In Praise of Penguin Modern Poets 12.
By IAN SEED.
—for Margaret Macpherson
PENGUIN MODERN POETS 12, with its cover of bare branches against a twilight sky, and what seems to be a wheel and a tyre caught in them, has been a part of my consciousness since I was eighteen.
In November 1974, I travelled by night train from Leicester to Aberdeen to stay with my father for a week. At that time, he was in his mid-forties, divorced from his second wife and living on his own. He taught at Aberdeen University. I was in my last year at school.
My father knew that I was writing poetry and wanted ‘to be a poet’. He’d heard that I was having arguments with my mother and stepfather. I was a stroppy teenager, alternating between arrogance and uncertainty, full of resentment for real or imagined slights.
My father said he knew of a poet I might like, one, he said, who was ‘obsessed with his mother’. The poet’s name was Alan Jackson. My father gave me a copy of a pamphlet called Underwater Wedding. The cover was a faded brick-red colour, had a tear in one corner and was rusty around the staples.
I lost that pamphlet many years later on a train from Paris to Turin. Recently, however, I managed to find it again on ABE books. I even wondered when I placed my order if it might be my copy (there could not have been that many copies around), but it turned out to be a different one.
My father told me he had bought the pamphlet from Jackson himself at a CND rally in 1961. I was fascinated by the idea that Jackson had self-published the pamphlet (I remember now that we called it a ‘booklet’), and had sold it himself in pubs, at CND marches and even on street corners.
I knew nothing at that stage of the so-called ‘poetry revival’ of the 1960s, in which Alan Jackson played an important role in Scotland.
The poems in Underwater Wedding were like nursery rhymes in their simplicity and sparseness. But they were also striking in their sense of a search for wholeness and authenticity. They reminded me of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, which I’d read in the school library.
Take, for example, ‘Death’:
Naked as the bone
One has to be;
Naked as the winter,
Naked as the tree.
Till feeling flows
From deepest soul,
Feeling at all.
Wrong to involve
In what’s corrupt.
Wrong to use others
To heal your cut.
Make no claim:
Strip to the bone
And grow again.
Some of Jackson’s writing reflected a deep sense of separateness, both a feeling of alienation and with it a desire to be alone in order to deal with feelings of despair, as in this titleless poem:
A sea flowed in and filled my head;
I couldn’t refuse to know.
It told me what to say and do
And showed me where to go.
When it drew back
It left myself
Enfeebled on the shore.
Distraught and strange I seemed
To those who laboured there.
I couldn’t use the tools they used
Or wear the clothes they wore.
And I would walk in misery,
With neither friend or foe;
Waiting to hear the flash and surge
Of that swift self-drowning flow.
The poems do have weaknesses. The rhymes can be awkward, and the endings sometimes force an artificial sense of resolution: ‘And now, born again, no longer sick, / I kiss my mother and never kick’ (‘Was a Shame’). Nevertheless, I found the imagery and songlike qualities memorable and haunting, and I realise now that the pamphlet has had a special significance to me because of its connection to my father, whom I didn’t see very often.
I wondered if Alan Jackson had published anything else. My father wasn’t sure, but thought that he probably had. When I got back to Leicester, I went to the poetry section in WH Smith’s. And there, clearly displayed, was Penguin Modern Poets 12 with the names ‘Alan Jackson Jeff Nuttall William Wantling’ printed in white, one below the other, in the top left-hand corner of the front cover. It was a book which would lead me to other volumes in the Penguin Modern Poets series, which in turn would offer all kinds of possibilities in poetry I’d never considered. But volume 12 became a kind of talisman, and has remained so to this day. It fit snugly into my greatcoat pocket and for a while went everywhere with me. Over the years, I would go back to it on those occasions where I felt I had lost myself.
When I opened Penguin Modern Poets 12 at random that first time in WH Smiths, Gallowtree Gate, Leicester, the first poem I came across was ‘For a Girl Who Doesn’t Like Her Name’ by William Wantling:
FOR A GIRL WHO DOESN’T LIKE HER NAME
You are young and slender and sitting straight
in the seat as you peer at me over the edge of
– Call me Kim, you say
– I think Camille sounds so silly
O Baby you don’t know how good Camille sounds
……..to this poor simple poet
How it runs over my tongue like butter and honey
and how it calls out to the butter of your hair
and the cream and honey of your long full legs
and the cool look on your tangerine lips
(To really get crude Baby, how it goes with
……………………I’m a dog)
But wait – even poets can be serious –
….it’s permitted once in a while
Don’t you know Baby, how your legs will change
and the butter will run out of your hair and
…..the cream and honey will leave you
Even the cool tangerine lips will lose their
You’ll grow old and
none will remember you as
…….I see you now
Unless they can let Camille Camille Camille
run over their tongues and know as I know
when I hear how you once were and how
it sounds and looks and smells to me now
What astonished me here was the sheer exuberance (and hadn’t Blake said that exuberance was beauty?), the repetition of a girl’s name almost like a schoolboy piece of graffiti, and the poem’s zany American slang (I had not read anything by the New York or Beat Poets). It wasn’t anything like the poems we were studying at school. Apart from anything else, it wasn’t ‘difficult’, it didn’t need to be deciphered. Nevertheless, I could see connections between ‘For a Girl Who Doesn’t Like Her Name’ and some of the poems I was reading for ‘A’-level English. For example, it made me think immediately of William Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day’; both seduce through the promise of a kind of life after death, of ‘eternal summer’, through the poem.
