Four Young Poets—!

PHILIP LARKIN. ( The Times Educational Supplement, July 13th 1956)

It’s just over a century since Philip Larkin was born. Quite rightly, since he is a major poet, radio and TV have been crowded with tributes—four programmes in one evening  a couple of  weeks ago—and reassessments on Radio 4 from the man who now holds the post that Larkin politely declined—Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate. There have doubtless been meetings of Larkin enthusiasts around the country and in May one major symposium ( which your Jotter attended) held by The Larkin Society in Hull as part of an Alliance of the LitJot 101 Philip Larkin Less Deceived covererary Societies weekend.

So the legacy of Larkin is very much in the minds of poetry lovers at the moment and luckily for us, the literary archive left behind by the former academic Patrick O’ Donoghue , contains two clippings —one anonymous portrait in the Times Educational Supplement of the poet following the publication of his first major collection, The Less Deceived—and a full review by D .J. Enright  of his second slim volume,  The Whitsun Weddings.

This first Larkin Jot considers the TES profile. Here, the anonymous profiler describes him as ‘ one of the most successful poets of his generation’ , which seems a slight exaggeration, since following the underwhelming The North Ship of 1946 he had only published a privately printed pamphlet XX Poems in 1951, which ( like Auden with his privately printed Poems of 1928) he sent free copies of to ‘ most of the leading figures of this country’, and a thin Fantasy Press pamphlet in 1954. Both are now hard to come by.It is true that The Less Deceived had run into three editions within nine months, but can this one success make him ‘ one of the most successful poets of his generation ‘? Mind you, two possible rivals, Kingsley Amis and Donald Davie ( remember him?) who were also born in 1922, could hardly be described as ‘ successful ‘, if successful means popular and highly regarded by 1955. Charles Causley and (  ) might have been rivals, though.

Be that as it may, the profiler is surely correct in describing The Less Deceived as

 ‘ as sharp an expression of contemporary thought and experience as anything written in our time, as immediate in its appeal as the lyric poetry of an earlier day, it may well be regarded by posterity as a poetic monument that marks the triumph of clarity over the formless mystification of the last 20 years ‘.

Larkin is credited with bringing poetry back to the ‘middle-brow public’. It would be nice to know who this anonymous profiler was, for surely the immediate success of The Less Deceived was partly due to a reaction by the poetry-buying public to the mystification wrought by the Apocalypse school of Nicholas Moore, Henry Treece al and the abomination that was The White Horseman. The  Movemnet was partially a reaction to this obscurantism , but Larkin was never really part of it. He did not contribute to such a periodical as New Lines, but he was doubtless in sympathy with its aim.

What comes across strongly in the profile is Larkin’s resignation to his lot as a career librarian who writes poetry in his spare time but who is not an amateur. Continue reading

Lewis Hastings

In his ‘ family memoir’ Did You Really Throw it at the Television, renowned war correspondent and military historian Max Hastings has this to say of his eccentric great uncle, Major Lewis Hastings, whose swashbuckling life in South Africa in the early years of the twentieth century was in marked contrast to that of so many members of his family at that time:


‘He adopted a lifestyle so remote from those of his forebears as to deny any notion of inherited values. It was as if set out to compensate for generations of stiff collared family respectability and piety by cramming a century’s misdeeds and extravagances into a single lifetime. He was also writing verse…Lewis possessed real literary gifts, not least a talent for verse. When he exercise his brain and pen, the results were sometimes remarkable. His accomplishments were much slighter than they might have been because he always chose to please himself, to forswear discipline, to pursue whatever overhead star momentarily seized his imagination…To my father and later myself, when we read of the Hastingses of the nineteenth century, they seemed respectable, hard-working, decent Christian people…Lewis by contrast was more fun than the chaps who got made head of house at school or lived blameless lives…’


In a typewritten poem entitled ‘PLAIN PRAYER’ and inscribed in pencil ‘ by Lewis Hastings ‘ which we found in the Jot 101 Archive recently ( the provenance is unknown) , the former Rhodesian MP, South African farmer and all-purpose adventurer and maverick expresses his contempt for all those people and their values that Hastings writes about in his tribute.


Jot 101 Lewis Hastings portrait 001

PLAIN PRAYER ( To be recited only at Regimental Dinners, Old Boys Reunions and meetings of the Virgin Uplift Society). Continue reading

Michael Tippett as book reviewer

Among the large archive of newspaper clippings from the 1950s collected by the late Patrick O’Donoghue , a former lecturer in English at the University of Manitoba, who ended up teaching in his adopted county of Norfolk, is a review of Richard Ellman’s The Identity of Yeats Tippett 1950s(1954) by the greatest British composer of the twentieth century, Sir Michael Tippett.


