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Sunday, 4 May 2014

Rosemary Tonks 1928-2014

  One of the most interesting and enigmatic British poets of the late 20th century, Rosemary Tonks, passed away last week. Even to call her a poet, however, shows up the inadequacy of our terminology since she hadn't written any poems since the '60s and had foresworn the two short collections she published at that time. Brian Patten made a radio documentary about her a few years ago called The Poet Who Vanished. Like Rimbaud (whose influence seems traceable in these marvellous, effervescent, offbeat poems, as well as Laforgue's and that of the French Surrealists) she renounced the daring verbal forays of youth in favour of what she came to see as more important concerns; in this case, a reclusive devotion to her Christian faith. A more exact parallel, in fact, could be drawn with the life of Hope Mirrlees, who similarly gave up poetry after a single tour de force - the book-length masterpiece Paris - deeming it incompatible with the demands of her religion and only returning to writing poetry right at the end of her life.
    I wonder if a secondary motive for not seeing a career in poetry as a viable option for either Tonks or Mirrlees (or equally Laura Riding, another apostate) was the anomalous nature of being a female Modernist poet who didn't wish to conform to the inherited stereotypes foisted upon them by the literary establishment. Tonks was clearly never going to be a mainstream poet and what few notices I've found about her (written by men) do often focus somewhat belittlingly on the frisky, sensuous loucheness of her work, which is one of its great appeals and makes it so redolent of its time: how many male poets of the '60s capture the flavour of the period so well? (The Liverpool poets, for example, seem juvenile in comparison.)
   For a taster of her brilliantly-titled volume Iliad of Broken Sentences try this discontinued blog.
   Guardian obituary here.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Oliver. I feel I should point out that the woman in your picture isn't Rosemary Tonks but Maddalena Fagandini, the BBC sound engineer who worked with her on her Son-Montage in 1966. But other websites have also misappropriated this picture. Goes with the myth...

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    1. Thank you Neil. It was what Google Images turned up. I will rectify the error. So what was RT'S Son-Montage?
      Oliver

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