Tuesday, 9 October 2012

LOUIS SIMPSON (1923-2012):
‘The American Chekhov’ by Neil Astley

Louis Simpson in 1996 (Vic DeLucia/The New York Times)

Louis Simpson’s collected poems The Owner of the House was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize in 2004. This was the judges’ citation:
Louis Simpson has been enriching the tradition of poetry in English for over 60 years, from his eloquent poems of the Second World War to the later understated, sometimes dyspeptic, tales of contemporary suburban life. He is one of the few poets of our time to have kept the art of narrative, of story-telling, alive in poetry, and yet he has done so without any sacrifice of lyric power: the work in The Owner of the House enchants and disenchants in equal measure. These conversations with America, held over many decades, are informed by a melancholy clear-sightedness, a generous, wry sense of humour, and a determination to celebrate the true lives and capacities of ordinary people. If Chekhov were reincarnated as a poet into the world where we live, this is surely what he would sound like.
Much of Louis Simpson’s subject-matter is quintessential America. The language of his poetry draws on American speech and American speech rhythms. But he grew up in Jamaica, and one of the most recurrent themes in his work is that this most quintessential American poet felt himself to be a stranger in his own country. He found his territory where he lived. In the words of one of his book titles, ‘People Live Here’. But he also discovered America via Russia, learning from Chekhov and the other great Russian writers how to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and I think that’s what made his poetry so real and so universal:

American Classic

It’s a classic American scene –
a car stopped off the road
and a man trying to repair it.

The woman who stays in the car
in the classic American scene
stares back at the freeway traffic.

They look surprised, and ashamed
to be so helpless…
let down in the middle of the road!

To think that their car would do this!
They look like mountain people
whose son has gone against the law.

But every night they set out food
and the robber goes skulking back to the trees.
That’s how it is with the car…

it’s theirs, they’re stuck with it.
Now they know what it’s like to sit
and see the world go whizzing by.

In the fume of carbon monoxide and dust
they are not such good Americans
as they thought they were.

The feeling of being left out
through no fault of your own is common.
That’s why I say, an American classic.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 85]
That last stanza could easily refer to Simpson himself: ‘The feeling of being left out / through no fault of your own is common. / That’s why I say, an American classic.’

Louis Simpson was one of that astonishing generation of American poets born in the 1920s:
1920: Howard Nemerov, Charles Bukowski
1921: Richard Wilbur
1922: Anthony Hecht
1923: James Dickey, Denise Levertov, Richard Hugo, Louis Simpson
1926: Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, James Merrill, WD Snodgrass, AR Ammons, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara
1927: John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, WS Merwin, James Wright
1928: Philip Levine, Anne Sexton, Donald Hall
1929: Adrienne Rich, Ed Dorn
And yet you won’t find him with them in many of the main anthologies of or covering modern and contemporary American poetry. He’s not in Helen Vendler’s Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, J.D. McClatchy’s Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Geoffrey Moore’s Penguin Book of American Verse or the Norton Anthology. He’s ‘not one of us’: Vendler being Harvard, McClatchy Yale, Moore the editor of Henry James and other classics.

Simpson gave his opinion on the way Americans ‘go about poetry’ in his memoir The King My Father’s Wreck (Story Line Press, 1995):
I would like to show the difference between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s approach to poetry as a spiritual endeavor and the way Americans go about it. In the United States poetry is a business like any other. Writing workshops produce a great deal of verse that is made to order – none of it really matters to anyone. This useless industry is presided over by teachers of “creative writing” and others who make a career out of reviewing books of poetry and awarding grants and prizes. [p.138]
Louis Simpson pictured with Helen Vendler and Charles Bernstein (UPenn)

Helen Vendler’s anthology only covered 35 poets, so Simpson’s failure to make her top team is more understandable. But J.D. McClatchy’s book is supposed to represent ‘sixty-five of America’s greatest contemporary poets’. Sandy McClatchy doesn’t pick mavericks like Bly or Dorn either, but Simpson was not a maverick but an outsider, an outsider who viewed America and its people from the inside.

Recalling a visit to the poetry festival at Struga in the former Yugoslavia in 1971:
On the last evening they were giving a medal to W.H. Auden and he would be reading his poem. So I didn’t go. I disliked the poet who said that poetry was ‘fundamentally frivolous’ (one of his admirers, John Hollander, once told me that all good poetry was camp). At eleven people came straggling back to the hotel, looking subdued. They had been treated to the later Auden. [The King My Father’s Wreck, p.96]
The poet John Hollander mentioned by Simpson is one of McClatchy’s approved poets, and he is in the Vintage anthology.

Literary mafias play their part in establishing and furthering the reputation of poets in America as everywhere else, and anthologies are amongst the most effective ways critics have of pushing whatever their preferred canon happens to be.

Louis Simpson admires the work of the great Modernist poets and established his reputation as a critic with a book called Three on the Tower (1975), a study of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. But he isn’t a Modernist poet himself – or a Postmodernist – and so isn’t in their anthologies either.

But he is included in Donald Hall’s Penguin Contemporary American Poetry. And he edited – with Donald Hall and Robert Pack – an anthology which was to make a significant impression on both sides of the Atlantic, The New Poets of England and America (1957), although later editions of this anthology remove his editorial credit.

He’s also in one of the standard American poetry textbooks, A. Poulin, Jr’s Houghton Mifflin anthology Contemporary American Poetry (eight editions from 1971 to 2005), which meant his work has been read in American schools and colleges.

Poulin (1938-96) taught at SUNY at Brockport where he founded BOA Editions in 1976, and went on to publish Simpson’s 1983 Selected Poems, People Live Here, which was later published in Britain by Anthony Thwaite, Secker & Warburg’s poetry editor, in 1985.

Three of his collections had earlier been published in Britain by Oxford University Press, from 1971 to 1980, including Searching for the Ox and Caviare at the Funeral, but after that Secker Selected in 1985 he had to wait another 25 years – until this year – before he was published in Britain again, with a new selection, Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems, published by Bloodaxe in 2010.

When I was making the selection for this edition, I could hardly help not noticing that I was selecting poems from 18 collections published from 1949 to 2009 by 12 different publishers, the first of them being the poet himself. Thom Ward, who took over the BOA list from the late A. Poulin, brought Simpson back to BOA with The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems, 1940–2001, which was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize in 2004, and BOA published Simpson’s final collection, Struggling Times, in 2009, but BOA isn’t one of the heavyweight New York publishers whose support carries weight with the poets, reviewers and academics who control critical opinion in the US.

With its list now edited by Peter Conners, BOA has picked up on many marginal or marginalised voices, and too often sees the poets whose reputations they can help establish get whipped from them by the likes of Norton. And looking through the list of Simpson’s previous US publishers, you don’t see names like Norton, Knopf, Farrar Straus, Viking Penguin. Many of the major American poetry lists have or have had editors who are part of or are connected with the American literary and academic establishment or other literary power bases. Simpson moved – or was moved on – from publisher to publisher, which can’t have helped his visibility.


Coming back now to ‘An American Classic’:
The feeling of being left out
through no fault of your own is common.
That’s why I say, an American classic.
Much of Simpson’s subject-matter is quintessential America. The language of his poetry draws on American speech and American speech rhythms.

He sets out the “requirements” for the American poem in this poem:

American Poetry

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Like the shark it contains a shoe.
It must swim for miles through the desert
Uttering cries that are almost human.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 48]
The critic Bruce Bawer wrote in Hudson Review: ‘Simpson’s entire oeuvre can be seen as, among other things, a prolonged fight for America – a struggle for everything that it claims to stand for, and for the real goodness at the heart of many of its people, against all things that are mean, stupid, easy or tawdry…For all his mordant wit, he has never lost his ability to see through to the underlying reality of the human heart and the rolling years.’

Influenced by Walt Whitman, Simpson portrays a very different America, the contemporary America of highways, shopping malls and suburban life. And in ‘Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain’  (Voices in the Distance, pp. 49-50) he counters Whitman’s optimism for America: ‘Where are you, Walt? / The Open Road goes to the used-car lot.’

One of the most recurrent themes in Louis Simpson’s work is that this most quintessential American poet is a stranger in his own country, for reasons which will soon become clear. In ‘American Dreams’ for example…

American Dreams

In dreams my life came toward me,
my loves that were slender as gazelles.
But America also dreams….
Dream, you are flying over Russia,
dream, you are falling in Asia.

As I look down the street
on a typical sunny day in California
it is my house that is burning
and my dear ones that lie in the gutter
as the American army enters.

Every day I wake far away
from my life, in a foreign country.
These people are speaking a strange language.
It is strange to me
and strange, I think, even to themselves.
[Voices in the Distance, p.60]

And in The King My Father’s Wreck, he writes:
When I was seventeen I came to the States. Everything I saw was different and exciting: the great buildings, the men and women walking with such urgency, the lights at dusk. A New York Poet would take such things for granted, but to this day I have retained that sense of difference and exitement. I am still a stranger in America. [p. 106]
The Simpson family in Jamaica, c. 1891. Left to right: Aston, Louis Simpson’s father; Inis, Aston’s sister; Aston’s parents, James Montague Simpson and Emily Laselve; his sisters May and Edith. (Aston’s brother Bertie is not in the picture)

The Marantz family in Lutsk, Russia, c. 1905. To the left: Louis Simpson’s mother Rosalind. Her mother Pearl is in the centre with her second husband Lazar.

Louis Simpson’s father Aston Simpson in the Jamaican Reserve Regiment, c. 1914.

His mother Rosalind de Marantz as an aspiring opera singer, New York City, c. 1914.


Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica in 1923. His father Aston Simpson was one of the leading lawyers in Kingston, of Scottish descent but with mixed blood in the family line. His mother Rosalind was Russian, born Rosalind de Marantz, of Polish Jewish ancestry, emigrated to America as a child, joining members of her family who were already there. When she was 17, she was living in Brooklyn, sewing shirts in a factory in Manhattan, when she managed to get a job as an extra on a film being made in Jamaica, where he met and was courted by Aston Simpson. When Louis was seven, they separated and later divorced, quite a scandal at the time in Jamaican Colonial society.
Then, one day, she disappeared. No one told me why. They said she had gone away… that was all. This was the great blow of my life, and it occurred in silence. I did not shed a tear…the thing was overwhelming. There is no way for a child to know that the grief he feels is not the whole of life but only part of it. This misery must be life… from the silence of those around me I took it to be so. It would have been wrong to complain.
    I did not think of asking my father, who surely would have known why my mother was longer with us. The matter-of-fact air he put on, going to his office and returning, implied that questions were uncalled-for, and neither my brother nor I was to ask them… that our mother’s having gone away was none of our business.
    I buried my anguish deep. and there it would remain, ‘A grief without a pang, vast void, and drear.’ [Simpson here quotes from Coleridge’s Dejection Ode] It would affect my life, especially my relations with women, but it harmed by imagination too, for your cannot suppress one part of feeling without suppressing others. […]
    I would see my mother again. One afternoon I went with my father to a house near the sea, at Bournemouth [Jamaica]… [The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 174-75]

Buying a House

We were living in a house
my father was thinking of buying.
A door suddenly opened
and who should come in
but my mother, Rosalind.
She was holding a revolver.
‘Now Rosalind,’ he said.
He walked across the room
and took the gun from her hand.
She fell to the floor,
foaming at the mouth.
I was seven years old.
I thought she was mad.
[from ‘Aston and Rosalind’, Voices in the Distance, p. 173]
There was no future in Jamaica for a woman who had left her husband. No lawyer would take her case – they were afraid of my father. She left the island and went to live in Toronto. My brother and I were to stay with our father’s relatives, the Fletchers, and I was to go to school in Kingston.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 175]

Louis Simpson with his older brother Herbert, Jamaica, c. 1927.


And then, as Simpson writes in his memoir:
When I was nine I was taken from my home in Kingston to a boarding school in the country. Munro was a hundred miles to the west, a considerable distance in those days. […] Munro College was said to be the best school on the Island, ‘the Eton of Jamaica’, but there was a cultural lag between the colony and the Mother Country, and the best school in Jamaica was no better than a second-rate English school, the kind George Orwell would described in ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. The boys were at the mercy of the masters, whose onsets of bad temper found a vent in caning a boy or maybe half a dozen. You could be waked out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night to be caned because someone had been making a noise. There was a considerable amount of bullying of the small boys by the big boys, and of course no one told. […]
    It was a strange idea of bringing up children, to send them away from home and let them be treated harshly, but this was done by the best families in England, so it must be right for us. The model was the same throughout the British Empire.    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 175]
There was none of your stuff and nonsense about damaging a young person’s self-esteem – ours was damaged repeatedly. It was a lot better, we thought, than the damage that could be done to one’s person by six on the backside, or being made to write five hundred times, in neat handwriting, ‘I am a lazy and ignorant boy.’ [p.31] 
Some years after leaving Jamaica I came to know an Englishman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. The Japanese commandant had the amusing idea of beheading a prisoner now and then in front of the camp. This caused one Englishman to have nightmares during which he would cry out in terror. One night while he was having a particularly noisy dream, one man said to another, ‘What’s wrong with him anyway?’ ‘He thinks,’ the other replied, ‘that he’s back at Winchester.’ [p.30]
Simpson’s memoir The King My Father’s Wreck takes its title from a line by Ferdinand in The Tempest. But it is with Caliban that Simpson identifies in analysing his British colonial upbringing:
At first Caliban thought of Prospero as a father. Why should he not? Why else would Prospero be treating him so kindly? But then Caliban came to understand that however well he behaved Prospero would never regard him as an equal, and however hard he studied he could never be Miranda’s husband. The language he had been learning said that all men were equal in the sight of God; it spoke of justice and truth and beauty. It drew pictures in the air of palaces and towers, and people in fine clothes riding in coaches. But this world was not for him. The European might educate the native but was not about to admit him to the circle of power. […]
    This fable goes to the heart of the colonial situation. In Jamaica when I was growing up you were taught to think like the English. You learned English history and literature, and that you owed everything to England, and owed her your loyalty in return. But you were not English – to be English you had to have been born in England. So there was a sense of inferiority built into the colonial psyche.
     [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 33]
Simpson was sent to Munro at the age of nine, and he wasn’t to leave there until he was 17.
My father died when I was sixteen. His will made no provision for sending me to a university. He would probably not have wanted me to go anyway: he thought that young men who went to university came to no good… in spite of his having Norman Manley for a friend. Manley had studied at Oxford. But my father was sure that English university life was a round of dissipation. Or did he think it made young men conceited and gave them extravagant ideas? In any case, he left no money that would take me to England.    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 40]
When our father died and the will was read my brother and I had been disinherited. He had left us a few hundred pounds – the rest of his large estate went to our stepmother. She had arranged matters so, and the day after the funeral she sent us packing.
    No one seemed to care what would become of us. [p. 167]
So when my mother wrote and asked if I would like to visit her in New York, I didn’t hesitate. I got on the mail-van at Munro that took you to the train at Balaclava. [p.40]


The next shock to Louis Simpson’s sense of identity came when he reached America:
When I came to New York I discovered that my mother was a Jew and therefore, according to Jewish law, so was I. My grandmother spoke English with a Yiddish accent. She was very religious. I can see her lighting the candles on Friday night, bringing her hands to her breast and praying in silence. A few years ago she had made a trip back to Russian, bringing clothing and money that she distributed, enabling some young people to marry.
    But her daughters had shed their religion in mid-Atlantic. They had given up their Jewish traditions and been assimilated, but only on the most superficial level.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p. 46]
Every Friday night members of the family fathered at my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn: my mother’s younger sisters, Ruth and Annette, her niece Dorothy and brother Joe. My mother was usually absent; she was traveling, demonstrating cosmetics for Helena Rubenstein… at first in the States, then in South America.
    When I was growing up in Jamaica my mother did not mention her Jewish background. She wanted to put behind her the poverty of her early years in Russia and her life as a working girl in New York, sewing tucks in shirts. She admired the English who were at the top of the social heap in Jamaica, their fine way of speaking and good manners. She learned to serve tea at four o’clock in the English fashion, and played golf at the Liguanea Club. [p.45]
Simpson was about to go to college, to Columbia, when his mother returned from one of her trips, and gave him some motherly advice, which was…
…not to let anyone know that I came from Jamaica – I was to say that I came from England. She did not give a reason but it was obvious: if I said I was Jamaican people would think I was colored. It did not seem to occur to her that this advice might make me think there was something I should be ashamed of – which it did. For years I felt uneasy about having been born in Jamaica. It did not occur to my mother that it was wrong to tell me to lie. Fortunately all my training had been in the other direction: I grew up thinking that to lie was a sin…unforgivable. I did not take her advice – and it made me dislike her. I thought that in her business, cosmetics, she was continually lying about the products she sold, saying they would make women beautiful when, in fact, the face creams and “skin nourishers” were only grease. I thought she was always pretending to be something other than she was, and all her ideas were wrong.
    In the early 1940s she was traveling far afield in Latin America. Her talk that had been punctuated with the word “dollars,” so that I had to resist the impulse to put my hands over my ears, was now punctuated with the word “bolivars.” I was happy to return to my room in the dormitory at Columbia and the reality of poems and stories.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 47-48]


That notion of the reality of poetry and fiction is behind Simpson’s antagonism towards anyone who has what he thinks is a false view of literature. His enemies would include:

• The New York Poets: ‘He wore a perpetual sneer; a reviewer had called his poems snotty and I could see why. I told him I didn’t think much of his idea of poetry, making jokes, and we parted with mutual detestation.’

• His bête noire, W.H. Auden, whose work he repeatedly criticises for treating poetry as a game. In one of his essays in Ships Going into the Blue (1995), he quotes Richard Ellman quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘“All bad poetry comes from genuine feeling,” he says, as Auden would say after him.’ And then Simpson declares: ‘Auden’s true ancestor was Oscar Wilde…’ and quotes Auden’s touchstones ‘for testing critics, not poets’, four long questions (basically championing artifice, evasion, rhetoric, the baroque in poetry) which Simpson says could be combined into one short question, which would be: ‘Do you like, I mean really like, camp. If so I shall trust your judgement implicitly on all literary matters…’ And he says: ‘This is from an Inaugural Lecture Auden delivered at the University of Oxford on June 11, 1956. I imagine it went over well with that audience.’

• Literary theorists. Simpson went on to teach literature at American universities for most of his life, and his memoir includes rants against the rise of theory in academia, and those ‘who teach that there is no direct connection between words and life, only between one word and another, one “sign” and another’. Most of the professors don’t read literature, he says, ‘they’re too busy reading literary theory to read literature…’ which can only be bad news for books, reading and literature.

• Those who treat poetry not as the literature of life but as a vehicle for ideas. As at Columbia:
The course, however, did not include poetry except as an adjunct to drama. This was typical of the tastes of the faculty at Columbia. With the exception of Mark Van Doren, who was a poet, they had very little respect for poetry. What they liked was an idea that could be argued about. The teacher I had in Humanities four times a week, Lionel Trilling, typified this attitude.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p.48]
Van Doren was the opposite of Trilling. The core of his character was a love of literature. His teaching was spontaneous – he told you what came into his head, and there was a great deal in his head. Teaching such as this cannot be methodized – it depends, as T.S. Eliot said criticism must, on being very intelligent. [p.49]
This love of literature, Simpson says, ‘is in disrepute at the present time in universities for not many students are very intelligent and literature makes demands on them they cannot meet, the first being an understanding and love of poetry.’

Elsewhere he writes: ‘Poetry is written out of the need one has to write it.’ And he quotes Fernando Pessoa:
‘There are images in the secret corners of books that live more clearly than many men and women. There are literary phrases that possess an absolutely human individuality.’
I don’t want to drive it into the ground, but fiction is more interesting, more alive, than most people’s lives.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p.101]

In the 101st Airborne Division, London, July 1944.


