’m not qualified to answer. We might also wonder if current understandings and reconstructions of our remote past and its remains are still coloured by similar romanticisms.

Memorial and no memorial

There’s a fair bit already on this site about waspish blond poet James Burns Singer, mostly via the “Transparent Prisoner” tabs above. Here’s a bit more.

From the late ‘fifties Burns Singer was based in Cambridge, where he married pioneering black psychologist, child psychotherapist and Fellow of Clare Hall, Marie Battle. In his intro to Singer’s 1970 Collected, W A S Keir notes that after the poet’s too early death in 1964 aged 36, his ashes were scattered at sea, but that “on 24th July 1966, a memorial stone was dedicated to his memory in Little St Mary’s Churchyard, Cambridge.” Anne Cluysenaar also mentions it in her intro to the 1977 Selected.

So where and what exactly is this memorial? On my first visit it avoided me, and I wondered if it had actually existed, or had been removed, though to be fair I was struggling to stay conscious in the teeth of a howling winter’s gale in March, which shortened my time shivering and poking about in the churchyard. When I asked afterwards, none of the kind people at St Mary’s (thank you, Christine Tipple) had any knowledge of it, but on my latest visit it finally revealed itself. In case anyone else wants to take a look, the memorial is on the left among the ranks of small stones set into the ground at the street end, which at first I’d assumed marked only burials of ashes. It’s worn and mottled, but it still reads:

TO THE MEMORY OF
JAMES BURNS SINGER
POET AND MARINE BIOLOGIST
1928 – 1964
AND HIS WIFE
MARIE BATTLE SINGER
PSYCHOANALYST
1910 – 1985

That’s a fine inscription. I’m not sure whether this is the original 1966 stone with an added bit, or a 1985 replacement, though I imagine the first. Who re-dedicated it to Marie Battle Singer, I wouldn’t know. My pics (click to enlarge) show the memorial and its location, and I’ll throw in an awkward selfie-with-stone for good measure. (Tricky angle.)

 

I should dedicate this post, not that it’s anywhere near worthy of him, to another Cambridge poet, my friend Bill Bennett, who died, very sadly, three weeks ago.  Though he had edited the earliest editions of Perfect Bound, the influential ‘seventies “Cambridge school” poetry magazine, he was himself published surprisingly rarely. Nevertheless, he saw as a poet, wrote as a poet, and lived as a poet – and as much more too. An entirely remarkable man. No stone for him, just woodland, as it should be.

Small update

Many thanks to Christine Tipple of Little St Mary’s, who emails to let me know of a 1990 leaflet stating that Singers’s ashes are buried in the garden of the church (which appears not to be the case), and that a bird bath in the garden, now sadly broken off its stand, was given by his wife as a memorial to him. I’d rather like to think that is the case, given that in late 2012 the late Bill Bennett (remembered above) emailed me this from Cambridge in response to my Singer posts:

“As graves go, I may even see if I can track down the Jimmy Singer memorial birdbath … For a time I was thinking I must have met his widow (never that many black women psychiatrists around Cambridge and I certainly met one ) but I really can’t recall an accent … so perhaps it’s one of those false memories …”

My emphasis, as they say. This is remarkably odd. I never mentioned birdbaths to Bill, and at the time I assumed he was just being flippantly inventive. Surely he can’t have known? One of those psychic things, perhaps. Or a false memory that turns out to be accurate? (Or perhaps, on further reflection, he just googled it?) Bit late to ask him now, though hopefully I’ll get an opportunity in the afterlife …

Also, a friend in the congregation tells Christine that she remembers Marie Battle Singer, and that her mother went to her funeral. There she met Marie’s sister from the States, who probably added her name to the stone.

Snaps of mortality

Here’s a few odd things that turned up around corners on our recent trip up North. Even if I have a camera with me when I’m away, in the event I too often end up using my phone, though at times it gives a sort of pleasing phone-y quality, especially in black and white. (Click for slides and click lower right of the slide for full size.)

1: Wystan in Derbyshire

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
at Cashwell raises water …

The boy W H Auden’s fascination with industrial dereliction was stimulated partly by, among other things, a holiday in Derbyshire, and the landscape of the lead mining areas contributes to the decaying backdrop of some of his earlier work. Here, by the side of the Cromford canal, are one or two abandoned buildings and the Leawood pumphouse.

