Friday, 9th April, 2010

A couple of months ago I went down to Broadcasting House to be interviewed by Brian Patten about the poet A.S.J. Tessimond. The recording of this programme, the first in the new series of Lost Voices, is broadcast this Sunday at 4:30 on Radio Four.

For several years now, Arthur Seymour John Tessimond (John to his friends) has been a presence in my life, as I’ve tried to assemble the few remaining pieces of information about him. The Lost Voices programme turns to him for this reason — it seems remarkable that a man who died not even fifty years ago might have disappeared so successfully into the ether.

In some ways remarkable; in others, perhaps, not so: “I am the unnoticed, the unnoticeable man”, he wrote, in one of his best-known poems, ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’. Best-known is a strange term to use in relation to Tessimond, but this is the great contradiction of his reputation — he is perhaps Britain’s best-loved unknown poet. His poems are widely anthologised, and frequently requested on Radio Four’s Poetry Please; his poem ‘Cats’ appeared for several years as a text on the National Curriculum; he has even had several mentions in the advice columns of the Daily Mail — though a figure less fitting with that newspaper’s ethos would be hard to find.

Despite this, he cannot really be said to be a household name.

In the opening moments of the 1961 Galton and Simpson film The Rebel, Tony Hancock, furnished with bowler hat and umbrella, boards a train, and looks about the compartment to take in seven other identically dressed figures. It is a scene almost identical to that described in Tessimond’s poem of 1947:

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.

The bowler hat in both film and poem serves as an emblem of uniformity. Like Magritte’s The Son of Man, like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, it gives a sense of ubiquity to the wearer; we assume the man in the bowler hat to be everyman. While Hancock’s man-in-the-bowler-hat seeks to break free and become an individual, Tessimond’s merely knows of the possibility of this freedom, now a passed moment.

Many of Tessimond’s poems adopt this voice — as Hubert Nicholson, his literary executor, pointed out:

He has a number of poems beginning “I am”, but they are not in the least egotistical. They are imaginative projections of himself into types, places, generalised Man, even God or Fate.

Tessimond is an everyman poet, and this perhaps accounts for much of his popularity. He is able to speak about the common experience in language that is accessible to most readers.

Yet there is something else at work here too, because for all its openness there is also something guarded — even private — in this public, published writing. In his poem ‘London’ he adopts this universal ‘I’ to describe the capital as ‘the city of two divided cities’ but this division seems to run to the heart of the man himself:

I am the reticent, the private city,
The city of lovers hiding wrapped in shadows,
The city of people sitting and talking quietly
Beyond shut doors and walls as thick as a century,
People who laugh too little and too loudly,
Whose tears fall inward, flowing back to the heart.

‘Reticent’. ‘Private’. These qualities seem pertinent in much of the poet’s work. He writes of rooms, and walls, and barriers, and locked boxes under floorboards. As here, in ‘Unlyric Love Song’:

A document kept at the back of a drawer,
A tin hidden under the floor,
Recalcitrant prides and hesitations:
To pile them carefully in a desperate oblation
And say to you ‘quickly! Turn them
Once over and burn them’.

We may not always see these barriers — his first collection The Walls of Glass (1934) keeps returning to the image of glass blocking our way — but like the scattered tribes after the fall of Babel, communication with our fellow man is stunted before we even speak:

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;

This is from a poem titled ‘Any Man Speaks’, which uses the first person pronoun — seemingly as Nicholson suggests. The sense of separation — ‘cut off’ by ‘a dialect shared by you, but not you and you’ — is universal; we might all feel that same sense of isolation from those around us while ‘searching always’ to connect. Yet the experience is also very private, moving from the public street and park into the personal space of the bed. The specifics of the location — Wardour Street and Soho Square — and the ‘signal’ to the woman suggest this to be an encounter with a prostitute. Yet it is merely a suggestion: a coded, private ‘signal’ to the reader, only understood if we share the poet’s ‘dialect’ of place names. The poem itself is a ‘divided city’, both public and private; it is the key distinction between everyman and the ‘any man’ of the title. This experience is specific, rather than general.

