Gerard Manley Hopkins
John Crowe Ransom
John Crowe Ransom
C. Day Lewis
C. Day Lewis
This book was my introduction to modern poetry, although the edition I had was the second one, co-edited by Anne Ridler (1951), and I don't recall what additions there were, except for F.T. Prince. Also, Kathleen Raine, maybe. Hugh MacDiarmid? David Jones? Keith Douglas? Dunno. I just got a copy of the 1936 edition, ninth impression, from Amazon UK, for £1.00, plus postage. It is inscribed: Marjorie E. Birol, Charing Cross Road, 15/7/44. Dear Marjorie, Hello. Where are you now? In my heart.
I was in my late teens when I got the paperback edition of the 1951 version of The Faber Book of Modern Verse. What did I know? Not much.
When I was ten, I got a scholarship to go to Bishop Gore Grammar School for Boys. Dylan Thomas had gone to Bishop Gore, long before. I lasted only two years before being asked to leave, else I would be expelled. While I was a student there, I was obliged to memorize this:
Abou Ben Adhem
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An Angel writing in a book of gold:
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?" The Vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one who loves his fellow men."
The Angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!
-- James Leigh Hunt
My next stop was Dynevor School for Boys, better suited to working class ragamuffins such as I, better than the toffee-nosed Bishop Gore. Didn't do me or Dynevor much good, though. I was always getting arrested by the cops, for one thing. They weren't too happy about that at Dynevor. I dropped out, eventually. We had one English teacher named Brynley Cox, who was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland. Mr Cox had a long nose with glasses hanging on it, and he would lick his lips almost lasciviously as he read aloud. The boys would would count his licks aloud, and he would either be oblivious, or he would pretend to be oblivious. The school joke was, "There are 23 masters (teachers) at Dynevor; 22 without Cox." I really learned a lot. I did have one English teacher who was encouraging, Sam Bassett. Sam was a giant of a man, married to a tiny woman. My marks (scores/grades) for both the term and exams in English Language and English Literature were always perfect, or near perfect. Everywhere else there would be zeroes, because I wouldn't have been there. I really learned a lot. The last essay I wrote at Dynevor was on the history of rock'n'roll, which barely had a history (as a pop phenomenon) at that point. Sam gave me ten out of ten. Sam was a very nice man. But I really didn't need encouragement. I didn't give a fuck.
I loved music and movies. Movies brought me to books. And I was off to the races. After I'd started work, unloading trucks in the British Home Stores yard, I began to buy books, American fiction mostly. As far as poetry was concerned, there was always the omnipresent Dylan. Then, in my late teens, I bought the Faber paperbacks of T.S. Eliot's Selected Poems and Four Quartets, after I'd gotten the drift that Eliot was the modern poet. I was writing fiction at that time, stories and attempts at novels. After reading Eliot, I wrote some (dreadful, no doubt) pastiches of Eliot + Dylan and who knows what else.
There is so much that could be said about Dylan Thomas, but I'll be as succint as possible. First, here is Kenneth Rexroth in Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation (for New World Writing, 1957):
Now Dylan Thomas and Charlie Parker have a great deal more in common than the same disastrous end. As artists, they were very similar. They were both very fluent. But this fluent, enchanting utterance had, compared with important artists of the past, relatively little content. Neither of them got very far beyond a sort of entranced rapture at his own creativity. The principal theme of Thomas’s poetry was the ambivalence of birth and death — the pain of blood-stained creation. Music, of course, is not so explicit an art, but anybody who knew Charlie Parker knows that he felt much the same way about his own gift. Both of them did communicate one central theme: Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense — the creative act. This, of course, is the theme of much art — perhaps most poetry. It is the theme of Horace, who certainly otherwise bears little resemblance to Parker or Thomas. The difference is that Horace accepted his theme with a kind of silken assurance. To Dylan and Bird it was an agony and terror. I do not believe that this is due to anything especially frightful about their relationship to their own creativity. I believe rather that it is due to the catastrophic world in which that creativity seemed to be the sole value. Horace’s column of imperishable verse shines quietly enough in the lucid air of Augustan Rome. Art may have been for him the most enduring, orderly, and noble activity of man. But the other activities of his life partook of these values. They did not actively negate them. Dylan Thomas’s verse had to find endurance in a world of burning cities and burning Jews. He was able to find meaning in his art as long as it was the answer to air raids and gas ovens. As the world began to take on the guise of an immense air raid or gas oven, I believe his art became meaningless to him. I think all this could apply to Parker just as well, although, because of the nature of music, it is not demonstrable — at least not conclusively.
