Saturday 24 October 2015

An (Almost) Invisible Poet

No Fool Like an Old Fool

From the shaving mirror peers a half truth:
Broken veins, pouches below the eyes, false teeth,
Grey stubble fringing the wet mouth.

When I tweak neck skin between finger and thumb,
It uncreases slowly. Hairs clog my comb.
I die in bits, yet stay the same.

My wife has had her own bedroom for years.
She used to say, taking guests' coats, 'He snores.'
The act died slowly. Now who cares?

She couldn't be bothered with children. She plays bridge.
These days even our minds rarely engage.
Other men's wives revive the itch.

I salivate for typists of seventeen.
A child trips: my knee registers his pain.
Behold a (quotes) dirty old man.

I weaken with wanting twenty times a day.
My loves, my executioners, turn away.
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Who wrote this cheery little number - Larkin perhaps? No, not Larkin but a now forgotten poet he much admired, Jonathan Price. He wrote it, incidentally, in his early thirties, so it's not autobiographical (which is a mercy).
 I had never heard of Price until I read a short informal obituary of him in P.J. Kavanagh's collection, People and Places. Kavanagh and Price were contemporaries at Oxford in the early 50s, where Price co-edited several collections of new Oxford verse, including some of Geoffrey Hill's first published poems. Price was already getting his own work published in national magazines, and was clearly one of the most accomplished of his generation, admired by his contemporaries for his  sure craftsmanship. 'His poems were small in scale and few in number,' writes Kavanagh, 'but the accuracy of their making gave them a force which shamed us in our windier attempts, or should have.'
 Unlike many in the poetry world, Price projected almost nothing in the way of 'personality', seeming determined, as Kavanagh puts it, to be the Most Forgettable character you ever met. In drab postwar England, 'he wore the time's drabness like a cloak, a cloak of invisibility almost'. He spoke little, but something about his eyes - full of intelligence, laughter, even wisdom - showed that there was plenty going unsaid.
That 'curious and attractive laughter' in his eyes remained with him through life - as did his reluctance to project his personality or in any way push himself forward, with the result that he never really built, or attempted to build, a literary career. The poems remained small in scale and few in number, appearing at intervals in literary magazines and others that in those days published poetry. A few were anthologised, including this one, which turned up, rather improbably, in the Oxford Book of Love Poetry...

A Considered Reply to a Child

'I love you', you said between two mouthfuls of pudding.
But not funny; I didn't want to laugh at all.
Rolling three years' experience in a ball,
You nudged it friendlily across the table.

A stranger, almost, I was flattered - no kidding.
It's not every day I hear a thing like that;
And when I do my answer's never pat.
I'm about nine times your age, ten times less able

To say - what you said; incapable of unloading
Plonk at someone's feet, like a box of bricks,
A declaration. When I try, it sticks
Like fish-bones in my throat; my eyes tingle.

What's called 'passion', you'll learn, may become 'overriding'.
But not in me it doesn't: I'm that smart,
I can give everything and keep my heart.
Kisses are kisses. No need for souls to mingle.

Bed's bed, what's more, and you'd say it's meant for sleeping;
And, believe me, you'd be absolutely right.
With luck you'll never lie awake all night,
Someone beside you (rather like 'crying') weeping.

Price held down a succession of unglamorous editing jobs in publishing, and generally passed unnoticed through the world, except by those admirers who looked out for his poems and pounced on them as and when they turned up. Eventually, his old Oxford friend Anthony Thwaite persuaded him to collect together some of his poems for book publication and got Secker and Warburg to publish them.  The resulting slim volume, Everything Must Go, was published in 1985 and attracted little notice, though a grateful Larkin wrote that 'this book will enable us to throw away the tattered cuttings we have kept so long'.
 Here are a couple of poems from Everything Must Go (which can still be bought online for under a tenner)...

A Forked Radish

Small men make love on stilts, and hold their poise
A step or two; then tumble heavily.
Others dream up frail ladders to the stars:
They teeter at the end in empty sky.

Who strains the laces of his boots will fly
Sprawling to earth, lace broken, balance gone.
All fool themselves who wink at gravity,
And later hit the ground they should have won.

Wise to a body's pull, a few have done
Nothing but stand still, both feet on the ground.
These lovers grew together in the sun,
While a dark root a dark root gripped and bound.


Swift paused before a dying tree one day,
Whose rotten top told where his death would start.
There was no means of checking the decay.

The patient seldom sees his fever-chart
(A thoughtful doctor hides the thing away),
But guesses much from what he knows in part.

Knowledge of madness suffers a delay:
When the mind rots, no introspective art
Gives it a check upon its own decay.

When once the patient finds it in his heart,
It does not matter what the doctors say.
He guesses all from what he knows in part.
There is no means of checking the decay.

Looking back to Oxford days, Kavanagh writes 'Whereas our poems were carpentered from hope, bluff, half-understood emotion, his were those of a cabinet-maker who knew how to get the best from his materials; we put ours together with nails and glue and his were dowelled and mortised, his ideas slid in and out noiselessly, and hung true on their hinges.' And so it remained throughout his writing life - the more closely you examine Price's poems, the more impressive is the inconspicuous craftsmanship. They are spare, laconic and precise (note those punchy Larkinesque monosyllables), always formal in construction, but there is something more - an understated but strong personal voice - and it is easy to see why that voice, and that formalism, appealed to Larkin.
 Sadly, Price died soon after Everything Must Go was published. This last poem is, alas, autobiographical...

Night Thoughts

Things past include a boy dangling a string,
Baited with meat scraps, into a dark pool.
Harmless and unharmed, small crabs sidle round
The bottom of a can. The wind turns cool,
The crabs are counted and tipped back where found,
The boy runs home for tea. A timeless thing.

Things change in time: it's the crab's turn tonight.
It gorges now on liver, will move on
From that to who knows what, and won't be caught.
I launch pills down to stun it. It has gone.
It has not gone. I wonder if I ought
To turn us both off like a bedside light.  


  1. Thank you Nige. Felicity and symmetry. Elements of a villanelle in Augury. Little to be celebrated, like Larkin, though, (unless the end of 'A Forked Radish' celebrates a steady love, but even that has a sinister hint to it with its dark roots binding?), and consolation sought in art I guess. I am reminded of Seamus Heaney's enjoinder to poets that their duty is to celebrate. Its all so bleak as if the human condition is no more than a bad joke played on us. Enjoyed your piece on retirement and read it with great interest as I am about to retire at Christmas myself.

  2. Yes Price does go the full villanelle once or twice and pulls it off. And yes bleak stuff indeed, though there are lighter moments, especially in some of the longer, looser poems - certainly some Larkinesque black comedy. The craftsmanship alone makes him well worth a look, I think. Good luck with the retirement, Guy - hope you enjoy it as much as I'm enjoying mine!

  3. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you for it, five years later. Especially for including the poems, but most of all for drawing it to attention.