The main duty of the poet is to excite — to send the senses reeling
— Rosemary Tonks
Clearly I missed something. Bloodaxe’s collection of Rosemary Tonks’s Collected Poems and Selected Prose; Bedouin of the London Evening has been out a few years now and it took my stumbling over it in a Lancaster second-hand bookstore earlier this summer for any acquaintance to be made. But that is not altogether true. I did hear of her name many years ago — through the poet Michael Schmidt — at Strokestown. This was when I was immensely naive about contemporary poetry in general, and when Tonks was the only poet Schmidt seemed interested in talking about. Indeed, those years I’d attribute to my ‘second phase’ in poetry; a period of surveying the contemporary poetic landscape, first Ireland, the U.K, and whatever I could gather in translation from contemporary Europe… then later, the more ostensibly American poets… with my writing being at least partially influenced by these investigations in a very direct way… (the first couple of years of The Fiend‘s output might run parallel to the end of that phase) before I finally put to bed pretty much all of these poets’ works — some of which contained much talent… but particularly those — or that — which most pertinently and unconsciously conformed to the post-war liberal paradigm these writers were born into, or at least — in the work of those I still admired — understanding that the cultural climate of the post-war years would be the greatest hindrance on their output. (I will write on this elsewhere, as neither were my choices purely ideological, given that, when considering poets and the poetical, I see these matters as vastly more complex than simply deliberating on concerns of cultural commentary or politics… which is to say I am not an ideologue or an idealist in matters of poetry).
However, I cannot altogether blame myself too much regarding Tonks’s writing. Between the Bodley Head’s original editions of her poetry back in the sixties and the publishing of this new edition nothing has been re-issued, and those early editions are now long out of print and rare to get one’s hands on, so that for those like me, born in the late seventies and beginning to read poetry in the early 90s, you’d be wholly dependent on word of mouth to become familiar with her background and poetry. In fact, a good portion of this new collection of Tonks’s work is justifiably spent in bringing the newbie up to speed on all things Tonksian:
Over an eleven-year period, from 1963 to 1974, Rosemary Tonks published two epoch-defining poetry collections, ‘Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms’ (1963) and ‘Iliad of Broken Sentences’ (1967), six acerbic, satirical novels, and a number of short stories. She wrote trenchant reviews for leading journals and newspapers, and also collaborated with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Hampstead Festival on an experimental sound-poem, ‘Sono-Montage’ (1966).
Interviewed in 1967, she declared her direct literary forebears to be Baudelaire and Rimbaud: ‘They were both poets of the modern metropolis as we know it and no one has bothered to learn what there is to be learned from them… The main duty of the poet is to excite — to send the senses reeling.’ […]
Anthony Rudolf praised the ‘visionary quality’ of her poems: ‘They seem to me to have by-passed the Movement poetry of the 1950s and to have emerged from the 1940s poetic matrix of Nicholas Moore, George Barker and J.F Hendry, poets she would have read in her twenties. It is a hyper-urban angst-ridden poetry, with ancestry stretching back to Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen de Paris’ and Francophile English symbolists.’
In another interview, Tonks asserted:
I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions. […] People are born, they procreate, they suffer, they are nasty to one another, they are greedy, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?
