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)

Tag Archives: Drummond Allison

A rose extinction: the poetry of Gervase Stewart

In issue two (1944) of Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece’s New Apocalyptic review Transformation (For Treece, see here) appears a prefaced “In Memoriam” to four poets killed on service: Sidney Keyes, R Brian Scott, Gervase Stewart and Alun Lewis. Though the dedicatory poem by Richard Church doesn’t quite hit the spot – “Out of the tumbled plane, the dead boy … there flutters again the phoenix of death, whose song surprises” – its sentiment is honourable enough.

IMG_0003Of the four enfants perdus, the dead boy out of a tumbled plane who is not so well remembered as Keyes and Lewis is Gervase Stewart, killed in August 1941. Beyond contributions scattered among small magazines his only poetic legacy is a slim selection put together hastily by Treece and published by The Fortune Press in 1942. For title, Treece chose No Weed Death, culled from Stewart’s “Obituary notice for the Squire”:

He craved no weed death but a rose extinction …

If the choice of title was a happy one, Treece’s judgement in the selection of poems was maybe less secure. Even so, there’s enough quality in these three dozen small pages to show that Stewart was a poet of real ability who deserves our attention, even if his output had not yet achieved the volume and confidence of Keyes, Keith Douglas or Drummond Allison, the obvious comparisons. (For Allison, see here and here.) “Had he lived,” wrote Treece with maybe not too much exaggeration, “there is little doubt that he would have become one of the most eminent poets of his generation.”

Trevor Tolley noted approvingly Stewart’s “Audenesque stylishness,” and identified his strength in “an urbane blend of imaginative fantasy and a sensitive awareness of the everyday world that was characteristic of the poetry of the thirties.” On the whole, the influences of Auden and Eliot served Stewart well. He is at his best in a sort of Audenish, floating, hawk’s eye commentary that picks out among the minutiae of daily life the signifiers of the anxieties of the age: nostalgia for the pre-war peace, fear of what is to come, the relentless betrayal of ordinary people.

Have we not watched the terror of the night
Receding and winging up and down the stairs
And a floor board stretching in the heat
Has spoken death to us. You too have been alone
With the table lamp, standing as a lady stands
On Brighton beach in summer with her hands
Clasped ecstatically behind her head …

Or –

Day goes with sun as golden lift girls go
slipping to basement down the shaft of night.
Sea makes its soft shape comfortable, assumes
an easy shade, as from their broken rooms
in tribes the chosen people make for tubes,
take escalator down
to dream of bricks and straw and wait for dawn
at Earls Court, Leicester Square and Camden Town …

He is at his less best in lyrical, self-torturing  teenage boy mode, but then he was a teenage boy when most of his work was written. Some pieces give the impression of being unfinished, and there is a tendency to wander off or to unravel towards the end, plus an occasional but persistent weakness for rhymes ending in “-ation”. But there are also many pieces to admire, and I’ve transcribed my own selection of sixteen – a personal choice, not representative – on a new Gervase Stewart page – go here or find the tab up above. I hope you’ll read them.

wikiThere is no comprehensive point of reference, but the life of Gervase Leslie Stewart can be picked out from various sources. (Thanks to Bill Bennett for his input on this.) He was born in March 1920 in Monkseaton, a pleasant village near Whitley Bay in Tyneside. He followed his father to Tynemouth School (later renamed King’s), a local and aspirational public school. In a poem not in my selection, Stewart voices himself as “essentially one of the rank and file … persuaded our suburb was rather elite” who has “attended a school of exorbitant fees”. But it clearly suited him, and his fingerprints are all over the school magazine of the time, in the cricket and rugby teams, the boxing club, composing a “rugger song,” in the library and the debating society, in amateur dramatics and musical theatre, and then as house captain and head boy. The magazine reports that as a boxer Stewart “is keen, and has an admirable physique … quite stylish and a heavy hitter. His footwork must develop from the hopping shuffle which it is at present.” As a cricketer, he was no batsman, but his fielding is said to be “particularly stylish” and, later, “singularly spectacular.”

Henry Treece was at the time a popular young teacher at the school, organising boxing and drama and supervising the magazine. He came to know Stewart as a confident and vital young man with “an enthusiasm for life which may best be described as Elizabethan … kind though candid, sincere though subtle,” good humoured, versatile, with a strong faith in God and in essential human goodness. On the other hand, many of the poems indicate that behind this “handsome presence” lay a full portion of doubts, anxieties and melancholy.

