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: Dylan Thomas

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canaryThe long unpublished (until 1977) comedy thriller The Death of the King’s Canary, by Dylan Thomas and John Davenport, involves the assassination of a Poet Laureate, and in the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.

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.

Dylan’s cheques. Plus – Mander Scandal outcome!

Mandergate

First, for the successful (for now) outcome of the Mander Scandal, involving the asset stripping of a publicly displayed Hepworth sculpture from its Wolverhampton home and its eventual return, see the campaign page at www.facebook.com/Mandergate, especially 15 October.

Dylan’s cheques

Next, if you have maybe £800 to spare, you could with luck become the owner of two bounced cheques (“1 page each, printed with manuscript insertions, oblong 8vo”), each made out for £3, at Bonham’s books and manuscripts auction of 12 November. Why the remarkable financial inversion of these less than worthless items?

cheque

Both are signed in the surprisingly neat hand of Dylan Thomas. Dated from August of 1952 and 1953, they were palmed off by the cash strapped poet on the unfortunate landlord of his local in Laugharne, the Cross House Inn. You’d think that, the 1952 cheque having bounced, Mr Richards might have been more wary the next year, but apparently not. On the other hand, having hung onto them both, he may have had some shrewd notion of their future surge in value.

If I wanted the perfect Dylan Thomas autograph, I would choose one of these cheques. There is something beautifully fitting about them. They illustrate wonderfully how time and art can utterly transform the signification of an object. They have become, in effect, perfect little pieces of concrete poetry.

A little gallery for Jessie Dismorr

small self portraitAs we move into the centenary year of Blast, it seems like a good time to present a page of work by the uncommonly interesting Vorticist (and much else) Jessie, or Jessica, Dismorr. (To view the page, find the tab above or go here.)

So far I’ve managed to scrounge up 66 images of paintings and drawings from all periods, including what appears to be an image of James Joyce, and two likely Vorticist designs, among the papers of American sculptor John Storrs, that for all I know may previously have been overlooked.

As and when other images turn up, they will be added without announcement.

Dismorr was also a poet, and the (uncollected) texts of her Vorticist period are well worth reading – the stuff of a future page, no doubt.

Proem to nothing: the poetry of Arthur Llewellyn Basham

The Sunday Referee may not be Britain’s best remembered weekly, but for a while in the ‘thirties it ran a “Poet’s Corner” hosted by the eccentrically ‘nineties figure of Victor Neuberg, perhaps himself best remembered as an early magickal collaborator with Aleister Crowley. Six monthly the Referee sponsored a first collection. First winner was Pamela Hansford Johnson, girlfriend of Dylan Thomas, later a novelist and academic and to marry C P Snow. The second recipient was young Dylan himself, his 18 Poems (Parton Press) quickly a sell-out, followed in 1935 by Proem (Unicorn Press) by Arthur Llewellyn Basham. Arthur who?

BashamBasham, born in 1914, was a talented young man – an accomplished writer and pianist who later had a notable career as an orientalist, best remembered for his encyclopaedic The Wonder That Was India of 1954. He died in 1986. His brief ‘thirties flaring of poetic fame was soon extinguished; he must have decided that poetry was not his career choice. But his poems are not forgettable scrap; a few are well worth picking out of history’s dustbin for a bit of a brush down.

Neuberg’s verbally ornate introduction to Proem explains next to nothing: “unlimited versatility … marvellously extensive … epicurean tongue … has lived vitally” etc. But he does claim Basham as a modernist of sorts: “modern without eccentricity … wholly a son of his century.” Though Neuberg also implies an agricultural focus, referencing Basham’s “great love … for the soil and peasantry of his adopted Suffolk” and “new … panegyrics to old furrows”, in fact hardly any of the poems touch on soil or peasantry. A slightly limp frontispiece portrait shows Basham as a beardless and sensitive youth.

