When he was 23, A.S.J. Tessimond (Arthur Seymour John, Jack to his family, but known as John in later life) wrote to Ezra Pound, who had recently settled in Rapallo, enclosing some poems and an article on George Bernard Shaw. Tessimond’s letter does not survive, but Pound’s reply does. ‘Dear Sir,’ he wrote,
If you were in the least familiar with my work you wd. know what I think of criticism in general & not try to arouse my interest with a perfectly innocuous specimen of same. Also you wd. know that I think Shaw simple shit, with no base, and not pick that particular bit of revery. Of course I think all England chiefly shit, and none of Shaw’s generation capable of serious thought, or even mental honesty.
If Tessimond wants to be a poet, Pound advises him, he should get out of England, which is ‘gone to hell, pustulent [sic] etc’ and contains ‘nothing but carion [sic] and pus’. He found Tessimond’s poems uninspiring (‘impression of yr. work neutral’), but he did furnish the young poet with the addresses of a number of magazines in America and Europe, and a few years later This Quarter, based in Paris, published ‘A painting by Seurat’, which was among the batch submitted by Tessimond to il miglior fabbro for comment. On the back of his letter Pound had scrawled in pencil: ‘Not hopeless if you are less than 21.’
Tessimond died just under 50 years ago, in 1962, and over that half-century his work has attracted flickering rather than sustained attention. Hubert Nicholson, his friend and executor, put together two posthumous selections that included a number of uncollected and unpublished poems, Not Love Perhaps … in 1978 and Morning Meeting in 1980, and then a Collected Poems in 1985, handsomely designed by students in the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading and published by the department’s press, Whiteknights; it is now reissued as a joint venture by Whiteknights and Bloodaxe. Pound always rather prided himself on being ‘out of key with his time’, to quote from the first line of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’, and in his letter to Tessimond observes that the young poet ‘must be very much out of the world to have invoked me … from oltre tomba’. Tessimond’s neglect, both in his lifetime and since, is generally put down to his being ‘out of step with his contemporaries’, as the jacket copy to this volume puts it, meaning out of step with Eliot, Auden and Pound. Certainly he never really sounds like Pound or Eliot, despite a brief early fling with Imagism and a number of poems about cats, and he lacks Auden’s intellectual scope and ambition, although he does have a certain amount in common with the Auden of more occasional pieces, in particular the choruses and songs composed for film and theatre projects in the 1930s.
Tessimond was born in Birkenhead in 1902 into a relatively prosperous middle-class family; his father was a bank inspector. Like Thomas Lovell Beddoes, an earlier oddball of British poetry, he was sent to Charterhouse School; he can’t have enjoyed it much, for when he was 16 he ran away to London, naively hoping to establish himself as a journalist. This bid for independence lasted all of two weeks, after which he let himself be ‘trotted back to Birkenhead’, as he put it in a letter to Nicholson. On graduating from Liverpool University in the early 1920s he tried his hand at school teaching, but didn’t like it, and then moved to London for good, where he worked in various bookshops. Eventually he found a congenial métier as an advertising copywriter.
Two posthumously published poems present antithetical perspectives on his chosen profession: in ‘The ad-man’ he attacks ‘this trumpeter of nothingness’, ‘this mind for hire, this mental prostitute’, who takes the
True, honourable, honoured, clear and clean,
And leaves them shabby, worn, diminished, mean.
But in ‘Defence of the ad-man’ he suggests that advertising can be seen as performing a positive, even curative role by ministering to the disappointments of the era and the individual:
With permitted dope
He medicines the sickness of our age;
Offers the ugly, glamour; the hopeless, hope.
Compare these pieces to Larkin’s advertising poems, such as ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ or ‘Send No Money’; or ‘Essential Beauty’, with its ambivalent response to the vast billboards that ‘Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise/Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon’. These are perfect pictures, Larkin sternly counsels, ‘of how life should be’ but isn’t, since in life nothing’s ‘new or washed quite clean’, and the glamorous girl beckoning us seductively on turns out to be a harbinger of death.
