The Here and the There – and the words that give you life

A launch 18 Sept at Time Out Bookshop in Mt Eden was of two new books of poems, Looking out to sea by Kevin Ireland, and Expecting Miracles by Peter Bland, two octogenarians, two characters, not dissimilar, though with the difference it makes to have been born here (Kevin) or born there (Peter). Kevin’s life has fallen into three parts – New Zealand roughly 25 years, England/Europe the next 25, and the rest New Zealand – though this latter third has been complicated by a late (third) marriage to a New Zealander living in Oxford – Janet Wilson, daughter of the late Phil Wilson (fiction writer, one of the ‘Sons of Sargeson’) and herself an academic specializing in Commonwealth literature. This marriage has the two of them hiking back and forth between the here and the there. Kevin was about to take off for the UK the day after the launch.

And that – the hiking back and forth – has been very much UK-born Peter’s life until recently he sorted out his differences with New Zealand Immigration, and his passport, and settled finally in Auckland where at least two, possibly three, of his children are living. Peter’s children, by the way, had done the covers of these two books – Carl Bland had done Peter’s and Joanna Bland, Kevin’s.

C. K. Stead and Kevin Ireland at Time Out Bookshop. Photo by Robert O'Neill.

There was a time when Peter and his New Zealand-born wife Beryl used to make, and announce every second or third year, a ‘final’ decision to settle at one end of the earth or the other – each of these decisions accompanied by the purchase of a house even grander than the last. Perhaps these decisions were partly determined by fluctuations in the rate of exchange. (And possibly my recollections are more picturesque than precise.) But certainly they moved a lot, to and fro between NZ and the UK, moves influenced often by opportunities in the theatre, because Peter has always been actor as well as poet – most memorably for me in the movie of the Ronald Hugh Morrieson novel Came a Hot Friday where he appeared as Wes Pennington along with Billy T James who was the Te Whakinga Kid. Peter was one of the founders of Downstage Theatre in Wellington. He has a wonderful rich voice and is to be heard sometimes as a reader on National Radio.

Peter Bland at Time Out Bookshop. Photo by Robert O'Neill.

The two and fro nature of the Blands’ life is caught in the title of his memoir, Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself... which is also an 8-line poem:

Sorry, I'm a stranger here myself

but I know the seasons
come into it, and wars,
and the shape of a particular landscape
we try to call our own, and the sea
with all that space and distance,
and fellow-travellers we meet on the road,
and the dead of course who were here before us,
and the millions more who have yet to come...

Beryl died in 2009, and some of the poems in Peter’s new collection are a continuation, a step onward but still looking back, from the very moving and eloquent elegies published in his last book. Since the stunning title poem of Kevin’s book is addressed to his younger brother who died two years ago, there was a strong elegiac flavour to the launch, though it was certainly not a sad occasion – not possible with these two, Peter the large (6ft 3 at least) actor who has a big voice and something of the manner of the sad clown; and Kevin, an inch or two shorter, but also large and loud, bon viveur, joker, red wine man. Each is enough to fill a room; as a pair they make a crowd – and their publisher, Roger Steele, almost matching them in size and volume, and fluent in Maori (though there was less of that than his usual on this occasion), is the sort of person anyone would want if there was a launch speech to be made.

What these two poets are on the page is dependable. They have lived through a lot of the flurry and scuffle of modernisms and post-modernisms, not entirely unconscious or unaffected, probably formally less constrained and more inventive than would have been the case if those movements had not occurred, but not too fussed by fashion either; concerned most of all to mean something, to make good sense, to write well, feel deeply and be understood. Octogenarian virtues? Perhaps yes, but not old fogue ones – not at all. They are too lively for that, too adroit, too naturally on-the-page entertainers, engaging your mind, your sense of language, how it plays, and plays out, and... engaging!

At the Ireland/Bland launch Roger Steele mentioned the recent death of W.H. (Bill) Oliver, poet and historian, who must have been 90. I think of Oliver in conjunction with his near contemporary, fellow poet and historian Keith Sinclair. I knew them both, Sinclair as a colleague and long-time friend, Oliver as a familiar academic acquaintance with whom I had intermittent dealings. There was a great contrast between them – both of exceptional intelligence, Sinclair the healthy pagan, so full of action, energy and impatience, so quick in thought and conversation, Oliver the serious Christian, quiet, measured, dependable: not the contrast of the quick and the dead but of the quick and the careful. For both, poetry came second to history, though I don’t think happily so in either case. Keith would have liked to have been poet first, and I think fiction writer as well. Oliver in his late memoir says of himself at school, ‘if my activities suggested that I wanted to be anything in particular, it was to be a poet.’ But history claimed them both. Each offered, early in a distinguished career, an account of our history, Sinclair A History of New Zealand (1959), Oliver The Story of New Zealand (1960).

Bill Oliver. Photo by Victoria Birkinshaw.

Here is Oliver’s comparison of the two books: ‘altogether unlike [...] Sinclair’s is nervy, energetic and staccato and mine smooth, restrained and laid-back; his tone is nationalistic and mine determinedly provincial. [...] In these two books two not readily compatible New Zealands each found expression. [...] Aptly enough, these two were fashioned in Auckland and Christchurch. Each of us set out to explore a country which he needed to understand, for his own sake and for that of his contemporaries.’

Of his writing in the 1940 and ‘50s, when he established himself among the new young New Zealand poets, Oliver writes, ‘Considerably influenced by Wordsworth’s Prelude, I worked in a romantic mode and, as tramping extended my horizons in the later 1940s, took from landscape a set of images to express (and as surely to conceal) my hopes and fears. [...] The more decorous of these [poems] were published in Fire without phoenix [1957]. Sometimes it seems to me that I have been looking for the phoenix ever since.’ So the memoir, published in 2002, is called Looking for the Phoenix. He had a late return to poetry, with a collection called Out of Season in 1980, and Poor Richard in 1982. I’m not aware that there were any more after that. In his later life he was best known as Professor of History at Massey University, and editor of our Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, which Keith Sinclair says he (Sinclair, assisted by whisky) persuaded Rob Muldoon to establish. Oliver and his close associate Bridget Williams together designed and edited the Oxford History of New Zealand; and Oliver was involved for many years with the Waitangi Tribunal, and with the University Grants Committee.

While studying in Oxford on a post-graduate scholarship from New Zealand in the early 1950s, Oliver had moved to high Anglicanism, and then, back in New Zealand, to Catholicism, which seems to have lasted a decade or two and then faded slowly away to nothing. He records that he passed through rejection of faith ‘with a sigh of relief and an unaccustomed sense of peace.’

I have all three of his collections of poetry on my shelves, along with the memoir; also a post-primary schools bulletin he wrote in 1960 called Poetry in New Zealand, and a pictorial biography he wrote of James K. Baxter. I find in the back of my copy of Fire without phoenix a note, ‘25 poems, 663 lines’; and then ‘John Wain, A word carved on a sill, 26 poems, about 500 lines’. I must have been planning to put together my first collection for a publisher, and was checking these details to see how mine might measure up.

Oliver had been part of the lively group – Alistair Campbell, Erik Schwimmer, Pat Wilson (not to be confused with Phil Wilson – above) and Hubert Witheford – who in the 1940s at Victoria published the literary magazines Hilltop and then Arachne. Years later, in Palmerston North, he wrote a series of sonnets commemorating the first three, and adding Charles Brasch, James K. Baxter and Louis Johnson. Baxter he remembers as ‘the prodigious poet in his drinking days’ who ‘swept Wellington like a shower of broken glass / blown from the stricken south.’ Brasch was ‘a man at odds with his time’ writing of ‘Virgilian / vines in Otago wastes’. Alistair Campbell was ‘unduly solemn / and that other rare thing Polynesian / though that had not started to matter /as more than a grace note.’ Pat Wilson was ‘one of the wholly innocent’ who ‘valued / light on water, girls with bright names, a clarinet / bubbling with joy, and Blake’s entire absolution.’ Erik Schwimmer was ‘such a deep diver / it was always an open question whether the pearls / he brought up were worth all that shortness of breath.’ Of Louis Johnson Oliver says the critics (I was one of them) ‘were less than fair’ to him, though it was ‘true, in prose / his sentences revealed great gaping wounds’, and he ‘wrote too much’.

Oliver wanted to record an attachment to these poets, he says in his memoir, because (and it’s a commendable and memorable sentence) ‘in their company I first learned that words, if they did not quite earn you a living, at least gave you a life.’

I’ve been looking at the books of some of those associates of Oliver’s. I have Pat Wilson’s first book of poems, The Bright Sea, published in1951 (price 3/6) – one of those little blue paperbacks done by the Pegasus Press in Christchurch in the 1950s which included Hubert Witheford’s The Falcon mask, and Louis Johnson’s Roughshod among the lilies. Wilson’s poems are sparely written and full of real charm. Oliver says of him, ‘At the time I did not recognise the virtue of his restraint, his distaste for rhetoric and his avoidance of any but the most understated gestures.’

I also have Hubert Witheford’s collection Shadow of the flame, published by Bob Lowry in Auckland in 1950, with woodcuts by Mervyn Taylor. Witheford was another avoider of rhetoric, who had learned stylistic economy from Pound, but had just possibly taken on board some of Pound’s politics as well. At least there is an unpleasant ring to statements like, ‘One cannot regard the trim State housing settlements without thinking they imply the atomic bomb.’ This was in their journal Arachne of February 1951, where Erik Schwimmer praised Witheford as ‘the first New Zealand poet able to express his deepest experience through the medium of hard abstract thought.’

Both Witheford and Wilson took the usual intellectual/academic path of the time, to England. Witheford’s third collection, The lightning makes a difference, published in London in 1962 by The Brookside Press, divides between dissatisfactions in New Zealand, and a sort of dour relief to be at last in England.

Your fear? Not what you knew before,
That ever-clutching, narrowing constraint,
A broader thing, almost a touch of awe,
Meeting what is not you. Not hostile, not concerned,
The wood around you waits.
And you must wait – and watch. Stand in the gentle rain.
Put down your heavy load.

I got to know both Witheford and Wilson in London in 1965 when Douglas Cleverdon of the BBC gave me the task of organising a reading of New Zealand poetry at the Royal Court Theatre for the Commonwealth Arts Festival of that year. I engaged them both to read, along with Fleur Adcock and Basil Dowling, also living in the UK, and myself, there on sabbatical leave.

Witheford was writing new poems, and gave me a carbon copy of a collection, A native, perhaps beautiful, which would be published a couple of years later by the Caxton Press. I reviewed it admiringly in Landfall, focussing especially on his strange and extraordinary poem ‘Barbarossa’, about the Napier earthquake which (like Lauris Edmond) he remembered from his childhood.

After that it seemed Witheford went silent as a poet for 27 years, until his next book, A Blue Monkey for the Tomb, (a collection so slight you have to look twice, and carefully, to recognize its genuine magic) was published by Faber in 1994. Christopher Reid, who had become poetry editor at Faber after Craig Raine, ran a creative writing class, I think in Hampstead, to which came an elderly retired civil servant whose minimalist talent impressed him so much he published a collection. I’m not sure whether he knew at the time that this stranger was known and anthologised as a poet in New Zealand. Possibly not.

The bio note for the book says Witheford was born in New Zealand in 1921, and in 1953 moved with his wife and son to England, ‘where he joined the Central Office of Information.’ (In fact he rose to be its Director.) ‘After his retirement in 1981,’ the note concludes, ‘a return to New Zealand proved briefer than he had envisaged.’

This deliberately laconic note, written, I’m sure, by Witheford himself, can be fully understood only if you have read The Quick Word, the third volume of Lauris Edmond’s autobiography, and know that Witheford appears there disguised as ‘Chester Wadsworth’. Bill Oliver also figures in it, also disguised, as ‘Ted Green’, another of the lovers of this phase of Lauris’s well-documented liberation.

Pat Wilson married in England and remained there for the rest of his life. He was for many years a valued lecturer in the philosophy of education at the University of London’s Goldsmith’s College. A second collection of his poems, At the window, was published by the Nag’s Head Press in Christchurch 1997. He died in 2009.

We were lucky to have (or perhaps in the case of Witheford and Wilson I should to say to share) these poets, and they should not be forgotten.

– C. K. Stead

The poetry of fact

In an interview that marked the end of his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Sir Geoffrey Hill was asked what he wanted from contemporary poetry. He began – and ended – with a negative. 'I don't want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem. I think one of the most dreadful sounds in all of modern culture is what I will call the poetry recital chortle, and most contemporary poems seem to me to be written in order to arouse the desire of the listener to chuckle appreciatively.'

