Friends and Poets
First an update on my previous blog on Poetry readings. I read 25 or so poems – including the dreaded Hugger Mugger which I had dared myself to include – to a small audience at Univ., Oxford, on 2nd June. It was easy because I was mainly among friends, and we had a running discussion of poems and how they came into being. Christina and Ahmed performed a group of Spanish songs, and the wine was good.
In the Professor of Poetry election, registration to vote closed on the 4th, and voting itself will close on the 16th, followed by the results on the 18th. Since I have resolved to make no comments on other candidates or on the process of the election, I am now in a state of suspension. I feel like writing something about my friendships with poets.
Most of my contemporaries among poets whom I admire are also friends. This is not some kind of cronyship through, for example, having gone to school together. It is simply that either I have wanted to be friends with them because of their poetry or they with me because of mine.
I’ve already written in my earlier blogs something about Robert Graves. I don’t like to think that any poet influences the poems I write, but my poet friends have influenced the way I think about poetry. My strongest influence in this sense was Martin Seymour-Smith who died at age 70 in 1998, leaving a last letter to me on his computer. I first met him at James Reeves’s house in 1966. He put me onto Trumbull Stickney, whom I eventually wrote about. I had been startled some years earlier when still at school when I read a long poem by Martin, Blitzenkrieger, in a selection of poets by Graves in New World Writing 1958. Martin was unusual in being able to write long obliquely narrative and ironical poems without lagging inspiration, although he sometimes worried about whether he had a ‘lyrical gift’. He had it, in his shorter poems and in much of the longer, although their honesty (he believed poems made one face oneself against one’s will) could be harsh. At age 15 he had ended a poem with the magical line: ‘The endless drummers of subtracting night.’ His poems are above all direct (I like the ideal of Gaelic poetry, the dán direach, the ‘direct poem’). By the end of his life he seemed to know almost too much, and wrote: ‘My days are disabled / By my history.’ But there was still magic:
‘Your moon in ice and my moon in water
Are the same moon. I tremble
As I remember
When I was not there:
Your grief as you watched alone
Your heart’s moon broken
In the spume of waterfalls.’
Another poet in that 1958 selection was Marnie Pomeroy with whom I eventually lived, running the Ladysmith Press, in Quebec. When I first knew her she was writing an extra-ordinary (the hyphen is in the word for emphasis: sharp alternations between ordinary and ex- were characteristic of her) narrative poem, a cycle called A Calendar for Dinah which began: ‘Stars fly apart through night one more degree’ and ended (45 pages later) with: ‘Stars fly further apart through endless night.’ Her poems, like our life together, cycled round and round then stopped. We flew apart.
At the Ladysmith Press in 1970 we published the Collected Poems of Kenneth Leslie. He was then almost 80 and driving a taxi in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had read through all the Canadian poetry I could when I arrived in Canada, and most of it left me cold, but Leslie’s early poems had a romantic intensity:
‘At length you stood on the landing and you cried,
with quick low cries you timed me stroke on stroke
as I steadily won my way with the fulling tide
and crossed the threshold where the last wave broke
and coasted over the step of water and threw
straight through the air my mooring line to you.’
Then I found that the local newspaper editor was one of Leslie’s daughters (in the 40s they had formed a kind of Trapp family, singing Nova Scotia Gaelic songs on the radio from New York). When I wrote to Leslie that we wanted to publish his poems he drove almost non-stop to Ladysmith to visit us – nearly 1,000 miles. He brought with him and gave to me a first edition of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems 1930, inscribed by Frost ‘To Kenneth Leslie from his friend and fellow in the Art.’ Sadly we fell out when the Ken collection appeared, as he was a communist in the Nova Scotia mining town tradition and I had omitted a late political poem – ‘Remember Lumumba, the drums of the Congo...’ etc.’
At Ladysmith we published Just PassingThrough, a first volume by the Canadian Philip Roberts (now one of my P of P nominators) whom I had met at a party of Graves’s in Oxford when, wearing a red pullover, he had riveted us all with a ballad, The Winnipeg Whore, whose tune I think comes from Gilbert and Sullivan but whose words definitely don’t: ‘....She put her hand upon my knee./ How’s about a little lovin?/ A dollar and a half’s the usual fee...’ Phil became an academic in Australia for many years and his poetry became more cerebral. I still like his early naive poems best:
‘You with the clear eyes and face
drew me unprotesting through the nights
of a summer race. Winter laughs
I thought this could grow; I am trapped
By all the unknown roads I know.’
He is now reincarnated as the respectable Mayor of a Nova Scotia town and I hope his recent poetry, which I haven’t yet seen, is reincarnated too.Among living poets in the UK and Ireland my friends are Cliff Ashby, Robert Nye, David Cameron (the other one), Jim Fenton, and Helena Nelson. And there is Narcis Comadira, in Catalonia. I’ll write about them in my next blog or two.