An ‘innocent hoax’ played on Frank Kermode

The late Frank Kermode is best known today as the most prominent Romantic critic in twentieth century English letters---a more intelligent version of Herbert Read. Among rare book traders he is also notorious as the man who, in 1996, lost most of his collection, which included some valuable first editions, to the refuse collectors of Cambridge City Council, who, mistaking them for rubbish, disposed of them in the city tip. It seems that Mr Kermode was prone to absent mindedness where books were concerned. In an article of October 1973 from the Haining archive that appeared in The Daily Telegraph he recounts how he somehow lost his ‘whole collection, including The Darkening Ecliptic ‘on his trip home from Australia in 1945.

The loss of The Darkening Ecliptic must have been particularly irksome to Kermode because the Telegraph article was an amusing discussion of literary hoaxes, of which this slim volume of spoof poetry by a certain ‘Ern Malley' was one of the most notorious. To his credit, however, Kermode did admit in his article to having been the victim of a literary hoax himself.

In 1960, shortly after I had published a little book on the American poet Wallace Stevens, I was roused from sleep by the telephone. The operator announced a call from John Malcolm Brinnin in Boston. Mr Brinnin is a poet and critic with whom I had already had a slight amicable acquaintance. He told me he had just read my book, and found it full of mistakes. I asked if they could wait: it was ten o'clock in Boston, I had pointed out, and perhaps he had dined well, but it was three in the morning with me. Why didn't he write?

Well, he said, if you really cared for poetry you would not speak so. And he went onto chide me to neglect important Stevens manuscripts housed at Albuquerque in New Mexico: I had credulously taken the poem "Thirteen Ways at Looking at a Blackbird" at its face instead of consulting the superior "Eighteen Ways "; I spoke of the poem "Credences of Summer" as if ignorant of its partners, "Credences of Winter, Fall, Spring"...

By now I was awake and could see, without amusement, that I was being teased. Next morning, feeling more charitable, I'd decided I'd taken the joke churlishly ( these things can happen at parties) and wrote to Brinnin apologising for spoiling the fun. He replied with his usual courtesy and beautiful italic script, saying that it was nice to hear from me, but that he had never telephoned me in his life, certainly not across the Atlantic, least of all in the middle of the night.

Later we discussed the affair in the house of Holly Stevens, the poet's daughter, who made the brilliant but erroneous conjecture that I had misheard the caller's name: it was old Witter Bynner, who lived in Albuquerque, up to his tricks again. I have never found who made the call. [RR]

One thought on “An ‘innocent hoax’ played on Frank Kermode

  1. Roger Allen

    Whoever it was, it wasn't Philip Larkin.
    There's a very funny account by Danny Abse of his phoning Larkin across the Atlantic about this time. A poetry competition they were judging had problems and Abse thought it was enough of an emergency to warrant the expense of a trans-Atlantic call. Most of the conversation consisted of Larkin commenting astonishedly – and expensively for Abse – on how much the call must be costing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *