Monday, 24th December, 2012

king

The problem of the literary legacy, and the reputation of the ‘lesser artist’, is never far away in my work on Tessimond. Why some writers prevail and others disappear, is a question that must stalk any discussion of literary biography. Why indeed should our attention be turned to this specific name and not another? But why a writer at all? Why do we not remember the lives of our mill-workers or school-teachers?

‘I think’ wrote Keats, ‘I shall be among the English Poets after my death’ – well, quite, but then how many other writers have hoped the same thing? ‘The cold-blood committal | of the heart’s pangs | to documents’ (Tessimond, ‘Authorship’) isn’t in itself enough, no matter how meaningful the action might be, ‘the transcription of the soul | in public’ whilst brave, is no justification for that transcription to be read.

This is a subject which Tessimond’s friend, the editor of the London Mercury, J.C. Squire took up in an essay of 1930:

I have been reading an author unduly neglected. There are many. Our literature is full of minor classics which from time to time are galvanised into life by new editions, and then relapse into almost complete oblivion, a few bookish people cherishing them and no one else mentioning them. These resent the neglect. They feel that injustice is being done if a favourite book is omitted from histories of literature or is unknown to people who would appreciate it. And there is no doubt that the injustice is felt as an injustice to the author personally, though he may be long dead and unaware of men’s speech and their silence. This feeling springs unconsciously, perhaps, from the knowledge that if a man writes a good book one of his main motives, almost always, is posthumous fame.

J.C. Squire, ‘Fame after Death’, Life at the Mermaid, p. 245

Squire, now perhaps, a writer less-read even than Tessimond, was in his lifetime a figure of much importance.

In the past week or so, for reasons I won’t dwell upon, I have been forced to consider the legacy of another of Tessimond’s friends – George Rostrevor Hamilton. I’m not going to make any great claim that we should still read Hamilton’s work, but he is a voice of the 1930s that interests me. Without wading through a great deal of unnecessary biography (and this may be his point – biography is, if not unnecessary, then often unreachable and often wholly other and incomparable to a life’s work) his background and career are fascinatingly positioned in the literary landscape of the period.

A long poem of 1935, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ questions this very issue of life and reputation. It may well be the first mention in verse of a ‘blue plaque’, those much-loved heritage roundels which scatter our cities like ceramic graffiti – “HERMAN MELVILLE WOS ’ERE 1849” – informing us of the (often fleeting) residencies of people we have little knowledge or opinion of. Why does it matter to know that Dickens once lived in a house near to where the British Medical Association now stands in Tavistock Square? Where we live certainly has a massive impact on our lives, but does squinting from the pavement really give us any great insight into what took place behind that door years before we were born? This, is the subject of Hamilton’s poem, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’:

The autumn sun slips down the weathered bricks
Of empty Marlowe Square. The last rays fall
Across the oval tablet on the wall
Of Number 3 —
The house you’re told to see—
Making the legend clear
“Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.”

You learn from the guide-book how Sir Jordan spent
Day after day over his labours bent;
How he forsook
All pleasure, exercise and recreation;
How in the third-floor bedroom every night
He burned till 2 a.m. (at least) his light,
Preparing that great book,
So sane, so sound,
So unimpassioned yet profound,
On “Economics and The Population”:
And then, in ’84, completion—fame!
How Tennyson and Mr. Gladstone came
To offer him sincere congratulation,
And how the Queen herself
Wrote that she would place the volumes on her shelf.

But in the house,
And up the spiral stair,
Only the shadows fall
Now, no footfall.
And here, in the bed-room
Sir Jordan’s bed-room,
Only a gradual gloom.

The narration of the poem, addressed to the casual tourist of the present, moves from this interior space where dust ‘blanches’ and ‘light fades’, through time to the 1880s where Sir Jordan sits writing and raising two sons, allowing the voices of the past to speak within the poem. The relationship between the house and the man in never in question; his room – which sometimes seems as a prison to Sir Jordan – is, he reflects ‘a part of me’. Yet what is called into question is the purpose of the tourist’s visit, the purpose of preserving the knowledge of the economist’s 2am finishes – when none of this can truly be known or understood.

Perhaps most striking in this discrepancy between the private life and public work is when Sir Jordan’s wife (never mentioned in the guidebook) is given voice within the poem:

And here Sir Jordan Banks
Till 2 a.m..
Sometimes indeed until the sun had risen,
Night after night
That great economist
Over his labours bent;
Worked out his graphs;
Wrestled with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill,
Until
At last the nation’s thanks!
At last—

Him only do I love,
Waiting here
For him, for the sound of his feet on the stair.
For him only does my body tremble,
Lying in bed,
Trembles, and my heart beats
With hope I must dissemble;
That he will be surprised again
To find my nakedness so slim,
Hoops and flounces laid aside,
Delicately scented for him,
So little.
Ah pain!
That was once, and his love died.

Significantly, his wife’s words are unattributed in the poem, whereas the economist’s manly ‘wrestle’ with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill is what goes recorded. This image of the naked wife, waiting alone ‘so slim’ with her outer clothing removed is a stark image of a society’s values that will name and remember ‘great men’ but ignore those who do not meet that criteria. This is the theme of another of Hamilton’s poems ‘Unknown Lovers’ which offers an elegy to those not given named tombstones in London’s churchyards.

In ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ the mind of the economist tallies each departing soul by the votives offered at their death:

A million candles counting each for one,
Each one the same.
They’re finished, done,
All entered in a register.
But who’s put out the flame?
Oh, Death is quite impersonal.

Our acts and justification of memorial are often misguided – ‘death is quite impersonal’ but we make it personal by selective necromancy. In the vast extent of cities – in the vastness of humanity – we elect a few to save but many, many more to ignore because they do not fit the image we would like to have of ourselves.

What is of interest in the Square,
With its Queen Anne houses, it’s time-weathered bricks?
This—Number 3—
Is the house you must see:
Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.

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Monday, 11th June, 2012

Dawson Jackson is proving popular with people who have come by this blog. When I get round to it, there’s something I need to set down about Jackson, D.S. Savage and Hubert Nicholson and poets who were contentious objectors during the second world war.  I’ll get to that. In the mean time, this – a poem by Jackson published in 1971.

A while ago I gave this poem out in a university tutorial. Alongside it we looked at some other poems, amongst those ‘Fifty Years Between’, which comes from the same collection. All the poems were received very positively, though this piece gave the discussion a somewhat darker tone. It is fine for discussions about poetry not to reach a resolution, though this piece has stayed on my mind ever since as having something about it that still needs to be said.

A History in Two Scenes

1

Her lips I
Like : a pale
Thin petal – say, a
Wild-rose petal. They
Are home : dew – June.

She kisses me, lightly,
Turning her face up (we are
Arm in arm) as we
Say good-bye : laying
Herself lightly, for a moment,

In me – giving herself –
There on the pavement,
Before she climbs the bus

And today’s all picked
With snow and rain
And pleasures.

Actually, I’m going to stop there – this is only the first part of the poem, the first scene of the ‘history’ in the title. I’ll get to the second part shortly, but I think it’s important to consider the process by which this poem imparts itself.

Much of the effect is created by the shifting metre; all the words are either mono- or disyllabic, though the way these interact with the line endings and various punctuation marks, removes any sense of simplicity to the piece. What emerges, particularly in that first stanza, is a voice – a considering voice – attempting to make sense of the vision. The voice reasons that her lips might be ‘say, a | Wild-rose petal’ perhaps indicating that is a mere suggestion; it seems to pause at the end of that first line, the break offering a momentary hesitation as if reaching for the right word. This image from the outset seems sensual, the focus on the mouth is direct from the start, yet the word ‘like’ coming after the line break seems rather flatter than what we expect, as if the narrator is not fully in charge of the image they represent.

The whole of that first stanza is about the lips; they ‘are | home’ we are told, they are (or seem to be) ‘dew’ ‘June’. Much like the last stanza’s revelation that ‘today’s all picked | With its snow and rain | And pleasures’ the poem seems ‘picked’ with meaning. We understand the image of these lips having the comfort of ‘home’ and we understand the immediate beauty of ‘June’ and ‘dew’, though the greater sense can not be articulated – never has snow been more unexpected since it fell beside Louis MacNeice’s roses. Is this summer, or winter? Indeed is June a month, or a girl’s name? Is it simply there for the pleasing phonetic effect rendered by ‘home : dew – June.’

The physicality of Jackson’s poetry is one of its most appealing features for me. He has a rare ability to render a moment both erotic and touching. What was striking in the tutorial, was that the class focussed on the eroticism of this first part: ‘laying | Herself lightly, for a moment, | In me – giving herself –’ indicated to them that this was the language of lovers – and this is a fair and proper assumption, but as with any history drawn from scattered information, it is only part of the story. Here is the second scene:

2

She will no longer
Burst in at my door
To show me what, today,
She has been buying. I shall not now

Be putting out those bits of food,
When she blows in to
My room
Hungry. Her men

She’ll no more tell
Me of, when only her
Pen
Can speak : it cannot!

Have what we still
May, that daughter
Which she was to me
Is lost.

The class, which until this point had declared Jackson to be a ‘lovely, uplifting poet’ (and believe me, that’s a rare enough thing) now turned on him. He was being unreasonable. Was it really about his daughter, or was this a figurative daughter? They demanded biography. I refused to give it.

You see, Jackson did have a daughter – and I’ve gained an impression of her from reading his correspondence and other documents – but I don’t think that takes us any further in understanding the poem. The piece does not get any less surprising, and it would be a mistake to think that this poem summed up their relationship. These are, after all, only momentary ‘scenes’ from the history of two people. We must trust that hesitant voice at the start of the poem, for the narrator is dealing with something hard to articulate. The pen ‘cannot’ speak we are told, it merely forms images from which we develop the history.

Partly, I think, the group felt cheated by the poem – the revelation that it is a daughter comes late on after we have formulated a different judgement; but this does not render any of those feelings false. There’s a beautiful quality to his description of this flighty girl, cat-like feeding from the ‘bits of food’ he puts out for her. An immensely tender image of their relationship is formed here, and it seems only natural that he should view its ending with some regret, as Prospero at the end of The Tempest:

As great to me as late: and supportable
To make the dear loss, have I means much weaker
Than you may call to comfort you, for I
Have lost my daughter.