What we know of Tessimond’s life shares a similar quality to this poem. Working on him, reading the letters he wrote and the letters written to him, it is sometimes striking how few secrets this man had, openly talking about paying for prostitutes to share his bed. We know that he never slept with these women — that for some reason he was not able to — but, as his close friend, Frances Richards records, “he was content just to look at her — something different to himself”. These encounters he described as falling in love, as if, in the poem ‘Any Man Speaks’, the chance encounter with the prostitute might be the meeting with his ‘lost rib’, the union that would make him whole again.

At the same time, there are many things we do not know because he kept them private. Richards wrote of how he “never discussed his childhood or youth […] as if it was blotted out of his life and memory”. It was however a spoken secret; he told his friends that he would not talk about this relationship. Frances Richards again:

I have always wondered what his mother was like, since he disliked her so much. I don’t know what she did to him or did not do, but he told me that the thought of her made him feel sick. He went into no details about that, nor ever mentioned his bank manager father.

It is a tantalising gap in our knowledge, but it is made so by the scrap of detail we are given: “the thought of her made him feel sick”. We know that Tessimond was a late baby — his mother was thirty-nine when he was born — and, though he told friends that he was an only child, the 1901 census records that there was a sister, Lilian C. Tessimond, who was fifteen when John was born.

Richards’ words: “what she did to him or did not do” is a Tessimond-like construction — the possible act or its opposite action achieve the same ends: witness in ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ how one might be “patient too long and [obey] too much”; or, in ‘London’: “People who laugh too little and too loudly”. The effect of nothing and the effect of too much of something combine; in Tessimond’s life he might simultaneously appear too private and too public. In his poem ‘The Children look at the Parents’, the children express anger at the parents who:

Shared money but not your secrets;
Will leave as your final legacy
A box double-locked by the spider
Packed with your unsolved problems.

And so it might seem with Tessimond himself — a double-locked box of secrets, but one that seems to invite us to unlock that box, as here in ‘The Lesser Artists’:

We speak to a few of you now, but to many later,
And more still after both you and we have gone,
And we, through you have left our devious traces:
Ciphers in caves or under a marked stone waiting
For a finder one day to decode, and show to his friends.

We have dealt too much in ciphers; sat in corners,
Out of the wind, talking in undertones
With private signs, drawing too close together,
Drawing the blind.

It is wrong to think that the secrets of this man’s life might be discovered by cracking some hidden cipher in his writing — that is not what poetry is for, nor should we want it to be — his poetry does not seek to be biographical and it should be right that what he chose to keep hidden should be kept hidden. However, what is clear is the sense of the private and public co-existing — and the things carefully chosen to be made known being a cipher also. In Frances Richards’ memoir she recalls, in her last meeting with the poet, how he began to detail an encounter with a girl to whom he had given all of his money:

Now, I did not want to listen to this — such a repetition of previous conversations — so, I turned it off…

It is not so much the repetition of girls that is striking — as Richards says:

When one says ‘Poor Tessimond’ we have to remember that he thought he was in love every six months and that was a real and true thing for him

— but the ‘repetition of previous conversations’ which catches us by surprise. The act of reporting the encounter makes it real, makes it into a love story — however unbelievable.

It is perhaps for this reason that what scraps we have of Tessimond’s life seem littered with deeply personal information: they are an attempt to give flesh to the self he feared was all too unnoticeable.

A.S.J. Tessimond remains a striking and original voice of twentieth century poetry, a figure both known and loved, and yet wholly unknown. To be unnoticed is not the same thing as to be unnoticeable; yet perhaps, when this excess of artful openness so perfectly counterbalances an excess of artful privacy, the end effect is similar — the state of being unnoticeable proceeding from, produced by, the status of being unnoticed.

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