Hugo Williams 

In the summer of 1986, when he was poetry editor of New Statesman and not long after Writing Home had been published, I sent Hugo Williams Every Poem I Had Ever Written. I was unemployed and still living at home, the chief subjects of the poems I sent to him. I thought I might be in with a chance because Williams had written about exactly the same thing: ‘My father said ‘WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?”

But I knew nothing of the rules of the poetry game. I did not know you were only supposed to send a maximum of six poems to an editor at one time. I did not know that you needed to include a stamped addressed envelope. (I suppose I imagined the New Statesman was made of money.) I had not bought Peter Finch’s How to Publish Your Poetry. I had not even heard of him. Regardless of their quality, my poems should have gone straight into the bin. Instead, Hugo Williams wrote back to me to say he wanted to take two of my poems, and next time please could I not send so many poems and include a sae?

Seamus Heaney famously compared receiving an invitation from Charles Monteith at Faber and Faber to hearing ‘from God the Father’. This was my God the Father moment. And it involved poetry. And even a tiny bit of money. I still pinch myself when I think about it, an act of kindness and grace which I did not deserve and for which I will never stop being grateful. As Raymond Carver wrote, I felt his acceptance was ‘casually, generously given to me. Nothing remotely approaching that moment has happened since.’

Years later I got to thank him in person, at the interval of a reading he gave in Exeter. I don’t think he knew who on earth I was, but gave a very good impression of remembering exactly my poem and story. Emboldened, I found myself gushing how much I had loved Writing Home, and that it had come into my life at just the right time. That it became sort of emblematic for me, a kind of lifeline. Emboldened further still, I admitted that my favourite of his poems was Tides’ (‘The lamp left on, the curtains letting in the light./ These things were promises. No doubt we will come back to them.’), and how this too had spoken to me in a simple yet direct way just when I most needed it, when I was a student. Hugo Williams looked at me and said ‘Well, that’s the one of course. It’s my favourite, too. It looks like you’re on the right tracks.’ I still don’t know if he meant it, or was trying to get rid of me (who could have blamed him?), but it struck me with a kind of unasked-for force, to have my enjoyment of his work validated in this way.

I saw him once after that, at a reading with David Constantine. He looked every inch the gent I had encountered several years previously -sports jacket, shirt and V-necked jumper- until I noticed his feet, which were encased in an enormous, and loud, pair of trainers. Only those who are born with supreme confidence can carry off that kind of look. It reminded me of one of the funniest pieces in Writing Home, ‘Dégagé’, where he quizzes his father on the meaning of being ‘well-dressed’: ‘Clothes were a kind of wit. You either/ carried them off, or you looked ridiculous.’ I remember as he started to read a lady at the back of the room cleared her throat and asked if he could speak up a bit. With great politeness, but also what looked like submerged fury, he fiddled with the microphone for a second before carrying on with his poem. ‘That all right?’ he said at the end, looking directly at the woman. ‘Could you hear me?’ He gave her a slight nod, the effect of which was both affirming and silencing. I thought: only the supremely confident can carry that off, too.

In particular I loved his poems about ageing and illness, his low-key prophecies about old people’s homes and smelling of pee. His diction, the way he carried himself, and his poems’ bare-handedness were all of a piece with words he once wrote in Strong Words (Bloodaxe, 2000), which, though I know he would shudder at the thought of it, now appear as a manifesto of sorts : ‘it seems to me that there is more, not less intensity in plainness, because simple stuff operates without the safety net of the poetical.’ Hugo Williams’s hidden-in-plain-view high-wire act looks anything but because it never looks as though he has that far to fall. But only a risk-taker of the highest order would leave the last word to Fred Astaire: ‘If it doesn’t look easy, you aren’t working hard enough’:

Dawdling in peacetime,
Not having to fight in my lifetime, left alone
To write poetry on the dole and be happy,
I’m given to wondering
What manner of man I might be. (‘Death of an Actor’)

8 comments

  1. Sue Hepworth

    I so agree with this: ‘there is more, not less intensity in plainness.’

    I am puzzled, though, Anthony…by your comment about the Fred Astaire quote. It seems to be a put-down of Fred Astaire who was just as talented as Hugo Williams (and happens to be one of my heroes.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Sue. Not a criticism of Fred Astaire at all. Like you I am an admirer. I meant that FA might not seem the most obvious choice for a source quote in support of plainness in poetry. As ever with best wishes Anthony

      Like

  2. Meg Cox

    Thank you for this. One of my favourite poets but not well enough known by my poet friends and I am never able to explain what it is about his poems that works for me and that I admire. I did have to have a quick look at Wikipedia to make sure that this was not a eulogy – I know he’s unwell… I was reassured by your story of approaching him – it’s embarrassing isn’t it, to be a fan – I don’t know why. I find it so, which is silly because it can only be flattering. I feel like that about you but your blog and being able to make comments allows a polite but distanced communication which is great.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. john foggin

    Fred Astaire: ” If it doesn’t look easy it is that we have not tried hard enough yet.”. I think I know what you were saying. I’m also pleased that I’ve finally taken the trouble to track down the original quote. I’ve been misquoting it for far to long xx

    Liked by 1 person

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