For a British composer to review a book about a poet is unusual to say the least. It is hard to imagine Edward Elgar reviewing a book about, say Tennyson, or Benjamin Britten, despite his association with George Crabbe, finding time in his busy schedule to seriously review a critical work on the Suffolk poet. But Tippett was no ordinary composer. According to his biographer  Ian Kemp, Tippett developed a number of non-musical  interests from an early age, from poetry and philosophy, spiritual development, and left wing politics. He published two books that had little to do with music. At one point in his life he became very interested in antique furniture and in 1951 moved to Tidebrook Manor, a crumbling mansion in Sussex. While teaching at a private school in Limpsfield, Surrey he bought some land and built a bungalow for himself on it. It was tiny (your Jotter has visited it) and badly designed, so perhaps architecture wasn’t his forte, but one can’t imagine Britten building a bungalow. It could be argued that all these non-musical activities may have distracted Tippett from wholeheartedly pursuing a career as a composer, for unlike the prodigy Britten, he was a notoriously late starter and destroyed all his early work. But there is something rather appealing in a composer interesting himself in a variety of disparate fields besides music, discovering at last what he was placed on this earth to do, while still retaining an interest in some of his earlier passions. In the case of Tippett, all these non-musical activities seemed to have informed his music.


We don’t exactly know how deeply Tippett was influenced by Yeats, but it is obvious in his review of Ellman’s book that he saw a correlation between Yeats’s views on symbolism in poetry and their application in music. Ellman contends that in his youth Yeats was affected


‘ by the practice of his contemporaries , among whom the rose then had the currency which the bone attained in English poetic symbolism during the 1920s ‘


‘ I am sure’, Tippett contends, that ‘ this could be paralleled in music, where certain chords and certain intervals dominate whole periods. Or ideas behind the images can span centuries.’ Continue reading

Ferlinghetti the Beat is given the Boot


Lawrence Ferlinghetti pic

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died a few months ago aged 101 was a hero to many in the fifties — as publisher, spokesman, and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop, he became the eminence griseof the Beat generation. He was also a best-selling poet with his second collection, A Coney Island of the Mind(1958). It is less well known that in the UK this collection was received far less enthusiastically, to say the least. In fact it was pummelled by fellow poet and critic Al Alvarez, who reviewed regularly for the Observer, where this review appeared in 1958.


Alvarez, like Geoffrey Grigson, who despised him for promoting the ‘ confessional school ‘ and for approving suicide, among other things, had a reputation for physical and mental toughness. A rock-climber and poker-player, who published books on both subjects, he despised Romanticism in poetry, and the genteel perspective of poets like Larkin and Betjeman, preferring the gritty world view of writers such as Lowell and Berryman. And like any tough guy Alvarez spoke his mind. If a poem didn’t measure up he said so without equivocation. And in his view, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mindwas bad. In fact it was ‘extraordinary bad’.  Alvarez’s review is worth reading, not only for what he says about Ferlinghetti:


Mr Ferlinghetti’s reputation largely depends on his extra-literary activities; he has stage- managed many of the San Francisco Beatniks; he owns the City Lights Bookshop where they sometimes meet; from it he has published some of their verse. He has also fooled around with that latest sub- literary form of publicity, poetry and jazz…’ 


 But also how he saw the Beatnik movement.


‘ The Beatnik’s pose is one of rejection and eccentricity; they say ‘ no’ to society, daddy and sense, and ‘yea ‘ (Whitman’s word) to the great exploited body of Mother America and to what Jung, had he seen them, might have called ‘ the collective inertness. ‘ None of this, of course, makes up a literary revolution. It is simply a minor revolt, another scrabbling for fame and rewards with different slogans. And Mr Ferlinghetti is, at least, less belligerent than his colleagues. At heart he is nice, sentimental, rather old-fashioned writer who, he admits, ‘ fell in love with unreality’ early and has since developed a penchant for words like ‘ stilly’, ‘shy’, ‘sad’, ‘ mad’, and ‘ ah’. He also has a pleasant little talent for verbal whimsy—‘ eager eagles’, ‘ the cat with future feet ‘, ‘foolybears’ and the like—which no invoking of the usual private parts will change from low-level Edward Lear into tough surrealism.
Continue reading

The worst poets in print


Jot 101 dentologia

No doubt most Jottists will have their own candidates, some of whom might be a few contemporary ‘poets ‘who have paid to have their own work  published by ‘ vanity presses ‘.However, here are some of the lesser known versifiers out of the ten  chosen by publisher Nicholas Parsons in his Book of Literary Lists. The divine Amanda McKittrick Ros, arguably the worst poet of all, has been dealt with in an earlier Jot, as has Patience Strong.


Julia A. Moore (1847 – 1920).


Not the best-known of bad poets, but a sure candidate nonetheless. Moore was, according to Parsons, ‘ by general consent the worst American poetess and perhaps the worst in English.’ Mark Twain satirised her in Huckleberry Finn as ‘ Emmeline Grangerford. Twain declared that her debut volume , The Sweet Singer of Michigan Salutes the Public  gave him joy for twenty years. One of these little gems was entitled ‘ Byron: A Critical Survey’.


‘Lord Byron;’ was an Englishman

A poet I believe

His first works in old England

Was poorly received.

Perhaps it was ‘Lord Byron’s ‘fault

And perhaps it was not.


Moore seemed to specialise in gruesome deaths. Referring to her debut, one critic, Bill Nye, ‘counted twenty-one killed and nine wounded in the small volume she has given to the public’.

Here is one of them:


While eating dinner this dear little child

Was choked on a piece of beef

Doctors came, tried their skill awhile

But none could give relief…

Her friends and schoolmates will not forget

Little Libbie that is no more;

She is waiting on the shining step

To welcome home friends once more. Continue reading

Some lesser known contemporary British poets Number one: Paul Lester, ‘the bar-room bum from Brum ‘


Screen Shot 2021-05-11 at 8.53.23 AMIf you search for ‘Paul Lester’ online most the results will concern Paul Lester, the prolific rock critic and biographer; but anyone interested in performance poetry over the past 45 years will hopefully ignore these references and refine their search by adding ‘ poet ‘ or ‘Birmingham’ to ‘ Paul Lester’. They could also add ‘Protean ‘. For ever since Lester published his first poetry pamphlet in 1975 he has been regularly issuing slim volumes ( some very slim) , usually under his own imprint, Protean Publications, from an address in Knowle, near Solihull, although he actually lives in Rubery, in the far south-west edge of Birmingham.


Lester was born and bred in Brum, but unlike that professional Brummie, Carl Chinn, the social historian, does not make a fetish of his origins. However, it cannot be denied that most of his poetry is about himself as a Brummie and his encounters with other Brummies, and even his most well known poem,‘ The Bar-room Bum from Brum ‘ is a thinly disguised portrait of himself as an unashamed native and celebrator of England’s second city. Having said that, his literary interests extend well beyond his home town—to Loch Ness and the cult of its monster on which he did his Ph D in the notorious Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University—to working class fiction, to the London of Sherlock Holmes — and further away still to the mythical land of Redonda, the imaginary world of the bohemian poet John Gawsworth, which has attracted so many like-minded fans of Soho and Fitzrovia.


I first met Lester in around 1989, when I attended a talk given by him in Birmingham to publicise his forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and the Midlands. I knew nothing of him and his poetry at this time, but was impressed by his appearance in a tweed coat and deerstalker. Thereafter I kept an eye out for his poetry collections as they appeared in various small bookshops and cultural venues around the city. This was the period in which’ little magazines ‘were still flourishing and when poets like Lester were managing to produce pamphlets cheaply using local printers. Titles like Down at the Greasy Spoon Caféand Pass the Sickbag Alice,were obviously designed to attract attention. Continue reading

The Jesuit and the poet

ledwidge devas verse pic 001Inscribed on the inner board and flyleaf of a copy of the posthumously published collection Songs of Peace(1917) by the Irish poet and soldier Francis Ledwidge is this note and commemorative verse composed by Father Francis Charles Devas, the Jesuit chaplain of his battalion who had befriended him.


Corporal Ledwidge was just thirty years old when, ‘ on the morning of the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola’ ( in the words of Devas ) he was ‘ blown to bits ‘ by a German shell while sitting on a mud bank in a Belgian trench drinking a mug of tea with his mates in the 1stBattalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Just a few hours before, Devas had conducted Mass in a wood not far from the battlefield. Ledwidge was there and Devas had heard his confession, given him absolution and performed Holy Communion with him.