But what does engage Simpson profoundly in his thinking and writing is people’s lives. His next formative experience in that area was the Second World War. And it didn’t just kick his poetry into life, it transformed his whole sense of identity:
I left Jamaica when I was seventeen and emigrated to the United States. Instead of going to Oxford I went to Columbia. There followed three years in the American army. After this I no longer thought of myself as a Jamaican, and my writing changed. Ads time passed it would change radically, so that I was regarded as an American, not a Jamaican, poet.
    When I was a boy, Europe presented a face like that which Prospero showed to Caliban at first: it was wise and just, and the voice in which it spoke was magic. The possessor of that voice was able to conjure up spirits to do his bidding. How could I not love him? But when I became a man this voice threatened to stifle my own. It was the voice of a ruling class, heard on the docks and in railway stations ordering the natives about.
    It has taken me a lifetime to forget that voice and hear the sound of my own.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, p.187-88]
Like Samuel Menashe, Louis Simpson was a ground soldier in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Like Menashe also, he was a runner who had to take messages across the battlefield, an experience he draws on in a long poem called ‘The Runner’ which I included in his Bloodaxe selection. In his memoir, after quoting from an account of the battle by a military historian, he comments:
To read about the fighting at Bastogne is to remember how little those who were there knew what was happening. Our officers must have known where the regiment was situated, but they didn’t tell us – all that we needed to know was the ground in our immediate vicinity. I was a runner and carried messages through the woods from G Company to Battalion. The First sergeant would give me a message – verbally, so there was no change of its falling into the hands of the Germans. I repeated the message back to him, to show that I had it right. Then I set off, trudging through the trees. […]
    On December 22nd the 101st received an ultimatum, surrender or else. People in New York and Wichita Falls heard about it… we didn’t. I read about it weeks later in a hospital bed in Paris, with my feet hoisted in a sling, the treatment then given for trench foot. […]
    In the days that followed we were shelled heavily. This, and being cold is what I remember most clearly about Bastogne. Shelling is what ground troops experience most frequently in combat – this is their war.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 59-61]
Like Menashe, he stayed on Europe after the war and studied in Paris for a while. Neither poet knew one another and both were suffering from post-traumatic illnesses. Simpson’s is described in biographical notes as a ‘serious illness’. It’s clear that the writing of ‘The Runner’ in Rome, as late as 1957, was part of an attempt to come to terms with his war experiences. He says in a note that the poem is for Donald Hall who encouraged him to write it. It’s a long narrative poem in 10 sections which takes up 25 pages in the Selected, written in the third person, telling the story of a man called Dodd, described in a note to the poem as
a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division of the Army of the United States. ‘The Runner’ is fiction; the episodes and characters are imaginary. But the fiction is based on the following history…
The other characters in the poem may be conflations of fellow soldiers, but Dodd quite clearly is Simpson. What happens to Dodd in the poem happened to Simpson. No other poem I’ve read gives such a vivid sense of what it must have been like for ordinary ground troops fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, it’s much more real than any novel or non-fiction account plotted as a narrative or written with the benefit of hindsight. This is section 8 of the poem:

October, and the sky was turning gray.
The battle line had settled. Every night
The bombers flew, going to Germany
At a great height. And back the other way
The V-1’s came. The soldiers in their holes
Heard them droning and saw the rhythmic flames
Carrying woe to Antwerp and to England.

They dozed or watched. Then it began to rain,
And always rained. It seemed they were never dry.
Winter was in the air. Paths turned to mud.
By day and night the shells came shrieking in;
They got so they could tell a dying fall
And pay the rest no mind. They lived with mud.
They cooked and ate their rations in the can,
And tried to dry their socks between two rains.
Cold and sullen, under a raincoat roof,
They shivered in their holes.

                                            One moonlit night
Dodd was returning on his way alone.
There was a wind; the haunted shadows stirred,
And rainpools glimmered in the moonlit fields.

There was a field the runner loathed to cross.
A place of horrors. Here, on the first day,
There’d been fierce charges, combats at close range,
And the dead were mixed as they had fallen.
Here crouched the German soldier with his schmeisser
Close to the parachutist in his rage –
Putrid things, never to be forgotten.
The field was swelling, shining with an aura
Of pale corruption.

                             To avoid it, Dodd
Went by another path he did not know,
Leading, it seemed, back to the company.
But in a while a fearful premonition
Stopped him. In a shadow, cold with dread,
He stood listening. The branches stirred,
And all at once there was a clash of arms,
The sounds of footsteps. Stealthily he turned
To slip away.

                    ‘Wer geht da?’

                                          He ran.
He plunged into the darkness, blind with panic.
A storm of shots erupted at his back.
Brambles tore at his legs. He climbed a bank,
Clawing, and stumbled down the other side.
Then, as he ran, he shouted out the password.
‘Ohio!’ like a dog drenched with hot water.
His rifle fell. He left it where it was.
‘Ohio!’ He collided with a branch
And staggered. At his back the storm increased.
Red tracers streaked the air. Across a ditch
He leaped. And ran across the road beyond.
A hole was in his way; he cleared it with
A stride, and the dark figure starting up
Out of the hole. He kept on running, shouting
‘Ohio!’ A shape standing in the path
Snatched at him; he swerved out of its grasp.
There was a maze of holes. He stumbled, reeled,
And fell. His helmet flew off with a clang.

Feet were approaching. He lay still as death.
‘It’s Dodd,’ said a voice.

                                       At last, he looked up
Into the faces of the third platoon.
Fisher. Others. They looked down in wonder.
[Voices in the Distance, pp. 28-30]

‘The Runner’ appeared in Simpson’s third collection, A Dream of Governors (1959). In the memoir he writes about how he came to write one of the best-known Second World War poems, ‘Carentan O Carentan’, published in his first collection, The Arrivistes, ten years earlier in 1949. This is a ballad prompted by his memory of being one of a column of American infantrymen ambushed by German soldiers. Seamus Heaney has described it as ‘a poem that tells and tolls all at once. It has soldiers going into battle in Normandy; but it also has this remote sweet melody and dreaminess, a bit like Housman hymning his Redcoats, except that Simpson’s matter is far more deadly. It’s not fifes but fusillades that his soldiers march to.’
A few years after the war I was living in Paris as a student […]. I had still not recovered from the sar. It was no trouble to see bodies lying about in my room, one with an arm held rigidly in the air, another with a knee drawn up. There was a German officer who kept reappearing on the furniture. I had first seen him lying on a mattress outside a house in Holland – he has been carried out of the house and left on the mattress to die in comfort. Since then he had swollen so that his belly was bursting his trousers and his arms and legs extended stiffly like balloons. Now he had got off the mattress somehow and would turn up in my room at odd times, perching on a chair and looking at me. I offered him a cigarette which he refused, producing a packet of small black cigars from a pocket. Turkish, he said, which he preferred.
    One night I dreamed that I was walking with other shadowy figures along what seemed to be the bank of a canal, when bullets slashed the trees and shells were falling. I woke and wrote out the dream, and as I wrote remembered… it wasn’t a dream, it has actually happened. For one of the symptoms of the mental disorder that came after the war was amnesis… there were bright patches with darkness all around. How this scene came back clearly.
    I wrote it as a poem. I had been reading Heine’s ballads, and the poem took the form of a ballad. As it was a poem, not just memory, I was free to invent.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, pp. 56-57]

Carentan O Carentan

Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.

This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.

The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.

The sky was blue, but there a smoke
Hung still above the sea
Where the ships together spoke
To towns we could not see.

Could you have seen us through a glass
You would have said a walk
Of farmers out to turn the grass,
Each with his own hay-fork.

The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.

I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.

Everything’s all right, Mother,
Everyone gets the same
At one time or another.
It’s all in the game.

I never strolled, nor ever shall,
Down such a leafy lane.
I never drank in a canal,
Nor ever shall again.

There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.

Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.

O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.

Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.

Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
[Voices in the Distance, pp. 11-12]

Louis Simpson in 1964, after winning a Pulitzer Prize, for At the End of the Open Road.


After 1959, the publication date of A Dream of Governors, Simpson’s poetry changed. Like many poets of that time – most notably W.S. Merwin and Adrienne Rich – he became a very different kind of poet. Like Merwin and Rich, his early poetry was formal verse strongly influenced by the English classics, but the direction he took was very different from theirs.

His next book, his fourth collection, At the End of the Open Road, published in 1963, won him a Pulitzer Prize. Edward Hirsch described it as ‘not only a major breakthrough in his own work; it is also one of the tours de force of American poetry in the 60s […] a sustained meditation on the American character […] The moral genius of this book is that it traverses the open road of American mythology and brings us back to ourselves; it sees us not as we wish to be but as we are.’ It was Hirsch who dubbed Simpson ‘the American Chekhov’.

In Stepping Stones (2008), Dennis O’Driscoll’s book of interviews with Seamus Heaney, O’Driscoll asks Heaney first about R.S. Thomas, then Louis Simpson:
DO’D: Another poet who was important to you in the late sixties was the Louis Simpson of books like At the End of the Open Road.
SH: Simpson had a quality of openness; he was able to give the high cultural and the colloquial equal credence, able to get at life and still keep up a literary play. Able to do that maybe because he had been in combat during the Second World War, or because he was Jamaican – somebody who had internalised a traditional British-type curriculum and then broke free of it as if it had been a chrysalis. I was also interested in the way the closed form/open form debate played itself out in his work. In fact, the drifty, soft-edgy aspect of those quatrain poems at the end of Door into the Dark probably owes something to Louis Simpson. Nothing as direct as imitation, more a tuning, an inclination to make the line a feeler-out rather than a foot-by-foot advance. I felt even closer to Louis after I went to Berkeley. He’d taught there and been a friend of Tom Flanagan’s; through Tom I eventually got to know him personally. When Tom went back east to teach in Stony Brook, they were colleagues again and I used to meet up with them in the late seventies and early eighties on Long Island. Karl Miller published a lot of Simpson’s poems also.
DO’D: Louis Simpson figures in one of your own poems.
SH: In ‘Making Strange’, yes. It started from a chance meeting between my father, myself and Louis. He was being driven by me from Belfast to a poetry reading in the University of Ulster at Coleraine, so I took a detour through my part of the country and stopped at the pub next to our old Mossbawn house. Next thing, my father appears on the scene, and is being included as more or less part of the tour. So there I was between the pair of them, at home and not at home, between the Toome Road and the open road. It wasn’t unlike those little poems Louis Simpson himself was writing in the 1960s, ‘In the Suburbs’, say, or ‘After Midnight’, where his own local American scene would also get itself defamiliarised.

Making Strange

I stood between them,
the one with his travelled intelligence
and tawny containment,
his speech like the twang of a bowstring,

and another, unshorn and bewildered
in the tubs of his wellingtons,
smiling at me for help,
faced with this stranger I’d brought him.

