Alan Morrison on
The Sixties Press Anthology of Gregory Fellows
Edited by Barry Tebb and Debjani Chatterjee
The Magnificent Twelve
This beautifully produced perfect bound book brings together the variedly distinctive voices of twelve poets (some well-known, some not so well-known) awarded Leeds University Gregory Fellowships in the 50s, 60s and 70s, ‘whose work deserves to be presented to a new generation of poetry readers’ (Introduction). Never a truer word said: this book has been a delight to read and to review. It is compiled alphabetically, which avoids the predictability of slothful chronology. Tebb’s introduction to Martin Bell tantalises the reader with some eye-catching, quoted epigrams – including the striking ‘Unsumcasane as Poet Maudit’:
King then, but of words only. There’s the rub.
Action is suspect and its end uncertain:
Stuck in a job, or browned off in a pub,
Or feted and then stabbed, behind a curtain…
Tebb adds to such epigrammatic poignancy by quoting Peter Porter at the end of the introduction, regarding an ACE grant Bell had been waiting to arrive: “By the sort of irony common to poets’ lives, the money arrived the day after he died.” Bell’s ‘A Prodigal Son for Volpone’ starts with a masterful first stanza:
Conspicuous consumption? Why, Volpone
Would splash it around as if he could afford it,
Wore himself out for his craft, a genuine phoney,
Who only wanted, gloatingly, to hoard it.
This is followed by a striking image in the fifth line: ‘His son had sprung like a mushroom, pale in an alley’. The seventh stanza also stood out for me:
‘Spend it faster?’ He’d pay on the nail for their answers.
A patron’s deepwaving harvest was quick to be seen.
A sculptor in barbed-wire, a corps of Bulgarian dancers,
Three liberal reviews and a poetry magazine.
Martin Bell wrote with an enviable lucidity and mastery of rhyme and metre – to my mind then, a true poet. And there is erudition in his work too: who was to know the collective noun for Bulgarian dancers was a ‘corps’? I need not add to my praise of Bell’s epigrammatic gifts, except to quote his ‘Prospect 1939 (for Campbell Matthews)’ in full:
‘Life is a journey’ said our education,
And so we packed, although we found it slow.
At twenty-one, left stranded at the station
We’ve heaps of luggage and nowhere to go.
It is also with some irony for me that I come to know of Bell's striking and pithy oeuvre through Tebb's anthologised selection rather than through my time at University: in my graduating year at Reading in 1997, I was totally unaware that somewhere within my own Faculty operated the obscure Whiteknights Press, which was then putting to print a posthumous publication of Bell's Reverdy Translations.
The poetry of Thomas Blackburn has a difficult act to follow: namely the introduction charting his extraordinarily troubled life, penned here powerfully by his daughter, Julia Blackburn. Indeed, this biographical extract is almost worth the price of the book on its own. One cannot help but be deeply moved as well as morbidly entranced by such details as this: ‘His (Blackburn’s) Anglican priest father was of Mauritian descent and haunted by feelings of sexual guilt. One effect of his racial inferiority complex was to scrub the young Blackburn’s face with peroxide to lighten his complexion.’ ‘Blackburn’, then, is a cruelly apt surname for someone whose father used to literally try and burn the black off his skin. Blackburn’s deftly lyrical, rhyming/half-rhyming poems spring brilliant surprises in their passage:
And yet all images for this completion
Somehow bypass its real ghostliness
Which can’t be measured by a sweating finger,
Or any salt and carnal nakedness.
Although two heads upon a single pillow
May be the metaphor that serves it best,
No lying down within a single moment
Will give the outward going any rest;
It’s only when we reach beyond our pronouns
And come into ourselves that we are blest.
(‘The Lucky Marriage’)
and, ‘We learn no mortal creature is/ The end of love’s intensities’ (‘No Single Station’); ‘With ‘This you did when sober, and that when drunk’,/ The dirty linen I simply cannot drop,/ Since ‘Thomas Blackburn ‘is stitched by the laundry mark’ (‘A Small Keen Wind’); ‘I watch a cormorant pluck/ Life from a nervous sea’ (‘Trewarmett for Julia Blackburn’). Stripping four line flourishes from some of his longer poems, one can see Blackburn’s mastery of metre and epigrammatic gifts can stand up against the mighty Bell’s:
His shadow monstrous on the palace wall.
That swollen boy, fresh from his mother’s arms,
The odour of her body on his palms,
Moves to the eyeless horror of the hall.
No wonder as earth shook and giant ﬁngers
Groped slowly inward through the forest trees,
His brothers, lost within their own phantasma,
Went headlong into blindness on their knees.’
‘This is the younger son’s most precious secret;
And may we always hear the trapped bird cry
And be rewarded by a naked vision
When our appalling manias shake the sky.
(‘The Younger Son for G Wilson Knight’)
Wayne Brown is slightly more avant-garde and imagistic (‘Rain puckers the ocean’ (‘On the Coast’); ‘The sea’s heard it all before’ (‘The Tourists’)). ‘Cat Poem’ curls up reassuringly with a historically indestructible feline motif: ‘The morning after the bomb/ Was dropped, I woke early./ Silence past stillness, the city in ruins –/ My hand touched fur and the cat purred’. ‘Light and Shade’ proffers a ﬁnal arresting image: ‘This poem is a wall./ Or maybe a string/ Of mountains, out of whose blue haze/ may yet come (if I am patiently dumb)/ Hannibal, swaying widely as his elephant sways.’
Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poetry is in a similar vein to Brown, quite varied in style, often pushing the sense impression boat out, as in ‘Dusk, Burnham-Overy-Staithe’:
Then across the marsh it comes,
the sound as of an endless
train in a distant cutting,
the god working his way back,
butting and shunting,
reclaiming his territory.
John Heath-Stubbs is represented by the two best poems of his I have ever read, ‘For David Gascoyne’; and ‘Letter to David Wright, on his sixtieth birthday’, which, despite its arguably exclusive subjects and ﬂat language, succeeds through stated – rather than suggested – images in begging one’s attention like a small, intimate old-world miniature:
Last year I crossed the meridian of sixty.
Now, David, it’s your turn. Old friend, we ﬁrst met
In your Oxford lodgings, those in the High
With the Churchillian landlady, which afterwards became
A kind of traditional caravanserai
For poets – most of them doomed, of course.
Sidney Keyes’ ofﬁcer’s cane
Remained in the hall umbrella stand
Long after his mouth was stopped with Numidian dust.
Allison stayed there on leave, a bird of passage
Migrating towards his Italian death.
And there was William Bell –
Not war, but a mountain had earmarked him.
I risk a stoning from Stubbs afficionadoes by suggesting that there is something of Betjeman in his occasionally arresting, stated observations such as, ‘And then retirement – a spectacled, middle-aged lady/ Lecturing sensibly on interpretation’ (‘Casta Diva, in memory of Maria Callas’). Thanks to Tebb and Chatterjee for introducing me to Heath-Stubbs’ less-hyped, more impressing qualities.
Pearse Hutchinson’s ‘Málaga’ is a deft piece written entirely in couplets. On the other hand, it will take me some time to work out the tantalising metaphor of ‘The Miracle of Bread and Fiddles’:
We were so hungry
we turned bark into bread.
But still we were hungry,
so we turned clogs into ﬁddles.
Tebb gives a lengthy introduction to James Kirkup’s poetry, highlighting his formative admiration of the Sunderland-born poet and, as with Bell’s forward, one can understand this from sporadic, well-chosen poetic extracts before even reaching his selection:
There is a new world, and a new man
Who walks amazed that he so long
Was blind and dumb, he who runs
towards the sun
Lifts up a trustful face in skilful song
And fears no more the darkness where
his day began.
