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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Friday, 10th September, 2010

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been summarizing accounts of writers who claimed Crabbe as an influence. Joyce. Forster. Pound. Most recently I’ve been trying to track down any physical proof of V.S. Pritchett’s claim that Turgenev translated Crabbe into Russian. Turgenev certainly knew of, and liked, Crabbe’s poetry. The Suffolk clergyman had been celebrated in a series of essays by Turgenev’s friend Alexander Druzhinin, who held him up as a model for the Russian writers to emulate:

In order to curb the flood of false naturalness it is most useful to study the genius of the sensible naturalists, among whom Crabbe […] holds first place.

However, whether or not Turgenev actually translated him, I can find no evidence, and for the moment need to lay the matter to one side.

In a sense it’s a strange thing to be doing, rooting through people’s letters and libraries for evidence of having read one poet. Finding a reference doesn’t necessarily mean they liked him, it certainly doesn’t mean he influenced their work. But in some instances it’s clear; Dickens reworks an entire Crabbe poem into a short story. James Joyce is effusive in his praise. In other cases, George Eliot say, remembering reading him as a youth, you have to recognise that he was just another writer amongst many who may, or may not, have made a mark.

And then you come across something like this, and you wish more people did it, an open admission: future reader, don’t look at me, I know nothing of Crabbe:

And I can’t intend to funk it: I mean I will, if you will permit, be really serious and utter what I have gathered in my journey as to the sad and unillumined thing that is a life devoted to the humaner letters. I don’t know who you are. You may, I mean, be intending to devote yourselves to studious careers— to casting light on the love letters of Keats, the autobiography of Chaucer or the bibliography of Crabbe. In that case I have nothing to say to you: those are, what again the late Mr. James would have called, parages I know nothing of, for I have concerned myself in life solely with literature as a means of expression. So, if you are the future archivists, librarians or text emendators of the world I can be of no use to you. But I hope that some of you – indeed I hope still more that all of you – cherish within your hearts the ambition to hand on the sacred fire of imaginative writing.

“The Literary Life” a lecture given by Ford Madox Ford

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