Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Memories of John Heath-Stubbs

   An entry from my journal, dated 19th March 2001: ‘First meeting with John Heath-Stubbs. I entered the tiny flat – dark, shabby, with singed wallpaper – feeling diffident and over-awed. Extraordinary head looming out of the shadows, silver hair on end, cavernous cheeks. He greets us, a little distantly. Then the bulky frame hunches over, head in enormous hands as Guthrie goes through appointments, times, dates with him like a solicitous mother with a teenage son. He answers in bewildered tones – has forgotten to do this, can’t remember what time he’s supposed to do that, has lost such and such an address.’

    ‘I thought he was in bad spirits and felt dreadfully de trop, but it was obviously just the practicalities dismaying him– as the others got up to go he said (obviously having heard I was interested in poetry) “Wait, I wanted to speak with Oliver” and asked me to sit quite close beside him as he is not only blind but deaf now in one ear.’

   ‘His manner changed instantly to a sort of quizzical charm, a scholarly meandering warmth, as soon as we touched on his reality: poetry, words, music. The subjects he ranged over seem like Keats’ description of Coleridge’s rambling conversation on Hampstead Heath: his own composition, done on tape recorder then transcribed and redrafted; emendations of manuscripts of English poets, best examples being Milton and Keats -  problem more complex in Shakespeare, what with quartos, folios and ambiguities of Elizabethan handwriting eg. “O that this too too solid flesh” could also be “sallied flesh” or “sullied flesh” ; then Peter Russell (prompted by my rather nervously-random question, seeing a book of PR’s on the shelf), John had known him a little after the war when he was editor of ‘Nine’, too close an adherent of Pound’s views, maybe his anti-semitism as well; Pound an important poet, despite his disgraceful later politics; foolish to disregard his earlier poetry because of them eg. ‘Sestina: At Altaforte’ does not extol violence but is a dramatic monologue about a violent man; had not met Pound but knew friends who had, John Wain had visited him at St Elizabeth’s and found him “not all there”, disjointed and inconsequent; a great translator, though, esp. his Chinese poems; comparing ‘Cathay’ with Arthur Waley, one says “Blue, blue is the grass” the other “green, green”, in fact blue is the more correct; analysis of colour-terms in different poetries, more ancient verse uses words more for the effects of light than the colour or pigment itself eg. Anglo-Saxon poetry has very few colour-words; one poet who was very disappointed in Pound was Montale, whom John met in Italy – why hadn’t Pound come over to the Hermeticists?

But Pound not really interested in contemporary Italian poetry, too besotted with romanticised view of the past etc. etc.’

    The entry trails off, no doubt unable to reconstruct any further involutions of John’s extraordinary conversational flow. Even these few inadequate jottings, however, may serve to give a flavour of what an audience with him could be like: the vast range of reference, drawing on a profound erudition not just within literature but also across a diversity of other disciplines; the breadth of notable contacts and collaborators stretching back to the Forties, always mentioned casually and never in a name-dropping way; the startling connective-leaps and yokings of heterogeneous elements John’s memory would habitually encompass. What’s missing from this account, however, is the affable humour that was also an integral component of John’s conversation – the anecdotes, asides and quiet laughter he would use to deflate his more earnest pronouncements.

    After being introduced to John by Guthrie McKie - John’s tirelessly loyal and helpful friend, long-term advisor and Watts-Dunton-like organiser - and living as I did only five minutes away from the flat in Artesian Road, I became a fairly regular visitor over the next five years, frequently reading to John in the evenings and later transcribing some of his taped poems, as well as typing drafts into fair-copies on my computer. If Guthrie was away, more practical assistance was sometimes required: opening and reading out mail; shopping for books or stationery; unearthing something John had mislaid in the cluttered flat.

   John was well-known as a supporter and encourager of younger writers (recent poets who have benefitted from his guidance include Jeremy Reed, Matthew Sweeney and Christopher Hope), and it was not long after our initial meeting that he asked to hear some of my own poems. I remember sitting outside the pub almost opposite his door, The Cock and Bottle, apprehensively downing a few pints and scanning my paltry stanzas, wondering how I had the temerity to be reading my work to a genuinely famous poet, someone who had known TS Eliot and been friends with Dylan Thomas and Geoffrey Hill. Beer-emboldened, I eventually went through with the reading, rendered somewhat bathetic by John’s inability to hear my nerve-wracked voice properly – he kept saying “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, you’ll have to come closer”, until it seemed I was practically shouting my lines only feet away from his good ear, hammering out any subtlety or melopeia I fancied they might have possessed. Although John nodded his assent and made a few helpful suggestions about language and form, I went away feeling my poems had been damned with faint praise. The next time I saw Guthrie, however, he said that John had in fact liked them, thereby (it felt to me) conferring a sort of implicit acceptance.   

