Fluid Jewels: James Kirkup 1918-2009
Anecdote. In 1976, Kirkup published a poem in Gay News which referred to the sexuality of Christ and led to a successful prosecution of the editor for blasphemy. I was a student, and a fellow-student reported that his father could remember playing rugby with Kirkup, around 1940 possibly, and was indignant that someone gay had infiltrated the scrum. We all thought this was funny. Whether the courts should have been poring over this poem is another question. We don’t have figures about how many people in that scrum were gay.
In a previous piece I wrote: “Allott anthologised a poem of Kirkup which was a documentary: he was asked to watch a heart operation and to describe it. It is a good poem, he was accurate like a draughtsman. He could write about many different subjects but did not show a central sensibility, conceptual or linguistic. His poems remain enigmatic because they do not leave much trace. It may be that James Kirkup’s nimbleness and stylistic inconsistency were connected with his status as a homosexual, as a gay chameleon. This possibly indicates why heterosexuality is signalled by dullness and self-repetition: to show gravitas and fitness to hold power. This would give us a link between personality and style. In fact, Kirkup may qualify as a genuine outsider: that was his situation, although his poems conform in every other way to the norms of poets writing in the 1950s and 1960s.”
That leaves out his 40s poetry, and the obvious fact that his chameleon powers made him very prolific. Even in 1943, Wrey Gardiner’s firm (GWP) brought out a volume of his, a shared one with John Bayliss and J. Ormond Thomas. “The Glass Fable” was published in Poetry Quarterly in 1943 – I happen to have that issue. If he was born in 1923, then he wrote this poem when he was 20: however, all the newspaper obituaries give the date as 1918. Allott’s Penguin anthology gives 1923, which was surely supplied by the poet. Fable is said to be part of a longer poem about myth, which was published in a 1947 volume shared with Ross Nichols, future head of the Druid Order. It is influenced by Edith Sitwell. The number of male poets influenced by women is fairly low – this was a direction British poetry failed to go in. Fable reads like a ballet libretto, is full of descriptions of precious stones, has a landscape which is an emanation of subjective states, raises individuals to the level of myth, has subtle phonetic effects. This is what Sitwell was doing. “The Glass Fable” was published in 1943. Cultural controls were down in wartime, and this is closer to being an explicitly homoerotic poem than the work of poets who came before or after. The theme is of a prince and a shepherd (the staging is like a ballet or a pantomime) who have a dream about each other which leads them to meet. The shepherd boy gets over-excited
His arms are stretched, and twist
like sheets of mist
the trees at anchor swim
his chrysalis of smoke contains
his heart, shaped like a moth
or the velvet arches of his mouth.
His fingers are outsprayed, distinct
aesthetic feelers, and his antlered senses
along the sinews of his waving form.
The date is in a palace made entirely of precious stones. “The crystal floors are deep, and spring/ from wells of molten glass”: so the solid level of glass that you can walk on is linked to a reservoir where the glass is still liquid. I think we are looking at precious bodily fluids here, at least something which is precious and a fluid. These lines explain the title. We seem to have a problem with adornment here, not that the jewellery is fake but that the person wearing them is not genuinely female. The liquid phase of the glass seems to take over; the palace collapses around their heads. The poem says:
I am the question
only you can answer.
He rises, slowly, in a long,
an iridescent manuscript
is buried in the tomb of his loins
This is reasonably close to gay erotica. It can be linked to Symbolisme, obviously, but can also be seen as the pole of poetry closest to opera and ballet, and furthest from documentary. Kirkup’s characters in Fable do not get dialogue, but the scenery is wholly expressive. Why classical music should have pursued specific conventions is too large a theme to open – of course dance followed all kinds of other directions after 1945 – but in 1943 there was a specific sensibility prevailing and you knew what kind of evening you were going to have if you visited the opera or the ballet. The link with gay life is well-known, even if most of the steady audience weren’t gay. Writing about precious stones at length is probably not something a heterosexual man would have done at that time. I bring this up (briefly) in order to clarify what Kirkup was about: there was an Apocalyptic style which many poets were using at that time, especially poets born between 1910 and 1920, but you can’t fit Kirkup into it. If you saw the great New Romantic exhibition at the Barbican in 1987, you may well have seen Leslie Hurry’s painted backdrop for Robert Helpmann’s production of Hamlet (the play) as the most exciting thing in the whole building. There was a style of subjective and poetic theatre at that time, summed up in Hurry’s imaginative costume and backdrop designs, which was just as much an artistic centre as the Apocalyptics, and which Kirkup fitted into. The “iridescent manuscript” looks meaningless and a lot of images in 1943 were low on meaning. Iris is rainbow, a thing which shines and has bright colours, so we could draw this back to “illuminated”, a word which does go with “manuscript”. Mediaeval manuscripts were made of skin, as loins are. Manuscripts are written by hand, and the contact of hand, eyes, and loins may be significant here. The “tomb” bit is not obvious but could refer to the repressed, hidden, etc. The passage is unclear, but at times the less integrated an image is the more motivated it is.
