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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Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

This summer’s reading has provided some unexpected bedfellows; books mainly read for a variety of university courses I’m teaching next semester, have brought up unlikely pairings – observations that are amusing me, but are unlikely ever to see the light of day either in class discussion or in print. There’s a massive knot of thought I want to pursue about Balzac and furniture, for instance, but which I fear might turn into a lifetime’s (somewhat unnecessary) work.

So, I’m going to use this blog for the moment to jot down some of these half-formed, rather straggly ideas, and in all probability never return to them. I don’t know if there’ll be anything here of interest to anyone else.

Crabbe, it is clear, was a pretty avid reader of Frances Burney, and there’s much to be made of the connections between tales such as ‘The Frank Courtship’, ‘Clelia’ and novels such as Evelina. Mr. Villars’s warnings of prudence at the start of the novel:

A youthful mind is seldom totally free from ambition; to curb that, is the first step to contentment, since to diminish expectation, is to increase enjoyment.

has that same sense of censorial behaviour that Crabbe both parodies (in the dangers of playing cards and ribbons) and yet, one feels, also heartily believes. For Crabbe, there’s a sense that one is an innocent until the age (off hand, I’d need to check for certainty) of twenty-two – that no great sin can be undertaken before that point, that one remains the blank slate until adulthood. In the case of Grimes, that’s a particularly interesting view, as we see the character’s youthful behaviour, but it seems likely that Crabbe still felt this was a formative stage, that his accountability would only come once he was an adult.

I find, with some degree of shame and inexperience, that I’m much fonder of children in literature than in life. There’s a strain of book-child that I’m fairly certain does not exist in the real world, but which I feel would ultimately improve the human race if it did. It’s the somewhat serious, somewhat sad child; the all-to-knowing child. Iris Murdoch paints them rather well, though I think my favourite of this kind appears in Bede’s Life of Saint Cuthbert – not Cuthbert himself who is depicted as sporting, and very much a typically boisterous kid, but a three-year-old who solemnly watches him play before bursting into tears, imbued with, and certain of, the knowledge that the older boy is to become a great holy man.

There is a sense of this in Balzac’s Cousin Bette with children able to control the hearts of men entering their old age. In Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, children function in a very different way, their unknowingness being a foil to the candour of adult and university life. Daphne at the start is innocent witness to events beyond her knowledge – an erect penis mistaken for a cigar case seems pronounced in this new age peopled more by innocents than psychoanalysts. But later in the novel, her own child becomes witness to an event – the death of an adult – that he is given no framework to understand. The death seems to paralyse Wilfred in a childlike state for the rest of his life, his mother still exerting Villars-like influence upon his ambitions when he is well into his 50s.

The event of the child discovering an old, dead lady is a stark motif – itself somewhat Murdochian (I’m thinking the old man recalling killing a dog in The Nice and the Good – the stark transition between innocence and knowledge), though for me recalling a line by Alan Bennett which throughout my own childhood I rather perversely kept close to my heart–– and which now, even more perversely, I don’t seem to be able to find to quote it correctly, but which runs something like:

A: Have you ever seen a dead body before?
B: Only once. At school.

Which weirdly brings me back to Crabbe and images of dead children – in ‘Grimes’; in ‘The Voluntary Insane’, and of course, in his own wardrobe.

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