Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: T S Eliot

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.

 

 

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The canary that ate the cats

The best parody I can recall was one I heard in Battersea circa 1970, when a very small boy walked past me, singing to himself:

“Strangers in the night, exchanging panties …”

No further lines. That was all, and that was enough. With a wonderful economy of means – “panties” is very close in sound to “glances” – this opens up the very human realities behind the portentous lyrics of the song, as the strangers emerge from their fifteen minute fumble in the wrong underwear. Bert Kaempfert and Frank Sinatra get what they deserve, in six words.

On the other hand, anthologies of parodies seem to promise more than they deliver. Why are so many parodies written by the deservedly obscure and overly clever, seeking mistakenly to sink their targets by a piling on of baroque exaggerations? This seems true of many jabs at Eliot and Pound. (Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow” excepted. The Pound of the Cantos is maybe beyond parody, being, in his lurching obscurantism, already in a state of self-parody.)

canaryThe long unpublished (until 1977) comedy thriller The Death of the King’s Canary, by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, involves the assassination of a Poet Laureate, and in the process takes a swipe at a good handful of British poets current in the late ‘forties, when it was written. (John Davenport is one of those highly interesting Fitzrovian characters who pop up around every corner, and my thanks go to Bill Bennett for pointing him out.)

Among the many prospective and parodied laureates surveyed by a bored prime minister at the novel’s opening are George Barker (“Albert Ponting, born Balham, 1910. Did Chemistry course at Polytechnic. Must read, but unsuitable”):

I, I, my own gauze phantom am,
My head frothing under my arm,
The buttocks of Venus for my huge davenport.
I orgillous turn, burn, churn,
As his rubbery bosom curds my perspiring arm –
The gust of my ghost, I mean …

W H Auden in ballad mode as a leftist Kipling (“Wyndham Nils Snowden. Very popular with the younger men. But a bit of a red.”):

Look, dead man, at this Empire, at this Eastscape of suffering,
Monocled glaucoma over India’s coral strand.
They can hear in twilight Ealing
The forts fall in Darjeeling
As the last White Hope is snuffed out in that dark-skinned No-Man’s-Land.

And of course T S Eliot (“John Lowell Atkins. Naturalized 1917. Very sound, but I don’t think quite right for the job.”):

Everything is the same. It only differs
in the subjective mind which is the same
being or not-being, born, unborn,
a wind among leaves deciduous or dead.
It does not matter where
it does not matter.
Windfall or wordfall or a linnet’s feather
in rank orchards where perpetual turns the worm.
It is not different …

After reading Atkins’s “West Abelard” the Prime Minister feels “queerly depressed” and reaches for the brandy. “That was a lugubrious poem; and the trouble was that it was true. Everything was the same. Dull, too. But it would never do to tell them so.” “West Abelard” is the more effective for being so worryingly close to the real thing.

But there is another side to Atkins; equally sharp are “the opening lines of a new light poem … another jingle for his latest dog-book,” discovered subsequently in the poet’s overcoat pocket:

Bubble and Bow-wow and Viscount Squeak,
The chow, the bullpup, and the peke,
Bound all day on a barkable lark,
Towsering round the peagreen park.

This very quick nod to Eliot’s Pekes and Pollicles, Pugs and Poms is affectionate in its clever way, but also more than enough to lay bare the soft underbelly of his modernism.

cats

‘Cats’: is it just me?

It’s just not done to dislike Old Possum, is it? No one is quite ready to be pointed at as a hater of small furry animals. I’ve owned cats (and a dog) in my day, and was fond enough of them as individuals, but I find myself very much revolted by the psychic weakness of our tyrannous English cat-and-dog culture, of which Lloyd Webber’s bizarre leg-warmer musical seems a horribly inevitable extension. Call me a snob, but the problem with Old Possum is that it’s exactly the kind of verse that J Alfred Prufrock would have approved of, between the toast and the tea.

“Poets without Appointments”: at home with Christopher Logue and Burns Singer

A new unscrolling page above – The Transparent Prisoner 2 – has yet another glimpse of bad boy poet Burns Singer, this time from the Daily Express of 1961, no less, and in equally bad company with Christopher Logue. (Many thanks to Roger Allen for helping track this down, in response to my previous post, now deleted, where I wondered if the “Christopher” of the article was Christopher Fry. But not so.) For good measure, I’ve also copied onto this page the earlier post about Singer and Colin Wilson.

“Poets without Appointments” is a rollicking read, and is kind to Singer: “He may never set the world on fire, or earn much money. But Jimmy has looked deeper into the river than most of us.” Amen to that.