Back in London, Ledwidge’s publisher, Herbert Jenkins, who had brought out his debut collection, Songs of the Fieldstwo years earlier, were preparing Songs of Peacefor the press. It eventually appeared a few weeks following the poet’s death, with a Introduction by his great supporter in Ireland, Lord Dunsany, dated September 1916, in which he praised the simplicity of  his protege’s verse, his yearning for Ireland and his courage in fighting for the cause of peace.


‘…this devotion to the fields of Meath that, in nearly all his songs, from such far places brings his spirit home, like the instinct that has been given o the swallows, seems to be the key-note of the book…’ Continue reading

The Whitest Man I Know

Jot 101 whitest man larkin 001Larkin’s ‘Sympathy in White Major ‘ ( High Windows 1974) is one of his best known poems. It begins with a lip-smacking description of a gin and tonic being poured and ends with the poet drinking the health of ‘Here’s to the whitest man I know, though white is not my favourite colour.’

The poem is essentially about the doubtful virtues of unselfishness. Larkin lists all the virtues of his ‘white ‘altruistic protagonist: he ‘devoted his life to others ‘, ‘and was ‘a real good sort ‘, implying that these are qualities that are generally admired. However, as Larkin suggests in another poem, ‘Self’s the man ‘, someone who marries and has children is making a selfish choice rather devoting ‘himself to others’. Larkin looks at his own life as a non-white bachelor who has rejected this ‘ family man ‘ lifestyle, and contends that by being a poet and a novelist he has contributed more to society in general than has the ‘ white ‘ family man with responsibilities to others.

But placing its possible interpretation aside, where did Larkin get the phrase ‘the whitest man I knew‘? We know that he was an enthusiast for ‘ trad’ jazz. He owned a large collection of mainly traditional jazz records and some of his writings on jazz were collected in All What Jazz. But was he also knowledgeable in the field of Music Hall recitations and the music that often accompanied them? Was he familiar with the poem ‘The Whitest Man I Know’, which was written in 1913 in the era of Dixieland by the English actor and poet  J.Milton Hayes, who also performed it to the music of R. Fenton Gower.  Continue reading

 Cotswold lawyer and poet revisited


W. H. Davies

A few weeks ago we were puzzling over a fragment discovered in the archive of Jot HQ. This was a draft in pencil of one page of a letter written in reply to literary journalist Ivor Brown around 1943. The hand was very hard to read at times, but persistence paid off and eventually I produced a decent stab at the letter. From its contents I deduced that the writer was probably an elderly lawyer from the Cotswold region of the UK who had been friendly with tramp poet W. H. Davies, enjoyed the poems of John Betjeman, Clare and Blunden and had published a slim volume of verse himself, as had his son, a former army officer.

Further research revealed that this apparently obscure amateur poet was the rather famous ‘ friend to  the poets ‘ John Wilton Haines, from Hucclecote, near Gloucester, who over nearly five decades befriended , not only Davies, but a number of  twentieth century literary figures, including Edmund Blunden, John Masefield, W. H. Hudson, J. C. Squire, Seigfried Sassoon,  Eleanor Farjeon, J. Gould Fletcher, Sir Edward Marsh, Walter de la Mare, C. Day Lewis, Lascelles Ambercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, Ivor Gurney, Robert Frost, Wilfred Gibson, James Elroy Flecker and Edward Thomas. He also communicated with some eminent musicians and composers, notably Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi and Herbert Howells.

Born in 1875 to a lady from India and a Gloucester solicitor whose family had practised law for generations, Haines trained as a solicitor after leaving school and then joined the family firm. Always passionate about classical and modern literature, and a dedicated book collector, Haines made it his business to seek out local authors and  poets, notably those ‘ Georgian ‘ poets who had settled in and around Dymock, on the edge of the Forest of Dean. He made friends with them and offered them financial help and legal advice. In return many sent him their latest work for his opinion. In 1921 Haines himself had a collection of his own poetry privately printed. On his death in 1960, Haines’ son Robin ( b 1913), whose own slim volume, Somewhere, Somehowhad come out in 1942, inherited his father’s literary archive, which eventually passed to his widow. It was she who donated the papers to the Gloucestershire Archives, where they can be examined today.  [RMH]


Laughing at Poetry

Laughing at SwinburneIn the April 24th 1942 issue of John O’London’s Weekly can be found a perceptive view by the essayist Robert Lynd on the subject of risible poetry written by good poets. He takes his cue from an incident a century before when Thomas Wakley, the founder of the Lancet, stood up in the Commons to mock some puerile lines from ‘Louisa’ by the Poet Laureate, William Wordsworth.

