Today marks the start of a new series of guest blog posts on overlooked poets. With thanks to Mike Ferguson for kicking the new year off in such style.
Ted Walker – an Appreciation
I became interested seriously in poetry around 1968/69, aged 15, when an English supply teacher took one of my lessons and played The Fugs’ musical version of Blake’s Ah! Sun-flower, and from then I was reading Ginsberg and any other ‘hippy’ American poets [writing similar, terribly], the Mersey Poets, occasional Romantics – those other hippies, Pablo Neruda [by now I was probably 17 and yearning for romantic love, and its pain], Robert Graves, some Tom Gunn; but favourite Ted Hughes came later – strangely – after discovering the adrenalin of reading Crow and then backtracking to his earlier work.
Amongst all of this timewise and author-wise, I was most affected, in terms of poetic appreciation, by the wonderful ‘English’ poetry of Ted Walker. Of his four books I have from that time, it is The Solitaires, 1967, that has my signature and own date of ‘1972’ inscribed so I was a fan at least from the age of 18. As with his first collection Fox on a Barn Door, 1965, most of the poems are about nature, both in vivid evocation as reality, and also in its pertinence to personal experience and reflecting on this, for example from Crocuses:
So, before our brooms burn through
the smash of bloom that springs ago
we left the wind to scatter,
briefly we pause: regret
the vacant seemliness
by which we live. For which, we lost
that proper, vital gift of waste
whereby the one-day crocus dies.
In my early years of teaching English I used two poems from this collection – The Brothers and Father’s Gloves – as examples of potent descriptive writing in presenting character and human emotion. To this day I love the fond if perhaps a little twee punchline to FG where after describing his dad’s hands and various gloves in precise detail throughout, it concludes:
We’d have him carry them, because
His hands were warmer with them off.
It would have been around this time that as chairman of the Literary Society at my FE College I invited Walker to give a reading, which he accepted: and I wish I could remember that actual event – but don’t. I do recall having two poets read during my tenure [there may have been more…], and Vernon Scannell was one who during his, fell forward drunk, the venue being our local pub. With Ted Walker I do recollect going for a curry after his reading where with his wife Lorna they were such warm and attentive guests, indulging my no doubt naïve, over-earnest observations on poetry and life in general.
Poems from Walker’s first, mainly about the seaside, illustrate his deft visual crafting as well as fine balancing of moods. Breakwaters exemplifies this in its hyperbolic [and I suspect darkly playful] opening warning of how
Elms are bad, sinister tress.
Falling, one leaf too many,
they kill small boys in summer,
tipped over by a crow’s foot,
bored with the business of leaves
and yet used in the construction of breakwaters;
….there is loveliness.
Ultimate green of eelgrass
soothes with the comfort of hair
all the tiny agonies
that crawl in hidden places
and sing when the tide is low
and death is not imminent,
scrabbling in an eczema
of pink and white barnacles
and mussels of midnight blue.
I think such describing is sublime, and for Walker the felicity with which he writes like this is evident in its consistency, for example the opening two stanzas of Porpoises which set the scene for their arrival into his view, and the poem,
Sometimes in summer the sea
looks infrangible; dull steel
dimpled like a dinner-gong.
The metal may be pitted
at the far rim with the hulk
of a forty foot basker.
A sudden clap-trap of gulls –
the sea scribbles lines of force
to attract crazed porpoises
frantic with feeding and rut
close to an inshore bather.
In the other two volumes of his that I have, Walker’s preoccupations become more expansive. In The Night Bathers, 1970, there are a number of translations [Neruda, Verlaine, Rilke, for example], and in gloves to the hangman, 1973, there is a poem that reflects a grittier style of writing, one where maybe he felt the need to ‘compete’ with the likes of a more muscular Hughes and similar. The poem Pig Pig is based on a 1385 French legal ruling that a sow which maimed and killed a child should be dressed as a man and executed in the public square. As vivid as earlier writing, the pig is, however, described graphically:
She dabbled her great crotch
in swill. If you would scratch
her with a bit of stick
you’d pick out the muck,
she would grin like a slut.
She slobbered on the gate
her wench’s gratitude
and in the hangman’s later description of killing the sow, the language is definitely more brawny-esque Hughes and Heaney:
God, it was Hell’s delight.
I got that chained-up brute
again and again in
the limbs. Cracking the spine
was like splitting a flint
with a grubber. I bent
a great crowbar on her,
smashing her to rubber,
let the wet brain slop out
like spawn in a bucket….
After this book, there was one further, Burning the Ivy, 1978, but Walker then experienced a drought in writing poetry and turned successfully to short stories, autobiography and travelogue. It wasn’t until 1999 that he published another poetry collection, Mangoes on the Moon. I do not know this book, but having revisited the early poetry to yet again enjoy immensely, and inform this appreciation, I have ordered and will review at some stage on my own blog here.
Retired from 30 years of teaching English at an 11-18 comprehensive, Mike now writes two regular blogs – one on music and one on education/creative writing which includes his own poetry – as well as educational materials, the most recent a major text Writing Workshops for Cambridge University Press. A short collection of his sonnets will be published early this year by Maquette Press. You can find his WordPress blog mikeandenglish here.