RSL Director Maggie Fergusson on prose-writing Fellows who began as poets

Maggie Fergusson

Filed under: Poetry

Many of our most respected prose writers began their literary lives as poets. Maggie Fergusson talks to them about the migration of their souls.

Ex-poet’s society

Interviewed at the age of 69, and looking back over several decades of literary success, John Fowles let slip one regret: ‘The tragedy of my own life is that I am not a great poet’. How many of his prose-writing Fellows share this sentiment? More than a few. When two dozen were asked whether, in early life, they had ever been tempted to turn their pens to verse, their answers ranged from the confessional to the cautiously concise. But underpinning almost all of them, tacit or explicit, was one assumption: that poetry was the finer calling, the literary equivalent of the biblical ‘better part’. As Sara Wheeler puts it: ‘I have always considered poetry a higher art form than prose (still do), and one to which lesser talents like my own should not aspire.’

Yet Sara was one of only four who had never been tempted to try their hands at verse. For most of the remaining 20, poetry had been, in early life, not just a passing fancy but a consuming passion. David Profumo wrote it ‘both by day and by night from the age of thirteen until I realised that the case was effectively hopeless (some time around my 26th birthday).’ Penelope Lively persisted in the writing of adolescent poetry – ‘as every right-thinking adolescent should’ – even after her headmistress confiscated her treasured Oxford Book of English Verse with the words ‘There is no need for you to read this in your spare time – you are here to be taught that sort of thing.’ Leafing through a carrier bag of schoolgirl jottings in response to this questionnaire, Helen Simpson found herself amazed by the quantity of poems: ‘I’d thought there were about five or six, but there were dozens and dozens,’ she wrote. ‘Look, here’s a sonnet about a row with my mother, written in the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins…’ For publication inRSL, she picked out On the Occasion of a Sports Day Presented at Croydon Stadium, a sonnet that caused such affront when submitted for the school magazine that it has never before been published. The effect is Joan Hunter Dunn meets Joyce Grenfell, circa 1650.

Helen Simpson never imagined that she would devote her writing life to verse, and nor did most of those who replied to the questionnaire. ‘My poems, such as they were, were simply expressions of feeling,’ writes Allan Massie. ‘I hope my novels are a bit more than that.’  Tom Stacey confessed that he could not ‘survive very sane for long without the oscillation action/reflection, body/spirit, engagement/detachment. To wake up each morning feeling myself obliged to write a poem would, I guess, have had me off to Ethiopia selling arms’. Piers Paul Read was practical: ‘I did not think of becoming a poet as such because it was impressed upon me by my father, Herbert Read, that you could not make a living out of writing… I intended to become a farmer; then a publisher.’

But a largish group, including Katherine Duncan-Jones, Maggie Gee, Romesh Gunesekera, Michael Holroyd, Tom Stacey and Colin Thubron, thought seriously about pursuing poetry into adult life. ‘I dreamed of becoming a poet through most of my childhood,’ writes Thubron. ‘My mother’s maiden name was Dryden. She came from the family of the first Poet Laureate, and this may have had something to do with it.’ Although some of Thubron’s early verse appeared in ‘obscure poetry magazines’ in the Sixties, however, there is not a single poem now that he could ‘bear to see resurface’. Michael Holroyd echoes this sentiment. ‘If I saw my juvenilia in RSL,’ he warns, ‘I would have to call my lawyers (whoever they are).’