The Francophile nature of Tonks’s intent is an interesting feature in experiencing Tonks for the first time. Poets before her had been linked to that lineage, either self-professedly or otherwise. We see it most explicitly in the reception of Dylan Thomas’s verse, and of course he shunned it, as he did with surrealism in general. Thomas was determined to remain mercurial to the end, and yet the verse, on much reflection has a very classic ‘British verse’ quality about it, and this runs all the way through his work. In contrast, Auden always admitted some form of obscure relationship with a figure like Rimbaud, and yet nowhere do we find a Rimbaudian spirit about what he determines to write as poetry. The appeal to other European movements in poetry is always a kind of candid background to Auden, and yet his writing is deceptive of that inclination, being one of the most provincial semblances of any poet of the 20th century, bar perhaps Larkin. Tonks, in all this, both asserts the Francophile nature of her poetry and explicitly follows up on it. It’s there in the persistence of her quatrains and in her thematic concerns, with her form, for the most part, shunning rhyme for declarative openness, and yet never as wild as Pound or the earlier vers libre crowd (which largely went unheeded apart from by Pound himself!) It has the architecture of a classic Baudelaire poem without the Poundian or Whitmanic impulse of mechanico-spontaneous typing-flow, or focus on breath-lengths (as Ginsberg later modified it). Instead we do have hints of rhyme and metre but these are not forced or played upon in any way. She is also uncommonly — for her time — direct of statement, and in no way seems shrouded in pretence and sophistication… and, in this way, she retrieves something of the best of Lawrence’s poetry (as perhaps Creeley, at his best, imagined he achieved… though his stuff is vastly divergent in theme and content. Tonks is more acerbic, more combative, and more blatant in her concerns). In fact, of any British predecessor, Lawrence seems the one modern presence in her work. Yet, in her use of humour and compound words she also has a smattering of Joyce about her (and we learn from reading into her background that she did seriously read Joyce). Whatever I have sought in seeing a way between the styles of those two figures of modernism is often achieved in Tonks… often it can be bald statement, black humour, the sense of two or more voices doing battle on a single theme often comes through (without need of italics or any other indicatory technique)… and the use of exclamation also, as she is up front about, adds to the Francophilia. She is more exuberant than Lawrence and less punning than Joyce, and — to that end — a British original, and not carrying much explicitly modernistic baggage (Mina Loy…?) There’s also a jauntiness about her rush of words that gives the sense of something in its earliest conception arriving in haste, and then possibly worked over much later… she seems to allow for a certain elasticity of grammar which gives me that feeling of jagged weirdness. Even her directness keeps a gnomic flavour, being both clear and surreally befuddling at the same time (My boot — that’s plump with mildew and uncorseted –… all his rainfield hours / Belong to the Lord of oxygen and watershowers…) Meaning; that the whole thing comes down to a vitality of imagination 21st century poets could learn much from.
I don’t intend to comment in detail here, but a few poems and examples of her fascinating linkage of images might be in order, so that the reader might wander into these particular fields of imagination sufficiently enlivened. Let’s look at the poem Oath complete, from her first collected outing of 1963;
I swear that I would not go back
To pole the glass fishpools where the rough breath lies
That built the Earth — there, under the heavy trees
With their bark that’s full of grocer’s spice,
Not for an hour — although my heart
Moves, thirstily, to drink the thought — would I
Go back to run my boat
On the brown rain that made it slippery,
I would not for a youth
Return to ignorance, and be the wildfowl
Thrown about by the dark water seasons
With an ink-storm of dark moods against my soul,
And no firm ground inside my breast,
Only the breath of God that stirs
Scent-kitchens of refreshing trees,
And the shabby green cartilege of play upon my knees.
With no hard earth inside my breast
To hold a Universe made out of breath,
Slippery as fish with their wet mortar made of mirrors
I laid a grip of glass upon my youth.
And not for the waterpools would I go back
To a Universe unreal as breath — although I use
The great muscle of my heart
To thirst like a drunkard for the scent-storm of the trees.
The constringence of acted-on and acted-out, the decorative value of things seen as reflections of things of the body — the tension between inner and outer — seem all characteristic of her attitude to expression. The poet, here, errs toward the very Rimbaudian notion of the poet being other to the world (a more extreme attitude than I have previously formulated here… the poet being not of a world, necessarily absent to it, in some formulation, a figure even resistant, or semi-resistant to thought itself (which affirms Lawrence’s attitude to psyche, a notion I’ve spoken of before). Youth here is possibly the other but also a temporal zone of memory, which works out as an effective created dualism which the whole poem turns around. What she retrieves from her explicitly French predecessors is this bold use of the I, which — over the next decade — becomes so subsumed in conceptual dalliances by deconstructionism and L.A.N.G.U.A.G.E poetics.
