Lost Poets: David Wheatley on canons, exclusions and the quicksand of oblivion

What is your favourite lost poem? There’s a lot of material (not) out there to choose from, from the lost plays of Aeschylus to the discarded hospital poems of Anne Sexton and Ivan Blatný. Ezra Pound thought poetry was the news that stays news, but the comparison miscarries somewhat if the newspaper has been thrown away. Sappho’s work is famously moth-eaten by lacunae, but she’s not alone: Josephine Balmer’s Classical Women Poets struggles to find a single classical woman with a full set of strophes to her name. Sulpicia is represented by seven surviving poems, Praxilla by four, and Melinno by a solitary lyric (‘But time’s great span can topple us all; / life sways on one way, then another / you alone sail on fair winds of rule / and never alter course’). Expect the passing centuries to wreak their share of havoc with the physical, let alone critical, survival of modern poetry, though in truth the process of attrition is already well under way.

Beguiling as the pursuit of misplaced manuscripts may be, they are not the primary focus of this essay. I write in pursuit of the melancholy lostness achieved by most poetry, not by going missing but by sticking around. What is your favourite long poem of the once wildly popular Felicia Hemans’s – The Domestic AffectionSiege of Valencia, or maybe Records of Women? How about your favourite verse drama of cult Victorian aesthete Michael Field’s (aka Katherine Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper) –Brutus UltorCanute the Great, or AttilaMy Attila!? No one who reads contemporary poetry can be unfamiliar with the terms in which poetry promotions tend to be couched: the new poetry, unlike the ponderous productions of the past, will be accessible, engaged, unpretentious, democratic. What, though, I wonder is the assigned destiny of poetry which, rightly or wrongly, appears to be none of these things? It was a nostrum of Dennis O’Driscoll’s that all poets live to see whatever reputation they achieve decline, but how much more precipitous that decline tends to be after death. Have you ever met anyone who has read Hardy’s The Dynasts? Herman Melville wrote one of the single longest poems of the nineteenth century, Clarel, an eighteen-thousand-line epic description of a pilgrimage to Palestine – never mind the common reader, how many PhDs in Melville have read it?

In my more Borgesian moments, I imagine inventing a Poetry Oblivion Evito-Meter (POEM), which would spark into action whenever a small triumph was recorded in the face of poetic forgetting. A library user has asked if there are any Melvin B Tolson books on the shelves (red light flashing), a young poet has made an allusion to the work of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (emits small siren noise)! The protocols of preservation and forgetting are, it must be said, well established. Readers of my vintage – I am 48 – may remember the cultural moment of Harold Bloom’sThe Western Canon (1994), when his proprietor’s audit of the literary canon slammed into a dawning awareness of the world beyond the bailiwick of an old male Yale professor, with ugly results (dark fantasies of the ‘school of resentment’). When I read Wallace Stevens on art, I always suspect he thinks that people who own paintings know more about art than people who don’t, and ownership is at the heart of Bloom’s thinking about the canon too. Once in the canonical crypt, you’re in for (after)life, but the excluded receive no burial rites, are owed no remembrance.

What is it, though, that Harold Bloom on his barricades believes he is defending? T S Eliot’s view of the canon before him was rather marmoreal, while still allowing for movement of a kind: ‘the existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves’, he writes in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, ‘which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.’ The existing order is complete before the new work arrives, and the reward of the new work is absorption into the calm of posterity, where it has always belonged anyway. When people turn up late to the theatre at least there’s the sound of seats flapping, but this performance elicits no fanfare, no acknowledgement of poetry’s noisy haggling in the marketplace beyond the mausoleum.