Kirkup became eminent, and got his Oxford UP deal, by writing documentary poems. The one Allott picked up for his standard anthology is about a heart operation, which Kirkup was present at (around 1953?) with the aim of recording it. Kirkup’s facility at making real events into credible verse was astounding. Poems like “The Observatory” have an on-the-spot feel, a cosiness, a commentary tone, which are strongly reminiscent of television. This was a new tone for poetry, back in 1955. Kirkup showed adaptability but that could also mean shedding ambitions. He wrote two poems to Queen Elizabeth, (for her birthday in 1953) and her coronation (also in 1953). The coronation was the event which made British TV. The commentator was the educated voice which was acceptable in every household. Kirkup’s willingness to achieve popularity, and to write fluently and superficially, was extreme. The coronation poem is one of the most revealing. His interest in frocks and jewels was not feigned. Personally, he seems to have started with poetry which was over-wrought and much too emotional (The Last Man, The Sleeper in the Earth) and migrated to poetry which was decorative and had far too little emotional commitment. Documentary was a key issue of the Sixties and Seventies, seen as a means of opening up parts of national life which an official view had firmly kept invisible. It was an area of excitement. But he had no interest in social issues. As documentary became more and more exciting and politically charged, he gave it up. He had no interest in sociology and was much better at visual details than at human relations. He lacked ambition after 1960.
The cover of the 1996 Salzburg UP book I have is by James Dickey and says “One is bothered as much as delighted by the cleverness of the poems, and by seeing many promising themes dissolve into conventionally pretty descriptions. You feel, not really the painful search to know and to grasp something, but that, for the bright and witty, everything is already known. These poems don’t develop well, either, they stand still and elaborate[.]” This was written in 1968, so late enough for JK’s work to be in plain sight. “Dependably and even remarkably brilliant”, Dickey says. I am amazed that the publisher put the core defects of the poetry in the cover text, but this is very good criticism. I think that JK lost interest in around 1963, and that being so fluent was not good because it led him to write very numerous poems which were almost indistinguishable from hundreds of other poems being written by published academic poets in the same year. The change may connect to being dropped by Oxford University Press, or to maturity. Perhaps he stopped writing autobiographical poems because, after 40, his biography wasn’t all that interesting. So, in the Forties the theme was romantic myth and Kirkup wrote such poems, in the Fifties empiricism was the doctrine and Kirkup wrote long documentary poems. You could see this as conformism or simply as the result of being sensitive to other people’s wishes and feelings. Either way, Kirkup gave up trying to write personal myth. His poetry made a transition to being shallow and disengaged, travel poetry which suffered from the problems of tourism. Was this part of the Sixties? It was an era of convenience, tourism for example was meant to be casual, undemanding, assured, smooth. Kirkup was writing convenience poetry, light and reliable like a modern camera. Arguably he was again reproducing the feel of an era. Salzburg University Press brought out a “selected” poems in four volumes, about 900 pages. What we need to know about centres on the long poems of the 40s and 50s, such as ‘The Glass Fable”, “The Last Man”, and “The Observatory”. In the potholing poem he writes:
Here too hang from the walls high terraced gardens
Of starry crystals, arcades, tapestries and grilles
Of candied petals, leaves and branches,
Calcite shawls, veils, laces, curtains, trophies and swags
Of stalactite, translucent fold-on-fold of mineral draperies,
Crowns, auroras and sepulchres of stony snow,
And looped lucent sheets that sound,
Drummed with the fingers, like an orchestra of tympani
In deep sub-dominant and dominant accord.
All spectral, glittering, vast and still,
Far below, the torrent, that has sought
A deeper bed, goes plundering, thundering soundlessly
Down, may be to the earth’s hot centre, there
To be ardently converted into
Fountains of boiling ash, or gulfs of steam.
(from the 24-page poem “Descent into the Cave”, printed in a 1962 volume but probably written around 1958)
This shows how good his documentary writing was. I chose this passage because it is so close to parts of “The Glass Fable”. The jewelled landscapes of that poem are visibly dependent on the Book of Revelations – Kirkup had no interest in the ideas of the apocalyptics, but did go back to Revelations. The “sea of glass” of Revelations does appear in “The Glass Fable”. Jewels do have an importance – they start out as the walls of heaven, become intensely emotional symbols speaking quite basic desires, become part of documentary scenery in a cave in Somerset, and then become decorative and shiny and unresponsive.