Then a cunning middle voice
came out of the field across the road
saying, ‘Be adept and be dialect,
tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut,

call me sweetbriar after the rain
or snowberries cooled in the fog.
But love the cut of this travelled one
and call me also the cornfield of Boaz.

Go beyond what’s reliable
in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
these eyes and puddles and stones,
and recollect how bold you were

when I visited you first
with departures you cannot go back on.’
A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
I found myself driving the stranger

through my own country, adept
at dialect, reciting my pride
in all that I knew, that began to make strange
at the same recitation.

Seamus Heaney
[Opened Ground, p. 221]

The two poets are chiming strangely: Heaney reciting all that he knew of his own country – and ‘began to make strange / at the same recitation’ – is also Simpson’s poetic strategy.

The open road leads to the used-car lot, Simpson wrote in ‘Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain’. It also leads to the suburbs. Here are the two short Simpson poems mentioned by Heaney in that interview:

In the Suburbs

There’s no way out.
You were born to waste your life.
You were born to this middleclass life

As others before you
Were born to walk in procession
To the temple, singing.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 42]

After Midnight

The dark streets are deserted,
With only a drugstore glowing
Softly, like a sleeping body;

With one white, naked bulb
In the back, that shines
On suicides and abortions.

Who lives in these dark houses?
I am suddenly aware
I might live here myself.

The garage man returns
And puts the change in my hand,
Counting the singles carefully.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 57]

Simpson found his territory where he lived. But he also discovered America via Russia. In his memoir he describes the ‘people who live here’ of his title:
They married and lived in houses; they had children, drove cars, went to work, shopped in supermarkets, and watched TV. Poetry hardly ever spoke of this… it did not speak of such lives except with irony and contempt. But I was one of those people… the only thing that made me different was being a writer. I wanted to speak of the life I had and tell stories about the men and women I knew. The stories would be in verse, for this was what I enjoyed… the rhythm of the line. […]
    I was setting out on a lonely road. The people my poems were about, my next door neighbors, wouldn’t read them… they preferred television. Editors blamed poets for being obscure and not writing for the common reader, but when I sent one of those editors a poem with character and incident, written in language any reader could understand, it was promptly rejected… it wasn’t “poetic” enough. Over the years The New Yorker had published a number of my poems… I had contracted to let them see my work before I showed it to anyone else. The poems I sent them now were returned and I tore up the contract.
    There was no precedent for the kind of poetry I wanted to write. Some years ago I had broken with rhyme and meter and learned to write in free form. Now I discarded the traditional ornaments of language, especially metaphors. I wanted to render the thing itself exactly as it happened.
I discovered what writers of novels and short stories knew: if you had a point of view everything seemed to fall into place and move. Therefore the hard work had to be done on myself, understanding what I felt and what I wanted to say. Then I could tell a story and it could be believed.
    I received some help, but not from a poet. When I was a child my mother used to tell stories about the village in Russia. She talked about people in the family… the man who was some sort of revolutionist and who hid under the mattress on which his wife was lying; the police looked everywhere but under the mattress, and so he escaped. His wife was going to have a baby, and the police wouldn’t go near her… they thought it would bring bad luck. […]
    Now I was reading Chekhov. He knew how to tell a story about ordinary people who turned out to be extraordinary. I invented characters and placed them in Russian settings.
    [The King My Father’s Wreck, pp.80-82]

Caviare at the Funeral
This was the village where the deacon ate all the caviare at the funeral.
    Chekhov, ‘In the Ravine’
On the way back from the cemetery
they discussed the funeral arrangements
and the sermon, ‘such a comfort to the family’.

They crowded into the parlor.
It was hot, and voices were beginning to rise.
The deacon found himself beside a plate
heaped with caviare. He helped himself
to a spoonful. Then another.

Suddenly he became aware
that everyone’s eyes were upon him,
ruin staring him in the face.
He turned pale. Then tried to carry it off –
one may as well be hanged for a sheep
as a lamb, et cetera.

Meeting their eyes with a stern expression
he took another spoonful, and another.
He finished the plate.

Next morning he was seen at the station
buying a ticket for Kurovskoye,
a village much like ours, only smaller.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 91]


Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, ‘Do you like chocolates?’

They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, ‘Yes.’

‘Tell me,’ he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
‘what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?’

The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
                                 In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 92]

Then I applied what I had learned from Chekhov to writing poems with American settings, and of course it worked just as well as in the “Russian” poems.
    [The King My Father's Wreck, p. 82]

The People Next Door

He isn’t a religious man.
So instead of going to church
on Sunday they go to sea.

They cruise up and down,
see the ferry coming from Bridgeport
to Green Harbor, and going back
from Green Harbor to Bridgeport…
and all the boats there are.
The occasional silent fisherman…
When the kids start to get restless
he heads back to shore.

I hear them returning
worn out and glad to be home.
This is as close to being happy
as a family ever gets.
I envy their content. And yet
I’ve done that too, and know
that no hobby or activity
distracts one from thinking
forever. Every human being
is an intellectual more or less.

I too was a family man.
It was a phase I had to go through.
I remember tenting in the Sierras,
getting up at dawn to fly cast.
I remember my young son
almost being blown off the jetty
in Lochalsh. Only the suitcase
he was carrying held him down.
The same, at Viareggio,
followed me into the sea
and was almost swept away by the current.

These are the scenes I recall
rather than Christmas and Thanksgiving.
My life as the father of a family
seems to have been a series
of escapes, not to mention illnesses,
confrontations with teachers,
administrators, police.
Flaubert said, ‘They’re in the right,’
looking at a bourgeois family,
and then went back happily
to his dressing gown and pipe.

Yes, I believe in the family…
next door. I rejoice
at their incomings and outgoings.
I am present when Betty
goes out on her first date.
I hear about Joey’s being chosen
for the team. I survive the takeover
of the business, and the bad scare
at the doctor’s.
I laugh with them that laugh
and mourn with them that mourn.

I see their lights, and hear a murmur
of voices from house to house.

It gives me a strange feeling
to think how far they’ve come
from some far world to this,
bending their necks to the yoke
of affection.

                   And that one day,
with a few simple words
and flowers to keep them company
they’ll return once more to the silence
out there, beyond the stars.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 120-21]

A Shearling Coat

Alexander Ortiz and Arlyne Gonzales
were walking home from a movie.

A car drew up, and two men
got out. One had a gun, the other

tugged at her shearling coat.
‘Don’t hurt her,’ Ortiz said, ‘she’s pregnant.’

The gunman shot him twice,
in the chest and throat.

‘What you do that for?’ said the other.
‘C’mon, c’mon, get the jacket,’

the gunman said, and they left,
with a parting shot at Gonzales.

She had thrown herself down
on top of the dying man.

And I shall be wanting to be rid
of this thing to the end of my days.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 153]

When I first read that poem – it’s one of Simpson’s later poems, from 1995 collection There You Are – I’d assumed it was based on a news report. But it wasn’t. Simpson is recounting a shooting he witnessed himself, on the street, in New York.

In 2008 I visited Simpson at his home in Setauket on Long Island with filmmaker Pamela Robertson-Pearce. We filmed him reading several poems, including the two included in the video embedded below this article, ‘A New Year’s Child’ and ‘Spot on the Kitchen Floor’, which would appear in his last published collection, Struggling Times (2009). That book was completed as his health was failing, and the frail man we met – now in his mid 80s – already seemed like a ghost of his former fiery self. While his readings of his best-known, earlier poems didn’t do them justice, he seemed to inhabit the newer poems much more fully, reading them with greater expression. Afterwards, when I asked him about the story behind ‘A Shearling Coat’, he became suddenly vehement in voicing the outrage he still felt at what he had witnessed and tried to contain in that poem. This was no fiction or fictionalised documentary, this was the real life, these were the real people he spoke for in his poetry.

The Silent Piano

We have lived like civilised people.
O ruins, traditions!

And we have seen the barbarians,
breakers of sculpture and glass.

And now we talk of ‘the inner life’,
and I ask myself, where is it?

Not here, in these streets and houses,
so I think it must be found

in indolence, pure indolence,
an ocean of darkness,

in silence, an arm of the moon,
a hand that enters slowly.


I am reminded of a story
Camus tells, of a man in prison camp.

He had carved a piano keyboard
with a nail on a piece of wood.

And sat there playing the piano.
This music was made entirely of silence.
[Voices in the Distance, p. 68]

* * * * * *

Louis Simpson reads two of his last poems, 'A New Year's Child' and 'Spot on the Kitchen Floor', published in both Struggling Times (BOA Editions, 2009) and Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010). Pamela Robertson-Pearce filmed Louis Simpson at his home in Setauket, Long Island, in September 2008.

Louis Simpson reads 'A Clearing' from The Owner of the House, in Toronto, when that book was shortlisted for the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize. This poem is also included in Voices in the Distance.


Very few poets pass my bathroom test, where their gently curling pages must submit to repeated rereadings. Louis Simpson is one of them. He's the least well-known and slightly younger member of the generation of great American poets that included Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, publishing his first books shortly after the second world war. (His poems have been unobtainable here for the last 25 years; mercifully, Bloodaxe have recently published his selected poems, Voices in the Distance.)
    The early poems are generally pretty formal, dainty and slightly constrained – though often beautiful. Then he produced an extraordinary long poem about his time as a soldier. In the late 1960s, the smoke blew away. His forms loosened up, his narratives turned towards quick-cutting and surrealism, his tone became more confident and confidential. The result has been 40 years' worth of work that feels absolutely compelling in its mixture of intensity and relaxation. I first started reading him 30 years ago and now hardly a day goes by without my looking at him again, thinking: how does he do that?

('The artist's artist: Five poets nominate their favourite living writer in their field'), The Guardian.

Click in these links to read the tributes:
New York Times
Washington Post
Los Angeles Times
Independent (UK)

Louis Aston Marantz Simpson: born Kingston, Jamaica, 27 March 1923; married 1949, Jeanne Rogers (divorced 1954; one son), 1955, Dorothy Roochvarg (divorced 1979; one son, one daughter), 1985, Miriam Bachner (divorced 1998); died Setauket, Long Island, NY, 14 September 2012.