Michael Schmidt uses this quotation in his editorial introducing the new PN Review. My feelings about it are mixed. I understand the rather dour intellectual Hill’s dislike of poetry as entertainment/poets as stand-up comics, which I suspect lies behind it. My notion of poetry is, like Hill’s, one of (I will give it capitals) High Art, which of course does not exclude wit. But the gap between ‘funny’ and ‘witty’, between Johnny Depp and Johnny Donne, is a mile wide. ‘Performance poetry’ only matters when the Poetry (capitals again) survives the Performance and lives on the Page. So I can agree with Hill to that extent; but Hill’s own poetry is Hard Work. It has a Miltonic, Old Testament feel about it. You have to be in good intellectual shape to approach it – it requires that of you.

Milton’s God-obsession is comprehensible given the times and circumstances it springs from, and the state of knowledge at that time; but the same dour obsession in the 21st Century seems to me less explicable – in some moods, almost inexcusable. Charles Tomlinson (a poet I’m sure I did less than justice to in my last blog) says in an interview, ‘I happen to think, with Santayana, that “Religious doctrines would do well to withdraw their pretension to be dealing with fact.” It’s no longer possible [he goes on] to reinstate seventeenth century, basically medieval criteria of belief – criteria from times when it was virtually possible to believe anything.’

Temperamentally, then, I would prefer, not a less serious, but perhaps a lighter, touch than Hill’s; and intellectually, one that occupied the terrifying real universe science is revealing to us. It will be interesting to see what the new Professor, Simon Armitage, makes of the role. He has said he will try for ‘something a little more contemporary.’ And ‘I feel I’d like to bring things up to date.’

I have a distant interest in all this because a couple of Kiwis in Oxford last year, wanting to move the Professorship offshore for a change, had the idea of nominating me for the post. In the end they threw in their lot with the move to nominate the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka; and the chance of that nomination succeeding was probably effectively scuppered when famous British Melvin Bragg said publicly that Soyinka (my age) was ‘too old and too grand’. It’s a strange notion that one can be ‘too grand’ for Oxford’s chair of poetry, a seat occupied not too long ago by W.H. Auden, Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon. I didn’t think I would be elected (too old, and not grand enough!) but I would have enjoyed the election process – and the job too, if it had come to me.

It will be interesting to see what Armitage (a pleasant person and talented poet) will make of it.

I will add a recent poem of my own here relevant to the discussion above about the God-obsession and its relevance or otherwise in the 21st century.

The poetry of fact

On board Apollo 13

on their slingshot return

from the mission which failed to land them on

the moon,

oxygen diminishing

CO2 increasing

temperature dropping and

batteries failing

they had to get a precise

angle of re-entry.


Too steep and they would burn,

too fine, they would bounce off

earth’s envelope of air

and away into space for ever.


Prayer would not help

though by now the whole world –

the President

the Pope

the people in Times Square –

were praying.


To do the job

they needed Physics

and after the Physics,

Maths –

just numbers you could say

or an illustration

of how hard the hard facts can be,

how exacting

and necessary

and how beautiful

when you get them right.

I was briefly in Wellington about my appointment as Laureate and ran into British academic and Mansfield specialist, Dr Gerri Kimber, on a winter visit from the U.K. and hard at work in the Turnbull Library on her biography of Mansfield’s early years. That evening I heard a very lively talk she gave at the Wellington City Gallery about the discovery she has made in the Newberry Library, Chicago, of a collection of 32 Mansfield poems, only 7 of them previously known – a discovery at once exciting and inconvenient. Dr Kimber is deviser and Series Editor of the Edinburgh University Press four volume Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, and the find is exciting because she considers these poems to be up with the very best Mansfield ever wrote. It is inconvenient, on the other hand, because Volume three has already appeared and is supposed to contain Mansfield’s complete poems and critical writing. So what is to be done with this collection of poems but stuff them in at the end of Volume four, Mansfield’s notebooks, currently being edited and annotated by Dr Kimber and Professor Claire Davison of the Sorbonne?

Katherine Mansfield at her work table, Villa Isola, Menton, France. Ref: 1/2-011985-F.

