Saturday, December 27, 2014

Things I'm Glad I Read in 2014 #1

Bedouin of the London Evening

Despite my continuing neglect of this blog, the end of the year brings breathing-space enough to look back on 2014, the year in poetry. There have been many reading highlights for me this year, but not all of them have been books published since January. For instance, this was also the year I read Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, George Seferis (inspired by my Greek travels) and, a little closer to home, W.S. Graham and Peter Riley. I also enjoyed catching up on the early work of Mark Doty, collected in the volume Paragon Park. Nevertheless, in this post and several others to appear over the next couple of days, I'll reflect on the newly published collections which made me sit up and take notice in 2014. They come in no particular order, but are all warmly recommended.

My first choice, one of the last things I read this year, is a bit of a cheat, since the poems themselves are hardly 'new.' But Neil Astley of Bloodaxe has done an excellent job rescuing the poetry of Rosemary Tonks from the oblivion to which its creator once sought to assign it. I had become aware of Tonks through Astley's piece in The Guardian soon after her death earlier this year, and he has worked in double quick time to put this volume (Bedouin of the London Evening) together, including a fascinating introduction, which does as much interpretative work as many literary biographies in the space of a few pages.

As with any writer who, like Tonks' own favourite Rimbaud, disappears from the literary world after initial success, there is a danger that the romance of the doomed figure will overshadow the work or appear to lend it depth it may not have earned. In the circumstances, it is hard not to read the two fairly slim volumes of poetry collected here through Tonks' life and fate. However, there seems little doubt that this is a voice worth saving.

The first of her books, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms (1963), contains a number of poems which foreshadow themes which solidify in the second collection, Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967). The settings are often seedy hotels, solitary bedrooms or other spaces of urban ennui, yet alongside these there are also declamatory, visionary poems like 'Diary of a Rebel' or 'Oath', in which the poet seeks to break out of a state of spiritual poverty through sheer force of will and rhetoric; swearing, for example, 'To thirst like a drunkard for the scent-storm of the trees.' As Astley notes in his introduction, there is something of the New Apocalyptics in Tonks' style at earlier on. In the later poems, which are more cohesive in terms of tone and theme, a cast of bohemians and students haunts Soho's coffee bars while the poetic subject slouches around her flat in an eternal dressing-gown, both overcome with disgust at the apparent 'waste' of her existence and defiantly embracing it. Here Tonks is like an English Baudelaire transplanted into the 1960s: Her writing is expansive and emphatic, her imagery both exoticising and down-to-earth (see, for example her poem 'Addiction to an Old Mattress'). While she clearly wears her influences on her sleeve, it is difficult to think of anyone quite like her in her own time or now.

What I also like about Tonks' poetry is its commitment to big feelings. In an interview reproduced in Astley's volume, she talks of how English poets seem to think that a state of mild disgruntlement is as emotional as they should allow themselves to get in their writing (surely a sarcastic nod to 'The Movement'), but Tonks is unafraid to head straight into the most challenging emotional territory. This would be reason enough to read her today, when we otherwise have so much orderly and restrained poetry to read. That this commitment to emotional honest is paired with linguistic energy and invention makes hers a compelling voice.

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