Monday, 29 August 2011

Novels about Poets

Novels about Poets

In Cargo of Eagles, by Margery Allingham (1968), a detective story with the legendary sleuth Albert Campion, a minor character is a poet named HO Wishart who keeps a pub in an Essex village, the one he grew up in. 'A genuine minor poet and a white hope at one time.' (p.19) He is about 65 in 1966 and is said to have been in a book called Georgian Poetry - which would have been when he was about 13. There is quite a complicated plot which mainly involves faded scandals, 20 years before or even 50 years. Campion himself seems like a nostalgia item by this point. What Campion works out about Wishart is that, being a brilliant lad of humble background at Cambridge, he had written volumes of poetry for three well-off friends for them to publish under their names - against a bulky payment. This is possibly the only modern example of a poet making money. (Later we find out that it was Georgian Poetry volume 5, which fits slightly better.) The story goes -
'Think of your Cambridge friends, Colquhoun, Middlemass and Swinstead. Three dull men and all of them rich. Yet each of them produced an unlikely volume with remarkable literary qualities - very flattering to their vanity. I wonder who really wrote Mosaic to machine or Mandragora Days or Oh, Mr Cromek? Odd books to keep on your shelves, Mr Wishart, yet there they are right behind your head sitting next to the fifth volume of Georgian Poetry in which you figure." (p. 138) We do not find out how Campion knew that these men born around 1900 were dull or rich. Nor do we hear any of the forged poems- instead we get more of a tedious plot about crime and stuff like that. Who was Cromek? was this the origin of the Cambridge school?
Allingham is my favourite detective story writer. Reality barely intrudes but the fantasy is always rich, subtle, and light.

A Chymical Wedding, by Lindsey Clarke
The original ‘chymical wedding’ was one of the Rosicrucian tracts of around 1615 and refers to a conjunction of two elements, a compound - not to humans.

The character is based on George Barker, who lived in Norfolk for many years.

There is a parallel plot set in Victorian times and about religious doubt. This double line was very much the fashion in the 1980s. I didn’t really see that the 19th C plot was linked to the 20th C one. The depiction of the earthy and wilful poet-figure is brilliant but the book doesn’t really add up to a whole. The connection between the supernatural idea of conjunction etc. and the 20th C characters did not arrive.

Diawl y Wenallt, by Marcel Williams
The book is full of racy stories which do not add up to what you would think of as a whole novel, the characters do not acquire depth, but the individual sketches are funny, witty, and racy. I enjoyed this a lot. The book ends up with admiration for Thomas’ sexual energy and focus on pleasure, mocking the various more classically Welsh characters who disapprove of everything in sight. The depiction of Thomas in action is much more exciting than anything in the biographies. Drama is better than documentation.

Ffenestri tua’r gwyll, by Islwyn Ffowc Elis
The rather typically 1950s plot rotates around the emotional problems of a widow who has sacrificed her own artistic talent to a dominating husband and who now expresses herself through artistic patronage. This comes to include a young and stroppy poet and all too predictably she extends her interest beyond offers of money and good taste. This is very enjoyable although dated. It is rather like a film by Douglas Sirk. It also expresses a distrust of the North Welsh for the South Welsh working class. The youth is threateningly modernist and self-possessed. I didn’t quite get why a clergyman like Elis would believe in Freud so much when it comes to psychology, but the melodramatic plotting is so effective that this doesn’t seem to matter.

Festival at Fairbridge, by JB Priestley (1955)
This large-scale fresco of English life in the 1950s includes a brief scene in which we encounter the verse drama movement. Priestley, an unfashionable but great dramatist, is putting paid to the very fashionable verse dramatists here. Fairness or benevolence are not much on show. His parody of Fry’s writing is uncomfortably good. Priestley was more intelligent than everyone else around him but no one notices this if you come from Yorkshire. Verse drama became utterly unfashionable within a year or so of this novel's being published. I don't know if his depiction of the whole thing as emanating from a rich patron, and rotating around the whims of that person, is accurate, but it is convincing when you read it. The same novel includes a tour round the documentary film movement, which he also demolishes (and which was also heading for the end of the road around 1955). Priestley actually writes some of the poetry in question, unlike many novelists.

Enderby, by Anthony Burgess
Trilogy about a poet.

The Virgin in the Garden, by AS Byatt
describes someone who wrote verse drama during the brief boom in the early 50s. fails to produce any of his verse. Instead the book is just full of prose. set in North Yorkshire in the early 1950s, which is inherently interesting.

If pressed I would say I didn’t read novels but somehow, in bursts of inactivity, I must have done so.

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