Despite Neuberg’s judgement, Proem is not whole heartedly twentieth century. There are Yeatsian and moralistic throwbacks; “Symbol”, the poem that actually won Basham the Referee Book Prize, is indeed cloyingly and annoyingly symbolist, with its wingclipped horses, dim forms rising and stars glancing in fallen oceans – all without redeeming irony. But when the healthy influence of Auden asserts itself, Basham lurches into the twentieth century with a vengeance, producing some vigorous urban writing that is not entirely derivative and that surely deserves a small corner in any ‘thirties canon.

Some of his early-Audenisms are not helpful; syntax can be baffling, and some obscurities simply don’t stand up. Few pieces are entirely right. But try the opening stanza of “Vestiges of a Pleasant Evening” (which later dips into moralising over a copulating couple):

Notice the spider hurrying,
the cigarette carton in the levelled grass.
Here as it stirs intently in the dust
conceive diminuendo of an evening,
the fatuous stars.

The Audenesque injunctives (“Notice, conceive”); the anti-romantic pairing of “fatuous stars”; the key image of the discarded cigarette packet: all these signify the modern, loudly and effectively.

Or take the heavy materialism of the rather fine first section of “The Garage”:

As yellow as the metal plates
placarding red-encircled walls,
proclaiming tyres or gasoline,
light from the silver arc-lamp falls,
where corrugated iron and tin
with inscribed globes, in a grey dusk,
pump the new year’s heart blood in
to metal arteries, that thud
and spread narcotic musk.

Yellow, red, silver, grey, iron, tin, metal, tyres, gasoline, lamp, thud, spread – all excitingly celebratory and physical, before, once again, the poem tail-ends in symbolising and judgement.

In “Holiday”, the nice young middle class poet explores, to his own cost, his ambivalent and uneasy relations with proletarian youth along a promenade “strewn with woodbine ends”. (Basham has a thing about “gaudy seaside towns”.) The poem is marginally spoiled by a friendly but unpleasant use of the term “Jewboy”, but it touches some interesting nerves along the way:

I say: “But Paolo and Francesca
vortexed in such a crowd as this.
I am one who has known Hell,
so tell me, Lever, what there is to tell
of between last week and to-morrow, when you sit
for the final time on the beach at night, or lie
unsleeping in lodgings.”

A face, pitted like corroded rock,
opens on Avernus, grey with smoke and slime:
“You’re talking poppycock!”
She winks an eye gleaming like molten lead:
“We’ve had a gorgeous time” she confesses as they pass.

 “Deep Sea” gives a surprisingly tough, sailor’s view of Manila, like an Edward Burra painting of a dockside dive:

… gramophones strike up as business starts.
Behind the hills the lightning threads and stitches.
The Filipino girls are warm as hell,
but mind your step, they’re vicious little tarts –
knife you as soon as look at you, the bitches.

“Meditation in the Park”, an extended panorama of Audenesque modern life, is perhaps Basham’s best piece in his Modern mode. It is not totally even, but many passages carry real impact:

Chimneys and masts swagger below the park.
Half-hearted statements
about the nation’s prosperous peak
flap from the factory flags.
Above, the reservoir broods among allotments
mating a single spire to bleed the sky …

… These are the flustered, the industrious weeks
when boarding house keepers burnish their apartments,
lay in new store of linen.
The spring winds, north this year, unload their soot
on cinemas and beaches of the south,
and worry matrons through their sinister nights,
distraught with sirens, and clatter of ribald bells.

The poem rounds off with an incantatory call to action, not overtly party-faithful as in Auden’s “Brothers, who when the sirens roar”, but comparably anti-capitalist and apocalyptic:

You young men on corners, salt-rusted sailors,
ribald in dockside bars,
time to quit your pintpots, your dog-eared cards.
Purseproud forces, essentials of corruption,
all the gloved powers are marshalling their jailers;
the black ensign darkens their yards …

… Girls cycling from factories, riveting mechanics,
an hour forget the power-loom, drop the mask and welder.
Remember the gas-drill, the artificial panics.
Imagine the air turn sour.