Lynd then goes on to wonder whether ‘absurdities were so common in the older poets as they came in the period that followed the French Revolution. Shakespeare and Milton seem never to have descended to such unconscious ludicrousness as Wordsworth. I do not think that any of the older poets ever wrote a line that parodies itself so easily as Swinburne’s :–

Swallow, my sister: O Sister


‘One of Swinburne’s loveliest poems, ‘Before a Mirror ‘, Lynd continues, ‘begins with a verse of extraordinary nonsense –at least, containing extraordinary nonsense—and yet who can fail to be moved by it:– Continue reading

Meyerstein on Lascelles Abercrombie

162953-004-EBB79E7BFound in a book on British  poets of the 1920s, a page torn from a magazine, possibly a poetry periodical and likely to be from late 1938, when Lascelles Abercrombie died. The poem. in Abercrombie’s honour,  is by E.H.W. Meyerstein. Both were minor poets of their time and are now somewhat forgotten. Of the two Meyerstein is probably better remembered, more for his novels which have crime and thriller elements (some bibliomyisteries.)  The verse is very much of its time, almost like a parody of the style…there is some pathos in the line ’Sure is his fame..’ The final line is rather fine.


An intellect acerb, a heart of truth
A faith in Beauty’s life-ensanguined rose,
The courage of a climber above snows,
For stricken womanhood a childlike ruth,
Fancy alert for images uncouth
Whereby to humanize immortal woes
And seize the small shy gentian word that blows
On precipices unobserved by youth:

Unto how few is fate supremely just!
This man, whose visions were poured forth like wine,
Before his death was ranged among his peers.
Sure is his fame, sure as the intrepid gust
That gave us back the grand Marlovian line,
Reincarnating loves of mythic years.



The Beatnik Poet Machine

Screenshot 2018-12-28 11.02.57Found in an old LIFE magazine from March 3 1961 this computer story:

In  Glendale California a certain computer even thinks it is a beatnik poet. Having been taught a few rules of grammar and given a vocabulary of 500 words of the type that  beatnik poets frequently employ, this robot has clanked out works such as the following:

Auto beatnik poem number 41: Insects

“All children are small and crusty,

An iron can saw all dragons,

All pale, blind, humble waters are cleaning,

A insect, dumb and torrid (torpid) comes off the Daddy-o,

How is a insect into this fur?”

Some auto beatnik poems were read by a bearded scientist to unsuspecting denizens of a Los Angeles coffeehouse who ‘became quite stirred up with admiration.’ One especially appealing line , which the computer likes, is “AH, I AM NOT A MACHINE.”  The beatnik computer is not a stunt. Its masters are using it to study how to build better computers that can communicate in the English language.

This story is repeated with the variant word “torpid’ for ‘torrid’, possibly an improvement, in the 1962 book Science Shapes Tomorrow (Phoenix, London). They quote the poem in a chapter asking whether computers can think. They say that if a computer is going to think they must be able to do four main things:

  1. They must be able to learn by experience.
  2. They will have to become more flexible. The machine will have to come far closer to our almost miraculous five senses which feed our brains with information – great steps are being made in this direction ..the Perceptron is being taught to recognize letters of the alphabet even if they are sloppily written…
  3.  A the moment most machines work on strictly logical lines -they will have to break free to produce for themselves new and original ways of working with the data inside them.
  4.  The machine must be able to recognize when it is  being brilliant. Any machine fed with enough words and grammatical rules, for example can write poetry. It could even write very good poetry – another Shakespeare sonnet, perhaps, but the machine is not a great poet until it can distinguish the perfect sonnet from the drivel. And the same goes for  logical thinking- it must be able to recognise which of its logical statements are valuable and which are not, even though all of them are true. It would be sad if a machine, for example, hit on the successor to Einstein’s theory of relativity and then did not recognise  that this was a more valuable statement to make than printing out that the earth is round.. the complete answer to mankind problems might find itself crumbled up in the wastepaper basket…


Bookseller versus George Barker

George Barker letter from bookseller 001The bohemian poet George Barker could be quite vehement in his anger, especially when drunk, as he often was. In a letter written in June 1956 that we found in our archive here at Jot HQ he wrote angrily to the Cheltenham bookseller Alan Hancox complaining that some slim volumes of his poetry had been sold from his catalogue ‘ without his approval ‘. According to the unnamed ‘impecunious poet’ who had sold the books to Hancox, Barker had given them to him as an act of kindness to ‘ raise funds’ and had had  no objection to  their sale. This, it would seem, had been a fabrication and Hancox was then obliged to apologise for selling the books.