 

2: Barbara in Sheffield

Spotted in the womens’ wear at John Lewis’s in Sheffield: Hepworth’s Writings and Conversations roped in as a signifier of  “Modern Rarity”, the flower arrangements in the cover image cunningly extended into the display. As prices of Hepworths continue to spiral beyond all sanity, Barbara herself, in trademark beret and stripey top, is now employed by Lewis’s as a “national treasure”, at least of a northern sort, it being not too far from Wakefield here.

 

3: Damien and Lucian

And on to Chatsworth, the simply too, too large residence of the Devonshires, for the eyeball-bashing “House Style” fashion and costume exhibition, knowingly curated as a stately spectacle of shameless excess. Dramatically subdued lighting made it difficult in places actually to see much of the clothes or to work out what it was that one was unable to see, not that the elbowing crowds of tablet snappers seemed too bothered. In one vast room, housing an elevated, candle-lit, Fellinian parade of sepulchral wedding dresses, I felt a little sorry for the Damien Hirst at the far end, on loan from Sotheby’s but now unable to hold its own against the invading weight of all the other kitsch. (An oversized gilded Saint Bartholomew, holding aloft his flayed skin, this is nicked from Vesalius, as all Hirst’s ideas are nicked.)

It was a relief to struggle out of the sumptuous vampiric gloom to find myself in a small, overlooked, sunlit corner hung with half a dozen Freuds, various Devonshires having trooped off to have themselves done by family friend Lucian in the ‘sixties. After all the spotlit satins, baubles and feathers, what a welcome dose of honesty! The upper classes as they are, beneath the costumes – saggy, vexed, irritable, bored, anonymous. Just people, in fact. The baby has a worrying quality of elderliness, as if Freud had seen in his or her features the sufferings of the adult to come. Now there’s a lesson in mortality that Hirst, a successful dealer in attractive surfaces, just can’t match.

 

4: Poor Keith

Another passed-over piece of corridor holds a sampling from the archive of Jorge Lewinski artist photos purchased by Chatsworth. Among the familiar faces I noticed the less familiar one of Keith Vaughan, photographed by Lewinski in 1963. Set against the company of his life sized young men, all hard edged, vigorous and assured, he himself seems ill at ease, poorly defined, subdued, resentful, as if the stick and the stool are there to give him something to do with his hands and feet. Or perhaps as if instructed, a bit too cleverly, to mimic the pose of the central figure, generating an unhappy irony. It’s too easy, of course, knowing of his suicide in 1977, to read suffering into any image of Vaughan, but looking at this, while admiring the painter one can’t help feeling for the man.

Voting Day

Well, it’s a funny old day, isn’t it? A day when by official conspiracy, nothing persuasive is permitted to be said. A non-day, a little like Sundays used to be when I was a kid.

So, having cast my vote early, I find myself passing time online, while listening to young master Aesop Rock. Oh yes, I’m down with the kids, even if he was my thirty-something daughter’s suggestion. What’s he on about? I’m not always sure, but his vocabulary is expansive and I like his tone of voice.

This afternoon I shall take Grandson One (aged six) to his swimming practice. I shall watch him thrashing and splashing on his back. From time to time he will bob his head up and look about him, invariably surprised to discover that he has continued not to move across the pool. It will be, I’m afraid, simply too trite a parable of our national condition.

All that remains is to wait for the coming bad news. So to pass a little time, here’s a poem that I like by Gordon Wharton, written the year he died, and unpublished, as far as I know.

Morning and Evening

More news from another unwinnable war;
detritus of spatchcocked women and more
maimed boys. A giant company’s shares
have dropped by a dizzying 5%;
but they’re not in armaments, of course.

On an inside page the crowds assemble,
darkening Wootton Bassett’s High Street
in anticipation of a flag-draped hearse’s
hushed procession; of the British Legion’s
abrupt salute: ‘Up’ a few moments, then ‘Down’.

Meanwhile I struggle with the problem
of sweetening my bran flakes. Honey, I think,
rather than sugar; and a saccharine derivative
to make my coffee palatable. A cigarette
to round off a light breaking of my fast.

Then, lifting my eyes, I glimpse the vain tower
with its weathercock flaunting high overhead
its repetitive message proclaimed at all hours
from dawn to dusk (and probably also in the dark):
NEWS it crows dumbly, NEWS, NEWS, NEWS.

