I was saddened to hear of the death of Gerard Benson last week.
A poet and anthologist, he was probably best known for starting the Poems on the Underground scheme with Judith Chernaik and Cicely Herbert.
I met him once. He was one of those rare people from Planet Poetry who seemed completely comfortable in his own skin. When he spoke to you, he spoke to you and nobody else. He didn’t spend time gazing over your shoulder at the party behind you.
He also wrote brilliant poetry for children. His anthologies for children This Poem Doesn’t Rhyme and Does W Trouble You?: A Book of Rhyming Poems are for my money some of the best you will find. As Poems on the Underground testifies, he was a genius at placing well-known classics alongside poets you have never heard of. In the best sense he was a truly democratic practitioner.
Because of his vital work there are teachers, commuters and schoolchildren up and down the country who can say with Elizabeth Bishop: ‘Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!’ Each of us owes him a debt of gratitude. He has left behind a legacy, not just a body of work, as his Introduction to Poems on the Underground shows:
“When we began to scatter poems about in public, we had no idea how people would respond; it was all a bit reminiscent of the lovesick youth in the Forest of Arden, hanging “odes upon hawthorns and elegies on brambles”. Not that the London Underground is anything like the Forest of Arden; on the contrary, it is the ultimate expression of the modern urban working world. But poetry thrives on paradox, and the poems seemed to take on new and surprising life when they were removed from books and set amongst the adverts. Commuters enjoyed the idea of reading Keats’ “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold” on a crowded Central Line train, or trying to memorise a sonnet between Leicester Square and Hammersmith. Just as we had hoped, the poems provided relief, caused smiles, offered refreshment to the soul – and all in a place where one would least expect to find anything remotely poetic.”
Gerard Benson, Judith Chernaik, Cicely Herbert : from Introduction to Poems on the Underground
Splendid words for a splendid poet, Anthony! I I especially liked ‘ But poetry thrives on paradox, and the poems seemed to take on new and surprising life when they were removed from books and set amongst the adverts’ i seem to have spent years on the tube, squinting past puzzled commuters at familiar, and sometimes unfamiliar, friends among the leaf-litter of must-see shows, self-help courses, and guaranteed cures for carbuncles which were ,before Benson, the only reading matter on offer. Gerard Benson’s vision helped allow poems to exist beyond ‘the valley of their saying’ and to disprove Auden’s other suggestion that’ poetry makes nothing happen’. ‘A poem a day keeps the therapist at bay!’ has been a sort of motto of mine for some seven decades now, and it does seem to have been effective!
Thanks so much for this. Except those words are his (and his co-editors) not mine. I do think he has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of the nation.
Gerard was my mother’s first husband. Gerard and I never met but we did share some correspondence following my mother’s death. He generously sent me some stories and photos from my mother’s earlier life for which I was very grateful. I was sad to hear of his death. An inspiration for many.
Your mother must have been ‘Jo’ or ‘Josephine’, who figures in Gerard’s forthcoming autobiography, Memoirs of a Jobbing Poet. (the piece has probably appeared already in the magazine ‘The North’. No mention is made of her surname — perhaps you could let me know what it was. I knew Gerard when he received news of your mother’s death, and he was very much affected by it.
Yes. my Mother was Jo or Josephine and her maiden name was Smith.
Gerard sent me a poem that he’d written about Jo’s passing when I had a brief correspondence with him.
I will keep a lookout for his biography when it comes out