Knowing the egocentricity of Barker, the gift was probably made as a way of impressing the impecunious poet, who may have been unfamiliar with his work. If this is true, one can perhaps understand his hurt feelings. Throughout the ages older writers  have sought to impress or influence their younger brethren by gifting them copies of their work. By so doing the donor hoped that in time this act of kindness would oblige this rising young talent him to repay the gesture by defending the reputation of the older writer. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. In the case of Geoffrey Grigson and Wyndham Lewis, the mentorship (and possible gifts of books) lavished on the younger poet and journalist by Lewis in the ‘thirties reaped rich rewards for the artist and satirist twenty years later, when he had become totally out of fashion while Grigson was regarded as one of the most powerful influences in English letters. Although we don’t know who this impecunious poet was or when the gift of books was made, it is possible that at a time when Barker recognised that his reputation was beginning to nose-dive, he saw the poet as someone who could help him. Alternatively, the impecunious poet may have been one of Barker’s contemporaries , the alleged poet Paul Potts. Continue reading

 The Poetry Reading—a literary squib by John Heath-Stubbs

From the archive of the booksellers and publishers Eric and Joan Stevens is this carbon copy of a squib typed out by the poet John Heath-Stubbs and signed by him  on 30 May 1963.I say ‘ typed out ‘, but as he was virtually blind by this time, and there are no typos, it is unlikely that he actually did so. In his later years the cult figure Eddie Linden, hero of the book Who is Eddie Linden?,read to Heath-Stubbs, so he may also have been a sort of amanuensis in the sixties.

The poem, which is entitled ‘Poetry Reading ‘and appears unpublished, pokes fun at various eminent and not so eminent literary figures of the period. The occasion was a meeting to commemorate a ‘notable Georgian poet ‘ and was arranged by  ‘ The Organisation for Ossification Of Literatwitters ‘, which may be a swipe by Heath-Stubbs at the Royal Society of Literature, which had elected him a fellow in 1954.Identifying the poet being celebrated is not easy. Most of those who contributed to the famous Georgian anthologies were born in the 1870s and 1880s and weren’t around in 1963.The last of the genuine Georgians, Ralph Hodgson, died in 1962, so the poetry event may have occurred in that year or soon before. If he is ruled out the only other   possible contender would be Edmund Blunden, although the ‘Merton field mouse’ (as Geoffrey Grigson called him ) isn’t generally regarded as a Georgian poet. However, Blunden did receive the Royal Society of Literature’s Benson medal.

The other literary folk ridiculed —the Chairman,  ‘Estaban Heartsleeve ‘, ‘ Sandy Sladge of the Sunday Sludge ‘,‘ Sir Solon Sepulture ‘, ‘Mr Bang with his prizefighter’s roar ‘ and ‘Mr Bing’ —- are even more difficult to place, although the last two men, respectively ‘ tall and blond ‘ and ‘ short and pink’, should be a little easier to identify. The satirist reveals the name his friends knew him by (‘Stubbs’) at the close of the poem, as well as his avowed liking for alcohol and pub-going. He had been, after all, a prominent member of the Soho crowd in the ‘forties.

Today the RSL, perhaps aware of its past reputation for ossification, seems to have gone too far in the other direction. Seemingly anyone who has published at least two books, is well known as a reviewer for the nationals, and is a regular on TV, radio and at literary festivals, is offered a fellowship. Sadly, quite a few lack the literary skills of past Fellows. The Society also unashamedly reflects the current popularity of literary biographies and crime fiction to such an extent that the list of Fellows contains more writers in these genres than novelists, dramatists  and poets. Many believe that by a too ready recognition of these doubtful genres as ‘literature ‘it has betrayed its original aims.


Ada Elizabeth Smith (1875- 1898) forgotten poet

IMG_5562Found in a book published by J.R. Tutin, the Hull based reprinter of 17th century literature, a short letter from 1908 to John Haines, a Gloucestershire solicitor and minor poet associated with Ivor Gurney, F.W. Harvey, Edward Thomas and other members of the Dymock Poets group. After discussing various Elizabethan writers Tutin wrote out a fine poem by Ada Elizabeth Smith (1875- 1898) called ‘The Earth Lover’. He had found it in a recent anthology New Songs put together by F Y Bowles – ‘the poem is a real gem in my opinion : yet I’ve not seen it noticed by in any of the reviews of the book.’ A search online reveals little about Ada Elizabeth Smith, a classic poete maudit, except this anonymous (‘J.L.G.’) quite high-flown notice in the London based literary magazine The Academy of December 1898 a week after her untimely death.