In 1935, when Stewart was just fifteen, he was already writing poetry, and showed his efforts to Treece, who judged them “competent, but a little too commonplace and literary.” Despite his natural ebullience, his serious teenage writing seems to have been a rather guarded affair; the school magazine contains just one contribution, in 1937, a promising descriptive exercise on the topic of “Rain” which bears the stamp of Treece’s encouragement:

The boles of trees reflect a growing smudge
Of light, a soft electric lozenge squashed
On sodden, shining oaks. The miles of streets
Gold-splashed, run oil, and fish-scaled gutters see
Within their mirrors, hazed red, yellow, green …

IMG_0001Both Treece and Stewart left the school in the summer of 1938. In 1939 Stewart went to St Catharine’s, Cambridge to read theology, with the intention of ordination. (He may initially have been at Fitzwilliam House until it was disbanded and the students transferred.) In his first year he became editor of Granta and in Lent term 1940 a “chairman of debates”, the wartime equivalent of Union president, being considered “one of its wittiest speakers.” In the ‘eighties his fellow poet Nicholas Moore recalled that Stewart avoided the Cambridge literati: “He hung out with the rugger crowd, all tough, bumptious boys together.” (Despite this, contact with Moore was close enough for Moore to publish Stewart’s work in several outlets and to dedicate a poem to him.) “He was a brilliant scholar. Yet when it came to exams, he became as nervous and fluttery as a girl before her first party – a bundle of nerves, shivering and quaking like a trapped animal and chattering away nineteen to the dozen.” Derek Stanford remembered Stewart simply as “an Apollo in tweeds.”

A few of Stewart’s more effective poems have a London setting, and at some point after the outbreak of war he must have spent time there. During this period his poems appeared in Seven, edited in Cambridge by Moore, Delta, run by Lawrence Durrell, The New English Weekly, Granta and Fords and Bridges (“The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine”), also edited by Moore among others. In 1940 six of his pieces appeared in the Hogarth Press’s Poets of Tomorrow: Cambridge Poetry 1940, edited by Moore and Alex Comfort. A short story, “Gretchen,” later appeared in the Schimanski-Treece anthology of 1944, A Map of Hearts.

In 1940 Stewart abandoned his studies, joined the Fleet Air Arm and was posted as a flying instructor with 749 Squadron to HMS Goshawk, a naval air station in Trinidad. On 25 August 1941 his Walrus seaplane exploded in mid-air. Temporary sub-lieutenant Stewart RNVR was killed with both members of his crew. He was 21 years old.

IMG_0002Given that (or perhaps because) Treece chided the schoolboy poet for a preoccupation with the Divine (“He replied that God was within his experience as much as anything on earth”), there is relatively little of the overtly Christian showing in Stewart’s surviving writing, though he was clearly extremely sensitive to ordinary suffering and injustice. No specific political allegiance emerges, but at times he demonstrates an outspoken and angry radicalism. In “The Two Septembers,” an early and apparently unfinished “play” (more a declamation in rhyming couplets) later published in Treece’s Transformation, an “orator” exhorts the crowd to demolish the Whitehall Cenotaph and replace it with a huge toilet:

…   This cold white stone
Is a mockery out of the past. Let us tear it down,
And build for ourselves a luxurious lavatory,
For a public convenience will perpetuate the memory
Of unnecessary death as well as a monument will.

PEOPLE

Call the workmen and bid them tear it down.
Let us drag to the spot the mobile crane …
Out of the old we will build the new,
Out of the rotten will grow the ripe …

Down with it. Down with it. Down with it.

IMG_0004Even at his most nationalistically anthologisable, in “I burn for England,” Stewart’s patriotism is, as we now say, considerably nuanced: “Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn [her people’s] sacrifice to profit” in a “war for freedom” fought by those “who were never free.”

Naturally, he also wrote his share of navel-gazing soliloquies –

Will none remember that I walked upon this land
And penned one bearing note upon its song?

– and of love poems, some quite direct:

Naked at night in a golden chariot
Drive to my heart, my lover.

It’s possible to read these in the context of the seismic uncertainties thrown up by the outbreak of war, but in the main they seem to me the less successful pieces, and I’ve tended to avoid them in my own small selection, in favour of Stewart’s broader visions of social complacency and despair, parting and war – the “brightly coloured maze moving massed and individual.”