WILLIAM WANTLING, AN American who had seen action in Korea in the early 1950s, and been incarcerated in San Quentin from 1958 to 1963 because of drug dealing, was, at least on the surface, a very different kind of poet to Alan Jackson. However, although much of Wantling’s work navigates extreme experiences – war, prison, drug addiction – it shares with Alan Jackson’s poetry a yearning for spiritual rebirth and new life, as captured in ‘The Awakening’, written by Wantling in 1961 while he was in prison:
I found the bee as it fumbled about the ground
Its leg mangled, its wing torn, its sting
I picked it up, marvelled at its insistence
….to continue on, despite the dumb brute
….thing that had occurred
I considered, remembered the fatal struggle
….the agony on the face of wounded friends
….and the same dumb drive to continue
I became angry at the unfair conflict suffered
….by will and organism
I became just, I became unreasoned, I became
I observed the bee, there, lying in my palm
I looked and I commanded in a harsh and angry shout –
Then it ceased to struggle, and somehow suddenly
….became marvellously whole, and it arose
….and it flew away
I stared, I was appalled, I was overwhelmed
….with responsibility, and I knew not where to begin.
I had and still have reservations about the poem: I find it a little melodramatic, especially the third stanza, and ‘the dumb brute / thing’ is just a tad too reminiscent of the kind of phrasing that Hemingway would use. Indeed, Wantling once declared that he wanted to marry Ernest Hemingway to Dylan Thomas in his poetry. Yet in spite of these critical reservations, at an emotional level this remains one of my favourite poems.
Thirty-two years on, in 2006, I dedicated a special issue of Shadowtrain, the webzine I edited from 2006 to 2015, to the poetry of William Wantling, with contributions from Peter Finch, Kevin Jones and Edward Lucie-Smith.
Peter Finch published some of Wantling’s poetry of the early seventies with his Second Aeon Press, while Edward Lucie-Smith wrote a brilliantly perceptive introduction to William Wantling’s collection, The Awakening, published by Turret Books in a limited edition of two-hundred in the UK in 1967, and again by Rapp & Whiting in 1968. I was fortunate enough in 1975 while living near London to stumble across a signed copy of the first edition of The Awakening in Bernard Stone’s legendary Turret Bookshop.
The other poet in Penguin Modern Poets 12 is Jeff Nuttall, who was for many years a secondary school art teacher. I admired Jeff Nuttall’s work, although it didn’t thrill me in quite the same way Wantling’s did, and rereading his poems now, their close observations, storytelling and arrestingly sensory use of language still stand up to close scrutiny. Take, for example, ‘School Mistress’:
In the window (sun over Totteridge trees
Throws ironic glory over her cardiganed hump) –
‘Dressed in tight jeans – I threw them out.
We wouldn’t have had it – not in the old days.’
Electric fire room fug and half-smoked fags
Draws out the dank sour mould of menopause.
Her eyes flash wet ‘yes holding hands.
Double the school rules –
Can’t tell what might go on in the cloakrooms – ’
Flesh forms throb on her neck.
‘Arms around each other in tight jeans – ’
Sun sweat spangles her head,
Brow crowned in glistening filth – ‘Yes, kissing and so forth – ’
Her knees clench, thighs move slow.
And the room-heat sub-burst ‘Ought to be checked’
And the thick meat knicker-rut hangs in the room
‘ – Tight jeans – not right for school – ’
Till the sun stands banners of blood in her swelled face
And rubs it; she rubs. ‘Tight jeans…
The portrait Nuttall paints was one whose contours I recognised. There were female teachers at my school who intimidated me and yet whom I found erotic, even if I didn’t like to admit it to myself. (Rereading the poem now, I can see that there is an unpleasant element of misogyny in it.)
Nuttall was not afraid to explore his own vulnerability, as demonstrated in poems such as ‘Insomnia’:
Shall I do it, get up?
Go across and curl,
Curl like a hurt, furred animal?
Shall I curl like an early embryo
All hairy, simian, gone wrong?
Curl up out there, out of the bed,
Red, raw, bitten under my itch of a pelt?
All huddled up, all curled on my side?