Early Dead. Ada Smith 1875 – 1898 In Memoriam. 17 – 12 – 98

Ada Smith was born in Haltwhistle, a hard featured village from which a bare land runs up to the bleak escarpments that carry the ruined line of the Roman wall. She began early to write verse, and published at 13, having acquired very easily a  versification of noticeable grace, smoothness, and cadence. She spent some years abroad, chiefly at Vienna and went about with adventurous and observant audacity. Her idea was that she must not only study life as it met her, but seek it out in the hope of writing novels in the coming time. At this period some of the work found its way into the hands of the present writer. It had too many words and not enough pauses and there was much feigning of the Heinesque. Without being quite able to see what she might arrive at, one felt she must go on.

She returned from Vienna last year with the feeling that she was at last equipped for London, and the great adventure could not be delayed.  She attempted London at the age of 22 with a nerve wilful and steady. She did not fail. Verses began to be accepted, and her work matured rapidly. She did typewriting, and it must have been hateful.. Her constitution suddenly began to give way in the summer. A long holiday upon the Northumbrian coast made her better, but not well. She ought not to have gone back to typewriting in the city, but she would and did. A couple of months ago she had to return to the North for the last time quite broken down. Her illness ultimately developed in the gravest way then advanced with frightful rapidity. She died at Newcastle upon Tyne upon the Wednesday night of last week.

Continue reading

Letter to Geoffrey Grigson from E.J.Scovell

The combative poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson was not known to be a great fan of female poets. He rarely reviewed their work and when he did he was invariably scathing. This refusal to be a hypocrite when confronted by poetry for which he had no enthusiasm got him into hot water with the more politically correct band of literary critics, one of whom was the Mexican poet Michael Schmidt, editor of Poetry Nation.Luckily, Schmidt’s views are not shared by most genuine lovers of poetry.
scovell letter grigson 001

But Grigson did admire two female poets of the twentieth century—Fleur Adcock (b 1934) and E. J. Scovell (1907 – 99). Both wrote the sort of poetry that Grigson admired—visual, precise and closely observed. Scovell‘s work was particularly to Grigson’s taste and the admiration was mutual. So here is a letter dated 23 April 1945 which we at Jot HQ found interleaved in a copy of Scovell’s third collection, The River Steamer(1956), along with  a carbon of ‘A Baby’s Head’. In the letter Scovell responds to Grigson’s invitation to submit a poem for   publication in his new literary miscellany The Mint(1946 by sending nine poems, including presumably ‘A Baby’s Head ‘. She also apologised for the fact that ‘so few of them escape being about children’. Book, poem and letter were bought from Grigson ( see previous Jot) by the bookseller and publisher Joan Stevens, at whose death it was retrieved from her archive by us at Jot HQ. At the time Miss Scovell, who was married to Charles Elton, the animal behaviourist, was working at the Bureau of Animal Population in Oxford (this fact alone would have prompted Grigson’s interest). It seems that Grigson was impressed by the submissions , for he duly published two of the nine poems in The Mint(1946).

Reading ‘ A Baby’s Head’, which was eventually published in The River Steamer, one can easily imagine Grigson being delighted by its opening line:

‘The lamp shines on his innocent wild head again ‘.

And it gets even better:

‘Now even the captive light in a close-sheltered room,

Claiming you as its kind, pours round you head in bloom,

So melting where it flows, that the strong armour-browed

Skull seems as pervious as a cloud…’  Continue reading

Freyya and Other Poems (1908)

IMG_5181This book was among thousands of books, all publisher’s file copies, bought from the publisher Orion, who in time had taken over Gollancz, Witherby and Dent. Dent was the publisher of this slimmish volume of poems Freyya and other Poems by E.C.N. (London 1908, 105 pp.) There is no knowing who E.C.N. was, possibly a man as there are several poems addressed to women (although that is by no means  a clincher) and a gifted blank versifier fond of epic and portentous themes and alliteration ( ‘Blessing and blest, to the high heroes home..’) He, or she,  owed something to Swinburne, possibly Milton and some of the poets of the time who were fond of grand sweeping historical themes (Newbolt, Watson, Stephen Phillips.)