What makes the find special is that it appears Mansfield put the poems together in 1910 as a single collection and offered it (unsuccessfully) to a London publisher – after which it mysteriously vanished into a private collection. It has therefore a certain unity and coherence, and the freshness of Mansfield at that early stage in her career. Here is an example, showing, among much else, the influence of Russian literature that was so strong throughout her career:

In the swiftly moving sleigh
We sat curled up under the bear skin rugs
And talked of the dangers of life
The afternoon froze into twilight, profounder than night
The trees in the forest through which we passed
Were patterned like monstrous weeds on a lake of ice . .
You told me all your adventures
And though they were very terrible and violent
I could not help laughing, sometimes you ceased speaking
Turned to me with funny gravity
‘I just escaped being killed.’
Then our laughter rang over the snow
I told you of three wrecks I had been in
Of a fire – and the time I was all-but-drowned in a river . .
Ever faster galloped the horses
The moon rose, touching the fantastic land with her silver fingers
How eloquently we described our adventures!
But it was useless.
They flew into space on the wings of our laughter . .
Curled up under the bear skin rugs.
We drove – it seemed – through the foam that breaks over the world edge.
On the one great adventure
That held us in silence and gravity.

In the view of Dr Kimber and Professor Davison ’s these poems show Mansfield moving ‘away from the influence of Wilde and fin-de-siècle symbolism towards the more complex neo-romanticism and early modernism of continental Europe.’

I have always been slightly sceptical about Mansfield as a poet. The last time I offered an opinion on the subject was February 1990 when I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement a selection of her poems edited by Vincent O’Sullivan. Here are two paragraphs of that review:

There have been half a dozen poems worthy of serious attention, and of those, two in particular have been rightly favoured by anthologists. One is the formal sonnet about the death of her brother in the First World War – a poem as tight, unflinching, strong and clear in its feeling as the best of Wilfred Owen. The other, ‘To Stanislaw Wyspianski’ is a romantic rhapsodic Whitmanesque piece in which Mansfield speaks out as a woman and a New Zealander, and in which one can see a talent not yet disciplined, but not yet curbed either.

For the rest there is a great deal of charm, some examples of the Mansfield wit, and increasingly the sense of a physical decline which robs her poetry of its native vitality. At her best in prose or verse Mansfield has the ability to speak right out of the middle of the note. But her poems look increasingly bruised and defeated. The spring goes out of their step. In the end she is simply sorry for herself. She has every reason to be but it doesn’t make the best use of her talent.

So here is a reason to celebrate Dr Kimber’s discovery – a small collection of poems written by Mansfield before her skies began to fall on her, or at least at a time when she was strong enough to cope with the falling. But how do they stand up? The poem quoted above is a good example: it has youthful vitality, the warmth of human association, immediacy, a sense of fun. It’s like a lamb leaping in spring: it is not only natural to respond with pleasure – it’s inevitable, unavoidable. But lurking somewhere as I read and enjoy is the spoilsport (whispered) question: is it a poem?

It is the same question that lurks when one reads the poems of Janet Frame. There is the immediacy that comes with talent – both have enormous resources of that. But where is the form that distinguishes a poem from prose? This is a very complex question, because form does not have to mean rhyme, or measureable metres, or a count of syllables, or even a pattern that has ever been used before or since. Nonetheless one believes one has an instinct for it and knows it is there – or that it is not. And I note that I had written all this before checking what Allen Curnow says about ‘To Stanislaw Wyspianski’ and finding that, though admiring, and writing about it at some length, he describes it as ‘a half-poem’, and as ‘passionate stumbling prose (for it is barely verse)’.

Would it be fair to say that the recently discovered poem quoted above is charming and skilful but formless? And if I do tend towards that opinion, is mine only a male response – and anyway, does it matter? Maybe we should just take what we are offered and be grateful?

Let the conversation continue!

– C. K. Stead

Mont Sainte-Victoire

The inauguration as poet Laureate went off well, despite the fact that it was NZ Poetry Day and there were readings and book launches going on simultaneously elsewhere in town. A distinguished group of friends, fellow writers, and family, a warm and sociable Minister (Maggie Barry), and a venue (the Auckland Branch of the National Library) nicely prepared by the staff – my thanks to them all.

