Thursday, 5th January, 2012

I have arrived at Dawson Jackson by what seems the wrong branch line. This is not an uncommon situation; often in reading, things that first appear to be footnotes emerge as subjects in their own right. Walter Scott had the right idea about this – ever-expanding volumes – Richardson, too. I suspect that both would have revelled in the digital age.

In any case: the poet Dawson Jackson.

The route by which I have reached him is this: in writing the biography of A.S.J. Tessimond, I have come across Jackson as someone that Tessimond knew. Mainly he knew Jackson’s wife, Joan Hart, a recording artist for the BBC. Shortly before he died he entrusted carbon copies of his diary with Joan before destroying the original manuscript. All this will out in the book.

Jackson was a poet in his own right. In some ways, during his lifetime, he was not a particularly well-regarded poet – Stephen Spender, whilst sympathetic, wrote to him of his verse that whilst ‘very readable and amusing. I suppose it is difficult to get a publisher to regard this as “poetry”, because the matter and form are not very poetic.’ But in many ways, I think Jackson was slightly ahead of the game. That said, he was not to Tessimond’s taste either. My edition of his collection Darkness and Spring (1971) is inscribed by Jackson to Jean Cooper (another name in Tessimond’s life story); there he writes: ‘on account of John Tessimond / who / for all his enthusiasm and politeness / could never quite see / why / I stopped my lines where I did!’

The two poets probably stand at opposite ends of a spectrum (if such a thing could be imagined) of twentieth century English poetry. They were both born in the Liverpool region, Tessimond in Birkenhead in 1902, Jackson in Wallasey in 1910. Jackson, I am certain, cared a lot for Tessimond and after his death attempted to make sense of the journal manuscripts (no mean feat, as I have discovered) and aided Hubert Nicholson in handling the poet’s affairs in the years after 1962.

But Jackson needs examining in his own right – Carcanet have a Selected Poems in print; it is worth looking out. Stylistically he is nothing like Tessimond, though there is a shared warmth and humanity in their writing.

Every year I rather forlornly suggest to my undergraduate classes that one of them might attempt some kind of survey of cultural representations of Underground rail travel. Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Paris Metro’ through to Geoff Ryman’s 253 calling at Henry Moore, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Hamilton, Julian Barnes and The Bed Sitting Room (amongst others). Nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

But here is a wonderful poem by Dawson Jackson that I have quite fallen in love with and should be part of such a study. It is from Darkness and the Spring. It is called ‘Fifty Years Between’:

1

They are, together, as

Pretty as two primroses: bicker

…………..

Like two squabbling

Small birds, in a

Private language: he curving

…………..

Himself round her like

An enjoying

Tongue; and she sparkling

Back at him – dark water that

…………..

The sun strikes.

…………..

2

Coming up

The escalator of the Tube

Were a man and woman, in their

Seventies at least. She,

…………..

Unaccustomed to them, did not

Like the stairs. Perhaps, too, he

Did not: erect, slight, military,

With a neat moustache. However,

…………..

He stood before her and – uncertain on his

Own feet – helped

Her, with an arm, step

Off. He could not have been

…………..

More courteous had he been

A young boy, well brought up, with

His first – Edwardian –

Young woman. And she –

…………..

Thanking him, accepting the

Attention – was everything that is

Delicate, spiritedly

Compliant, feminine. They must have

…………..

Been married

Fifty years. Sex

…………..

In old age is

Sex – as it has been

From the cradle:

Delightful. Paper thin

…………..

Like petals – they were, together, that

Flower still: which

Does not die

…………..

Till we do.

There is a great deal I could say about that poem, but the main thing is: I love it. Though Tessimond mistrusted the enjambement in Jackson’s poetry, the line endings are crucial; the weight given to ‘Sex’ as it hangs before the break, seemingly at odds with the ‘Fifty years’ of marriage (though, as we discover, not so) makes the thing work.

In the woman’s ‘unaccustomed’ response to the stairs, I am reminded of the delightful anecdote in David Kynaston’s Family Britain that Winston Churchill’s favourite item in the Festival of Britain was the escalator up to the planetarium, which he insisted on riding over and over. The rest of London having grown used to escalators through the Tube, Churchill, who tended to use taxis, was entirely new to the concept.

The poem is amazingly sensual; the ‘enjoying tongue’ is both tenderly protective ‘curving […] round her’ but also immediately erotic. Eroticism is commonplace; the flower that does not die until we do. There is something of Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’ here too, though it’s too late at night for me to explore that now, and before I close I want to draw Tessimond back into this post with his poem ‘Tube Station’. An early piece, it’s not his best work – heavily influenced by Pound and Imagism in general – but it’s a good little thing, with a very different erotic quality in its own right:

 The tube lift mounts,

…………..sap in a stem,

and blossoms its load,

…………..a black, untidy rose.

 …………..

…………..

The fountain of the escalator

…………..curls at the crest,

……………………….breaks and scatters

A winnow of men,

…………..a sickle of dark spray.

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5 Responses to “”

  1. carusus said

    I knew Dawson Jackson as a visiting translator in Geneva. He was an extraordinary man. Try to get hol do fhis book “Against Destruction”, which I reviewed at the UN in the 1980s – about ecological issues and ahead of its time. H reminded me more than anyone of Catweazle – if you know that children’s TV series. He resembled the wizard amazingly. He wore garish clothes – Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat – and had a rich actorish voice, rather like Roger Livesey. His poetry was something of an in joke among translators – he gave away copies to his friends. He was highly liberal and freedom loving. At the end of his life he became involved with Exit – the assisted suicide organization, which struck me as strange, though he was quite open and lucid about it. “The world is ultimately,” he once said, “run by children”. I miss him. Regards, Andrew Dale

    • JRWB said

      Thank you for commenting here, it’s wonderful to hear from someone who knew him. Jackson’s work continues to amaze me – both poetry and prose. I taught some of his poetry to a Continuing Education class this semester and think it was one of the most positive responses to a new text I’ve had. What you say about his appearance is brilliant – there’s an account in Nicola Simpson’s introduction to the Selected Poems, of how he was often mistaken as a Russian spy in the 1930s as a result of it. I’ll look out ‘Against Destruction’, thank you.

  2. Rebecca Lloyd said

    Hi I also knew Dawson – he was a friend of the family and like my surrogate grandfather. I still regard him as one of the most inspiring people I have ever known. I wish his writing was more widely read; it deserves to be. I miss him and think of him often. Thank you for highlighting one of his poems.
    Rebecca Lloyd

  3. carusus said

    It ha sbeen four years since my first comment. I wonder where your work has gone. I could tell you more about Dawson’s life.

  4. carusus said

    And my typing is no better…

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