Worldcat, Copac and Google give no hint as to the identity of E.C.N. The book itself is quite rare (as often  with file copies.) Somewhere in the haul were very large publisher’s ledgers which can often reveal an author’s true name – as the publisher might have to send money at some point.

In the long title poem Freyya the poet makes much use of Norse mythology with mention of Asgard, Odur, Odin, Frigga and Vana – exploring fantastic realms that later inspired Marvel comics and Hollywood. There is also a poem on the Battle of Marathon – ‘the greatest deed the world has ever known..’ The opening lines of Freyya will give a flavour of ENC’s talents— if around today he could be working on a Python epic or Game of Thrones

Fair as the dawn, fair as the opening rose,

Fair as the flash of sunlight after rain,

Fairest of all that earth of fairest holds

Was Freyya, daughter of the dancing Wind,

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The Poet who bored Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons picStella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm (1932), the cult satire on the doomy English novels of, amongst others, Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith, seems to have been a very generous and good natured woman, according to her nephew and biographer Reggie Oliver (b1952), who was also a playwright and the author of horror stories. In three pages of a typescript found at Jot HQ, which he sent to the bookseller Joan Stevens (and which may subsequently have been incorporated into his biography, Out of the Woodshed), Gibbons met some colourful characters at the mid- seventies parties she held at her home in Oakshott Avenue, Highgate, which incidentally was a two minute walk from my late uncle, Denis Healey.

One was the then fashionable (now almost totally forgotten) novelist John Braine, the former librarian who found fame and fortune with such blockbusters as Room at the Top and The Vodi. Here is Reggie’s description of the man:

‘ He was large, shaggy, genial and physically repulsive. A distinctive presence, enhanced by an unusually loud voice, allowed him to dominate the conversation. I got the impression he was one of those writers—by no means uncommon—whose interest in literature was confined to that produced by themselves. Certainly, I never heard him discuss any books but his own, and even those rarely. But he had pronounced views on almost everything else; and I can remember one enjoyable afternoon when he laid down strict guidelines for us all on the correct method of making bread.   Continue reading

Hugo Manning

Hugo manning picFound among some papers at Jot HQ, three photocopied pages of a panegyric by poet William Oxley to his better known poet and friend Hugo Manning (1913 – 77). Entitled ‘ The Scapegoat and the Muse ‘ it lavishes praise on a man who appears to have been a larger than life character in the mould perhaps of his friend Dylan Thomas, who was his junior by a few months and from whose work he drew inspiration. But Manning, in Oxley’s eyes, seems to have been an amalgam of so many attributes:

Hugo Manning restless traveller of the world and of the imagination’s ‘realms of gold’; Hugo Manning journalist-clerk and Reuter’s hack, Hugo Manning massively simple man sick with an old-fashioned integrity; Hugo Manning homo sapiens with burnt up-soul sacrificed on what unknown altars of pleasure; Hugo Manning late—ah-all too late –poetic developer…Hugo Manning last of the true troubadours…Hugo Manning mind, soul and things flesh caught at the cross roads and in what crosswinds of Judean-Christian-Hellenic cultures…’
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G.S.Fraser on George Barker, the purple monkey

fraser : barkerFound on a scrap of paper which looks as if it has been scrunched up into a ball and ironed out flat is this squib on the poet George Barker by G. S. Fraser, the poet and critic.

The item is signed but not dated, but as it refers to Barker’s departure for Japan in 1939 to take up an appointment as Professor English we must infer that it dates from this time. Fraser looks back at Barker’s short but promising literary career, which then consisted of three volumes of verse, the first of which had been published by David Archer ( the David referred to ) at the Parton Press, and a number of contributions to little magazines, including New Verse, which was founded and edited by the gifted poet and highly influential critic Geoffrey Grigson.

For some reason known only to himself Eliot saw enough in Barker to encourage his efforts and it was Eliot who got the semi-educated Barker ( he didn’t even have a degree) his teaching post in Japan. This, however, was bad timing for Barker, as his burgeoning academic career was curtailed due to the outbreak of the Second World War and he was forced to return to England.

The whole tone of the squib strongly suggests that there was no love lost between Fraser, a good minor poet and a sound critic, and the wayward, uneven and often drunken and opinionated Barker, who if one is to believe all the stories about him, seems to have been a sort of Poundland Dylan Thomas, both as a writer and as a professional scrounger. However, on the subject of alcoholic writers, it is valuable to apply Thomas’s own definition of an alcoholic as ‘someone you dislike who drinks as much as you ‘. Continue reading