(‘There is a New Morning’)
At this point Tebb (unimpeachably, I feel) points out something Cyril Connolly pointed out, that all lyrical poetry is ultimately un-analysable. Ironically of course, arguably no other poem in the English language demands analysis as much as Kirkup’s notorious ‘The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name’ – if nothing else, in order to try and salvage some Christian-moral justiﬁcation for its extraordinarily relentless religio-pornographic detail culminating in the narrator masturbating in the open wounds of Christ’s corpse. Be as open-minded as one might, such a mercilessly excessive poem is inevitably going to incur the wrath of the Church. And this it did of course, when the magazine it appeared in, Gay News, was prosecuted under Britain’s blasphemy libel law. This poem then was not only controversial for its tricky mixing of sex and ’the Saviour’, but also because this ‘sex’ was homoerotic (not to mention necrophiliac) – a double-blow (no pun intended). Even the most faintly Christian of readers is likely to feel challenged head on by this uncompromisingly visceral piece while at the same time feeling compelled to fathom its meaning. If it is trying to make a statement on behalf of homosexual Christians, why should a gay disciple be sexually aroused at his Saviour’s bloodied corpse any more than a heterosexual female follower? Perhaps it is Kirkup’s most un-analysable poem of all. This poem should not overshadow Kirkup’s superior output, such as ‘Summertime in Leeds’ with its marvellously chip-shouldered, sardonic social observations:
And larger stores, where, with their great friends,
They treat themselves, the hoydens of the fashionable set,
To cakes, tea, talk, and suburban scandal of a cigarette.
The witty and ‘you-know-you’ve-all-been-there’ poem ‘To an Old Lady Asleep at a Poetry Reading, Of Dame Edith Sitwell’s ‘Still Falls the Rain’’, shows Kirkup is not afraid of the long line nor of the prosaic as a tool of the anecdotal. ‘In a London Schoolroom’ is a powerful social poem, allowing a little light to peak through the shutters into a (presumably) state school classroom:
There is no answer
to the question they have raised no hand to ask,
no cloudless holiday that would release
life that is sick, hope that was never there,
no task make plain the words they cannot learn to trust.
Kirkup’s poetic greatness could almost be pinned on one brilliantly tangible line from the same poem: ‘The tree of hands and faces tosses in the gales of talk’.
Paul Mills’ poems are direct and inimitable in pithily-spun detail, as ‘The Common Talk’ demonstrates:
No clay pot in the garden without fag-end.
Never any corner without a sock.
Telling the time by what’s gone off in the fridge.
The biting polemic of ‘News from Nowhere’ is striking:
What’s happened to this marriage
of innocence now that America
has its teeth in the sheets, is ripping them up,
searching for stains, truculence, depression?
Peter Redgrove’s selection kicks off with a triumphant stride in the excellently athletic ‘Expectant Father’:
So far gone on with the child a-thump inside;
A buffet through the air from the kitchen door that sticks
Awakes a thumb-size ﬂy. Butting the re-butting window-pane
It shouts its buzz, so I ﬂing the glass up, let it ﬂy
Remembering as it skims to trees, too late to swat,
That ﬂies are polio-whiskered to the brows
With breeding-muck, and home
On one per cent of everybody’s children.
This poem is alive. Next comes ‘The Storm’, which describes a wind-tossed tree with such beautiful lines as ‘…ﬂuffed up, boughs chaﬁng slightly’, and the following:
Somebody is throttling that tree
By the way it’s threshing about;
I’m glad it’s no one I know, or me,
The head thrust back at the throat.
Green hair tumbled and cracking throat.
His thumbs drive into her windpipe,
She cannot cry out,
Only swishing and groaning: death swells ripe…
Redgrove is masterfully descriptive: in ‘For No Good Reason’ he makes his mood compellingly tangible:
….gloomy, irascible, selﬁsh, among the split timbers
Of somebody’s home, and the bleached rags of wallpaper.