   My subsequent visits invariably followed a set pattern of events. I always phoned in advance, to avoid clashing with the numerous other friends and carers who would call on him – evidently he had another acquaintance with the same name, as he would always ask “Which Oliver is this?” John never mastered his building’s intercom system – if you buzzed his flat, he would usually have to navigate his way out into the landing to open the front-door for you, which could take some considerable time and no small effort on his part (attested to by the repeated sighs of “Oh God! Oh dear!” you could hear through the door). When, towards the end of his life, John was obliged to use a frame to move around with, this became even more impractical, and it was much easier to borrow Guthrie’s key and let oneself in.

     You would often enter the flat to find John in darkness, hunched forward listening to the radio turned up loud; either classical music or a documentary programme. You would have to switch the lights on for your own benefit and call out clearly “Hello John!” before he would look up and emerge from his reverie. Moments like this forced one to reflect on the condition of blindness – the shadowy isolation it imposes, the abstraction from physical reality, but in turn the compensatory sensitisation to auditory and verbal signals it seems to allow, obviously a decided advantage for the writer or musician. Despite the hardships entailed in such an impairment, traditions of blind musicians, bards and soothsayers seem to demonstrate a status of cultural respect that is all too often withheld in society from those with other disabilities. (It should be added, however, that John – like Borges - only became completely blind later in life; prior to this he would have been classed as partially-sighted or visually-impaired.)

    After greetings, there was usually the question “Would you like a drink?” Even after many visits, John would always describe the particular cupboard (“down the hallway, on your left”) where his booze was stored, seemingly implying there might be a fair amount to choose from. In my experience, there was invariably very little left – perhaps a half-bottle of red or a little sherry – small wonder, no doubt, in a flat often frequented by poets and with a host largely unable to keep tabs on how much was being consumed! Unfortunately, by this stage, John’s health prevented him from drinking much alcohol (unlike his bohemian Fitzrovia days), but he would always ask for a small tipple as I poured my drink – largely symbolic, I think, as it usually went untouched.

    John’s choice of reading-matter was remarkably eclectic, and reflected the diversity of his intellectual interests and the compendiousness of his knowledge. Although he was obviously concerned to keep up to date with the poetry scene, and would like to hear readings from magazines he subscribed to such as PN Review, Agenda and Poetry Review, he was just as likely to select one of the other periodicals he received, concerning subjects such as folklore, Christianity, history or ornithology. One book I recall reading through to John was an abstruse study of Japanese shamanism written by a friend of his; another was an analysis of symbolism in Sufi poetry. (There were, however, occasional gaps in John’s reading – apart from Joyce, whom we shared an enthusiasm for, he seemed to know little about the modern novel, and avowed that his favourite work in this field had always been Clarissa.)  

   John continued to compose poetry right up until his final illness, producing two full-length volumes (The Return of the Cranes and Pigs Might Fly) in his eighties. While even his most enthusiastic admirer would concede that these contain little that matches up to his best work, the characteristic amalgam of learned wit and reflective stoicism is still apparent, leavened by a fair quantity of occasional and light-ish verse. Yet John’s ear for poetic form remained punctilious and he would often ask for a piece to be read through a good many times – with often very subtle alterations of diction or cadence being insisted upon – before he was satisfied with it. One recalls what an accomplished and sought-after reader of his own work John had been at poetry events in the past, partly due no doubt to this sensitivity to the acoustic properties of English speech-rhythms, and his ability to match these to the measured tones of his sonorous delivery.

    During his last years John became noticeably frailer and, largely immobile, was confined to his flat. Although his memory for Latin and obscure lines of poetry remained undimmed, he seemed increasingly confused and forgetful about everyday matters. I saw less of him at this time. On my last visit, when he had been moved into a hospice near Harrow Road, John no longer recognised my voice. He passed away shortly afterwards, on Boxing Day 2006.

     Lengthy obituaries spoke of a rich and energetic career as a well-known author, translator, critic, editor and teacher always wedded to what he called (to the Queen, when collecting her Gold Medal for Poetry) “the ingrained habit” of writing poems. Since his death, however, there seems to have been no attempt to assess John’s significant contribution to our cultural life, and the gap his absence leaves. His poetic roots were in that generation – numbering Dylan Thomas, George Barker, WS Graham, David Gascoigne and Thomas Blackburn among his closest associates– who were in many ways “the last Romantics”, the last to hold on (precariously enough, given their historical milieu) to the notion of poet as vatic seer – a full-time, perhaps life-threatening commitment to the Muse, not just an academic’s hobby. John’s later development saw him look beyond the late Romantics he had written of so originally  in The Darkling Plain to Augustan models like Pope, consolidating a style of wryly elegant neo-classicism which – like that of Robert Graves – strives to counter the debased currency of modernity with a hard-won, highly-wrought personal mythology. This finds its fullest expression in Artorius (1972), perhaps the only fully-formed epic any contemporary poet has essayed, and a memorable testament to his ambitiousness, linguistic range and imaginative scope. In a contemporary scene notably lacking in these qualities – and indeed in deeply-read, generous-minded, Coleridgean figures like John, devoted to his craft and its lore but always prepared to share knowledge, pass on traditions and foster less experienced poets - a careful revaluation of his reputation and achievements is due.                         
                                                                                First published in PN Review, 2009