I don’t think I’ve resolved my thinking any further with this, but I’m starting to trust a little more that that may be intended.

Sunday, 13th May, 2012

As it’s the 50th anniversary of Tessimond’s death today, I wanted to post one more poem. I’ve been writing about him today, particularly about his somewhat unlikely love life. Biographically, it’d be easy to suggest that Tessimond didn’t understand relationships at all – this is a man who thought nothing of buying a plane ticket to Jamaica in order to find a woman he had never met, that he had fallen in love with, after seeing a poster for bananas; that the long succession of sexless relationships with prostitutes and nightclub hostesses seemed unlikely ever to have worked.

But I think this misses the point entirely. Tessimond understood love better than many people; understood the slow process by which we get to know another person. We do him, and indeed the nightclub hostesses, a disservice if we think that these relationships were not meaningful, important, tender.

‘Meeting, first published in the 1934 collection ‘The Walls of Glass’, describes just that. It appears at first to be comic anthropomorphism, though Tessimond set little store by that (‘A smiling dog’s the illusion | And wish-fulfilment of it’s owner’ – ‘Saving Grace’) but what it reaches is something powerful and wonderfully real.

Meeting

Dogs take new friends abruptly and by smell.
Cats’ meetings are neat, tactual, caressive.
Monkeys exchange their fleas before they speak.
Snakes, no doubt, coil by coil reach mutual knowledge.

We then, at first encounter, should be silent;
Not court the cortex but the epidermis;
Not work from the inside out but outside in;
Discover each other’s flesh, its scent and texture;
Familiarize the sinews and the nerve-ends,
The hands, the hair–before the inept lips open.

Instead of which we are resonant, explicit.
Our words like windows intercept our meaning.
Our four eyes fence and flinch and awkwardly
Wince into shadow, slide oblique to ambush.
Hands stir, retract. The pulse is insulated.
Blood is turned inwards, lonely; skin unhappy…
While always under all, but interrupted,
Antennæ stretch… waver… and almost… touch.

I’ve written a bit more about Tessimond here, and details of a forthcoming lecture I’m giving at The Walker Gallery in Liverpool are here.

Friday, 11th May, 2012

“A Person Come to Look at Pictures”: Tessimond at the Walker

Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL

Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 17 May 2012, 1-2 pm [Revised date]

In this fiftieth anniversary year of the death of the Birkenhead-born poet A.S.J. Tessimond we will explore his work revealing his friendship and collaboration with the artist Ceri Richards. Looking at Richards’ Mother and Child in the Walker collection and an unpublished long poem An A to Z of Advertising, this lecture presents a vivid portrait of the poet’s later years. CRN 16909

To book a place at these lectures, phone 0151 794 6900 or email conted@liv.ac.uk quoting the course reference number.

Friday, 11th May, 2012

Sunday 13th May, 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond.

The fact that you are reading this page, probably suggests that you have some awareness of Tessimond’s work – though the fact that your chosen search engine has led you here, is also an indication of how little is now known about the poet. In those fifty years since his death, almost all trace of A.S.J. Tessimond has disappeared.

Tessimond has joined the ranks of the lesser-known poets. A poet who certainly deserves our attention – who in his own lifetime was hugely popular – but who now is perhaps only known to a few. I want to briefly explore how that might have come about…

Read More…

Wednesday, 4th April, 2012

Tessimond Lectures, 2012

May this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond on whom I am currently writing a biography. To mark the event I will be giving a couple of free public lectures in the Liverpool area based on new research into both his life and his poetry. I also have an article on Tessimond in the current issue of The Reader magazine.

Lecture details:

Not art but Life: A.S.J Tessimond and the visual arts

Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight Village, Wirral, CH62 5EQ

Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 26 April at 2-3 pm

In the fiftieth year since his death, we will re-examine the work of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond who was born in Birkenhead in 1902. Popular in his own lifetime, his poetry has recently come back into print. Very little has been known about the man until now, but using new research this lecture explores for the first time the writer’s interest in art, poetry, and his life on the Wirral in the 1920s. CRN 16908

 “A Person Come to Look at Pictures”: Tessimond at the Walker

Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL

Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 17 May 2012, 1-2 pm [Revised date]

In this fiftieth anniversary year of the death of the Birkenhead-born poet A.S.J. Tessimond we will explore his work revealing his friendship and collaboration with the artist Ceri Richards. Looking at Richards’ Mother and Child in the Walker collection and an unpublished long poem An A to Z of Advertising, this lecture presents a vivid portrait of the poet’s later years. CRN 16909

To book a place at these lectures, phone 0151 794 6900 or email conted@liv.ac.uk quoting the course reference number.

Friday, 6th January, 2012

No. It is to
Be divested
Of everything we know, of all for
Which there’s concept: all
Clothes – and
To be dressed in new
There is now no
Word for
In our wardrobe.

from ‘From an Aeroplane’ by Dawson Jackson.

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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