Martin Bell was a paradox. Most poets publish several books before being granted the honour of a volume of Collected Poems, Bell did not. His Collected Poems of 1967, was the first and also last book of his lifetime, though Bloodaxe published his Complete Poems (including unpublished later poems), in 1988 ten years after his death and Penguin included him, along with George Barker and Charles Causley, in volume 3 of their Penguin Modern Poets series.
Born in Southampton, he became a communist in the thirties, fought in the war on the Italian front, and returned to marry and work as a schoolteacher in London for some years before a chance meeting with another poet, Peter Redgrove, who saw him reading a book of poems in a pub and invited him to join a group of other poets now known as The Group. Bell soon became a prominent member, and was recognised as such by the others, most of whom became well-known poets in their own right. Bell was soon noticed by the literary press. Being a lover of Italian opera he started to review opera in Queen magazine as well as appearing at major festivals. He already had a drink problem, possibly acquired on the Italian front during the war, and it might have been that which led to his divorce, though it might have been his meeting with Christine McCausland, also a communist, who became what he called his “common law wife” in that she lived with him and was his lover right to his death and long after.
The year of the Collected Poems was the great breakthrough. About the same time he was awarded a valuable Gregory Fellowship at The University of Leeds where he was also given use of a house. He left London, served his two year fellowship with Christine at his side, and when that was over found work at the art school where I was a student and ran a small class in poetry for those interested, while also writing poems, though very few, and stopped publishing altogether. His last few years were spent in poverty in a small two-room flat in a Leeds suburb.
What sort of a poet was he? Hugely read but not in the least academic, he was an unlikely combination of revolutionary working class politics, of popular film comedy and a voice partly inherited from T.S. Eliot (a man entirely unlike him), as well as the French poets who influenced Eliot. His mind was formed in the thirties but, once modified by the war, it was set free to range in the post-war England of the forties and fifties. There was no one else like him at the time and there still isn’t.
Martin – I think of him immediately by his first name because I was one of his students and protégés – claimed to be a muse poet. What did that mean? He said he worshipped the moon goddess. He bowed to the moon last thing at night, and claimed to have the magical powers of older muse poets who could cast spells, whether blessings or curses. Was this nonsense? And if it was, how far did he believe it? He wrote a good many poems to his personal muse, Christine McCausland, and maybe the belief was necessary for him as a way of reminding himself of the nature of poetry. Writing poems was a high and demanding calling, as was love. It was as mysterious and enchanting as the moon itself.
But Martin was not a fey or pretentious being. His poems were comic, rollicking, plangent, ironic and political. His best poems are wonderful subversive clowning performances full of energy.
Here is the end section from his most anthologised poem, ‘Winter Coming On’, which is not so much a translation as a transplantation from nineteenth-century France to post-war England from the French of Jules Laforgue, who was also loved by Eliot (Eliot himself is given a nod in the lines in brackets).
Wellingtons, long underwear, cash chemists, dreams,
Undrawn curtains over verandas, shores
Of the red-brick sea of roofs and chimney-pots,
Lamp-shades, tea and biscuits, all the picture papers –
You’ll have to be my only loves!
(And known them, have you? ritual more portentous
Than the sad pianos tinkling through the dusk,
The registrar’s returns of births and deaths,
In small type weekly in the press.)
No! It’s the time of year, and this clown of a planet!
O please let the wind, let the high wind
Unknit the bed-socks Time is knitting herself!
Time of year, things tearing, time of year!
O let me every year, every year, just at this time
Join in the chorus, sound the right sour note.