The King My Father's Wreck (Story Line Press, 1995).
The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940–2001 (BOA Editions, 2003).
Struggling Times (BOA Editions, 2009).
Voices in the Distance: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2010).
[Ordering link for Amazon: click here]

The above article is an expanded version of a talk I gave on Louis Simpson at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2010, and thanks are due to the Poetry Trust for inviting me to compile it. The family photographs are all taken from Louis Simpson's memoir The King My Father's Wreck (Story Line Press, 1995), now out of print. The poems are from his US and UK editions listed above.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Three poems from Sarah Jackson's Pelt

Sarah Jackson's debut collection Pelt (Bloodaxe Books, £8.95) has won the 10th place on the Guardian first book award longlist, the paper has just reported.

Sarah Jackson explores the edges of writing in this uncanny book of touch. Tender, haunting, and yet beautifully poised, the poems in Pelt get right under your skin. The collection takes you on an unsettling journey between infancy and adulthood. Slipping from birds to blindness, from hides to hiding, Pelt uncovers the unfamiliar in the everyday. Pelt is written in the dark. It asks to be read through your fingertips. Striking and elegant, subtle and yet full of desire, this is a brilliant debut.

(Deserted Hotel, Shabla, Bulgaria)

The wind here is devastating.

Hoarding sand on the sills
of a hotel beaten back by shrieks

it brings with it
a certain smell, a certain ring.

Nobody is here.

There is no waiter.
Nobody dances, nobody sleeps.

Just you and me
lying in the dust of the restaurant
holding ourselves –

and out there
the ocean rising and falling

rising and falling
like the skin over our ribs.

Vocal Chords

I breakfast at the side of the house
where an old Breton plaque rusts

in the gravel beneath the window,
and there, flies worship the sparrow,

which lies, head bent right back
with its beak snapped clean off

like the lid of the margarine tub.
I bend down, lift the beak

between my finger and thumb,
look into the hollow of its throat

to see its vocal chords nestling
like a peach stone, wondering

where music comes from,
and where my voice has gone.

après ma mort, il ne restera plus rien – Jacques Derrida
Today, I find I can see through my eyelids.
You are curled over yourself as if reading

but there is no book. I wait, counting the dogwood
on the curtain, listening for the telephone.

You sit in a winged armchair by my head
holding your elbows. I smell you: dirty and sweet.

I think of the way I might have said goodbye.
We tried not to speak of such things.

You turned and your hot face was bright.
I saw myself reflected in it as I left.

The room grows cold. I am not arranged in a line.
Lift me, please, from my crookedness.

We need to start again but it is always too late
and I am afraid you do not know how to begin.

Love, you surprise me: turning, dipping a cloth
in a shallow bowl, you wipe my palms in slow circles

and twist my rings so that everything is facing
one way. This is touch without touching,

as it always is. You are so quiet, sounds slip
from the ceiling. I am afraid of you, of your gentleness.

You say, nothing will remain, and I hear my bones
in your voice: At home, the dog will always be searching.

Sarah Jackson was born in 1977, grew up in Berkshire and now lives in Nottingham. Her pamphlet Milk (Pighog, 2008) was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award and her work appears in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe Books, 2009) and The Best British Poetry 2011 (Salt, 2011). She was awarded Arts Council funding in 2009 and has been shortlisted for the Arvon International Poetry Competition (2010) and the Edwin Morgan Prize (2011). Sarah completed a doctorate at the University of Sussex in 2009 and now lectures at Nottingham Trent University, where she runs the MA in Creative Writing. Pelt (Bloodaxe Books, 2012), her first book-length collection, is long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. She read a selection of poems from Pelt on BBC Radio 3's Proms Plus Late programme in August in a series which features 'informal post-prom music and poetry from emerging young artists'.

Thursday, 26 July 2012


In his nineties Philip Gross’s father, a wartime refugee, began to lose his several languages, first to deafness, then profound aphasia. Deeply thought as well as deeply felt, these poems reach into that gulf to find him – through recovery of histories both spoken and unspoken as well as an excavation of the spoken word itself. Readers who admired Philip Gross’s subtlety and range in his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection The Water Table will find those qualities brought to a new human urgency in the compelling sequences of Deep Field. Published by Bloodaxe in November 2011, Deep Field, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year) in 2012.

Victoria Field reviews Deep Field in Lapidus Journal:

The cover image of Philip Gross’s new collection shows the Hubble Deep Field, a keyhole view of the universe, taken by the Hubble telescope. It’s a tiny speck of sky which reveals thousands of galaxies in deepest space, all at different stages of development. The image is both beautiful and bewildering; showing something unimaginably large and complex and, simultaneously, tiny, representing just a two millionth part of the total sky.

The mind, with its ability to hold memory and convey thoughts in language is also a deep field, full of mystery and strangeness. We can only guess at its structure and content. We know that the mind is dependent on the brain and that organic damage, whether from stroke, dementia or accident, can cause various kinds of aphasia, the technical term for language impairments. Like the astronomers with their telescope, Philip Gross shows us the effects of aphasia in his father, such as difficulty in remembering words – ‘you’d lost barley’; echolalia, a tendency to repeat what someone else says – ‘a bat-vault full of panicked rags of words’; or speaking nonsense – ‘words in no language but a style of hesitation’; and needing to sing but ‘not prettily’. But more than that, he takes us into a world of twentieth century and personal history, of his own emotional responses to the aphasia, the shifting qualities of the universe and the natural world, all conveyed in daring, memorable and confident poems.

One definition of a human being is that we are story-making creatures. The sharing of stories is one of the ways in which we build relationships. Philip Gross, an only child of his wartime refugee father from Estonia, grew up ‘fluent in English and silence’. His father spoke five languages, but in his nineties, began to lose them – he ‘stared through a sixty year gap in the trees,/ … out into the fields/ (all-angled, small, pre-Soviet)// of wordlessness.’ Philip Gross said in an interview:
I knew there was something not being said. He had just emerged from years of trauma in his life, and the last thing he wanted to do was pass that on.
I suspect the untold stories of parents are often what sting us into writing poetry. As Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘every poem breaks a silence’. Tony Harrison put it memorably in his four-liner, Heredity:
How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry –
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.
Philip Gross remembers how his father would ask him what he was working on and now how he would have to answer,
Building your memorial
like something grand raised out of rubble,
out of the redundant stuff of
Theodore Roethke wrote that ‘in a dark time the eye begins to see’ – in a time of silence or incoherence, the poet begins to write. A prolific writer in many different genres, Philip Gross has already written about a distressing family experience, his daughter’s anorexia, in The Wasting Game (1998). Since then, he has won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his brilliant study of the River Severn, The Water Table, in which his subject and the language he uses to describe it, come together remarkably. The same can be said of Deep Field. Ostensibly a book ‘about’ his father’s loss of language, Deep Field uses this theme as a way of exploring the ways in which language, something generated from within us, relates to the outer world, both in how it denotes experience and reality, and how it mediates relationships.

Perhaps this can only be done in poetry. In poetry, something is constructed from words but also from silence and, in a book, from space on the page. We have a sense in Deep Field of words losing their moorings, and becoming, even as they describe his father, an echo of the natural world that permeates the collection. Whilst still clearly the building blocks of poems, the words behave in new and unexpected ways, as if autonomous of the poet. They shift themselves to the right and create a constellation that looks like lace on the page, coalesce into diamonds or droplets, or form the shape of a breaking wave.

The poems in this collection are not all immediately accessible but on reading and re-reading, I found myself drawn into a world of retreating galaxies, constantly changing seascapes and that familiar tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when a word we know is ‘in there’ becomes fugitive and shy. Philip Gross ‘grew a stammer/ that said something too’ – another layer of complex engagement with language. I was also taken on a emotional journey from first learning about John, his life and his aphasia, to eventually feeling viscerally the huge loss that has taken place, for both him and his son. There is something matter-of-fact about the crossword puzzle described in the opening poem that reminds me of how, often, men make connections with each other through engaging with an external entity – crossword, car, football. The poem explores the word ‘scry’, a ‘word to peer into’ that can be turned ‘round in my hands // this crystal ball, this cryptic syllable’. It has an old meaning of second sight, of psychic divination and the speaker of the poem is attempting to solve a puzzle, the crossword his father used to ‘unpick seamlessly’ and also the bigger and more intractable mystery of how to relate to his father.

The collection has several sequences, three titled Something Like The Sea and one, Vocable, in 28 parts. They take the reader deep into an exploration of language and voice, spoken, groaned, involving other family members and the body in its expression. Philip Gross employs a multiplicity of forms, both in the sequences and the individual poems. The latter sometimes gave me the sensation of the poet, like a whale or dolphin, coming to the water’s surface to draw breath, before diving down once again into a sequence exploring the unfathomable depths of his father’s aphasia.

The last poem in the collection is painful, arranged in stanzas of short lines and few syllables with a dramatic economy of style. The whole, long, complex father-son relationship, and a human life from beginning to end, are conveyed through a simple touching of hands, the tender way in which a parent guides the first steps of a child.

At the heart of this moving and intriguing collection are the mystery of life and its relationship with language. The recurring image of the sea is not always comforting – Philip Gross grew up not far from the wild North coast of Cornwall and knows how it can be ‘uneasy, ulterior, insatiably // lightless’. Language is at its mercy. There are ‘purposes / beyond us’ which, like the far galaxies of the Deep Field are ‘out beyond words beyond / most memory’.

This book speaks directly to the heart of Lapidus concerns with how language can convey, transcend and re-enchant human experience. Philip Gross has not only honoured his father but created something of great beauty and wonder out from those final wordless years.

Victoria Field is a writer and a qualified poetry therapist. She has worked with people with aphasia, on a Stroke Rehabilitation Unit, in care homes and one-to-one. She is a regular tutor on the Ty Newydd Writing in Health and Social Care programme and will be co-facilitating a one-week workshop with Graham Hartill in November 2012 at which Philip Gross will be the guest reader.

This review was first published in Lapidus Journal, Spring 2012 Vol 6: Issue 2, an online publication covering writing, reading, health and wellbeing. Recent articles have looked at the role of writing in prisons, healthcare and professional training; bibliotherapy and poetry therapy; writing and ecology; cultural and theoretical perspectives; personal views on experiences of writing. Subscription to the Lapidus Journal is £30 per year via membership of Lapidus, the networking and information organisation for all interested in the field - see link for details.