There was one thing I had intended to say in my speech and forgot, so I will say it here. Some years ago I chaired a session at the Wellington Writers’ Festival, an hour with the distinguished German poet Hans Magnus Enzensburger. Enzensburger was reflecting on the strangeness of the phenomenon of poetry, and said it was the only industry he could think of where the producers exceeded the consumers in number. What I meant to add to this remark was that this fact is a source of poetry’s strength: it can’t be commercialized, or corporatized. It’s one of the few areas of life in New Zealand at the moment not in danger of international ‘investment’. There’s no money in it, and it can’t go bust – which is one of the reasons it survives. So many are doing it, and will go on doing it, privately, even secretly, sometimes hopefully, often with no hope at all that anyone will be interested in what they write, or ever publish it. It’s a reflection of our fascination with language, human kind’s primary tool, and what distinguishes us on our planet. It’s why poetry flourishes during economic depressions, finds work for itself in times of war, goes underground and gains power there under political repression. There is something necessary about poetry, something mysterious, a force. It’s a minority art practiced by so many, even more written than read, but a constant.

The British poet Charles Tomlinson died on 22 August aged 88. The following is from a memoir I am intermittently writing, this extract about my time as a PhD student on a scholarship from New Zealand at the University of Bristol, 1957-59, where my supervisor was Professor L.C. Knights, and Tomlinson was a member of the English Department:

Another visitor to the Department was the Canadian-born, American-by-adoption, critic Hugh Kenner, already a notable Eliot scholar. I don’t now remember much of his lecture but I remember his natty bow tie and mop of curly hair, and how his at first disconcerting speech (a consequence of deafness in childhood) contrasted with Lionel Knights’s smoothness and fluency introducing him; and yet how the keen intelligence and originality shone through. This was the man who made me aware I needed to know more about Ezra Pound, and who gave the idea of ‘Modernism’ an intellectual edge – made a puzzle and a challenge of it.

One purpose of Kenner’s Bristol visit was to cement his association with Charles Tomlinson, a junior lecturer in the Department, and the only British poet whose work Kenner felt was in tune with important things that were going on in American poetry. I can’t now quite disengage my present overview of Kenner from the much less I would have known about him then. He is author of one of the great books of twentieth century literary criticism, The Pound Era (1972) – great not only for its intelligence and scholarship but for liveliness, originality and readability. Yet Kenner can also seem at times a critic with quite extreme quirks and crankiness, prone to clever but absurd overstatement, like a brilliant drunk in full flight. But in that year he was giving Charles Tomlinson a start he might never otherwise have had, putting him in direct touch with American poets he admired, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, and persuading his own American publisher, McDowell Obolensky, to take Tomlinson’s collection of poems, Seeing is believing, which no publisher in England (Charles said he’d tried them all) would touch.

This was the time when the British poets of the Movement, in reaction against the flamboyance of Dylan Thomas, George Barker and the ‘new Romantics’ of the 1940s, were being defined and displayed in anthologies, from which Tomlinson had been excluded. Hell hath no fury like a poet shut out of a currently fashionable anthology, and Tomlinson was busy scourging the Movement in journals on either side of the Atlantic – in Poetry (Chicago), and in Essays in Criticism (Oxford) where he devoted no fewer than nine pages to the punishment of what he called ‘the Middlebrow Muse’. These reviews were followed up with the same message when he was given the chapter ‘Poetry Today’ to write for the distinctly Leavisite Pelican Guide to English Literature, Volume 7, edited by Boris Ford.

To me Tomlinson appeared as an interesting specimen of one kind of Englishness, a man whose father sometimes believed, and liked to claim, he was of Royal blood on the wrong side of the blanket, and that he had married beneath him in that his wife, the poet’s mother, had been a Leicestershire mill-girl. Tomlinson senior had lost his job as foreman in a factory that made jam-pots, but was expert at fishing in the canals – which must have made the Eliot lines especially redolent to the son when he first encountered them in ‘The Waste Land’:

While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck.

As a student at Cambridge Tomlinson had not been happy until, I think in his second year, Donald Davie became his tutor. Davie, who can’t have been many years older than his charge, was also a poet, alert to what was happening in the American poetry scene, a critic as readable as Kenner but less eccentric, and interested especially in the syntax of poetry which he characterized as ‘articulate energy’. He and Tomlinson formed a bond that lasted a lifetime.