Kirkup gave a statement to the St James Press reference work on Contemporary Poets, in which he says that one of his themes was solitude. CP is a wonderful book, with hundreds of statements from poets in the whole English-speaking world, and of course the editors aren’t responsible for what the poets choose to say. I think Kirkup could make fluent statements of things he didn’t believe, and had spent years learning how to make gracious conversation without giving away his real feelings. (He also mentions UFOs as a theme.) Solitude is the main theme of some of his poetry but it is hardly the real story. He declined military service in the war, but took the alternative of working for the non-combatant Pioneer Corps. Derek Stanford’s memoirs describe his career as an officer in the Pioneers, where he seems to have met a large number of artists and poets. I don’t have any specific evidence on this, but in the atmosphere of the 1950s being either gay or a pacifist/ conscientious objector was likely to cause outrage and rejection. Kirkup did become very conformist in the Fifties and his Coronation poem can be juxtaposed with declining to serve His Majesty with rifle in hand. He did avoid prison on both scores. The New Romantic poets generally were anarchists and pacifists.
Kirkup wrote a Nativity play which was performed at Bristol cathedral and was, according to the jacket text, broadcast on radio and television (in 1961). He reached a mass audience with this. The link with the Coronation and birthday poems is depressing – so many English poets sought refuge with Church and Crown, the traditional patrons. Poets who stuck with the idea of the personality deserve credit for their obstinacy. As the Empire collapsed, it looks as if at least some poets sought refuge in institutions that had been around since before the Empire – Church and Crown, returning psychologically to the mid-sixteenth century. Old money in perplexing times. Kirkup wrote a historical pageant about Peterborough cathedral. Stray biographical notes show Kirkup and Robin Skelton, around 1950, organising poetry events and short-run publishing in Leeds. This is a nascent "Leeds scene", anticipating provincial poetry scenes in the 1950s. It doesn't confirm the "solitude" thesis. There may have been a shared feeling which allowed both Kirkup and Skelton to continue the mythological preoccupations of the war period – possibly. But certainly they suggested to Leeds undergraduates that poetry was still being written and had not died out in the nineteenth century.
On reflection, I think that The Last Man and The Sleeper in the Earth are mainly influenced by Baudelaire. This gives us a match – the poems about grandiose and accursed Romantic heroes come from the “maudit” part of Symbolisme and the ones set in unrealistic and balletic landscapes come from another strand of Symbolisme. This tells us what Kirkup was reading before he got going. The problem with the poems about doom is the lack of explanation in them, which makes identification incomplete or impossible. This noticeable silence is related to the problem of talking about emotions stemming either from relations between homosexual men or from solitary feelings of frustration, resentment, sadness, etc. strongly related to being homosexual. These poems are the opposite of confessional, because the psychological core has been reduced to silence. The first twenty years of his work are not "part of the history of gay consciousness" but "omit vital omissions which are part of what was suppressed and can't be recovered". Despite the silence, I am sure that anti-gay prejudice affected Kirkup’s freedom of speech and probably compromised his career. I can’t name an individual who did damage, or a concrete moment when this pressure was exerted, but I have no doubt that he was culturally victimised. This has to be made clear as part of collective self-knowledge. Because the silent rules have changed so much, we can at least say that there are silent rules and that poets are the victims of these rules. Does that mean others benefit from them? That is harder to answer. Reading Kirkup’s poetry is problematic because of what was silenced, which may be damaged again as we voice it. It is reasonable to think, both that he could not say what he needed to, and that he developed into new realms of symbolism and ambiguity in order to say it nonetheless. There are quite urgent questions about where the silent rules come from and how we can change them. The wish to hurt other people and make them shut up is not exactly mysterious. Culture expresses it, like other wishes.
Extended Breath includes two poems on flower arranging. It is reasonable to say that writing about numerous small decorative objects, capable of containing good taste and remembered affection, can be a mode of gay taste – and in fact, that Kirkup’s later poetry has a gay voice, even if without the hopes and despairs of younger years. 'Ten Pure Sonnets’ is from the 1963 volume A Refusal to Conform and has more commitment than what is around it. The labelling of the Salzburg books means you can’t work out the date of anything, but if the poems are in order you can make rough assessments.
(Extended Breath is one of two Salzburg books labelled as "Long poems", although most of the poems in it are not long.)
After a few days involved with the Kirkup case, I am not eager to read all four volumes of his
Selected. So, did I enjoy what I read? We have to leave out the question of whether he could not write clearly, in his most emotional moments, because the biographical material came from gay relationships (or gay solitude) and the society of the Forties and Fifties was not open to that. The social issue is of great interest, but you can’t rewrite the poems even if they were wrecked by silent political pressures. ‘Fable’ doesn’t work out. ‘The Last Man’ is too overwrought, it is insistent rather than having a curve of development. But ‘Descent into the Cave” and ‘The Observatory’ certainly work. He avoids psychological depths by dealing with immediate sensory data, but the poems do have a psychology – the poet’s instant, cutaneous reactions. Basically, his volumes of the 1950s (and as far as the 1962 Descent into the Cave) are the good ones. The four Selected volumes include a lot of weak material.
The jacket of A Refusal to Conform announces that he is giving up poetry. Although he issued quite a few books after that, it may well be that he slowed down a great deal and that his output from 1963 to 2009 was much slower and less committed. My project has to do with British poetry 1960 to 1997 and Kirkup’s artistic achievement after 1960 is marginal.