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

“Pick up my book,” he wrote in maudlin-mortal mode, in the early “My Vanity.” “Read but one verse, and I … will know that one, at least, remembers me.” Well, we have, and we do, but for better reasons than that particular verse. In place of the neo-romantic spectre of Death, mortality in Stewart’s poems is recurrently, and presciently, figured by clocks – the stealthy tread of clocks, the swinging heart of clocks, obsequious clocks, hammer clocks, watch ticks, semitones, persistent tappings, rhythmic pulse. There is a dreadful brevity in the easy transition from the school 1st XV to college to warfare, all tough, bumptious boys together. His short life seems little more than a countdown to that awful, unnecessary, mid-air moment when, quite literally burning for England in living flame, he was extinguished in a rose of fire.

To save retracing steps, here’s another link to the selection of his poems.

*           *           *

As a suffix, two appeals. Google threw up, then promptly lost, a snippet of a later poem involving a pint of beer and an air raid. If you have the full text of that, I’d love to see it.

Secondly, I can find no picture of Stewart. There are hints online of  a second edition of No Weed Death, possibly by Bodley Head in 1944, that contains a portrait. If that’s so and anyone can send a scan of that or of any other image of him that I can use here, I’d be very grateful.

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The inescapable re-entrant: Drummond Allison’s Cynthia sequence

da smallA post in January bigged up the excellent and unaccountably underrated poetry of Drummond Allison, killed in action in late 1943 at the age of 22. Now we have sight at last of Allison’s mysterious inamorata and muse Cynthia Clarke, thanks to a wonderful wartime photo (below), kindly sent by Cynthia’s daughter Charlotte Mackie.

John Heath-Stubbs recalled that Allison was “very interested in girls”. A good many of his poems are addressed to them, named or not. But his poems to Cynthia run from his time at Oxford, through his spell in London (where he rubbed shoulders with Nina Hamnett, Tambimuttu and Dylan Thomas) to his time at Sandhurst. There are seven identified Cynthia poems in all; Allison was certainly smitten!

At the time, I failed to spot “Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)”, and missed Michael Sharp’s end note in the 1978 Poems, which reveals that this was part of a sequence called “Five poems for Cynthia Clarke”; the others were “Rejection Song”, “December 1941”, “May 1942” and “October 1942”. (Thank you to Stephen Benson, editor of the Collected, for the nudge.) Three of these I have quoted elsewhere, but it seems simplest here to set out below the full sequence of five plus two in what appears to be their chronological order, from November 1941 to October 1942. Anyway, you can’t have too much Allison.

The sequence speaks for itself, and it would be intrusive to comment much here. The end of “Yorktown” is interesting: did young girls habitually hitch-hike solo in 1942? As often with Allison, there are mildly knotty moments due to inversions and coinings – “perspection”; “by slope or slipe”; “aestability” (a summery quality). But “May 1942” is a little masterpiece, from the metaphysical conceit of the first stanza to “the gardener with a gorgeous trowel” and the uncontrollable yo-yo of the second. These seven poems are hymns to, and chronicles of, love – the inescapable re-entrant.

Cynthis Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.

Cynthia Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.


Walton Street Sonnet (for Cynthia Clarke)

Dimmed headlights, chinks in curtains, lowered torches
Like notes on Walton Street’s obscurity;
The tower that talks at us, the stone-stepped porches,
Wet curbs and scuffled gratings, energy
Of chimney-outlines now hold new solutions
For every problem this November sets.

But when, if fear has broken off relations,
Headlines diminish and they settle sites
For reconstruction; or if still refuses
Oxford in European death to pry;
Eyes of you singers some pale night peruses
Straggling from sherry parties up the High,
Through building-shadows down Cornmarket thrusting:
May book and recollection need no dusting.


Rejection Song (November 1941)

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

Now admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.


For Cynthia

Close any pamphlet whose insistence catches
Your heart without its sentries and evokes
Nothing but mercy looting all love’s riches,
Talking but never using. Nor attempt
Hills the despondent labourer forsakes
Immune from all our zeal. But by trite birches
And chairs your seemly customs keep, from truth exempt.

Crossed in our opulent ambition
Yet fierce from each rejection
Neither will dare complete attrition
Till liking leaves the eyes.
Hold back your heart from neat dissection
Inured to boldest lies,
Allow me no perspection.