I've no idea to what extent I might agree or disagree with this, but what is undeniable is that Dylan was in his way a radical poet, and he was most certainly one of the few lines of defense against the increasing conservatism and orthodoxy of British poetry.
"Dylan Thomas was made to stand for everything they detested: verbal obscurity, metaphysical pretentiousness, and romantic rhapsodizing," David Lodge, Working with Structuralism (1981).
Looking back, I see Dylan, his compatriot Vernon Watkins, David Gascoyne and Kathleen Raine as some of the few poets who were not adhering to the increasing constriction that produced the famous New Lines anthology in 1956. Dylan and Vernon had been associated to some degree with the New Apocalyptics, a self-explantory mode of poetics. Gascoyne was Britain's sole, prominent Surrealist poet, and Raine was deeply immersed in William Blake and Carl Jung.
I've looked at several Kathleen Raine poems online, looking for one that might approximate the kind of feeling I got from her work back in, say, 1959-1962. I could not find one, but that's memory for you. Raine called Vernon Watkins, "The greatest lyric poet of my generation." Vernon was from Swansea, as Dylan Thomas was, and as I was. He was a diffident man, apparently. He worked at Lloyd's Bank on St. Helen's Road. The story was that he had gone home once and left the bank unlocked. Good old Vernon. We saw him on the street many times. He must have been in his mid-forties then. We never approached him. What could he possibly have had to say to Welsh faux-beatniks? I remember his work as appealingly vague, somehow, an impression not entirely supported by what I've seen of his work recently, but not entirely reversed, either. The Dylan/Vernon letters were always a pleasure to read. What came through most was the friendship between them, and the easy ways in which they entertained each other.
The mystery to me is David Gascoyne, the youngest poet in the original The Faber Book of Modern Verse. He always represented hope, somehow -- a British Surrealist! Other British poets who were sometimes called Surrealists did not seem like Surrealists to me, such as George Barker and Hugh Sykes Davies.
The worlds are breaking in my head
Blown by the brainless wind
That comes from afar
Swollen with dusk and dust
And hysterical rain
The fading cries of the light
Awaken the endless desert
Engrossed in its tropical slumber
Enclosed by the dead grey oceans
Enclasped by the arms of the night
The worlds are breaking in my head
Their fragments are crumbs of despair
The food of the solitary damned
Who await the gross tumult of turbulent
Days bringing change without end
The worlds are breaking in my head
The fuming future sleeps no more
For their seeds are beginning to grow
To creep and to cry midst the
Rocks of the deserts to come
Sown by the grotesque wind
Whose head is so swollen with rumours
Whose hands are so urgent with tumours
Whose feet are so deep in the sand
The mystery is why he didn't seem a good model for someone such as myself. In a peculiar way he was more distant than Paul Éluard, or even Philippe Soupault. He was no more use than Dylan was, and Dylan was no use at all. The best known Welsh poet of the 1960s, Bryn Griffiths was compared with Dylan endlessly, but there was no way to make use of Dylan, it seemed, without trying to be him. Bryn Griffiths did not do that. What he did do was emigrate to Australia, eventually.