From the reviews of Deep Field:

'A powerful and tender successor to the T.S. Eliot prize-winning The Water Table… The writing is sinewy, urgent and resourceful. This poet is a master of form, deploying his visual and aural patterns for emphasis, as if the page were a musical score… The collection evokes an essence of what it is to be human, the sense of both wonder and estrangement, our place within science, the sheer oddness of who we are. Deep Field is as strong in celebration as in lamentation. With language as its theme, it soars linguistically' – Michael Symmons Roberts & Moniza Alvi, PBS Bulletin.

'Philip Gross's previous collection, the T.S. Eliot Prize­-winning The Water Table, suggested a deepening vision based on focused contemplation of the world and our place - or lack of place - within it. This new collection takes us deeper still, sustaining with extra­ordinary virtuosity a series of meditative variations on the related themes of language and wordlessness, human existence and the loss of identity’ – Jem Poster, Planet.

Extracts from 'Something Like The Sea':

from PART I

Washed up at the tideline these days,
              jetsam: words
in Estonian, German, Russian, history
              ditched out at sea
between coasts sixty years ago —

              too much, too
heavy, you said later, what child
              could need it —
languages I never heard you speak
              and so I grew

bilingual in English and silence,
              grew a stammer
                            that said something, too.


One day you woke to find that you’d lost barley.
Oats. Wheat. Tried each of your five languages
and nothing answered to its name.

You stared through a sixty-year gap in the trees,
past the farmhouse, out into the fields
(all-angled, small, pre-Soviet)

of wordlessness. What you were seeing there
wasn’t nothing. This one… You tensed
your fingers, upwards. And this…

Your fingers tremble-dangled. ‘Oats?’ Yes!
Yes. And that itching-and-scratching
down the back of your neck:

threshed husks in the shade of the barn. Later
hordeum and triticum came to you, then
some English, some Estonian.

But you’d been back there, in the gone place,
absolutely, with each Ding an sich.
You’d been it, and no words between.

from PART II:

On the shores of Lake Aphasia
mist seeps upwards, early morning, in fine strands
like milk in water. Almost Japanese.

In some Zen light, or Pure Land,
we might see it so:
                            the more
white paper, the more eloquent;
measuring the distance between this and this.


I wish I could say

‘We sat for half an hour in silence.
Nothing needed to be said.’

It isn’t true. You can’t stop
rattling a box of empty syllables

while something needs, it cries out,
for the saying. Is this it?

I write on your word-pad, I
mime. Is it this? Or this?

Help me! Who looking in
the window now could say

which of us was the one deprived of speech?


All this way
by single rail track
through the forest,
by truck and by footslog,

by the last boat left
and leaving, by nights
in the open and years’

hiatus, Nacht und Nebel,
fog of someone else’s
war. All this way

to arrive at an impasse
here, sixty years on, caught
in a sentence you can’t finish,

your good neighbour
backing away, first nodding
then shaking his head

at unstoppable word-slur.
You’re touching his arm
and he flinches

as if from the cling
of cobweb. All this way
to learn a life, to pass

through checkpoints, not to wear
the marks of silence on you
(like the names

not to be mentioned
in your censored letters home —
they’d leave their stain

on those you loved). All
this long way
to be a foreigner again.



in a flicker of gunfire (off to one side;
I believe you when you said you never fought);
caught in a war

of three sides and not one
to call your own; and when the dreadful music
stopped, caught

on the wrong side of the line
through Europe that the powers at Yalta ruled;
caught out of place;

caught in the zone, with transport waiting
to a bone mine in the Urals when the deadline fell; caught
wind of that

and walked, walked west and long;
caught out by sunrise in the wrong sort of uniform,
caught sight

of a scarecrow in a turnip field,
gave thanks for its coat and tatty britches; snagged
for a moment

when the snare of history pulled tight
you jerked free, torn somewhat, never quite mended but
not caught.

Philip Gross is Professor of Creative Writing at Glamorgan University. He has published seven books with Bloodaxe, including Deep Field (2011), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, which was shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Poetry Award (Wales Book of the Year); The Water Table (2009), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; The Egg of Zero (2006); Mappa Mundi (2003), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation; and Changes of Address: Poems 1980-1998 (2001), his selection from earlier books including The Ice Factory, Cat’s Whisker, The Son of the Duke of Nowhere, I.D. and The Wasting Game. His book I Spy Pinhole Eye (Cinnamon Press, 2009), a collaborative work with photographer Simon Denison, won the Wales Book of the Year Award 2010. He is also the author of ten highly-praised novels for young people.

His poetry for children includes Manifold Manor, The All-Nite Café (winner of the Signal Award 1994), Scratch City and Off Road To Everywhere (winner of the CLPE Award 2011). Since The Song of Gail and Fludd (1991) he has published nine more novels for young people, most recently The Storm Garden (2006).

Born in Cornwall, he lived in Bristol and Bath for many years, and now lives in Penarth in South Wales.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A.S.J. TESSIMOND (1902-62)
by James Bainbridge

On the death of a great man 
He goes. You, world, are poorer for his going;
And poorer yet again, world, for not knowing
Your loss … ‘Tis well, world. You deserved to lose
That which you neither sought, nor cared to use!

May 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond. July 2012 marks the 110th anniversary of his death.

The fact that you are reading this page, probably suggests that you have some awareness of Tessimond’s work – though the fact that your chosen search engine has led you here, is also an indication of how little is now known about the poet. In those fifty years since his death, almost all trace of A.S.J. Tessimond has disappeared.

Tessimond has joined the ranks of the lesser-known poets. A poet who certainly deserves our attention – who in his own lifetime was hugely popular – but who now is perhaps only known to a few. I want to briefly explore how that might have come about.

The Mystery of Peter Black

Some time in the 1980s, the journalist and poet Hubert Nicholson received a letter. It was sent to him in his capacity as literary executor to his friend, the poet, A.S.J. Tessimond. “Had he seen,” the correspondent wondered, “Roger Skelton’s Penguin anthology Poetry of the Forties?”

Nicholson had not.

“In it,” the letter continued, “is a poem entitled ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ by Peter Black. The same poem is included in A.S.J. Tessimond’s Collected Poems, which you edited. Was there some mistake or had Tessimond perhaps plagiarised this work?”

Nicholson was by no means certain how to reply. In the twenty-four years that he had managed his late friend’s estate, this was the first he had ever heard of a Peter Black. It was a puzzling business. For one thing, this was one of Tessimond’s best-known poems – if people recognised it, as many people did, then they knew the piece with his name attached to it. Frequently he received letters from publishers asking permission to reprint ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’, this accusation of plagiarism was a new and somewhat troubling development.

Nicholson went to his local library and got hold of the Penguin anthology. There between Drummond Allison’s ‘A Great Unhealthy Friendship’ and Kenneth Allott’s ‘Departure Platform’, was the poem. Here it is as it appears in Poetry of the Forties:
I am the unnoticed, the unnoticeable man:
The man who sat on your right in the morning train:
The man you looked through like a windowpane:
The man who was the colour of the carriage, the colour
of the mounting
Morning pipe smoke.

I am the man too busy with a living to live,
Too hurried and worried to see and smell and touch:
The man who is patient too long and obeys too much
And wishes too softly and seldom.

I am the man they call the nation’s backbone,
Who am boneless – playable catgut, pliable clay:
The Man they label Little lest one day
I dare to grow.

I am the rails on which the moment passes,
The megaphone for many words and voices:
I am graph, diagram,
Composite face.

I am the led, the easily-fed,
The tool, the not-quite-fool,
The would-be-safe-and-sound,
The uncomplaining bound,
The dust fine-ground,
Stone-for-a-statue waveworn pebble-round.

p. 1943       PETER BLACK
There was no doubt that it was the same poem, and Nicholson was also certain that this was his friend’s work. He had known the piece for years, had heard him read it on many occasions. If there was plagiarism to be detected, it was Black who had clearly stolen Tessimond’s poem. Either that or it was an error on the part of Robin Skelton, or the publisher to whom he immediately wrote – but something stuck in Nicholson’s mind; something that didn’t seem right. The date of publication given in the Penguin anthology was 1943. Not only was the name wrong, but ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ had not appeared in print until Tessimond’s collection Voices in a Giant City published in 1947. Where had 1943 come from? It was a nagging detail. The authors’ index to the anthology which gave the poets’ dates of birth and death in brackets after their names gave no clues either – after Black’s name there were no brackets. He was a biographical blank. Hubert wrote to friends to see if anyone could shed any light on Peter Black’s identity. Nobody could.

There was something strangely apt about all of this. Here was a poem about an anonymous man – ‘the man you looked through like a windowpane’ – being claimed by a person nobody had heard of. It was a situation that no doubt would have amused Tessimond. ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ was an elegy to the unnoticed in the world; to a figure such as Black, whose name itself was an impenetrable void.

The one identifying feature of the man in the poem – the bowler hat – is an emblem of his everyday ordinariness, the blank uniform of the morning commuter. Like the crowd flowing over London Bridge in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) where the actions of ‘each man’ is identical, or in Ezra Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1912) where individuals are reduced to a mere ‘apparition’, the daily transit to work has frequently been seen as a theft of identity in the twentieth century. Man ceased to be an individual, but part of the crowd.

The scene described in the poem is played out again in the opening moments of Galton and Simpson’s 1961 film The Rebel. There, Tony Hancock, furnished with bowler hat and umbrella, boards a train and looks about the compartment to take in seven other identically dressed commuters. His identity reaches a crisis point because all of his neighbours seem the same. He goes off to be an artist.

But the neighbour in the poem is the reader: we are told that he ‘sat on your right in the morning train’, and in so doing we become part of the same anonymous being. Like Magritte’s faceless figure in The Son of Man and other paintings, or Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, or Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the hat gives a sense of uniformity to the wearer; a commonplace. However, where Magritte’s figure has his face obscured, the man in the poem’s face is visible, but it is ‘composite’; it is all faces, a representative image of everyone. We assume the man in the bowler hat to be everyman.