Out of the bed and over there
Like an idiot, but I’m not an idiot,
Just a strange, shamed withered beast
Who’d whimper, there on the bedroom boards,
Whimper all the limp last love away
Poems like this gave me permission as an eighteen-year old to explore my own feelings of vulnerability, for example in this poem, ‘Naked Tree’, which was hand-printed as an illustrated poster after someone spotted it in a small magazine. And looking more closely at the poster I see that it was printed in an edition of fifteen by Nina Carroll. After looking for Nina on the internet, I think this is probably the same person as Nina Carroll the artist (1932-1990). 1
Penguin Modern Poets 12 went with me on my first experience of leaving home to work as a ‘Community Service Volunteer’ in a residential home for children with ‘communication problems’ near London. I was given board in the form of a bedroom and food, though the food was never enough, plus £7.50 a week pocket money. I dipped into my savings from my previous three months’ work as a farm labourer to supplement the food. On my one day off a week, which fell on a Thursday, I would take the train into London, browse bookshops, borrow from the Poetry Library, and visit the Poetry Society in Earls Court, where I met, among others, Bob Cobbing, Laurence Upton, David Tipton, Jeff Nuttall and Peter Finch. I was nineteen, and perhaps because of this I was indulged somewhat. Bob Cobbing was kind enough to print a booklet of some poems of mine, most of which were quite awful, on the duplicator in the Poetry Society basement.
It was in my first term at Nottingham University, when I was twenty, that I lost my Penguin Modern Poets 12. I think I left it in a campus bar somewhere. However, there was a copy in the university library, which I would borrow every now and again, but it wasn’t the same. I missed my own thumbed and battered copy.
I am trying to remember where and when I eventually bought another Penguin Modern Poets 12. I know it wasn’t until after I’d left university. Was it in Shakespeare & Co., when I was living and working in Paris in my late twenties? In any case, by that time I had for the most part given up writing myself, and would not come back to it in any kind of sustained way until my mid-forties. Nevertheless, every now and again, I would go back to certain books to remind me of who I felt I really was, and Penguin Modern Poets 12 was chief among these.
In my late thirties, I found myself in Milan with a job as ‘Manager of Process Improvement’. I was working long hours in a start-up mobile phone company. In the evenings, or what remained of them, I would take the metropolitana from work to Piazza della Scala and wander the streets nearby after first grabbing a burger and beer or a plate of pasta and glass of wine from one of Milan’s many fast-food places. If I wasn’t too brain-dead, I would stop by some of the wonderfully stocked bookshops – luckily open until 11 in the evening – and browse endlessly. (If someone had told me then that less than twenty years later I would be awarded a Ph.D. in Italian literature, I would have replied that they were mad.) Then I would take the tram back to my tiny rented flat on the fifth floor of a rundown apartment block. There, I felt that I could have been living in any city in the world. I was doing almost no writing at that time, even if I felt like the mythical poet in a garret, and future publication was a forgotten dream.
On January 31, 1996, after just under two years, now almost forty, I resigned. I had no other job to go to, not much in the way of savings, and owned little that could not be packed into a rucksack and a couple of suitcases. That evening I took the metropolitana into the city as usual, but this time with a feeling of exhilaration. I was free. But I was also scared; for most of my thirties, I’d been employed in Italy as a ‘dipendente’, with its modest but regular salary coming in at the end of each month. I walked into a square behind Corso Garibaldi, one of the few quiet spots in that area of Milan. I looked up at a tree’s bare branches against the night sky, and suddenly remembered the front cover of Penguin Modern Poets 12. I knew I’d made the right decision, even though I had little idea of what I was going to do next. I imagined myself back in the UK, perhaps having to start all over again, but at least being able to think about writing again.
Then a former American colleague offered me a job in Warsaw. For the next few years, I would work around Europe, earning a salary I could never have dreamt of before. Yet I never stopped feeling that I was a long way from what was truly important to me.
In 2003, with some savings now behind me, I did return to the UK and took an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. It was a crazy decision. By this time, I was married and had a young daughter. I was closer to fifty than forty. However, the day before I started the course, I visited the rambling Old Pier Bookshop in Morecambe, and there, in the poetry section, I found a yellowed copy of Penguin Modern Poets 12. I took this as a good omen, a sign that in spite of evidence to the contrary I’d made the right choice.
Almost nineteen years on, I have taken the decision to leave my position as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Chester, where I have been working for nine years, the longest I have ever held down a job. I am exhilarated and terrified at the same time. I am not sure what I am going to do next. The other day, I found myself taking down Penguin Modern Poets 12 from my bookshelves. I turned from the front to the back cover, and then back to the front again.
I am going to reread it from cover to cover.
IAN SEED’s collections of poetry and prose poetry include The Underground Cabaret (Shearsman, 2020), Operations of Water (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020), and New York Hotel (Shearsman, 2018), a TLS Book of the Year. Most recently, his chapbook, I Remember, was published by Red Ceilings Press. His translations include Bitter Grass (Shearsman, 2020), from the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari, and The Thief of Talant (Wakefield Press, 2016), the first translation into English of Le voleur de Talan, Pierre Reverdy’s hybrid novel of poetry and prose. The River Which Sleep Has Told Me, translated from the Italian of Ivano Fermini, is due to be published in the Fortnightly Review’s series of Odd Volumes in the summer of 2022, while The Dice Cup, his translation of Max Jacob’s Le cornet à dés, is due out from Wakefield Press in the fall of 2023.
- See Paintings by Nina Carroll here. Thank you, Nina – that Blakean gesture meant a lot to me back in 1975.