The times are in a hurry, you must do more than worry
if you want to save your skins and your houses.
Get going with that city and don’t waste time on pity,
come to grips with the critical hour.

This is good stuff, and Basham’s vision of the just city – “one candid in the sun … clean as a canine tooth” – may even anticipate that of Auden.

One Audenesque element that I have touched on already in my post on Wargaming with WHA is the uncanny anticipation of civil war or invasion:

They are surveying the coast already, sounding the defences,
the strategic importance of the cinema;
plan sandbags on the promenade,
a bombproof shelter under Woolworth’s.

“The strategic importance of the cinema”: with our hindsight neatly boxed in decades, we take such Dad’s Army touches for granted. But given that this was almost certainly written in 1934 or earlier, while the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, and the Japanese invaded China the following year, what precisely generated this fear of invasion, this undercurrent of prophetic imagery of gas drills and sweeping bombers? Just the general climate of rearmament?

Grigson seeks a candid opinion

Grigson seeks a candid opinion

Into my copy of Proem was tucked a message, on the back of an Art Trade Press Ltd slip, in the elegant handwriting of combative poetry impresario and critic Geoffrey Grigson. It’s addressed to “Dear Hugh” – perhaps the novelist Hugh Walpole:

“Thank you so much for your well chosen present. Here are some poems with my sincere wishes for Christmas & the New Year.

I should be interested to hear your candid opinion of Basham.

My warmest greetings to your family.”

Why did Grigson seek a “candid opinion”? The tone of his own work is not too far from Basham at times. Did he approve of the Audenisms, or find them ersatz? His New Verse set itself up as a scourge of the sham. Maybe a Grigson review will turn up at some point and shed some light.

In any case, Basham’s collection includes a good half dozen perfectly anthologisable “modern” pieces. They are as worthwhile as many comparable by other hands, and better than some. It’s a pity he didn’t persevere. In the event, Proem proved a preamble to nothing.

Jankel Adler, mentor to the Roberts

My lengthy page on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, has been rounded off (for the time being) with a short thought on their mentor, the exiled Polish painter Jankel Adler. The Roberts are said to have borrowed much from Adler, so it’s hardly fair to peg him as their follower. Though I wonder if the borrowing wasn’t more two way? I know very little about Adler’s work, but I am struck by the way that his painting techniques at this time seem to have borrowed from the experimental processes of etching he would have encountered during his collaboration with S W Hayter in Paris.

Anyway, use the Colquhoun and MacBryde tab at the top or click here if you’re interested, and then scroll way, way down. The paintings are sumptuous.

Dylan Thomas by Jessica Dismorr

My first page of bits and pieces about George Barker included a somewhat idealised portrait drawing of the poet as a young dreamer by Jessica Dismorr, abstract painter and ex-Vorticist, dated to 1935. Here (left below) is a companion piece by Dismorr (given as 1934/35) of Dylan Thomas as a cherubic twenty year old, marked “DT” and initialled(?) by Dismorr. The technique is equally slack, and the effect equally Hollywood, but this is maybe a better likeness than the Barker. One wonders how many other bright young poets she sketched, perhaps in a back room at David Archer’s Parton Street Bookshop – David Gascoyne? John Cornford?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dismorr’s portrait paintings get away with it by virtue of their painterliness and superb colour sense, qualities that are not there to save the drawings. Nice little biographical curiosities, though. The Dylan Thomas is available at Wilson Stephens Fine Art, and you’d still get a bit of change back from two grand.

Paul Potts on ‘The World of George Barker’

Paul Potts

New page added here (or use the tab above) with the full text of a 1948 article, “The World of George Barker”, by the extraordinary Paul Potts, together with a bit of an intro. Also of interest with regard to Dylan Thomas and David Gascoyne.