It is possible to see why the mysterious Peter Black might wish to claim this poem, but these ideas could equally apply to Tessimond himself, who today can hardly be considered a household name. I would like to thank you at this stage, as audience, for coming along to a lecture on a poet that you might well have never heard of. Unnoticed, unnoticeable, in the fifty years since his death next month, he has slipped from our attention into ‘almost complete oblivion’. What I want to stress to you, is that whilst today he might not be particularly well known – his work has only recently come back into print – this was certainly not always the case. The fact that Tessimond is not much read anymore is not simply down to ‘undue neglect’ but the result of a far stranger story, in part a wilful act.

The face behind the face

In 1958, the publisher Putnam brought out a volume of Tessimond’s verse titled Selection. It was a slimmish book – thirty-three poems in total, some old-favourites that had appeared in previous volumes (including ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’), but about half the collection was new work. It was the second-bestselling poetry book of that year, only beaten by the collected poems of John Betjeman. The Poetry Book Society made it their Autumn choice. The poet was interviewed by the Guardian newspaper. In a sense Tessimond was at the height of his career, but it was the last collection of his poetry that he would ever see published.

The first poem included in Selection is titled ‘Portrait of a romantic’. Portraits are a complicated idea. We tend to assume that a successful portrait, conveys something of the sitter’s interior life as well as their exterior; that their personality is on view as well as the way they look. Magritte’s portrait seems to forbid much of this reading – all we see are exterior surfaces – the apple, but also the clothes. His dress is an act of concealment; and yet the stance of the figure may convey certain attitudes of the man behind the mask. Tessimond’s work tends to pivot between these two ideas of revelation and concealment – in his ‘Portrait of a Romantic’ that idea of the ‘half-hid, half-lit’ world is crucial:
Portrait of a romantic

He is in love with the land that is always over
The next hill and the next, with the bird that is never
Caught, with the room beyond the looking-glass.

He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit,
The man in the fog, the road without an ending,
Stray pieces of torn words to piece together.

He is well aware that man is always lonely,
Listening for an echo of his cry, crying for the moon,
Making the moon his mirror, weeping in the night.

He often dives in the deep-sea undertow
Of the dark and dreaming mind. He turns at corners,
Twists on his heel to trap his following shadow.

He is haunted by the face behind the face.
He searches for last frontiers and lost doors.
He tries to climb the wall around the world.
A great many of Tessimond’s poems – as in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ – use the personal pronoun ‘I’ to depict their subject. This is not to say that they are personal expressions – that the figure speaking is necessarily Tessimond himself. Often they clearly are not – the poem ‘The Prostitute’ say, or ‘The Occultist’, or ‘The Smart Boy’ – all are spoken by a narrator that identifies as ‘I’, but the poems inhabit lives that are conspicuously different from that of the poet. They are pen portraits. Sketches of characters that Tessimond had known in the world. Conspicuously, none of the new poems written for the 1958 Selection, do this, and here the subject of the portrait is identified as ‘he’ rather than ‘I’. The images are no less obscure than those in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ – here, ‘the man in the fog’ and the ‘lost doors’ create an equally anonymous backdrop for the poem’s subject – but these images are not of the romantic himself, but his loves of preoccupations. What we see is not the sitter in the portrait, but the things he responds to, the ‘echo of his cry’.

Twice in the poem we are drawn to the image of the mirror – the subject makes the moon his mirror, reflecting back is loneliness – the view he is in love with is ‘the room beyond the looking glass’, and this idea of reflection, of portraiture being reflection – forms a crucial idea. This figure, is conspicuously made ‘He’ not ‘I’ – other rather than self – it seems perhaps more reflection than portrait. ‘The face behind the face’ conveying an image of masks that has striking resonance for a man whose own identity seems to have been a constant concern. One of the great qualities of Tessimond’s poetry is that it expresses such views that appear shared by a great many readers. But there is evidence of the deeply personal experience too – the public merged with the private. Here, this time in the first poem of his first collection The Walls of Glass published in 1934, he gives voice to that Everyman figure, lost in the world searching for human connection:
Any man speaks

I, after difficult entry through my mother’s blood
And stumbling childhood (hitting my head against the world);
I, intricate, easily unshipped, untracked, unaligned;
Cut off in my communications; stammering; speaking
A dialect shared by you, but not you and you;
I strangely undeft, bereft; I searching always
For my lost rib (clothed in laughter yet understanding)
To come round the corner of Wardour Street into the Square
Or to signal across the Park and share my bed;
I, focus in the night for star-sent beams of light,
I, fulcrum of levers whose ends I cannot see…
Have this one deftness – that I admit undeftness:
Know that the stars are far, the levers long:
Can understand my unstrength.
It is a powerful, humbling, tightly packed sonnet. The voice of the poem seems universal – any man – a figure adrift, scattered as if after the fall of Babel, seeking another person who will understand his stammering dialect, and yet not only aware of his inability, but understanding of it. The poem identifies common feelings – of being part of the world but being apart from it; of sought after love; of being incomplete; Adam in search of his ‘lost rib’.

All of which might seem to be experiences that are felt, at one time or another, by every, or, ‘any man’. But right in the middle of the poem is something quite different – more particular than general experience. Seemingly out of nowhere the poem breaks from generality to confront us with specific geographical locations. The poem moves from the common human experience to Wardour Street in London and then from the public street to the shared privacy of the bed. For a moment the poem requires us to share its dialect, to understand its ‘private signs’ and ‘cipher’, to know the relevance of Wardour Street and the Square, and ‘decode’ the ‘signal across the Park’. Whether we can read the cipher or not, briefly we are made aware that this is not in fact the voice of ‘any man’. It is not even the voice of any man on Wardour Street. It is a particular, personal, private experience which might be understood by the reader or not – may be ‘shared by you, but not you and you’.

As a portrait, this poses something of a puzzle. To fully understand the poem, we must pick up on the meaning of the personal references – but this is a poet that we don’t know very much about. There has been no biography of Tessimond, there are short accounts of him in Hubert Nicholson’s introductions to the posthumous poetry collections, and an affectionate, though brief, portrait of him in a pamphlet by his friend, the artist Frances Richards – but even in these, certain details of his life seem contradictory, as if the poet told different friends slight variations in the account of his life. In the poem we have already looked at, ‘Portrait of a romantic’ we are told that the romantic likes ‘stray pieces of torn words to piece together’, and in order to fully understand the poetry, this is what we must do. He is to be found scattered about the country in university archives of other people’s correspondence; in footnotes and index entries that lead to single sentences. In the course of my work on him I have unearthed a great deal of papers that were not previously known to exist – most important of these ‘stray pieces’ perhaps, is the revelation that for the final twelve years of his life A.S.J. Tessimond was writing a journal of his life – a daily account, but also a sort of biography, or memoir that he intended for publication.
Arthur Seymour John Tessimond was born here in 32 Devonshire Road, Claughton, on the 19th July 1902.

 As an adult, he would tell his friends that he had been an only child, but in fact he was the third of George and Amy Tessimond’s children, his elder brother – also called Arthur – dying four years before he was born, and his elder sister Lillian dying when he was twenty-two, unmarried, in a private maternity hospital in Southport. On account of the memory of his brother, the family never called him Arthur, but Jack. Such use of familiar names was common for the time, but it marks the start of the poet’s ever-changing identity, the first of many names he would use that were not his own. In the journal he paints a vivid picture of these early years growing up in Birkenhead:
I was born in 19–. There were still horsecabs and hansoms clopping along the streets, housemaids and cooks in ordinary middle-class houses, gaslight and croquet, tea in the green light of tall trees leaning over lawns that smelt of summer grass after the gardener had mown it, and Edward VII was king of a Land of Hope and Glory and a land of starvation in slums, and Britannia ruled the waves, and ‘the war’ meant the Boer War and stories about Kitchener of Khartoum in the Boy’s Own Paper.

My father was an Inspector of Branches in the Bank of Liverpool, and we lived in Birkenhead. Trams and ferryboats across the Mersey grind and splash through my early memories. The trams (like the first London buses I rode on later) had open tops. When it rained, did the people on top hoist their umbrellas or did they all rush downstairs? I can’t remember.

Our family consisted of my father, his sister Ellen, my mother, my sister Lily and I. Ten minutes walk away lived my maternal aunt Clara, her husband Dr Major and their daughter Alice. In their house was an awe-inspiring oil painting of Dr Major when he was an army doctor. In this picture he wore high shiny boots and so presumably had been a cavalry doctor. He has a fierce impressive waxed moustache. He was haughty, elegant and terrifying.
His life at this time was very comfortable, much unlike the time spent there in relative poverty by his contemporary Wilfred Owen. He attended Birkenhead School until the age of 14 (where he was ‘good at lessons’ but ‘bad at games’), before being sent away to Charterhouse. This was an unhappy experience, which led to him running away. His main occupations as a child were music (his father was a key figure in establishing church music in the early days of the Anglican Cathedral) and photography, developing his own films and making prints at home – a hobby which he continued in adult life and led to a life-long interest in the visual arts.

From 1922 to 1926 he attended the University of Liverpool, reading English literature, French, Philosophy and Greek. In the journal he remembers:
soon after I became an undergraduate I discovered two magazines The Dial and The New Age. Through these magazines I discovered Ezra Pund, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Frost, Sandburg, Cummings, Hulme, Aldington, H.D., Marianne Moore, Katherine Mansfield, Murry, Muir. And through the Dial and Colour and the Burlington Magazine I discovered Degas, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Vlaminck, Modigliani, Paul and John Nash, Augustus John and Epstein. When the Diaghilev Ballet came to Liverpool, I discovered Stravinsky, De Falla, Poulenc, Ravel. To me contemporary art, literature and music were new bread and strong red wine. New gates were opening. New suns were rising. The 1920s and 30s seemed a wonderful time. God almighty, it was a wonderful time. A wonderful time to be young!
But two aspects of the journal perhaps need particular explanation. In that first passage I quoted, when he gives the date of his birth he does so as ‘19–’, the second point is that final reflection about the trams. He says: ‘I can’t remember.’