‘Old House’ seethes with personiﬁed metaphors:
I lay in agony of imagination as the wind
Limped up the stairs and puffed on the landings,
Snufﬂed through ﬂoorboards from the foundations,
Tottered, withdrew into ﬂaws, and shook the house.
This imagistic, almost surreal ﬂair surges on throughout the piece:
…bare arms through a dank trapdoor to shut off water
Or windows ﬁlmed over the white faces of children:
This is no place to bring children to
I cried in a nightmare of more
Creatures shelled in bone-white,
Or dead eyes fronting ermine faces,…
His ‘Anniversaire Triste’ offers a tantalisingly sublime ﬁrst stanza:
A piano plays my aunt in a lacquered room;
The wood and ivory lend a dead man sound;
Grinning with grilles, Samurai armour stands
Booming a little with the afterlife.
John Silkin offers us no pause for breath with his comparable imagistic gifts as demonstrable in lines such as ‘And at night, like children,/ Without anxiety, their consciousness,/ Shut with white petals’ (‘A Daisy’); ‘Christ so imbues them/ these workers in Frosterly marble,/ their fossil columns, they drop/ their Christianity/ in heaps of languid clothing/ and ‘slices like generations of boys’ mouths,/ this boy, Dick, even/ now, cramming his/ with white, thick unbuttered bread’ (‘Durham bread’); ‘A ﬂy without shadow and without thought’ (‘Caring for Animals’).
Bill Turner’s ‘Homely Accommodation, Suit Gent’ is a beautifully descriptive bedsit paean portraying a landlady, Mrs Hagglebroth, with her ‘pleated smile/ and plucked eyebrows’ whose tyrannous control of her boarding house of ‘saddlesoap atmosphere’, stuffed full with ‘The souls/ of miscellaneous gentleman, welded to wicker chairs’, almost extends to an animistic witchery: ‘Sunlight was discouraged: it fades the draperies.’
Turner’s poems are sprinkled generously with truisms such as ‘The trick with cats is to out-ignore/ them’ (‘Rose Harem’). He also offers us an arrestingly paradoxical opener to ‘Progress Report’: ‘The future isn’t what it used to be./ What if the past turns out to be fake.’
This hugely enjoyable and inspiring selection concludes with the late David Wright, whose superb poem ‘A Visit to a Poet’ I quote in full:
Recently I went to visit a poet in jail
(A place which in two ways reminded me of hell,
Being both hygienic and a dominion
Where everyone’s responsibility has gone),
One who, justly imprisoned for injuring the State
By not joining the Army, preferring to try to write
Verses unlikely to sell, in abnormally good
Health, a new suit of clothes, and with regular food,
Cut off from suppliers of harmful alcoholic drink,
With paper and pen, with a room, and with time to think,
Everything, in fact, unnecessary to the Muse,
Suffers barren conﬁnement on the outskirts of Lewes.
Wright offers possibly the most plain, sparsely descriptive poetry in this book, but this is not a criticism as his direct and engagingly straight-forward style perfectly ﬁts his candid infantries on the happy-sad, peculiar lot of the poet. Indeed, his self-deprecating auto-obituary in verse, ‘A Funeral Oration’, further exempliﬁes this caustic style:
Academic achievements: BA, Oxon (2nd class);
Poetic: the publication of one volume of verse,
Which in his thirtieth year attained him no fame at all,
Except among intractable poets, and a small
Lunatic fringe congregating in Soho pubs.
This poem ends with a breathtaking ﬁnal couplet:
His life, like his times, was appalling: his conduct, odd;
He hoped to write one good line; died believing in God.
Finally, also worthy of note are Tebb’s colourful, inimitable introductions, which intrigue the reader to study the following poems of each respective poet; and Chaterjee’s informative biographical notes and meticulous bibliographies. This book, both in the poetry, and in the comprehensive records of the related poets, it contains, is a great achievement, an extremely important anthology of a group of true poets, and surely deserving of a prize.
Alan Morrison © 2007
First published in Poetry Express Issue 20, 2005