Tessimond published only three collections in his lifetime, The walls of glass in 1934, Voices in a giant city in 1947 and Selection in 1958. The opening poem of The walls of glass is called ‘Any man speaks’; this man is not, however, entirely generic, for we learn he lives in London (‘To come round the corner of Wardour Street into the Square’ – i.e. Soho Square), and that his words belong to a ‘dialect shared by you, but not you and you’. From the outset, Tessimond’s idiom was remarkably free of poeticisms and literary affectations, and the persona offered in this unrhymed sonnet somewhat resembles that of Larkin in his wry acceptance of, and performance of, his own ineptitude:
I, fulcrum of levers whose ends I cannot see …
Have this one deftness – that I admit undeftness:
Know that the stars are far, the levers long:
Can understand my unstrength.
The deftness of the verse – and almost every poem Tessimond wrote seems to me elegantly turned and surefooted, hard to fault in choice of form, vocabulary, rhythm and image – is implicitly presented as compensation for the mess or ‘unstrength’ or ‘undeftness’ of his life. Nicholson tells us that Tessimond felt ‘misunderstood and unloved by his parents’, and that it was ‘to his feeling of being starved of maternal affection that psychiatrists later attributed his sexual difficulties, a diagnosis that did nothing to effect a cure’. His sessions with four or five different analysts may not have helped him much, but they certainly generated a number of good poems, such as ‘The psychiatrist’s song’, ‘The psychiatrist speaks’ and ‘The psycho-analyst’; in the last of these the analyst is figured as embodying, like advertising, an enchanting but unreachable world beyond mess and ‘undeftness’:
His fees are large, his cares are light,
His analytic eyes are bright,
He glows with pride as well he might.
The analyst is always right.
Although several of Tessimond’s poems (nine of them, to be precise) begin ‘I am’, his work is rarely directly autobiographical. The ‘I am’ poems are nearly all attempts to capture the lives of various city types – a man in a bowler hat, a prostitute, a jack-the-lad – or explore the institutions that govern daily life: ‘I am your master and your master’s master’ (‘Money’); ‘I am the fairy tale, the lovely lie, the brighter-than-truth’ (‘Hollywood’):
I am the echoing rock that sends you back
Your own voice grown so bold that with surprise
You murmur, ‘Ah, how sensible I am –
The plain bluff man, the enemy of sham –
How sane, how wise!’
I am the mirror where your image moves,
Neat and obedient twin, until one day
It moves before you move; and it is you
Who have to ape its moods and motions, who
Must now obey.
That’s Tessimond’s take on the popular press, and like his poems on advertising and money and the silver screen and the various types who feature in his album of urban living, it reveals him as an astute and eloquent observer of the ways in which culture and institutions shape the individual, while fostering an illusion of autonomy and choice. He was only occasionally a topical political poet – most notably in the MacSpaundayish ‘England (Autumn 1938)’ – but his work nonetheless presents a telling and unillusioned analysis of the workings of mid-century capitalism: ‘I am the moving belt you cannot turn from,’ he observes in ‘Money’, ‘The threat behind the smiling of the clock.’ Another poem on his own trade, ‘Advertising’, bleakly acknowledges:
I am the voice that bids you spend to save and save to spend,
But always spend that wheels may never end
Their turning and by turning let you spend to save
And save to spend, world without end, cradle to grave.
Tessimond can’t be said to have developed as a poet in any clearly discernible way, and it’s not easy when reading his posthumously published poems to decide which is early, which middle and which late. All seem buoyed up by his wit and curiosity and compassion; this is especially surprising given that in middle age he developed severe manic depression and underwent extensive electric shock therapy. Worried that if conscripted he would not only be ‘intensely miserable’ but might well prove ‘useless and even dangerous to others’, he again went on the run, though he was nearing 40, abandoning his flat and job and living for a spell incognito with friends. He eventually agreed to submit to an army medical, at which, to no one’s amazement but his own, the doctors declared him unfit for service.
In ‘Any man speaks’ Tessimond describes himself as not only ‘strangely undeft, bereft’ but as ‘searching always/For my lost rib’. On his father’s death in 1945 he inherited around £4000, half of which he spent, in a suitably bipolar way, on nightclub hostesses, striptease girls and models, while the other half went on his doomed attempt to cure himself through analysis. He talked often, Nicholson reports, of suicide, but never actually attempted it; his hilarious ‘Letter from Luton’ – which seems to me much funnier than John Betjeman’s ‘Slough’ – gives an idea of his unhappiness, and the humour with which he defied it:
Bored, malevolent and mute on
A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton
And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double
Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,
Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,
Manic depressive madness growing madder,
Cretins with hideous tropical diseases
And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes
From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes
Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,
And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on
And on and on and on.