And yet even for those who have burned, or mentally banished, their early verse, there seems often to be an image, or a fragment, or a moment of poetic satisfaction, that insists – bidden or unbidden – on resurfacing. At 16, during a passing religious phase, Hermione Lee won a prize in the Daily Mirror Children’s Literary Competition for a sonnet called Easter Crucifixion. ‘The only line I can remember is the last one, which went, “Plant hyacinths! Await the Paraclete!” It can still wake me up in the night with embarrassment.’ When she was 17, Hilary Mantel wrote a poem ‘about Christ going into the wilderness and declining to come back. It seemed to be in a new voice,’ she writes, ‘quite straightforward, less mannered than anything I’d written before.’ A.S. Byatt remembers writing, at 15, ‘a poem that somehow worked which began grandly “I have come late to loving roses”, and was about the fact that they were too rich and complicated – too many petals, too strong a perfume – for someone who felt she should be confined to the modest violet or simple daisy.’ From his seven-year-old reflections, Peter Vansittart recalls just one line ‘Squelching through the gulch – Mombassa’: ‘it seemed to me a pinnacle unlikely to be surpassed.’ And Katherine Duncan-Jones, who from a very early age ‘pretty much assumed’ that she would be a poet, remembers her very first lines, written when she was only three:
Snow, snow, everywhere,
And here and there
A polar bear.
‘Zoologically incorrect,’ she notes, ‘but metrically OK.’ This is modest. Any three-year-old producing these lines today would undoubtedly qualify as one of the Government’s unnervingly termed G&T (‘gifted and talented’) children.

Katherine Duncan-Jones’s early ambitions came close to fulfilment. After the publication of her poem Daphne in a PEN anthology, she was approached by a publisher (‘I think Hutchinson or Heinemann – it certainly began with H’) keen to bring out a collection of her work. But though she had always found writing poetry far more exciting than writing prose, it also had ‘an edge of danger (self exposure)’ that terrified her. After gathering together a score of poems into a folder, her courage failed her, and she never sent it off.

Maggie Gee’s story is similarly tantalising. Having won the Eugene Lee-Hamilton Sonnet Prize for undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge, and been dubbed ‘Oxford’s Poet Laureate’ by Isis, her work was entered for the 1972 Eric Gregory Awards, for which Ted Hughes was one of the judges. Thirty-five years later, out of the blue, Anthony Thwaite showed her a letter Hughes had written in response to her work. Of all the entrants, Hughes wrote (and they included Paul Muldoon), ‘Margaret Gee’s’ seemed to him ‘the real thing’.

On balance, she does not regret having received this enormous compliment so long after it was paid. ‘An award then would have changed my life, possibly not for the better,’ she writes. ‘I would probably have got published very young, and been insufferable, and never have understood how hard it is to get published, and how few talented people succeed.’ And in the intervening years, she has never consciously abandoned the idea of becoming a poet – ‘might it still happen?’ There are, in fact, a number of prose-writing Fellows from whom collections of verse might yet appear. Romesh Gunesekera, for example, remains dogged: ‘I spent many years writing a lot of poetry and pursuing an elusive book,’ he writes. ‘The chase is not over.’

Meantime, even among the most thoroughly lapsed early poets, it seems that most, now and then, experience a twitch on the thread. Richard Holmes finds that the older he gets, the more he is drawn back to writing verse: ‘Poetry is for the under-thirties and the over-sixties,’ he says, ‘like motorcycles.’ Allan Massie from time to time includes poems in his novels, and thinks them ‘quite good of their kind, but their kind is essentially pastiche’. And Hilary Mantel finds herself writing poems when she is ‘intensely caught up in writing, working very hard – it’s as if something must rise to the top – in deference to practising poets, I’d rather think of bubbles of champagne than the scum on a stockpot.’ In between these poetic eruptions, she dreams in verse: ‘when I wake, all that remains is a rhythm, or patter of syllables, and that will stay with me all day.’

Others are similarly aware of the influences of poetry as they work on their prose: ‘Rhythm, half-rhymes, a sense of a formal whole – still shapes all my writing,’ Maggie Gee reflects. And perhaps it is this poetic undercurrent, carried out of childhood, that makes the prose of the some-time poets so compelling, enabling them to hold discipline and lyricism in a profoundly satisfying balance. Hilary Mantel, quite unintentionally, seems to prove this point. As she was finishing her answers to the RSL questionnaire, it was announced on the news that Vernon Scannell had died. ‘All the fallen Fellows,’ she mused. ‘I used to imagine them melting into the mists of Hyde Park, but now must think of them chugging down the Thames and steaming out to sea.’

 From RSL Review 2008

Related RSL Fellows

Sara Wheeler 1999
Maggie Fergusson 2010
Maggie Gee 1994