Hello sailors: Christopher Logue meets W S Graham meets Alfred Wallis

"sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls"

W S Graham: “sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls”

Though it’s not really intentional, the couple of poor pieces I’ve done here relating to W S Graham happen to concern his tutelage of other poets, namely John Knight and Burns Singer. We have already met Burns Singer in the company of Christopher Logue, so let’s complete the circle to find Logue and Graham in each other’s company, with, for good measure, a bit more tutelage in hand.

As Ezra Pound’s merciless editing was to Eliot’s The Waste Land, so, it seems, though in a smaller way, was Graham’s waste paper basket to Logue’s first collection, Wand and Quadrant; once Graham had knocked the book into shape, it was duly rejected by Eliot at Faber’s, to be published in Paris under the imprint of Logue and Alexander Trocchi’s Merlin periodical.

I’ve already pondered on Logue’s early medievalism; an obsession with falconry and castles doesn’t quite fit with his later persona, but this in itself doesn’t seem to have been an issue with Graham. I don’t own a copy of Wand and Quadrant (it would cost between £50 and £200 for that privilege), but Merlin One (May 1952) contains two long Logue poems of the period; the better of the two, untitled, lies somewhere between the Pound of Canto I and the later Logue “account” of Homer’s Iliad. It’s all very argonautical and surprisingly good:

And here they came:
three ships, three sails, three hundred oars
white into red as twisted in the light thin
as the leaf’s edge, in again, dark bent under darker blue.

img_0001The clustered winds speak out between their stays
the men speak out, the names are where they sail,
and at the steering pole clinched hands to mark
sky guided measures into the coma of distance.

If this was among what Graham scanned, I hope he liked it. Perhaps Logue’s seafaring aspirations appealed to him. Conversely, quite why Logue, on first meeting Graham, should consider that he “looked like a sailor” is unclear, but given the latter’s Greenock heritage and his forthcoming The Nightfishing, it’s a canny enough remark.

In 1952 Graham was in Rome, courtesy of Princess Margherita Caetani. Logue was there too, and had already taught alongside Nessie Dunsmuir, Graham’s then separated better half, at the Berlitz language school in Paris. Logue takes up the tale, very readably, in his 1999 memoir Prince Charming:

I was in a trattoria near the Spanish Steps, wondering how long I could make my coffee last, when a voice behind me said: ‘I, too, have fallen from a great height.’

This came from W S Graham – ‘I answer to Sydney’ – the Scottish poet, who had tracked me down through Caetani’s doorman.

Eight years my senior, with sharp grey eyes and a pile of reddish-brown curls, Sydney looked like a sailor. In Rome for six months, he had improved his circumstances by moving in with the young Danish woman who rented the rooms above his own, paid for by Caetani, now sublet for cash. Eliot was his publisher. ‘He loves gossip,’ Sydney said. ‘He told me that Hemingway went to the lavatory in Pound’s Paris hotel and pulled the chain so hard the cistern came off the wall and knocked him out. Then he claimed his bruises were from defeating three Lascars in a street fight. Cheer up. Tomorrow we will visit Keats in the English cemetery.’

The bus stopped by the Pyramid of Cestius. We bought sandwiches at the cemetery gate. Inside, it was quiet, planted with pine trees, birds twittering on high. Keats’s grave was just a mound. Shelley’s stone some way away. Sydney had a flask of red wine and two paper cups. I had a guidebook containing Hardy’s poem ‘At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats’:

Who, then, was Cestius,
And what is he to me? –
Amid thick thoughts and memoirs multitudinous
One thought alone brings he.

I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he is a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid

Whose purpose was exprest
Not with its first design,
Nor till, far down in Time, beside it found their rest
Two countrymen of mine …

We ate our sandwiches and drank the wine. On the bus back Sydney said: ‘They were not my countrymen.’

"That's where my words are"

“That’s where my words are”

Later: ‘You must publish a book. A poet without a book is no poet at all. Spouting is for those who can judge by ear. Not many nowadays. “There’s my book,” you say – “that’s where my words are.”’

A book with my name on it appeared in my mind’s eye. I brought my folders over to Sydney’s place.

‘This one’s no good,’ Sydney said – throwing it into the waste-paper basket.