December 1941

They pummel in the playground and lift pneumatic drills,
They slack on scaffoldings and cycle from motor works,
Their image lopes behind me, sticks in my books its bills,
with empty plate and mug outside the dining room lurks.

But in the fog elusive, skipping the vital pages,
Hurrying in to meals, I mention special need:
‘Love of the long down-trodden, advance with crucial ages
Must wait, for I am thwarted too, have greed like their greed.’

Given the shortened hours and the bathroom cleaned of coal,
Clinics and cooking-lessons, access to forests, when
Some can afford more beauty, others a change of soul;
Will sorrow be more joyful, ends be less final then?

Or given strength, my dear, to ascend your quieter mountain
Of mind, and luck to stumble under misleading snow
Upon your heart, and time to fritter round the fountain
Flung on complete lovers, where would there be to go?


May 1942

This was my dread, that I should find
A heart embedded in the mind,
A dream connected by the body.
Now I am liberated from
Yourself and anguish and can frame
A non-coercive constitution.

This was not love, but less and more,
Like an unreckonable score
Or some such maladjusted image:
The gardener with the gorgeous trowel,
The yo-yo that we can’t control,
The inescapable re-entrant.


Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)

Though in this monstrous moon’s daguerreotype
No shadow shows you sneak by slope or slipe
Or grope behind my back your way through grass,
I’ll never quit my post: you shall not pass.

Not yet the great gate shivers on its hinge
And on the road of pain not yet impinge
Your footfalls; but don’t fear, I’ll not be caught
Napping again who once was in report.

Your aestability surrounds me still;
June had your stealth to undermine my will,
July sent out your agents; but, my dear,
I watched each ditch and understood their leer.

Another August, far too shy to shout,
I flushed and stood aside and let you out;
But now, my bearskin doffed and buttons dull,
A point shall threaten your quiet skin and skull.

Henceforth your last year’s permit won’t avail
And I’ll suspect there’s gas in every gale:
The bombed old buildings of my heart still hide
A Certain Thing whose worth we can’t confide.

So you’d best gather up your floral gown
For good and cadge a lift to London Town
Whither with its impatience and its power
These lonely lorries lumber every hour.


October 1942

O would the leisurely rain that loves the asphalt
And handles the still-drilling squads
Could fall clean on affection and from reflection
Efface at least those winks as bad as nods.

For I resemble ever the schoolgirl in the gallery
Who takes the shape from all she sees;
My heart and mind are colourblind and astigmatic,
The gods I own too hard to please.

Though derived from our friends’ (the fervent and impervious to comment,
Those who encircle Death with words
And love and the saints and dexterity and two historians),
My views move much too like the bison-herds.

Only the flesh must flash its faultless messages –
Yours is the only cause appealing
For which is justified, lust-for-you the only tradesman
With whom, oh darling darling, I am dealing.

Drummond Allison, bulldog poet

drummond allisonFor no particular reason, time for an honourable mention of WW2 poet Drummond Allison – possibly the only baby ever to have been named after Sapper’s thuggish gentleman detective Bulldog Drummond, on account of his strikingly pugnacious physiognomy as a newborn – at least in his mother’s eyes.

Photos and recollections reveal no thug but “an extrovert, a rackety enfant terrible with tow-coloured hair” (David Wright), resembling, as another friend remarked, an “almost grown-up” Just William. His exuberance, generosity and humour coloured his poetry, which is energetic, quirky, jagged but stately, musically alliterative, telegraphic, with little concession to poetic fashion, though he had clearly absorbed Auden and George Barker among others. Here’s a personal favourite:

O sheriffs

the yellow nightO sheriffs hung with long pearlhandled guns
Showing your stars, coachditching dark road-agents,
O Pony Express on Sioux-surrounded plains,

Mushers of huskies, dudes in border towns,
Rustlers of painted mustangs down thin gorges
And tumblers out of rustler-run saloons,

O Darrell who the revolving logs defy,
O Billy caught with bacon, mad-eyed Hardin
Daring to draw each pallid deputy.

God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger,
Or at a far fur-station the half-breed stranger,
Them string up undecayed and stellify.

eight oxford poetsIt could be objected that the last verse suffers by the necessary inversion of “Them string up” and by the obscurity of “stellify” (turn into a star). But let’s face it, “stellify” is a cracking word. And “God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger” – just how good is that?