Much has also been made of the similarities between Plath and Tonks but I see only a very partial connection between them. In all of Plath’s prose and early poetry we see a focus on actual worldly description, and of descriptive exercise as poetic training. It is only in the final Ariel poems that a comparison between the two might be more plausible. The inward presence of Plath’s final phase is present in Tonks from the very beginning, as with: In the green rags of the Bible I tore up / The straight silk of childhood on my head / I left the house, I fled (…from Running Away). This also points toward a central difference between them; the devotional aspect (both the fragile and dangerous devotion to other people, and to a God who is irrevocably existent but elsewhere). It seems that, in Tonks, from the outset, experience has either an advisory spiritual aspect or a dreadful meta-life. By contrast, Plath exhibits the poetic voice as in negative thrall to a pitiless Yahweh, a more personal drama whereby the poetry is the enactment of a primal rejection that uses the actual filial father figure as framework. In this context — the Ariel poems — Plath re-shapes a shamanistic crisis for the lost, and spectral father figure. Yahweh becomes a code that the poems attempt to decipher (the shame of it, of course, is that the now prevalent feminist criticism attempts to paint that crisis so as to be reduced to, and object of, male cruelty). In Tonks’s Addiction to an Old Mattress we have a more widely channelled — but still infernal — world of romantic entanglement peopled by those who most inhibit forms of transcendant release and instructional pain.
No, this is not my life, thank God…
…worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;
Obsessed first by one person, and then
(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another;
These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,
They belong to the people in the streets, the others
Out there — haberdashers, writers of menus.
I wonder what kind of poems Tonks would have written if Existentialism had not figured so prominently in the European mind after the war. By all means it could not have been avoided in any sense… this sense of philosophy, of milieu and cultural flux. The constancy of desire and exuberant devotion (“Exuberance is beauty” quoth Blake) affixed to the eminence — and possible transcendence? –of failure… these are all part of an acute painterly sensibility in Tonks. She is — here — of course, both sensuous and characteristically brutal regarding any case of social prescription (the presumption, in this stanza, would be that the poet is profoundly disinterested in those “menus”!)
I have a quarrel with the world
At music in my breast
To walk the shabby thrilling twilight of the street
[…] To stoop and grow
Hard callouses where the black weather
Rests its knuckles on me like a sulky Pasha
Upon the brow
Of his pet slave, grating magnificent rings…
Makes my tenant thunder my complaint
Upon her velvet ropes!
And yet… as powerful but indolent composers
Will only work when bailiffs pound their doors,
Where my musician lodges
I need Adversity to break its claws!
…these lines, picked from On the advantage of being ill-treated by the World, suggest strains of The Pixies’ Gouge Away or the Catholicity of some of George Barker’s more carefully crafted lines (in fact both Barker and Baudelaire’s Catholicism enter here?)… these, for instance; Not less light shall God treat my maze of nerve / Than that great dread of tomorrow drove over / My maze of days.
And do we also detect something of Thomas’s the force that through the green fuse in those velvet ropes?… The hand that whirls the water in the pool / Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind / Hauls my shroud sail. Possibly. Perhaps more so in the earlier volume. Yet it is the urban and the at-least partially social where Tonks is most unique and individual, and in this way (as she admits herself) she cannot be easily folded into any 20th century line of poetic endeavour. Her unabashed use of all the great old poetry words; soul, heart, night, breast, Eternity, heavens… would, I imagine, to the post-war sophisticates, seem only antiquated (and yet, I’m assuming she achieved some level of a readership in her day… which might signal to us that these words cannot instinctually — and in the right hands — be overused… and yet which modern creative writing tutors would prefer to inhibit their use in students, I wonder). Yet it is often the poetry that seems most fresh and new that also seems the most antiquated, as Pound’s earliest Rossetti-inspired poems also prove (and what a healthy aesthetic traditionalism implies).
There is more fire to the second volume, Iliad of Broken Sentences, than the first. And a kind of densely nettling anxiety, a loud and quiet grotesquery. It is an urban tirade not un-like Lawrence’s Nettles… but each piece is not as thematically directed, and it swirls and seethes with dollops of a twisted, glutinous c’est-la-vie humour. Its style amps up the fascinations of the earlier book, love and hate are electric, and animate sentences which jump and weave, and sometimes do not know how to end themselves… they shift in mood and intent, always semi-discursively, semi-scatalogically:
These free days, these side-streets,
Mouldy or shiny, with their octoroon light;
Also, I have grudges, enemies, a religion,
Politics, a new morality — everything!
Sometimes… almost stock-still in a sand-drift… hurrying.