‘I spent a lot of time on that.’

‘Then you wasted your time. This is better. Yes. Put it over there … read this one out.’ I did.

‘Now do you see what’s wrong with it?’ I knew what he was going to say. ‘It starts well enough. Then it starts to wobble. The meaning gets a bit ho-hum. Then just here’ – pointing – ‘it picks up again. Therefore’ – folding the page – ‘miss out the middle and in she goes.’

So my first collection, Wand and Quadrant, was assembled and sent, with a covering note from Sydney, to Eliot. At most, it had three poems worth printing. Eliot returned it with a friendly letter. When I got angry with him, some years later, I threw the letter away. The message was: keep going, work harder, read more.

Logue goes on to recount how Graham, still clearly relishing the older-man-as-initiator role, marks this literary occasion by taking him – ‘for reasons of health’ – to a brothel smelling of disinfectant, where benchfuls of clients await their turn clutching numbered tickets. As his own turn draws closer, Logue loses his nerve and flees the dismal warehouse. The sub-text here is his own sexual timidity, but I find I like him all the better for what might just be a principled abstention.

"Out into the waving nerves of the open sea": an Alfred Wallis on the cover of WSG's Letters

“Out into the waving nerves of the open sea”: an Alfred Wallis on the cover of WSG’s Letters

And speaking of sailors gives an opportunity to mention that Rachael Boast and Andy Ching, on behalf of the W S Graham Estate, are desperate to get sight of a BBC Monitor programme on the Cornish painter Alfred Wallis; this film on the nautical naïf may well feature Sydney himself. (Presumably it’s the episode listed here, from 1967.) If anyone can confirm that Graham did indeed appear in the programme or knows where a copy can be tracked down, please let us know. Thanks.

The images here of Graham in 1952 are both by John Deakin. You can’t have too much Deakin. Click to enlarge massively.

 

 

Stanley Chapman: satyrs and a dead dad

img_0001An early issue of Stand magazine (number 6, 1953) turns out not to contain what I was looking for, but it does have a stonking cover design, very fluid, with a nod to Picasso. Inside are two more images by the same hand, a header and an illustration to a story by Patrick Galvin. A bit of a pagan thingy going on here, evidently, and still sitting somewhere within the neo-romantic environment. I very much like the curvy, chunky forms and the confident, musical line that swells and narrows almost imperceptibly. You get the feeling that this person could doodle fauns till the cows came home.

The artist turns out to be Stanley Chapman, and there’s a poem by him in the same issue, on the death of his father. The inside illustrations and a little more on Stanley himself in a mo, but meanwhile:

 

WHEN DID YOU LAST KILL YOUR FATHER?

(On the tenth of March, 1953 – at the dentist’s).

Dad died in the countryside
Crossing Cannon Street
As eight great bells struck twelve o’clock
Dad heard his ten hearts beat
Sipped my soup in Lyons
Broke and ate my roll
While the dentist plugged the gag
Dad wrapped and packed his soul
Returning to the office
Ten thousand splitting bells took sides
Every bloody clanger slop
Ping hollow roots from hollow eyes
Cockrobin tugged Dad’s heart out
Sunshine swept it up
Miss Stay-No ground her spykey joke
In bloodstained kisses round a cup

*           *          *

Relatives were ran to
Before Dad’s doctor rang
The problems resolution
Came before the questioning
In my terms matriculation
Heavy traffics bandaged feet
Tramp the deafened country station
Where ten million dead hearts beat
Beat beat the race of Gracechurch bells
And crematorium chimneys
Not Nation all your ancient grief
And bloody printed similes
Can end my grief our grief black-tied
Fish-heads gaping trip-sex comfort
Ratmeat cafs in Billingsgate
Shall shine me to my sinking sunset.

“Cockrobin tugged dad’s heart out / Sunshine swept it up … trip-sex comfort / Ratmeat cafs” – Good, eh? Despite the alienating effect of the urgent, staccato hop and the enjoyably wrenched language, this does meet editor Jon Silkin’s demand in the same issue that a poem should deliver a “common bond of passion” that “sets up some sort of … animal stirring.” (The original is formatted with complex and curious line indentations that the clunky WordPress editing here won’t let me reproduce. Sorry about that. I think there are apostrophes missed in the second stanza, but as Chapman skips nearly all the punctuation I haven’t tinkered. “Spykey” – a spy’s key or meant for “spikey”? The second, I think.)

img_0002

img_0003Stanley Chapman has a brief Wiki entry, and some pages here. He would have been 27 when this poem was written, and he died in 2009. His reputation seems largely subsequent to this, and all very much to do with the London Institute of Pataphysics, Oulipo and Outrapo, constrained and generated texts and performances, his connections with Boris Vian and Raymond Queneau, and so on.