How best then to shake up the canonical dust? Venting a spasm of impatience with Thomas Hardy as a writer of diligent short lyrics, Donald Davie once called him ‘a modest workman in a corporate enterprise which from time to time publishes a balance-sheet called The Golden Treasury or The Oxford Book of English Verse’. TheOxford Book should be the ideal repository of lost and found old poets, and Christopher Ricks’s 2000 iteration of that hardy perennial is full of delightful things, but something comes obstinately between it and the sanctuary of the lost I’m looking for. The paltry representation of poets of colour (I see a poem each for Phillis Wheatley and Derek Walcott) sends out its own signals. ‘Canon building is empire building’, Toni Morrison has written; ‘canon defence is national defence’. Seamus Heaney is in, because it would be remiss to lose him to petty arguments about cultural politics, yet Rabindranath Tagore, Christopher Okigbo, and Louise Bennett and the traditions they represent are not. Meanwhile, here is that stalwart of canonical exhaustion, Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, a-quiver with self-doubt but unable to cede the field to voices beyond its imperial frequency – much likeThe Oxford Book of English Verse.

National traditions are one way of disturbing the canonical consensus. Moving to Scotland in 2012, I was struck by how far from curricular currency Scottish poetry had been in the English university milieu I’d left behind (a neglect of which I’d been as guilty as anyone else). A daily reminder to me of the ubiquity of lost poetry is the breast- resembling granite peak of Bennachie, visible from my bedroom in the Aberdeenshire countryside, and hymned in Latin by one of the great and almost completely unread poets of the Scottish Renaissance, Arthur Johnston (1579– 1641). Not that makars of a more recent vintage are any more proof against forgetting. Naming the writers in Sandy Moffat’s 1980 painting The Poet’s Pub would make for an embarrassing quiz question: is that Norman MacCaig or Norman Cameron? Iain Crichton Smith or Roger McGough on a weekend jolly to Edinburgh? The thistly-tweedy poets of the mid-century contain some remarkable, occluded names. Robert Garioch for instance, whose long poem ‘The Wire’ is a searing testimony of his time as a prisoner of war in fascist Italy, and Sydney Goodsir Smith, author of the long poem Under the Eildon Tree and the ScottishFinnegans Wake, a picaresque novel called Carotid Cornucopius. The fug of alcoholic camaraderie that hovers over the painting cannot disguise the historical losses below the surface, however: for the effrontery of choosing to live in Cornwall, W S Graham is nowhere to be seen, while Ian Hamilton Finlay is presumably self-combusting on another one of his anger-overdoses in Stonypath.

Someone else not in the picture, despite his bibulous proclivities, is George Campbell Hay (1915–1984). The Gaelic-speaking Hay (also known as Deòrsa Mac Iain Dheòrsa) clings on in anthologies of Scottish poetry with ‘Bizerta’, a poem of his experiences in North Africa during WWII, but everything about his work spells delight in obscurity and loss. He was a prodigal linguist, and in collections including Wind on Loch Fyne (1948) writes in English, Scots, Gaelic, Italian, French and Norwegian. He also translated from these and other languages into Gaelic. His masterpiece, Mochtàr is Dùghall, has the distinction of being, surely, the only Gaelic-language long poem describing an encounter with a Tuareg raiding party in the North African desert. It was begun in the 40s and left to moulder in a suitcase during the author’s long decades of poor mental health and heavy drinking after the war; its publication in 1982 marks one of the secret landmarks in Scottish poetic modernism. Here is the opening of Mochtàr is Dùghall:

Mhochtàir is Dhùghaill, choinnich sibh 
an comann buan gun chòmhradh. 

B’iad fraighean an taigh chèilidh dhuibh 
an cactas ceuste, leònte. 

B’i an aoigheachd an dèidh furain dhuibh 
lan beòil den duslach ròsta. 

B’i fàilte an ùr chomainn sin 
guth obain, cruaidh a’ mhùrtair.

(Mokhtâr and Dougall, you have met in an everlasting fellowship without conversation. The walls of your gossiping house were the tortured, wounded cactus. The hospitality that followed welcome for you was the fill of your mouth of hot dust. The greeting of your new companionship was the sudden hard voice of the mortar.)

Connoisseurs of irony will have already noticed the deeper loss visible in Moffat’s canvas: namely, of half the human race, given with few exceptions the phallocentric outlooks of the mid-century makars. Over George Mackay Brown’s shoulder is a young woman striking the pose of Marianne in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, and based it seems on the teenage Stella Cartwright, a shadowy figure who ‘sold her love letters from the Rose Street poets and died almost destitute’, according to Annalena McAfee. Here’s your next embarrassing pub-quiz question: name nine mid-century Scottish women poets to set alongside the nine men in the painting. Elma Mitchell’s name retains some currency for her wonderful ‘Thoughts After Ruskin’, but Naomi Mitchison, Helen Cruikshank, Marion Angus, Dorothy Paulin, Marion Lochhead, Isobel Hutchison, Janet Caird, Anne Scott-Moncrieff and Olive Fraser are, and look doomed to remain, niche interests, though I note in passing the welcome relaunching of Joan Ure’s work by the Orkney press, Brae Editions. Here is the ending of Naomi Mitchison’s ‘Clemency Ealasaid’, a poem that enters directly into the condition of lostness and forgetting:

The waves will cover us all diving into the darkness out of the   
                                                            bodies
       of death,
Vanishing as the wake of a boat in a strong current.
The hot tears will be cooled and the despair of the middle-aged,
       rolling up their map,
Will be forgotten, with other evil things, will be interpreted, 
Will be forgiven at last.

In ecopoetic circles, the word ‘environment’ is viewed with suspicion for its underlying assumption that we humans remain at the centre of things. Similarly, talk of ‘lost’ poetry raises questions of agency, of who misplaced the work of Rosemary Tonks, Anna Wickham, Amy Levy or Anna Mendelssohn, and how much we should expect by way of congratulations for rediscovering missing objects that have been under our noses all along. This raises the allied question of representation. Not just in his own work, but as an anthologist too the late Tom Leonard is a laureate of lost and suppressed voices. I was struck, however, in the tributes after his death by one comment in particular, from Harry Josephine Giles, that he ‘did not diversify literature’. How so? Yes, he was a white male, but I sense Giles’s point can be interpreted in more ways than one: meaning, also, that it wasn’t Leonard’s job to provide a walk on the vernacular wild side for readers with no real interest in Scots-language poetry, or to act as their teachable moment. The job of a Tom Leonard poem is to be itself, not to serve as the testing ground for recalibrating our timid notions of what is and isn’t standard ‘English’ poetry.

As Leonard’s Radical Renfrewshire reminds us, the role of anthologies is crucial. Looking again at E A Markham’sHinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies &Britain (1989), I found a distinctly uneven pattern of remembering and forgetting in the thirty years since its publication. Markham is one of the unsung major poets of our times, but the decade since his death has not been marked by a Selected or Collected; without an intervention soon, his work looks like it may fall completely out of visibility. Tracking down a copy of his first book, Cross-Fire(1972), I found a humorous inscription bristling nonetheless with anxiety over the fragile status of the immigrant writer: ‘Cross-fire with popcorn to maintain our territory’. Markham’s older contemporary, Kamau Brathwaite (b. 1930) is happily still with us, and – one might have thought – one of the most celebrated of living poets. He published a new book, The Lazarus Poems, as recently as 2017, but his great trilogy The Arrivants, half a century old now, is long out of print and commanding three-figure sums on second-hand book sites. Among other poets in Hinterland, Louise Bennett has not posthumously troubled the press, the tragic Michael Smith (murdered in 1983) is nowhere to be seen, but thankfully the excellent Guyanese poet Martin Carter can be read in a Bloodaxe CollectedUniversity of Hunger, which I warmly recommend. Among the best served of these poets has been Lorna Goodison, underappreciated in this country but recently appointed poet laureate of Jamaica.