T .S. Eliot and e. e. cummings both provided some inspiration. And Hart Crane. I didn't get Pound. I suspect that he seemed a little bit too much like the British poets of the day, with their classical educations and their allusions and their fart in a thunderstorm poems. Clearly, Pound was more than that, but whatever he was, was too much for me.
I loved Dylan and I still do, especially A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog and Return Journey; and I still have high regard for many of the poems, such as "Poem on His Birthday" and "Poem in October." I had a hard time with Dylan as a reader, he was so bombastic, with that English preacher's voice. I much preferred to hear Richard Burton read Dylan's work. We read and reread Caitlin's Leftover Life to Kill and John Malcolm Brinnin's Dylan Thomas in America -- and I'd like to read them both again now. Also, I'd like to read Brinnin's biography of Gertrude Stein, The Third Rose. Credit must go to Dylan, though, for singlehandedly reviving the oral tradition in American poetry with the tours described by Brinnin in his book. Of course, there were readings going on before that, but Dylan was really the progenitor of all those poets in Greenwich Village cafés and the avant garde of the general outbreak of poetry readings in the 1950s.
192 Caergynydd Road, Waunarlwydd
This is where I lived from aged 13 to 22, with my mother, Anne, and my sister, Synde (then named Daphne). 192 was at the bottom of a long road of row-house flats, one flat on the bottom, one on the top. Ours was the bottom flat of our segment. Our door was the one on the right. The right window was the living room. The left window was my room. The far left-window belonged to the Coopers next door. There was another bedroom which was my sister's. There was one bathroom, a kitchen, and my mother slept in the living-room.
This is the bungalow where Marie Farrow lived with her parents and her elder siblings, a brother, John, and a sister whose name I can't recall. I fell in love with Marie in a small park, where she was hanging around with three other thirteen year old girls, Adelaide Phillips, and Rita and Jennifer Howell. I was the same age. They called me over as I walked through the park. I would never have had the nerve to just go over and chat with four strange girls. Marie and I became fast friends, especially after I corrected the words of a song Marie was singing, "Secret Love." The other girls got the words wrong, too, but it was Marie that I corrected. The girls had called me over because Adelaide was interested in one of my friends and they had wanted to quiz me about him, when they weren't singing. Marie was the only person to see the first poem I ever wrote, a pastiche of T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and whatever. No one has ever been as impressed as Marie was that I had written a poem. She kept reading it, over and over, reading bits aloud and looking at me. The last time I saw her, ten years later, I was still in love with her.
I couldn't even get the picture straight.
This is the bungalow where Marie Farrow lived with her parents and her elder siblings, a brother, John, and a sister whose name I can't recall. I fell in love with Marie in a small park, where she was hanging around with three other sixteen year old girls, Adelaide, Rita and Jennifer. I was the same age. They called me over as I walked through the park. I would never have had the nerve to just go over and chat with four strange girls. Marie and I became fast friends, especially after I corrected the words of a song Marie was singing, "Tammy." The other girls got the words wrong, too, but it was Marie that I corrected. The girls had called me over because Adelaide was interested in one of my friends and they had wanted to quiz me about him, when they weren't singing. Marie was the only person to see the first poem I ever wrote, a pastiche of T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and whatever. No one has ever been as impressed as Marie was that I had written a poem. She kept reading it, over and over, reading bits aloud and looking at me. The last time I saw her, seven years later, I was still in love with her.
I couldn't even get the picture straight.
So, it all comes down to this: would you prefer to think of me as someone who knew the words to "Secret Love" or as someone who knew the words to "Tammy."
The fact is that as I was writing this, I realized that my own mythology -- fell in love with Marie when I was thirteen, saw her for the last time ten years later -- was bogus. "Tammy" was the song that Marie and the girls were singing. "Tammy" was released in 1957, so it was unlikely that they were singing it when we were all thirteen, in 1954. My first reaction was to keep the personal mythology, and to substitute "Secret Love" for "Tammy." Everything else is as true as anything I know.