The few online photos show him snowy bearded, a pataphysical patrician. But I see that in the early ‘fifties he contributed artwork and poems not just to Stand but also to Listen and Chanticleer. The baroque arcanity of modern pataphysics, sometimes at risk of (excuse me for saying so) nudging up against Pythondom, is one thing, but it’s less easy to get a purchase on the twenty-something Chapman of this previous era, of whom I’d like to see and read more. But with luck some wandering pataphysician out there may see this and leave a comment with directions.

 

Men in tights: Christopher Logue and the sense of History

Sometimes, bits you happen to read slide into each other and coalesce as a question. In this case, if it doesn’t sound too pompous, the question is of poetry, history, reality and “commitment”, the focus being the early work of Christopher Logue, a figure met so far in these posts only as a drinking companion to Burns Singer.

Devil, Maggot & Son

Devil, Maggot & Son

Plenty of copies survive of Logue’s first collection, Wand & Quadrant (1953), but none at sane prices, so on that I can’t comment. But reading his second, Devil, Maggot and Son (1956, though all written in 1953), I was taken aback by the pure medievalism of his poetic theatre – all kings, queens, beggars and towers, and at first glance a world away from his subsequent, plainly spoken, bad-boy-politics register. To be fair, Logue’s playing card world is often darkened by bitterness, just as his Yeatsey lyricism is sometimes “modernised” by an intrusive knobbliness, but even so …

I’ll give a couple of examples below in case you’re interested. Early Logue is an acquired taste, but it can be acquired.

So what’s going on here? This is not the Poundian collocation of historical episodes, nor the sacramental antiquarianism of David Jones, nor Geoffrey Hill’s splicing of centuries. Did Logue, in the afterglow of ‘forties neo-romanticism, simply assume the medieval as the default fancy dress for  an aspiring poet? Or was his vision of turrets and gallows intended for a mirror held to his and our times, in the same way that Henry Treece’s “warrior bards”, by his own account, stand for the very modern victims of the “God of Profit Production”? When Logue writes of “My Saxon tribe” does he mean the working class and assume that we understand that? Does he just expect us to get it?

X, Volume One

X, Volume One

In a merciless review of Logue’s Songs (1959) in X magazine (excerpt below), Anthony Cronin picks up on the problematic medievalism, among much else. In the same issue, Brian Higgins’s poems include a laconically caustic “letter” to Logue (also below), slyly questioning the nature of his social commitment; here Higgins refers to the establishment, in Logue-speak, as “the Normans”. (Higgins, who died in 1965 aged just 35, is a poet worth attention, whose voice arrives in unexpected ways. In Michael Hamburger’s words: “He is wholly original, writing as though he were the first poet ever, just beginning to discover the world and language.”)

Pound embraced Mussolini, Treece turned Tory romantic, Hill was accused of nursing a Victorian nationalism … It all suggests that a committed leftist voice might do well to avoid entanglement in historical other-worlds, lest they turn into national myths, which are by definition conservative. A more fundamental danger of (con)fusing the present and the past must be the leap of implication that, since it was ever thus and still is, it always will be; if nothing has changed, everything changes nothing.

Medieval monarchs and ramparts slip easily enough into those of ancient Greece, which might trigger related questions about Logue’s life’s work, his acclaimed version of Homer’s Iliad, modern anachronisms and all. But that’s another discussion. Interesting though, that Logue was pushed to start the Homer by radio producer D S Carne-Ross, formerly co-editor of Peter Russell’s reactionary review Nine, for whose shenanigans over Homer and popularism see this post.

Poems and excerpts follow.

 

Christopher Logue in youth

Christopher Logue in youth

From “Amateur Horoscope”

In the middle
of the four yellow candles
let the old King
lie in the halflight
dead.

In the middle
of four wetnurses
let the swaddling King
suck the udders of his kind;
for he is ignorant,
with hell before
or heaven behind,
according to the colour of your eyes,
or perhaps your back’s old rage.

