September 02, 2008

William Scammell's Nightwatch

Lake DistrictWhen I was a young scientist I carried out three years of research on the environmental impact of acid rain on Cumbrian lakes and tarns. That period also saw my first contact with poetry workshops. I attended two of them - one in Kendal led by the poets Geoffrey Holloway and Patricia Pogson; and the other in Keswick, in the home of the poet Chris Pilling and his wife Sylvia. The latter was attended by William Scammell (Bill).

Between 1979 and 1998 Bill published nine books of poetry, edited several anthologies as well as a collection of Ted Hughes's prose, Winter Pollen, and wrote a critical study of Keith Douglas. In 2000 he began compiling a collection of new poems for Flambard, but did not complete this before his unexpected and premature death. It was a terrible loss to British poetry.

Bill was a fierce and precise critic of poetry, but he was also one of the most generous supporters of poets, especially new poets. I admired him enormously. He possessed a vitality of body and mind that I had rarely experienced, and he was always welcoming, so much so that I used to navigate my research trips so that I could drop in on him in his then home town of Cockermouth.

We would smoke a lot and down rivers of coffee, and talk poetry. We even exchanged verse letters. I was the apprentice; he, the Jedi master - and I would always leave his home with armfuls of books and magazines that he would have expected me to read before I visited again the following week. In a way, Cockermouth, Keswick and Kendal were my writing schools.

Bill's precision of mind made a powerful impression - in fact I think of him every time I write a review, remembering Bill Scammellthose important notions that you should always be a poet, even in prose, and that all reviews should aspire to be criticism. During this time, Bill was a prolific writer of reviews and essays, publishing in the TLS, the Indepedent on Sunday, the London Magazine and Poetry Review. His reviews possessed his own vitality and deep wide reading - and his prose was often electric. Importantly for me, as somebody outside English academia and LitCrit, he was always incredibly entertaining and funny, scathingly so when required (making himself a number of powerful enemies).

I am so delighted that his son Ben has edited a selection of his critical essays, published last month under the title of Nightwatch by the wonderful Shoestring Press. The cover picture almost jolted me out of my chair - it is a sketch of Bill by the poet Marin Sorescu which he drew at the Ilkley Literature Festival in October 1993. I was jolted into memory because I had been sitting with Bill at this point at Ilkley, and Sorescu then sketched me. 

Nightwatchis an astonishing book, which accelerates forwards from the epigraph 'A critic, nay, a night-watch constable...' (Love's Labours Lost) into joyously written pieces on Hughes, Heaney, David Jones, Alun Lewis, Eliot, Berryman, the Lake Poets, Larkin, Raine and Les Murray.

An interview with Les Murray veers and swings over nearly every subject. Responding to Bill's assertion that Murray's forms are 'baggy' as compared to Heaney's 'well knit' pieces, Les responds:

Baggy! We both came out of the fifties, which was the time of the well-made poem. Mine got baggy. I've got a big chest, with a lot of air in it! One of my enterprises is to get Oz down on paper, and another is to get it properly seen abroad, as part of the human conversation. Three-quarters of it is too dry to do Western-type things with. It's also full of the loose unconscious poetry of adventure. Tourism at bottom is social poetry.'

Nightwatch is a generous and lovely book. Please buy it. It's part of the human conversation that Bill was having with us before he died. I for one miss him greatly. I miss his head popping out of his upstairs study window as my laboratory van pulled in, shouting, 'Morley! It's time to talk more poetry. Get in here now!' Well, here I am, Bill, ready to listen.

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