“I saw him creep head downward down a wall …”: T S Eliot and Dracula

Dracula is a big book. I managed to read it in three days flat in the summer of 1972. But then, I had little else to do, being employed at the time as a casual summer labourer at Appleby Frodingham steel works in Scunthorpe. My job was to sit in a vertiginous little cabin atop the screen house tower by the coke ovens, from where my companion and I would descend during the very infrequent pauses in the passage of the belts carrying the coke, to change the worn out metal screens – the job of a minute or two. For the rest of our working hours, we were required to do nothing. My companion, an ashen faced man a few weeks short of retirement, did nothing and said little, except occasionally to voice his grievance at the boredom of the job that had kept him for many years on a moderately decent wage in exchange for remarkably little effort. I nodded my sympathies and carried on reading. He sat, still as a corpse, and glared at the wooden floor. There was something oddly gothic about the situation.

The recent repeat on Sky Arts 2 of Neil Jordan’s workmanlike bio-doc Dracula’s Bram Stoker reminded me that Valerie Eliot’s 1971 edition of the original drafts of The Waste Land revealed T S Eliot’s debt to Stoker’s famous novel. In particular, this bit, from “What the Thunder Said” –

And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers …

– had started life as this:

The Shrill bats quivered through the violet air
Sobbing, and beating wings.
A man, one withered by some mental blight
Yet of abnormal powers
I saw him creep head downward down a wall
And upside down in air were towers …

… A man lay flat upon his back, and said
“It seems that I have been a long time dead:
Do not report me to the established world.
The world has seen strange revolutions since I died.”

How Dracula is that? In the next draft the dead man’s speech, along with his mental blight and abnormal powers, has been trimmed to leave this:

And bats with baby faces, in the violet light,
Whistled, and beat their wings
A man crawled downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers …

Eliot quickly altered “a man crawled downward” to “a form crawled downward”. But if “man” was too strong, “form” was certainly too weak, and in the next draft its crawling was handed over to the baby faced bats of the previous line.

The original image is derived directly from Jonathan Harker’s memorable sighting of the Count on his nocturnal creepings:

“I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.”

So strikingly “wrong” is this image that it was visualised on the covers of early editions of the novel. I prefer the version on the first paperback edition of 1901. (Available at the best online antiquarian booksellers, though a copy will set you back £10,000.) There can be no doubt that Eliot at least saw one of the cover designs.

Some Eliot commentators have merely given a non-specific nod in passing to the Dracula influence, but the crawling-down-the-wall bit is properly, if briefly, covered in the section “The Waste Land: Dracula’s Shadow” in the chapter by Vincent Sherry in A Companion to T S Eliot. Sherry suggests plausibly that Eliot’s doubling emphasis of “downward down” knowingly recaptures the italicised horror of Stoker’s “face down”. Which would mean that Eliot had indeed read the whole thing, rather than just glanced at the cover.

And there are other shades of Dracula in The Waste Land. Consider Mina Harker’s journal description of Whitby:

“Right over the town is the ruin of the Abbey, a noble ruin of immense size …  Between it and the town is another church, the Parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones.  It descends so steeply over the harbour that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed.”

The abbey and churchyard, conflated, feed directly into Eliot’s image of the Chapel Perilous in the stanza that follows the bat bit:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.

The Chapel Perilous may be in Whitby, but it is a mountainous and Transylvanian Whitby. Curious that in his remarkably unhelpful “Editorial Notes” to the poem, Eliot stated that this section employed as one of its themes “the present decay of eastern Europe”.

For that matter, it’s worth remembering that The Waste Land, voiced by a shifting collage of different speakers (“multi-POV” as they say these days) had been provisionally titled “He do the police in different voices”. But Dracula is precisely a proto-modernist assemblage of different voices or texts – journals by Jonathan and Mina Harker, various letters, a newspaper cutting, Mina’s journal, Lucy Westenra’s and Dr Seward’s diaries – with no central narrator. Stoker did the Count entirely in different voices. Eliot and Pound must have approved!

Stepping outside the texts, it’s also curious that the first book edition of The Waste Land was published in 1922 by Horace Liveright of Boni and Liveright, New York, who went on to produce the 1927 Broadway stage version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi (and who also cheated Stoker’s widow out of the royalties).

A spooky echo, of which good old Google can also throw up a few: in his Washington Post write-up of Tom & Viv, the 1994 film about Eliot’s tragic first marriage, reviewer Hal Hinson found it “a sort of ‘Interview With the Vampire’ for the Bloomsbury set”. Of lead actor Willem Dafoe, he observed: “Tom begins to come across as something of a bloodsucker too … As Eliot, Dafoe certainly looks the part of a vampire”. T S Eliot as a vampire? But then, how about this blog page for a striking piece of synchronicity – or “confirmation bias”?


The blog title has no particular connection to Eliot, whose “Quote of the Week” beneath is not from The Waste Land. But even so … Oo-er. Creepy!