While dusty mobs pass, driven by the moon.
…If it blasts you, modernists fobbed off
With dingy souls, inside a century that growls
For its carafe of shady air, oblivion, and psychiatric mash,
[…did she need to put a full stop after ‘hurrying’? No. But — strangely — it works] or
Ah, to desire a way of life,
And then to gain it !
What a mockery. what absolute misery,
Dressing-gown hours the tint of alcohol and coffee.
I welded (mangled?!) two poems together there. Perhaps only to test to what degree each poem has become more mood and less theme. Someone may even stitch them all together to see how they fit. Suffice to say, Tonks’s London has steadily become a place of treasure only in its infernal muckiness. And it gets muckier and muckier. The later poems would not be out of place in Pound’s Mauberley, as I think someone else has already mentioned. The botched civilization, indeed. What the boomer and post-boomer commentators fail to recognize — while still seeing Wyndham Lewis in much of this performance (and if there is not a strong whiff of Rotting Hill to this neophyte-to-Lewis’s-writings then I beg forgiveness) — is how eminently and coruscatingly conservative some of these final blasts are. By all means we could be mistaking her earlier Francophile exoticisms for social critique… but it certainly seems as if the Arab and Muslim references are not merely hippie playfulness. In fact, they seem to have a very real critical value in and of themselves, their final conflicted but ecstatic salvo being centred on London, specifically, in Farewell to Kurdistan:
I’m leaving! Nothing can hold me!
The trains, watered and greased, scream to be off.
Hullo — I’m already sticking out my elbows for a piece of territory,
I occupy my place as though I can’t get enough of it
— And with what casual, haughty, and specific gestures, incidentally.
Tradesmen, Pigs, regenerative trains — I shall be saved!
I shall go to the centre of Europe; gliding,
As children skate on the diamond lid of a lake
Never touching ground — Xenophile, on the blue-plated meadows.
Oh I shall live off myself, rainclothes, documents,
The great train simmers… Life is large, large!
…I shall live off your loaf of shadows, London;
I admit it at the last.
As the London of Tonks’s imagination is retrieved and concealed in Xenophilia, by contrast the social critique of the previous few handfuls of poems is concomitantly steadfast and maintained. It is a skewed and dividing finale, a kind of hysterically prophetic lament (and prescient, under our new uber-liberal paradigm and a Muslim mayor, no less!?) I will leave it for others to illucidate Tonks’s eventual Rimbaudian retreat from poetry and her later suppression of her own works (it is all sufficiently delineated in Neil Astley’s Introduction to this book, and also elsewhere online) except to say that Tonks’s ‘Burning of Some Idols’ incident (also referenced in Symmons Roberts and Farley’s new book, The Deaths of the Poets) also symbolizes a final rejection of the hippie dream, and possibly even a rejection of England’s multicultural experiment, of sorts. But let us not dogmatically frame her too wilfully. (Her poetry, if only on the strength of this one volume, is obviously going to be around long enough for people to come to their own conclusions on this). As mentioned previously, Tonks’s rejections always contain a sense of the bittersweet, of the promise of a lucid and emancipatory love that is somehow recognizably buoyed by English grottiness, albeit surrounded and weighed down by potential defilements:
…which only encouraged me to bibliomantically search out some suitable poetic tribute to the life and works of Rosemary Tonks. I came up with this little gem from Baudelaire, translated in the English of James McGowan:
What will you say tonight, poor lonely soul,
What will you say old withered heart of mine,
To the most beautiful, the best, most dear,
Whose heavenly regard brings back your bloom?
–We will assign our pride to sing her praise:
Nothing excels the sweetness of her will;
Her holy body has an angel’s scent,
Her eye invests us with a cloak of light.
Whether it be in night and solitude,
Or in the streets among the multitude,
Her ghost before us dances like a torch.
It speaks out: ‘I am lovely and command
That you will love only the Beautiful;
I am your Guardian, Madonna, Muse!’
Aindriú Ó Domhnaill, Aug ’17
[Many Rosemary Tonks encomiums are available online (in fact, her legacy shines bright if the internet is anything to go by. Tonks has generated a lot of commentary given her collected poems has only been commonly available to the public for the last three years)… here, here and here might do as a start]