From one boyhood constellation to another passion – cricket. Of all Allison’s poems, “Verity” may be the best known, featuring Death as a batsman, and written for the Yorkshire and England bowler Hedley Verity, killed in Sicily in 1943, a few months before Allison’s own death:

Verity

The ruth and truth you taught have come full circle
On that fell island all whose history lies,
poemsFar now from Bramall Lane and far from Scarborough
You recollect how foolish are the wise.

On this great ground more marvellous than Lords
– Time takes more spin than nineteen thirty four –
You face at last that vast that Bradman-shaming
Batsman Whose cuts obey no natural law.

Run up again, as gravely smile as ever,
Veer without fear your left unlucky arm
In His so dark direction, but no length
However lovely can disturb the harm
That is His style, defer the winning drive
Or shake the crowd from their uproarious calm.

But Allison is no mere boyish, or even Boy’s Own Paper, poet. His subjects range from suburbia, class allegiance, social change and Marxism to war, death, girls and sex. Try this study of unlucky love in which every humdrum object embodies uncertainty:

Rejection Song

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

collectedNow admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.

Lieutenant John Drummond Allison left for the front in October 1943. Little more than a month later he was killed in the assault on Monte Camino. He was 22 years old.

A biography by Ross Davies appeared in 2009, though I can’t pretend to have read it. At the same time, Allison’s Wiki stub still consists of just four sentences. His work, sadly, is thoroughly out of print, a 1994 Collected (published by his old school in an edition of 300, and admirably edited by Stephen Benson) being his most recent appearance. Before that, we have a 1978 Poems (Whiteknights Press in a run of 200), his posthumous 1944 collection The Yellow Night, and his modest appearance in the 1941 anthology Eight Oxford Poets.

VerityLimited editions or not, none of these are at all pricey second hand – a sure sign of neglect. Of Allison’s fellow Oxford soldier poets who never returned, Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes, Douglas is now properly regarded; Keyes remains interesting but was hugely overrated at the time. Allison stands up solidly against Douglas, and is a far more important poet than Keyes, but both the latter are still in print, with Faber and Carcanet no less. A manuscript of “Verity” in Allison’s hand, on the endpaper of a Yorkshire County Cricket Club programme for 1911, turned up at Christie’s in 2004. It made £72.

His poetry demands urgent recognition. Him string up undecayed and stellify.

Watching the Megalopolopolis

Pushing into the slanting drizzle that raked the bleak cultural plazas of central Birmingham today, I found my way to Metropolis: reflections on the modern city, on show at the Gas Hall till late June. Here Birmingham and Walsall Galleries show off the “nationally significant Metropolis collection” of “visions of the modern global city by some of the world’s most exciting artists” on which, nudged along by Ikon Gallery, they have splashed their share of the £1 million Art Fund loot.

“The world’s most exciting artists” may be over-egging it a bit, but the dosh has not been entirely wasted. Largely photos and videos, but at least those media have the sheer capacity required to reflect the complexities of an unending urbanism.

I was strangely soothed by Grazia Toderi’s double video projection Orbite Rosse (2009), in which the multi-layered lights of the distant megalopolopolis twinkle and shift benignly; initially pleased by Nicholas Provost’s Storyteller (2011), though on second thoughts merely flipping vertically the moving panoramas of Las Vegas to give a quick impression of intricacy is a bit cheap, to be honest; but fascinated by the slo-mo telephoto multitudes in Beat Streuli’s 2001 video Pallasades. Filming people unguarded at a distance seems to be Struli’s only trick, but at least it’s a good trick. (Though I read recently that the British poet Drummond Allison, killed in 1943, came up around 1941 with the idea of erecting a static camera in the street to film whatever passed, way before Warhol.)

In this show much is “reflected” and “explored” of course, and “issues” are “raised”, as they usually are. But no one’s saying much. And most of it seems so distant and passive: city as backdrop, its image a celebration of our beautiful alienation. Like Iggy Pop’s Passenger, the bus window is as close as we get. So where are the engagements, the détournements, the interventions? Without them, we seem to be stuck in a loop of the same old Ballardian narrative, drifting observers of a decaying urbanism so fixed as to resemble a state of nature …

Back from oblivion: tracking the poetry of Gordon Wharton

New page added (tab up the top, or go here), devoted to an attempt at a proper appreciation of the poetry of Gordon Wharton, whose first three small collections were published from 1954 to 1957, but who has recently made a startling comeback, fifty four years on, with an excellent new collection, Towards Oblivion. A British poet who certainly deserves to be read and recognised.