He died shortly before his 60th birthday of a brain haemorrhage, possibly induced by the ECT sessions; it was two days before his body was found in his flat in Chelsea. Nicholson tells us in his introduction that Tessimond fell in love often and unsuitably, experiencing ‘a long succession of never wholly consummated passions’. Yet his poems rarely convey the yearnings of a deluded romantic; ‘In that cold land’, a four-line poem dedicated to ‘J.M.’, suggests it was companionship rather than sexual bliss that he sought in his efforts to recover his ‘lost rib’:
Ghosts do not kiss, or, if they kiss, they feel
Ice touching ice, and turn away, and shiver;
But there as here, perhaps, we still can steal
Quietly off, and talk and talk for ever.
Like Tessimond, Bernard Spencer published only three books in his lifetime: Aegean Islands and Other Poems in 1946; his collaborative translations, with Lawrence Durrell and Nanos Valaoritis, of the poetry of George Seferis in 1948; and a second volume of his own work, With Luck Lasting, in 1963. Bloodaxe has now published a complete edition of his poetry, the third posthumous collection to appear. Spencer’s origins were somewhat grander than Tessimond’s. He was born in 1909 in Madras, the second son of Sir Charles Gordon Spencer, a high court judge there. After a series of threatening illnesses, he was sent back to England when only 18 months old to be brought up by relatives. Spencer and his siblings can have seen little of their parents, and in the poem ‘My Sister’, the death of Sir Charles functions as a mere backdrop to memories of his early life with his sister Cynthia. At Marlborough he was a contemporary of Anthony Blunt, and just junior to Louis MacNeice and John Betjeman. Among his friends at Oxford were Isaiah Berlin, Maurice Bowra and Stephen Spender, with whom he coedited the magazine Oxford Poetry in 1930.
In his excellent introduction to this definitive Complete Poetry, Peter Robinson characterises Spencer as an unconfident poet who, when his luck was in, wrote poems that were ‘profoundly uncertain’: ‘within his small oeuvre, poem after poem sounds true. That sound sense of reliable poetry was achieved under the shadow of an urge to doubt the entire business.’ He was ‘delightful humorous company’, Betjeman reflected in an article on MacNeice and Spencer published in the London Magazine shortly after their deaths, eight days apart, in September 1963, but ‘diffident about his own work’. ‘I should think a rejection slip would have set him back for years.’ Diffidence is not a quality one associates with the dominant poet of the 1930s, Auden, and like so many of his generation, Spencer had to fight his way clear of the Audenesque:
White factories lancing sky
As the city grew near
Were symbols of changed state,
Pulse and strength of steel arms
Seemed hammering out new world
Not by you informed.
This is the opening of a poem called ‘Poem’ that was published in Oxford Poetry in 1931, and reveals little beyond how very quickly Auden, whose first commercial book, Poems, appeared only the year before, had transformed the concept and language of poetry for his contemporaries. Spencer’s early efforts are mainly in this mode. A short but telling note that he wrote for the November 1937 Auden special issue of New Verse (where he was working as an editorial assistant to Geoffrey Grigson, and where most of his own early work appeared) implies that as the 1930s progressed Spencer slowly came to realise that Auden was not the charismatic leader whose example he should follow, but his poetic antithesis: ‘He succeeds,’ the note concludes, ‘in brutalising his thought and language to the level from which important poetry proceeds.’
It was the work of Edward Thomas, like Spencer a profound self-doubter, that suggested how he might move away from the urgent, gnomic compressions of Wystan the Wunderkind. ‘In what sense am I joining in?’ he asks in the opening poem of Aegean Islands, ‘Allotments: April’; it is Spencer’s sense of being at an oblique angle to the scene or characters he describes which most allies his poetry with that of Thomas, who time and again dramatised his inability to bite the day to its core. Thomas’s poethood, though, was fundamentally bound up with the history and fate of England (and Wales); Spencer only really came into his own after he began living abroad as a lecturer for the newly founded British Council. His first appointment was as a teacher and librarian at the Institute of English Studies in Salonika; there followed six years in Cairo (1940-46), where he met Keith Douglas and Ruth Speirs, the brilliant translator of Rilke, and edited the magazine Personal Landscape with Lawrence Durrell and Robin Fedden. Later postings included Palermo, Turin, Athens, Madrid (twice), Ankara and Vienna, where he died in 1963 in somewhat mysterious circumstances.