Mugg, Carroway, Alamo, Sucker, Quest, Tango

Tessimond first started writing his journal on 18th May 1950. Begun late in life, in part it was meant to be a memoir, but also a record of daily events – an ‘autobiographical ragbag’ that would be completely candid about the most personal aspects of his life. At some point during its creation it becomes apparent that he intended the work for publication, but in order to protect the identities of those mentioned, he would give ‘everybody in this book a fictitious name’ despite the possibility ‘that people may [still] recognise me’. His uncle wasn’t called ‘Dr Major’ for instance, but ‘Dr Butcher’, they lived in a house called Elmslie facing onto Birkenhead Park. What the journal presents is the poet’s life, but told from behind a thinly drawn blind. As such, he obscured such detail as the date of his birth and if published intended the journal to appear under three different pseudonyms:

Here is the title page from 1960: ‘John Carroway’, ‘John Fool’ and most unlikely of all, ‘John God’. The codes used are hardly difficult to crack – he would have been fairly easy to identify by anyone reading the work (after all, there was hardly a glut of poets born in Birkenhead at the start of the twentieth century) – but the names used too are also telling. As I mentioned before, Tessimond had never been known by his Christian name ‘Arthur’. But since university he was no longer Jack, but John (and on occasions, in humour ‘Jeremiah’), which he used until the Second World War when things became more complicated:
I wasn’t called up until the second, third or fourth year of the war. When my call-up came I ignored it. I argued that a neurotic coward like me would be more a hindrance than help to the armed forces. And a life without privacy would be like going back to a public school.
 I lay low, became a deserter. I changed my name, became Peter Black. But to the Gas Board I was J. Emersley, which might pass for J. Amberley written illegibly. (When I pay my gas bills I’m still J. Emersley so I pay it in cash.) And these were the days of Identity Cards, and on your Identity Card your name was your name, yes a name: unalterable.
And here we find the true identity of Peter Black, the author of ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ and many other poems (and possibly a detective novel) in the 1940s. The alterable name became the poet’s insurance of privacy. A torn fragment of a foolscap file amongst his papers sketches out a list of these various and unlikely monikers: ‘John Mugg’, ‘John Carroway’, ‘John Alamo’, ‘John Sucker’, ‘John Quest’, ‘John Tango’. There were names he lived by, names he privately called himself, and names he would occasionally use to send poetry off for publication. Amongst the poetry magazines of the 1940s are to be found various pieces by Tessimond apparently written by different people. ‘How much simpler’ he reflects in one poem,
If people were, even at times, consistent wholes;
If the actors were rigidly typed and kept their roles;
If we were able
To classify friends, each with his label,
Each label neat
As the names of cakes or the categories of meat.

    (from ‘If men were not striped like tigers’)
But life is rarely simple and ‘nothing’s as tidy as the mind could wish’. By nature, identities have many different sides to them, and to an extent it is reductive to pin them down with a single label or name upon a card. What the journal presents is not an anonymous life story but an account that plays a game of anonymity, inviting us to decode its cipher. In part Tessimond’s disappearance from public view seems wilful, a conscious retreat from a world in which he did not feel he belonged.

In that long list of people who caught Tessimond’s imagination in the 1920s, is the Italian painter Modigliani. Of all of these, Modigliani was perhaps the figure he held to for longest – buying a pencil drawing by him that he proudly hung in his small Chelsea flat. Modigliani’s portraits often point towards his interest in African masks – their faces seem to bare less a face, than a mask – the eyes seem empty, almost appear to be showing the wall behind the sitter – it seems the exterior image of an unknowable figure. The idea clearly captured Tessimond’s imagination. Many of his poems refer to masks – or ‘the face behind the face’ he refers to in ‘The portrait of a romantic’, and in his flat when he died, one of few objects that he had not sold, was a large African mask which he propped up against the gas fire.

But even as he carried out this game of disguising himself with masks, he was consciously leaving behind traces – enough clues, enough poetry of exceptional worth – in the hope that he might one day be returned to, and then find his place within that world after he was gone. He declares the desire for privacy whilst conscious that he reveals more than ‘is usual, or (some people might think) decent’. In reality, the unnoticed man is unlikely to declare that he is ‘unnoticeable’; announcing your anonymity tends to draw attention to yourself.

As it turned out, Tessimond’s life story was never published. Shortly before his death the poet destroyed the manuscript of the journal – the only means by which I am able to read today, is that just before he did destroy it, he handed a carbon copy to his friend the radio actress Joan Hart. Like the mask left behind in the flat after he died, the destruction seems an act of obscurity, but by ensuring a copy of it was safely kept, it was only an act.

Whilst he was certainly playing with masks and disguises, this is only part of the picture. When he writes in the journal of his childhood that ‘I can’t remember’ the words penetrate far deeper than we might imagine.

 “Just a prick in your arm”

Some time in the early 1950s, Tessimond read in David Stafford-Clark’s book Psychiatry Today, an account of the relatively new treatment of electroconvulsive therapy. He had suffered for several years from what his doctors termed ‘involutional melancholia’ and had seen a succession of psychoanalysts in the hope of dispelling these regularly recurring bouts of depression. Electroconvulsive therapy, he believed, would be a way out of this ‘deep grey tunnel’ from which he could see no escape. In the 1950s and 60s, the use of ECT was increasingly common, but Tessimond’s case is perhaps more unusual in that he had sought the therapy out for himself, rather than receiving it through the intervention of a doctor. His accounts of it are positive, firmly believing that it had saved his life:
You are given a quick-acting anaesthetic, “Just a prick in your arm, it won’t hurt you” and before you come to, you’re being helped into a comfortable armchair in the cheerful room where you can smoke (shades of Florence Nightingale) and there are reproductions of modern paintings on the walls […] Four to nine shocks at intervals of (generally) a week and gradually, or suddenly, you’re out of the tunnel into the light and sun. Life is worth living, you can even enjoy it.
Friends disagreed; seeing these escapes from the tunnel to be brief and costly. Joan Hart in letters to her husband, the poet Dawson Jackson, detailed much of this treatment. In January 1954, she wrote to say:
I escorted John from the hospital again today and he seemed rather less dazed than last time, though he said he had a worse headache than usual; he has had a longer series of treatments already than the first time, but seems determined to go on with it until he gets another fit of “confusion” which he seems to have accepted as the sign that it is working.
Only five months later, Tessimond was back in hospital receiving more treatment. As the years of ECT built up, it began to rob him of his memory. The journal became an attempt as much to remember as to record the events of his life. It is filled with successive rewrites of the same stories, each with diminishing clarity and certainty of the facts. He writes there, that:
For anyone with a very bad memory to try to write the story of his life may sound like the attempt of an idiot to do the impossible; but a bad memory has advantages. It edits and abridges. It prevents you from including too much of the trivial. You remember only the gulfs and peaks of your past. You forget everything but the unforgettable.
When depression engulfed him, Tessimond would stop writing the journal. After a course of ECT he would return to it, his handwriting reduced to a series of tiny illegible shapes, unreadable even to himself, that over the course of days and pages began to reform into his usual expressive handwriting.

Here is his handwriting in the journal in January 1958, several months after having had any treatment.

Here it is a year later, having shortly left hospital. The same effect is found in the final pages of Ernest Hemingway’s journal as he underwent the same treatment, and may indicate that Tessimond was also receiving the antipsychotic drug chlorpromazine in combination with his ECT. This loss of memory affected the poet deeply; at times he knew his own story only as he had written it. The memories gone, he began to rely on the account of the journal. As he hid himself from the world behind different disguises, his own identity began to disappear even from himself. He hints towards this state in the poem ‘Epilogue’
I am proud, humble, stupid, clever, anonymous
Man, who am lost in the only world I know;
Blind in my mask and tripped by my disguises;
Used by my tools and wounded by my weapons;
Chased by my echo, scared by my long shadow;
Fumbling with delicate hands; longing to be
Myself (who who? but who? if only I knew!);
Groping; self-torn, self-tortured, self-condemned;
Wormeaten angel, welter of dust and flame.
The ‘longing’ in this poem ‘Epilogue’, is painfully felt. What Tessimond observes with keen accuracy is the multiplicity of being in the world, how seemingly contradictory states are what build people’s character. Again, this is a condition that anyone might recognise, but such observations seem pertinent to the poet himself; a man ‘longing to be / Myself’ but separated by that break in the line from the knowledge of who that self might be.

In the poem ‘Any Man Speaks’ which we looked at earlier, man’s search is for someone else to connect with; in ‘Epilogue’ he gropes forward, trying to find himself. Like with portraits, the search is simultaneously inward and outward, private and public. In his own life, the poet saw himself engaged in a quest to find another person that would make him complete. The endeavour was all consuming, hopeless and romantic. He pursued love affairs with chorus girls and prostitutes, women for whom attraction was a wholly public spectacle.

To return then, to those private signals in ‘Any Man Speaks’ – the ‘signal across the park’ is the dialect shared between client and prostitute. In 1934 Wardour Street and Soho Square, were the heart of London’s red light district. This is a private code, the experience of this one particular man, but in publishing it he chose to speak it out loud. Through writing the connection is made with another person; the poet connects not with the prostitute, but with the reader.

Fifty Years On

So, now we have reached the fiftieth anniversary of Tessimond’s death. After years of ECT he suffered a brain haemorrhage and collapsed alone in his Chelsea flat two months short of his 60th birthday. There remains a need for his poetry to be read, for here speaks a great observer of human character. A general impression is that his work is accessible, which indeed it is, but few writers have struggled so much with the complexity of what it is to be alive. Thankfully his work has recently come back into print. Bloodaxe have reissued his Collected Poems and Faber has made the selection Not Love Perhaps… with its illuminating introduction by Hubert Nicholson, available again through its Faber Finds imprint. Perhaps most excitingly in this anniversary year, the Reading Room Press releases a small selection of some previously unpublished poems entitled Night Club Girl. He has left us enough visual signs – stray pieces of torn words to piece together – in the poetry and now it’s down to us to read him and put those back together.


James Bainbridge lectures in English literature at the University of Liverpool. He is currently writing a biography of A.S.J. Tessimond and also works on the Regency poet George Crabbe.

Parts of this text were previously used in a lecture ‘Not Art But Life’ given at the Lady Lever Gallery in April 2012, and in an article ‘Your Final Secret Self’ published in The Reader, issue 45.

A.S.J. Tessimond's Collected Poems with translations from Jacques Prévert, edited by Hubert Nicholson, was first published by Whiteknights Press in 1985, and reissued by Bloodaxe Books in 2010. To order your copy now from Amazon, click on this link.