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’:
They are, together, as
Pretty as two primroses: bicker
Like two squabbling
Small birds, in a
Private language: he curving
Himself round her like
Tongue; and she sparkling
Back at him – dark water that
The sun strikes.
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
Compliant, feminine. They must have
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.