‘My end of Europe is at war,’ ‘Salonika June 1940’ begins. The town would be shelled in earnest a few months later by the invading Italians. ‘Not by this brilliant bay,’ Spencer coolly observes,
Nor in Hampstead now where leaves are green,
Any more exists a word or a lock which gunfire may not break,
Or a love whose range it may not take.
His dominant response to the impending brutalities was to find ways of not brutalising thought and language. His poems, he insisted to Alan Ross, were ‘always factual’; but that’s not to imply that there is anything merely journalistic about them. The facts are marshalled not only to preserve the scene Spencer presents, but to investigate the larger contingencies of memory and history.
In the poem ‘In Athens’, from the mid-1950s, he walks past a stranger who looks familiar:
The knock inside your chest:
someone you loved was like her; there is given
neither name nor time, except it was long ago:
the scene, half caught, then blurred:
a village on the left perhaps, fields steeply rising.
Nothing more emerges of the primal memory the stranger evokes, but how typical, he notes, of ‘the twist in the plotting of things’ that it should happen in Athens,
so near where they talked well on love
two civilisations ago, and found
splendid and jeering images: horses plunging,
the apple cut, the Hidden One.
and a name your body is trying to make you hear …
Historical knowledge and the quest for the vanished name buried somewhere in his own body ‘twist’ together to induce a haunting awareness of relation and disconnection, a sense of the mixture of coincidence and helplessness, of pattern and randomness that his work renders with such fidelity and precision. ‘Letter Home’, written in Franco’s Madrid in the early 1950s, concludes with a similar braiding together of the personal and the historical to create another delicate moment of ‘wryness’, as Spencer pursues his self-doubt into a state of acute, almost visionary unconfidence:
the heat follows me around
like an overcoat in a dream; a ship’s siren from the river
trembles the air with sorrows and names of iron harbours.
City where I live, not home, road that flowers with police,
what in all worlds am I doing here?
Spencer was married twice: his first wife, Nora, died of tuberculosis in 1947, and Spencer commemorated their life together in a remarkable elegy, ‘At Courmayeur’. The following year he too was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was treated in a hospital in Switzerland. (His health seems always to have been somewhat precarious owing to a congenital heart condition.) ‘We lie here,’ he wrote about his stay in the Beau-Soleil clinic in Leysin, ‘in our similar rooms with the white/furniture, with our bit of Death inside us.’ In his bare white room he searches for ‘some link, some link’, to connect him to the outside world. The operation, a thoracotomy, was a success.
In 1961 he married again, in Madrid. The tiny poem ‘Morning in Madrid’ may be an oblique aubade to the new life he was about to embark on, or just a delightful bit of scene-painting:
Skirmish of wheels and bells and someone calling:
a donkey’s bronchial greeting, groan and whistle,
the weeping factory sirens rising, falling.
Yelping of engines from the railyard drifted:
then, prelude to the gold-of-wine of morning,
the thunderstorm of iron shutters lifted.
From Madrid he was sent to Vienna, where he became a father at the age of 53. That same year, 1963, his second collection, With Luck Lasting, was published by Hodder and Stoughton, and chosen as that summer’s Poetry Book Society Recommendation. But Spencer’s luck was about to give out. He fell ill during a holiday on the Adriatic; on his return to Vienna he entered a clinic to get his condition investigated, but under circumstances that have never been properly explained, was allowed to leave the clinic on the evening of 10 September – or perhaps in a deluded state he fled from it. His body was discovered early the next morning beside a suburban railway line, with head injuries suggesting he’d been hit by a train.
In what was probably his last poem, addressed to the infant Piers Spencer, who was then five months old, he imagines his son following in his footsteps and becoming a poet, and so being short of money. Although his profession will scare off some, others
will edge your way, and speculate
how if they could get closer somehow and overhear,
they might learn something that would make them rich.
Like Tessimond, Spencer wrote a number of poems about money (‘Most things having a market price …’, ‘Behaviour of Money’); neither of them had the self-belief or ambition or fertility of invention to attempt careers as professional poets in the mode of Pound or Eliot or Auden, and neither ever thought to support himself by his work, let alone get rich. This makes them, I suppose, ‘lesser artists’, to borrow the title of a Tessimond poem on just this subject, but then not all good poetry is also ‘important poetry’.