I found out yesterday that John Ash was dead. He died almost four years ago (so less four months). I didn’t even know he was dead. I really liked his poems. I realise now that he published two books during the 21st century, which I haven’t read. There is a note by Michael Schmidt on-line which records that he had returned to England in 2015 but minus his “living archive” and as he couldn't even type there are major problems in recovering his late work. (“He left Istanbul having abandoned all his possessions – books, manuscripts, records, paintings. It seemed they were irrecoverable, though in the last few weeks Carcanet has begun assembling an archive of his letters, poems and other writings [.]”) There will be a Collected poems, I guess that is still in the works. I don’t feel compulsive about the possible lost poems (from say 2010 to 2015?). My feel is that he had worked out how to sound the same in every poem, so it doesn’t matter too much if you have a collected of 300 poems or 500 poems. The way that the “John Ash voice” is a role he played is connected to how well the poems go over and how much you can play at using that voice while reading them. He had that combination of Bohemian lifestyle, economic vulnerability, and a work ethic when it came to poems. I recorded that the volume (two books in one volume, allegedly) Anatolikon/ To the City was 140 pages long. Clearly he had a shoreline on abundance.
There is a moment of fertile excess here, which is the amazing number of serious poets who were born in 1948: as well as Ash, Denise Riley, Grace Lake, Brian Catling, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney, David Harsent, Peter Didsbury. It is surprising how few of these are still around– we do have their works though. The direct cause for the spike in creativity must be the student uprising in 1968, so that the idea of a new society became convincing and poets wrote thereafter from inside that idea. The spike must also be an artefact – there were three year-groups at university in 1968, not just one, and people didn’t always start or end university “on time”. Also, the people who became vital poets were not necessarily even at university in that year. I think it sounds a bit superficial to consider student radicalism in terms of producing fab poets rather than looking at the bigger idea of entering a new society and living there. Corbyn was born in 1949 and is part of this wave. Partly channelled by Corbyn, a new upsurge of student radicalism has made an electoral impact and may also have produced a new generation of poets.
Ash evidently fell into a certain disarray, towards the end of his stay in Istanbul, if he couldn't even transport his personal possessions home. Similar disarray was a feature of the lives of at least one of the poets mentioned. Their commitment to poetry may have been accompanied by a refusal to “get a proper job” and a mortgage: dropping out, then. To recite the obvious, the radicals who got academic jobs made things better for students and actually changed a key institution.
The other point often made is that poets who became academics became cultural bureaucrats bound to defend the institutions and their own positions, and that their residual wish to write radical poetry has failed because it was in contradiction with the circumstances of their everyday lives. I have a friend who makes this point to me too often.
In general I find that over 55 years since 1968 too much has happened, too much data has arrived and it doesn’t fit into any known pattern. People didn’t just fulfil ideals. However, the poets of that generation are on my mind because they took fascinating positions and had a symbolic role because of their ability to dramatise the issues and live them out.
I should add that I don’t have the biographical details of these poets (or at least not all of them). What I do have is the legends, the rumours. The legends exist because the poets made significant gestures, their messages were startling and yet did not have the flaws that big gestures usually do. Formulating these signs was to some extent outside the poems, in another way was the basis for the poems, the ground on which they rested.
If you drop out you are intentionally not supporting the institutions. That indifference may be mutual. Someone like Ash needed the institutions to hold him up. It is apparent from Schmidt’s brief account that Ash was phoning him every morning after his return from Turkey. This shows that there was an institution which supported him and that it was Carcanet as a body and Schmidt in particular.
I think the shared element between these poets is derepression. Ash wasn’t political but it occurs to me that he was the first English poet whose style, whose voice, was consciously gay. I am worried about this because he started in the late 70s and it seems as if there should have been lots of such voices prior to that. (I can cite Dunstan Thompson but after all he was American, and moved here after having become a poet.) Perhaps more research is needed.
Someone posted on Facebook this week about reading Ash’s poems and enjoying them. He also didn’t know Ash was dead. Found this out from comments on his post. I think Ash dropped off the radar and it must have been because he lived in Turkey for 20 years.