Abel and Cain, here is the parable
to be ruled by a King or a Chairman?
Do both answers beg your question
Or is the question itself a beggar?

The King will learn to count,
but not his daily bread. And
they said of the old dead King,
‘He had a lazy heart.’
‘She had out of him
only coins and a bastard.’
‘The orchard he tended
had a gibbet in every sap.’
And the King heard all and wept
My son, son, from the tower
of his hangman’s mind.

 

A Suite for Jewels IV

I, diamond, brighter the new-day
on a thicket of drawn knives
newer than I, lie quiet in the dawn
a magnet to the flights of sun.
Plain, I split on my prism’s edge
white to incarnadine and again white
as the moonlight on Death’s finger.
Within my grasp the acorn and the forest
are chastised on a carbon anvil.
Flesh is my shame. A serf to gold
how often am I worn to idolise
making delight where there is no darling?
yet I in light outmatch my owner’s lust
my craftsman’s sight; my kingdom crowns
whatever King may be. I, illuminate,
only a ton can snuff my beam
or the hungry paws of a beggarmaid.

 

prince-charmingFrom Christopher Logue, Prince Charming: A Memoir, 1999

I assumed that Devil, Maggot and Son had died with Stols. Then a parcel arrived from Amsterdam containing twenty copies of the published book … Creamy paper, the text set in elegant Romulus. As I read them my heart sank. They were so arty. Who on earth could be interested in such stuff? They raised a recurring wish: that my head might somehow be attached to my neck by a sort of bayonet fixture, easily removable for a thorough clean and a good polish before being put back on …

… I said [to Peter Russell] my book no longer pleased me. In future my work would be politically committed. Those who did not work did not deserve to eat.

 

From Anthony Cronin, “The Notion of Commitment: An Aesthetic Inquiry,” in X 1:1, 1959

This resolute self-regard is the principal impression left by Mr Logue’s propagandist poems. They are glumly insistent that Mr Logue is the only one who cares:

Men of the future think of me
Living at a time when one by one
Our kings give way to businessmen,
Our poets wrote to make men bother less,
Our wisemen, fat with caution, spoke of death,
And most died twice from individuality,
In this time on earth given by men to me.

Apart from egotism, the passage displays only the threadbare nature of Mr Logue’s social thinking – the romantic cliché, worthy of Noel Coward, about kings giving way to businessmen, and the communist jargon about people dying twice from individuality – truer to say they are dead from mass-production …

… Many of the sentiments expressed in Mr Logue’s poems are undoubtedly admirable, if unoriginal; what is wearisome is the constant claiming of so much credit for possessing them. The language is a mixture of turgidity and old Georgian frivolity about kings and princesses with a few words like ‘turd’ and ‘shit’ thrown in, apparently in the hope of achieving an uncompromising modernity. The real modern world never appears; for all the indication the (mostly literary) imagery of the poems gives we might as well be living in the Middle Ages. We learn nothing from the poems about Mr Logue’s attitude to any of the difficult relations in life … The vivid lyrical gift which is supposed to provide the jam on the pill, the separable poetry, when not a fearsome misuse of Yeats (and some other very odd influences, including Dame Edith Sitwell), turns out to be a compound of all the sweepings of the Georgian anthologies. Here is Mr Logue in lyrical vein and the manner of Rupert Brooke:

For God’s sweet sake give me back part of that
I gave. Part of a part? One loving jot?
Child I am no Elizabethan hack
Spicing his dalliance in a sonnet’s pot …

… This remote moonshine, far removed from the sane speech of men ever or anywhere, presumably represents Mr Logue’s attempts to come to grips with what the apostles of commitment call, in a noticeable tone of self-congratulation, ‘reality’. Complacent, trivial and boring, it reflects nothing but an ultimate unconcern with life. Poetry as an expression of adult matters which involve other people is not Mr Logue’s concern.

 

Brian Higgins, “A Letter to Christopher Logue,” in X 1:1, 1959

‘More days than sausages’, you said.
Well, one day I had four
And some thousands of words;
Mainly advice on Theft.

Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift

Brian Higgins by Patrick Swift

Thank you, Christopher Logue
(You well known classical translator)
Because of you I have moved towards action
Which is robbing banks.