After graduating, and teaching unhappily in a school in Camden Town, Tomlinson scored a post as private secretary to the British writer Percy Lubbock, then living in Italy, in Lerici; but he was dismissed after three weeks, probably, he thought, because his genteel employer found his flat Midlands ‘a’ vowel unacceptable. Lubbock, he said, believed even ‘ants’ should be pronounced ‘aunts’ – but he allowed Charles and his wife Brenda to stay on there in a villino adjoining the gardener’s cottage, thus giving the Tomlinson sensibility an Italian airing from which it never looked back. It was a region the couple were to return to often.

Tomlinson was seven years my senior and, though only a junior lecturer, was my senior also in status. We were amiably aware of one another without being close, and met regularly in graduate seminars, presided over by Knights and attended by most of the English Department staff. In 1958 he and Brenda had just moved to a rural location with the wonderfully English address of Brook Cottage, Ozleworth Bottom, Wotton-under-Edge. There was no phone, and never would be one. If a phone-call was necessary they climbed the hill to a pay-phone. Charles and Brenda had met while in their teens and were still married at his death 70 years later. The cottage was to remain their home. They would travel a great deal, but always come back to it. Their two daughters grew up there. Charles was also admired as a painter but I don’t recall that I ever saw any of his work.

Many years later, at a conference in Tubingen on poetry and regionalism, he and I would reminisce warmly about the L.C. Knights days in Bristol. By that time, I noticed, the Midlands accent was pretty-much gone, replaced (though perhaps not with absolute security) by what used to be called R.P. – received pronunciation – meaning ‘correct’. Knights had long since moved back to Cambridge, to the King Edward VII Chair, where F.R. Leavis, his old colleague and more famous contributor to the critical journal Scrutiny, who would probably have liked that eminent seat for himself, referred to him as ‘Professor Judas’. This Regius chair should have been the ultimate academic triumph for Knights but when I visited him there, and he walked me in Queen’s College gardens, and took me to lunch in the College, it was soon apparent he was not altogether happy. To Frank Kermode, who would succeed him there, he reported his dissatisfactions and remarked, ‘Oh for the road not taken!’. I have no idea what this alternative road might have been.

Tomlinson stayed on in the Bristol Department his whole working life, in the end I think occupying the Winterstoke professorship, the one Knights had held in the 1950s.

But in 1957 I was (perhaps without good reason, certainly without careful consideration) put off his poetry partly just by his manner in person, a look of depleted energy, in fact of such profound, unrelenting weariness, I felt if it was not an illness it had to be an affectation; and by something in the lines themselves – a kind of disengagement, as if the words had been chosen with immense care, but with a faint feeling of distaste.

To Charles Brasch I wrote that Seeing is Believing was probably a good collection, certainly displaying ‘a sharp visual perception driving a keen intelligence – but a little precious, a little gutless.’

The extract ends there. I wish I could say the effect of Tomlinson’s death has been to make me recognize my error, but I have looked again at some of his poetry and find there’s a difference of temperament so absolute that my mind begins to shut off when I read him. Two critics I greatly admire, American Hugh Kenner and British Donald Davie, have told me I am wrong about Tomlinson. But where Davie finds in his work ‘an exquisitely accurate register of sense impressions’, I run up against what seems to me a wall of abstraction and effete discourse.

These are the critical conversations poetry constantly requires those of us who are serious about it to have – and there are no right answers, no final resolutions.

Try for yourself. Here are some lines by Tomlinson which Davie strongly recommends because, he says, they ‘insist upon the Otherness of the non-human world.’ Perhaps they do, and you will see what he means. They come from a poem called ‘Cézanne at Aix’, so I assume the mountain is Mont Sainte-Victoire, which Cézanne painted so often:

And the mountain: each day
Immobile like fruit. Unlike, also
–Because irreducible, because
Neither a component of the delicious
And therefore questionable,
Nor distracted (as the sitter)
By his own pose and, therefore,
Doubly to be questioned: it is not
Posed.  It is.  Untaught
Unalterable, a stone bridgehead
To that which is tangible
Because unfelt before. There
In its weathered weight
Its silence silences, a presence
Which does not present itself.

Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne, via Wikimedia Commons.

– C. K. Stead