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: poetry

Another stab at Empson

William Empson

Last June I put up a page on the poetry of William Empson, which contained a number of unworthy ad hominem comments. Trying to be clever, I succeeded only in upsetting someone who had known and respected the Empsons, and who rightly found my comments irrelevant and facetious. So the page came down. After a prolonged re-think, here (or via the Empson tab up top) is another stab at it. Or the beginnings of a stab, at least.

I have kept my personal memory of Empson’s bizarrely derelict and deserted Sheffield basement, if only because it speaks to me imaginatively of something in the                                           man and his work.

Jimmy Burns Singer

In place of my own comments on Empson’s poetry, which struck me at first as infuriatingly obscure, I’ve substituted a review of his 1955 Collected Poems by the poet and blond wunderkind Burns Singer (born James Hyman, or Jimmy, Singer).

This makes some similar points, but more cleverly, and far more interestingly, given that Singer was writing for the review Encounter, at that time a covert CIA mouthpiece with a very definite interest in discrediting Empson, who had criticised the magazine’s pro-American stance and had questioned the origins of its funding, infuriating its UK editor, Stephen Spender. A cold war hatchet job, in fact, but written by a neglected British poet whose career and work are of real interest in themselves.

I expect more scraps on Empson will follow. And Singer, come to that.

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.

The invading gospel of Jack Clemo

Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin

In the deep wood dwells a demon
Taller than any tree –
His prison bars are the sailing stars,
His jailer is the sea.

He walks the white hills of Egypt
Reading the map of clay
– And through his night there moves the light
Artillery of day.

(Charles Causley, “Homage to Jack Clemo”)

A few paragraphs in honour of the deaf (for most of his life) and blind (for much of his adulthood) Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who died in 1994. For many years Clemo lived in the same tiny cottage in the heart of the Cornish china-clay quarries – “the lunar and lunatic landscape of the moon: a weird, white world dusted over with the colour of sex,” as Cornish balladeer Charles Causley put it. (A geometric landscape also vividly shown in the paintings of Herbert Truman.) Somehow Clemo maintained a vivid awareness that sustained his writing to the end, even though in his deafness and blindness his mother, and later his wife Ruth, could communicate with him only by tracing letters by fingertip on the palm of his hand.

Though Clemo’s work is not particularly well remembered these days, Bloodaxe and others have kept him in print over recent decades, and there is a decent amount about him online, such as this informative obituary, portrait photos at the National Portrait Gallery, his diaries and manuscripts, together with books from his working library at Exeter University, a nice reminiscence by T R Hummer of a visit to the Clemo’s in Weymouth in the ‘eighties, and so on.

He was content to write simply, often in lines of varying length chopped up by persistent terminal rhymes, for he mistrusted, on religious grounds, all forms of sophistication:

I cannot speak their language; I am one
Who feels the doggerel of Heaven
Purge earth of poetry …

(“The Excavator”)

Having shunned any development of poetic form, he is celebrated now mostly for his sheer Cornishness, or for his remarkable overcoming of background poverty and physical disabilities. But to me, what is extraordinary in his work is its defining theological content; Clemo’s austere non-conformist upbringing and the transcendent austerity of his surroundings met with the demands of a sensitive and sensuous nature that had to struggle with the imprisonment of sensory deprivation, to make for a stark, uncompromising, Calvinist mysticism that mellowed only in his later years. Reading Clemo is a direct challenge to anyone’s warm and fuzzy Christian certainties. His God, if not silent or obstructive –

There squats amidst these pyramids
The Sphinx-mood of a Deity …

(“Clay-Land Moods”)

You would not hear my voice
And how could I hear Yours
When you were slamming, slamming all my doors?