Each day something drops –
From posters, from our pockets and ourselves.
Those who care for such serious matters
Will replace the posters.
As for our pockets – in time we may be lucky,
And God, or whoever arranges such things,
Will replace us when we die.

Since that day I’ve wondered
If four sausages were too many
To take from the Poet of Need.
Also how much you like my verses,
Wondered how long I will live,
How long my money will last.
I have several times been drunk,
Often lonely,
Written a play and songs to go with it.

I have done no mathematics
Received no money from the Government,
Bought what I need and sold nothing.

If you asked me, ‘What about the H-bomb?’
I would reply:
‘It will either burn us or bore us to death.’

If you asked me, ‘Are you for the rich or the poor?’
I would answer:
‘Those who are hungry are poorer than I am.
Let them find me, I will give them bread.
Those who are masters of employment
Know more than I do about riches.
If they pay wages they will grumble.’

I will say
‘I am for those who try to be artists,
Yet no doubt some who fail
Find compensations.
And those who succeeded,
Did they cut their throats from over-excitement
Or go mad through a joyful effulgence?’

If I became rich it would be through a literary accident,
If I stay poor – in our profession that’s no proof of failure.

Lastly, Christopher, a piece of advice
(Having read your instructions and stopped drinking milk)
Remember the English do not shoot
Satirists and attackers of the official order,
But we have yet to meet with a dangerous Laureate.
If the Normans change their policy
Be sure they will pick one they know will attack.

 

(Unnecessary bibliographical appendix: according to Logue’s memoir Prince Charming, the first edition of Devil, Maggot and Son was published by A A M Stols in the Netherlands. Subsequently Peter Russell (poet, publisher and editor of Nine magazine) prevailed on Stols to print “a small English edition” on his behalf. However, my copy of the Stols version is inscribed “Second Printing” while my otherwise identical Russell version is not. Each claims to be limited to 250 copies and each has the same numbered page to that effect dated September 1956. Not that it matters a hoot. Mind you, Logue’s memoir also has Stols dying during the production of the book, but in fact he survived until 1973. So much for memories.)

An exhumination of some work in progress

This is what I believe they call a holding letter. Five and a bit years back, this blog was mostly a matter of thinking aloud: bish, bash, bosh, done. But as the content has leaned more towards the researchable, a backlog has built of stuff to be tidied up and rounded off. And some of these unfinished explorations have involved generous input from others who have kindly got in touch.

So please bear with me.

twg-smallerThough what remains of his Irene is safely paged up above, I still need to do the full business on the extraordinary and now invisible Terence White, aka Terence White Gervais, Gervas d’Olbert, Gervas White, Terence Gervais-White etcetera, organist, composer, poet in five languages, orientalist, Joycean disciple, rough sleeper, possible heroin user and much else. To be going on with, my thanks to Louise Prey for this great pic of TWG in (worryingly) a clerical collar. This is only the second image of the man I’ve yet come across. But Terence needs rescuing, and it is in hand.

Then there’s the need to say a little more of the remarkable Melville Hardiment, poet, painter, soldier, educator, school magazine pioneer, and the man who introduced William Burroughs to LSD, or tried to. (Already touched on as Wyndham Lewis’s “Mr Gartsides”.) Thank you, Sophie Bissmire, for the memories and the photos. It will get done.

My recent attempts to figure out the person behind the extraordinary ‘forties images of Stanley Jackson were left a bit hanging. The revelation that there were not one but two Stanley Jacksons is thanks to conversations with Jackie and Eloise Hendrick, daughter and granddaughter of one Stanley, to whom I’m very grateful. We may now be in a position to disentangle the strange coincidences that have confused these two artists, so a stab at something definitive(ish) on The Two Stanleys is somewhere on the horizon.


What else? More could be said on the anarchist poetry of Alex Comfort and George Woodcock. In fact, ‘forties writing as a whole still has a lot to yield. And mention of Mr Gartsides reminds me that I’ve been meaning to get to grips with the vexed history of school art teaching, from Ruskinesque daffodils to the Marion Richardson child-centred revolution to the “spots and dots” of Kurt Rowland and the sub-Bauhaus reaction. (Though that has an ironic colouring, now that this low life government has wiped Art from the UK National Curriculum …) And a load more besides.school-art-booksIt’s all in the pipeline.