One critic’s lostness can be another’s blazing fame, and for an eye-opening perspective on literary lostness I might adduce Ian Hamilton’s Against Oblivion (2002). Having rehearsed his narrative of posterity, scattering hapless reputations like so much chaff, Hamilton worries his way through mini-essays on a host of endangered bards including (wait for it) Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Philip Larkin. I count a few token duds included for gratuitous abuse (Conrad Aiken, Stephen Spender), but of the 45 writers chosen, seven are women and all are white. The slap-downs for women writers are entirely generic: Stevie Smith comes with a ‘faint air of girlish tantrum’, HD shows ‘tiresome self-absorption’, and Edna St Vincent Millay ‘breast-beating shrillness’. It is a remarkably stilted exercise: so much that is lost on Hamilton has already gone missing before the book begins.

An inspiring meditation on literary lostness, and counterexample to Hamilton, can be found at the end of Roy Fisher’s Slakki: New & Neglected Poems (2016). Revisiting poems he had previously chosen to suppress, Fisher thinks about the correct levels of response due to his oeuvre, bringing a new inflection to the usual debates about attention and neglect: ‘my work always seems to me to have had as much attention as it deserved or was likely to get.’ There is something winning but arch about this statement, like Eliot’s insistence that there is ‘no competition’ among poets. What could be more natural for an advocate of Fisher’s work than to bemoan its lower profile than that of his contemporaries Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin? But, equally, what could be more in the spirit of his masterpieces City and A Furnace than to recognise them as inhabiting kingdoms of wilfully embraced avoidance and neglect? If every requester of Hughes or Larkin on Poetry Please switched to asking for Fisher’s ‘Wonders of Obligation’ or ‘The Dow Low Drop’ instead, Fisher’s work would still retain its quality of luminous lostness. Lost poetry is poetry that remains lost, even when found. The opening poem of Slakki, ‘Signs and Signals’, remembering the poet’s father’s service in WWI, ends with a visionary memory of Fisher senior amusing himself in the trenches: ‘Then on sunny days / the pleasure of making the sharp flashes of his heliograph / go skittering over the filth for miles.’ Much as lost poems skim across the surface of literary history, over the tide of our forgetting.

While writing this essay I learned of the solution to a mystery which has long accompanied the work of the celebrated lost (and found) Irish poet Freda Laughton. Laughton published a single book of verse, A Transitory House, in 1945, before vanishing; since her rediscovery her name has conventionally been followed in anthologies by a birth date (1907) and a hyphen opening on a void. (I say ‘anthologies’, but in truth it is only recently that editors have begun to pay her any attention at all.) In a welcome find, a Dublin PhD student, Emma Penney, has established that Laughton died in 1995. Laughton’s name has assumed a talismanic force in discussions of modern Irish poetry, yet no one, the last time I checked, has volunteered to republish her work. I picked my copy up cheap on eBay, and notice that there are currently no copies to be had, anywhere. Here is Laughton’s ‘Now to the Granite Mountain I am Come’:

Now to the granite mountain I am come; 
Confronted with such polished smoothness, stare 
Sightless, with the painted eyes of fear.

Up this blank precipice the thin 
Essaying sequence of desire
To vanquish, like the despairing violin

Ascends. Such yearning notes must fall 
And dissipate in meaningless 
Descending drops. An unplacating wall

Outfaces thought, so arrogantly high 
It is horizonless, for here
Life is truncated and there is no sky.

Literary history often presents a face of ‘polished smoothness’ to posterity, on which its casualties have failed to find a foothold. While canonical guardians instinctively identify with that sheer and ‘unplacating’ wall, the reader is just as often a small explorer on ground level, gazing upwards in search of music from on high but hearing only ‘meaningless / descending drops’. Laughton’s poem is, however, a horizon-expanding utterance. Its peaks are monumental to the point where they no longer fit into view. Why not look elsewhere, the poem insinuates, in uninviting but overlooked landscapes, reconciled like John Clare’s snipe to the ‘calm and cordial lot’ of happy obscurity: ‘Thine teaches me / Right feelings to employ / That in the dreariest places peace will be / A dweller and a joy.’