(“Prisoner of God”)

– is downright persecutory. For Clemo, the Calvinist notion of predestined election became a “divine bludgeoning”, a dark working of the relentless, imprisoning will of God. (Though such individual election is not exclusive; the non-elect are not conversely damned.) In “The Excavator” this will is compared to that machine’s sadistic gouging of the violated material of the clay-pit:

The bars now hinged o’erhead and drooping form
A Cross that lacks the symmetry
Of those in churches, but is more
Like His whose stooping tore
The vitals from our world’s foul secrecy …

… Keep far from me all loveliness, O God,
And let me laud
Thy meaner moods, so long unprized;
The motions of that twisted, dark,
Deliberate crucial Will
I feel deep-grinding still
Under the dripping clay with which I am baptized.

The clay-pit speaks of Christ because it is a de-beautified and anti-natural world. Sentiment or beauty, flowers or music, are inadequate or mistaken expressions of the divine, given that Nature is merely the surface of a fallen creation:

If you were nature’s child
I could not love you, for I shun
Corrupted trees and flowers which the sun
Kindled in disobedience …

… Hell snickers in the chatter of a starling,
And fleers in each sunrise,
Because one Eastern tale
That makes creation pale
Is known to me and true.
The Christian nightmare holds me, darling –
Creatively, as I hold you.

(“The New Creation”)

Only the baptism of the believer can make a person “lovable” (in the fullest sense of that word). Love is

… full-grown Dogma’s offspring,
Election’s child,
Making the wild
Heats of our blood an offering.

(“A Calvinist in Love”)

(“Dogma” here is an entirely positive term – doctrine received on the authority of the church and scripture, rather than on the basis of experience or reason – as distinct from our casually pejorative use of “dogmatic”.) This possibility of redeemed sexual love (“creed-embedded marriage”) was a central preoccupation of Clemo’s, much explored in what he termed his “strange contacts on spiritual and emotional borderlines”. In his 1949 autobiography Confession of a Rebel he makes a remarkably powerful and accessible case for the sensual superiority of a non-ascetic and unashamed puritanism:

The Christian and the unbeliever inhabit different worlds, and nowhere is the gulf between them wider than in sex experience which seems most common to all men. The thrill of being in love is short-lived for the worldling because it is for him a process entirely inside Nature and therefore soon burnt out. The Christian, however, cannot be burnt out in his love for a woman because he has already been burnt out in the stress of conversion; the life that animates him spiritually is no longer his own but Christ’s. This divine life controls his sensuous reactions, so that the feminine glamour which is to the “natural” man irresistible is to the Christian physically repellent, while the unadorned simplicity which the worldling finds dull and unexciting is for the Christian an object of sensuous ravishment. When St Paul forbade Christian women to wear jewellery or use artificial beauty aids he was merely recognizing the existence of this law – a law which the modern critics of Paul’s attitude to sex seem never to have heard of. Christianity does not condemn the glittering fashions of sophistication because they rouse sexual desire but because for the Christian they paralyse it … I do not suggest that Christians reach this level automatically; but I do insist that this is a fundamental law of Christian experience and not a pathological peculiarity of my own.

(My emphasis. The argument is male-centrically worded, but is capable of a two-way application.) With the sermons of C H Spurgeon and the novels of D H Lawrence sat in happy adjacency on his bookshelf, Clemo could bring together – without a thought of irony – the cross of Christ, his penis and a mechanical digger in a single image:

I fondle and understand
In lonely worship this malicious tool.

No wonder that some of his churchgoing neighbours considered him, as he recalled, an “uncouth village fundamentalist with an unpleasant erotic streak”!

His insights, won at such personal cost, command respect and demand serious consideration by Christians, particularly at a time like ours when the versions of cheap grace offered by a thin teenage evangelicalism on the one hand, and an apologetic, conforming and reductive liberalism on the other, appear symmetrically unsatisfying.

Charles Causley (looking very schoolmasterly) with Clemo

A small afterthought: one puzzlement to me is why Clemo and his fellow poet W S Graham seem to have shown no awareness of each other’s work, given the extent of their shared years in Cornwall. Clemo was befriended by Charles Causley, who in turn was in touch with Graham, as the latter’s letters show. Poles apart they may have been in many ways, but what might they have made of each other?

