Great writing, like great art, may fall into the cracks of the critical apparatus without a champion, and champions sometimes elude the most memorable work.
The British poets Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) and A.S.J. Tessimond (1902 – 1962) were marginalized in their lifetimes, but champions in Claire Harman and Hubert Nicholson are restoring them to the canon.
In so doing, they raise questions about the nature of the canon itself and how marginalization occurs. Supermarket publishing is only one reason good writers are ignored. Their traits, foibles and enemies play a role. Sometimes their integrity trips them up, less often their shortcomings.
Warner’s fall into obscurity is easier to fathom than Tessimond’s, but no less disturbing. She was a woman, a lesbian and a Communist, and all three were held against her. She was also a solitary, although far from obscure—she enjoyed a successful career as a novelist. She was “of the times for more than 60 years, but out of them too,” as Harman puts it.
In 2008 Carcanet Press of Manchester, UK, reissued a 391-page Warner oeuvre, New Collected Poems, with Harman’s brilliant introduction. A close reading suggests that Warner’s poetry, although clearly deserving of the company of W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and her other peers, is vulnerable to the dismissal of critics predisposed to bias. Edwardian usages such as ‘ere, ‘twas, lo and o’erlooked may have prejudiced modernists against her. If so, they o’erlooked her emotional intelligence. Her engagement with her times should have reassured them of her contemporaneity, as it does for us today.
It’s possible that linguistic relics, such as the poem titles “The Traveller Benighted” may have obscured cutting-edge titles such as “Being Watched” and “Trial of Marshal Pétain.” The pigeonhole awaits us at the hands of all but the most beneficent critic.
Warner’s rhyming ability was second to none, not even Auden. It was breathtaking. But it flowered at a time when vers libre was coming into vogue, and so it was under appreciated. Her rhymed quatrains were both characteristic and pristine. The more one reads Warner the more one marvels at the ability of the critical apparatus to snub her. It is a monumental feat of smugness and cursoriness.
Tessimond is another matter. Unlike Warner, he is widely anthologized—we can question anthology as a measure of merit some other time—and he was far from reclusive. Neither was he susceptible to the Edwardian smear. There is, after all, nothing inherently wrong in Edwardian language. Tessimond was good-looking, sociable, and blessed with durable friendships. So what happened?
The poet John Keats was savaged by a blessedly forgotten critic, and Arthur Seymour John Tessimond might well have been disheartened by a snotty, anglophobic and typically self-indulgent letter he received from Ezra Pound, having in his twenty-third year sent Pound a poem. In Collected Poems published by Bloodaxe Books at Reading, UK, last year, Nicholson recounts this sad incident to shed light on Tessimond’s lifelong self-doubt and depression.
Tessimond published three volumes of poetry between 1934 and 1958. His crystalline poems, exquisite of shape and sensibility, are in many ways too refined to be compatible with Eliot or Pound or Yeats. Eliot and Pound are pretentious by comparison, and Yeats’ interests are far from the city-loving Tessimond’s. His poems are more to be compared to Thomas Hardy’s—and with Warner’s.
He seems towards the end of his life to have been drawn to experiments in placement and line break, and although he translated Jacques Prévert—there are 25 Prévert poems here—he was not tempted to unpunctuate in the manner of Prévert and the American e.e. cummings.
Perhaps—do I dare to eat this peach?—Tessimond offended the Eliot, Auden and New Criticism circles simply because, while being a precisionist, he wasn’t as grandiloquent. No one may accuse him of having airs, but perhaps he could be accused of disinterest in the Wagnerian events of his time—and perhaps that was in fact held against him. If so, I think it a preposterous case. Not all artists paint on giant canvases, and the size of their ambitions isn’t a measure of their achievements. If this is a key to Tessimond’s marginalization, then it is also an indictment of an over-commercialized culture that confuses pretension with merit. By revering some we often unfairly dismiss those who are so markedly unlike them. In the end, it is unfair to all. It is perhaps an American critical peculiarity, having to do with self-righteousness, that art is measured by the aspirations of the artist. They could as well, after all, be called pretensions. For this reason, is a long, fat poem superior to a short, fey poem, and a massive canvas superior to a miniature?
Warner’s poetic output is considerably larger than Tessimond’s; accordingly, I select this sestet, called Evensong In Winter, as an example of Warner’s sensibility, her rhyming skill, and her unfailing penchant for surprise:
A red light streams from windows and doors,
The flagstones crack and the organ roars,
And through the churchyard, silent and glum,
Figures darker than darkness come;
And a child days, ‘Mother, I can tell!
It’s the Devils trooping out of hell.’
Here in this lovely, humble poem is, I think, a clue to Warner’s fate at the hands of critics and peers. The punctuation is punctilious. She shows no inclination to dispense with it as clutter. She capitalizes the start of each line, a practice that had already fallen out of favor in her time. And the subject matter is pastoral at a time when urban life consumed poets. That said, it is a better poem than most of her contemporaries could have written.
Nor was she always so modest in her aims. Her 1931 poem, Opus 7, consists of thirty-three pages of rhymed couplets and is almost as strange as the Elizabethan George Chapman’s “Shadow of Night”. Neither Eliot’s “The Wasteland” nor “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are more ambitious in scope, nor is their poetics more admirable. But they are more du jour in their use of vernacular and argot.
In some ways Warner’s fate at the hands of the literary establishment, more than Tessimond’s, is not unlike the fate of the Salon once Impressionism took hold. It became impossible to talk of the Salon without disparaging it. Comparisons were invariably at the Salon’s expense. Similarly, in the wake of Edward Said’s Orientalism, it becomes difficult to speak of the Orientalists unpejoratively. This says more about our culture than it does about the merits of the work. We are commercially obsessed with moving on to the next thing, the next marketable vogue.
Tessimond is quintessentially an urban poet, and his language is appropriately more sharp-edged than Warner’s. This one of the two elegiac quatrains that make up the last poem in his collection Voices In A Giant City:
Do men grow wholly old;
Unknowing, tire of living;
Grow deaf as pulse grows faint;
Dream and in drams depart?
Probably some modernists held those end-stopping semicolons against him, but like all cliques they would have held something against one who so determinedly went his own way.
I thought of Frank O’Hara, that most American of urban poets, when I read Tessimond, but Tessimond’s is, I think, a more refined sensibility, much as I admire O’Hara.
The poets, the artists and performers, who go their own, which is to say they make the most of their own natures, run the risk of offending the taste makers who are almost always imbued with a greater sense of importance. It’s the very good posthumous fortune of Tessimond and Warner to have found Nicholson and Harman. I would like to think that in this era of the digerati it will happen more often.
Photo Source: The Nibbler