“When Death arrives, he’ll not come shuffling in black felt slippers”

i.m. Gordon Wharton 1929-2011

A kind man and a fine poet

“Elephants we know about, but poets,
in their treasure ground of broken nibs,
blue twilight and garlic scented graves,
and iron bells clanging all the while –

poets dressed in Sunday black
rubbing their trapshut eyes –
who knows where they lie dead and dying,
or coldly raving the moon long?”

Back from oblivion: tracking the poetry of Gordon Wharton

http://www.gordonwharton.co.uk/

Anarchism to Personalism: Henry Treece and the New Apocalypse

I’ve moved my recent post on Henry Treece, his poetry, his anarchism and the New Apocalypse movement, to a new page here (or press the Pieces of Apocalypse tab above), given that (a) it was a bit lengthy and everything else was scrolling off the bottom, and (b) it will be joined by other short pieces on the New Apocalypse and related topics.

Sandringham

Slow and in miniature, our shadows squeezed, we move
in glare across the lawns, past the suspicious statues,
towards the gravelled entrance to the inviolable hall.
Here, it is said, was once a room for each day of the year,
but now you may purchase the privilege to view a week’s quota,

likewise buying into a reverent embarrassment, re-learned
surprisingly quickly; like an estate worker enlisting
for Gallipoli, I remove my hat. We shuffle along
the rope partitions, gawping at the Spanish tapestries,
thoughtful not to move too sharply, for fear of treason.

Refreshed in white and cream, the wedding cake interiors
stand beyond taste or judgement. The ballroom is barbarous with enemy
armours, symmetrically trophied. Since Albert passed,
not one object moves within its space. Each
has its accustomed measure, and nothing is to be altered.

Gargantuan portraits re-figure across the generations
features, gestures, uniforms. Only the ceiling-high mirror
darkens with every year. Routinely self-regarding,
on stair and landing, move with ease the invisible occupants
of this undying dynasty, this house of vampyres.

Copyright Richard Warren 2011

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.

Establishing the canon

Dodging mobility scooters by Ann Summers, I drift
into Smith’s, where I check through the mags for the zeitgeist,
but discover I am vintage, which brings responsibility:
what to snap to fix in the brain, confirming
an arrangement to remember not the unrememberable moment
but its numbered image? By the ‘Tragic Life Stories’
large girls in leggings shout at each other. Stuffing back
a tattoo monthly, I head off for Costa’s,
with an option to plot the key points of my obituary.

At home, by the flaked pillars of its excessive portico,
I sip on a Pimm’s, and consider my stateliness.
The gardens that decline from the lawn seem in order;
beyond the unsafe bridge and the ludicrous urn
the scene appears blurry and haphazard. No deer
are in sight. In the east wing we’re reconstructing the decor
of long abandoned rooms, despite repeated objections
from the busybody brigade. Magenta? Same difference …
These perpetual renovations are becoming burdensome.

In the library, more problems. I thumb each index,
seeking my name. Without that bastard’s intervention,
I’d have made the anthologies; might things have been otherwise?
Critical opinion shifts its unlovely weight;
so which books to throw? And would we regret it?
These bear another’s archly Deco bookplate;
no good to me. Burn the lot. Their curling ashes
make baroque the tired fireplace. Disencumbered, I feel able
to bring needed revision, to construct my new tradition.

Copyright Richard Warren 2011

Images of George Barker by Patrick Swift and Geoff Stevens

Bits on two portraits of George Barker added to the “more fragments” page – tab up the top, or go here, and scroll down.

George Barker: T S Eliot as police inspector

Second page of Barker fragments (to save scrolling down forever) added – press the tab above (“more fragments”) or here. This kicks off with a short look at Barker’s rather wonderful characterisation of Eliot as a police inspector, illuminated by another dip into the scans of drafts in recent offerings of Barker’s papers on eBay.