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An inspiration: ASJ Tessimond

THE TENTATIVE POET

One winter night in 1974, shortly after my 32nd birthday, I saw an entry in the Radio Times for a radio programme on the life of a forgotten poet, A.S.J. Tessimond. (1902-62). The entry included lines from his poem Portrait of a Romantic.

He is in love with the land that is always over

The next hill and the next, with the bird that is never

Caught, with the room beyond the looking glass.

He likes the half-hid, the half-heard, the half-lit,

The man in the fog, the road without an ending,

Stray pieces of torn words to piece together.

I listened to the programme. Years later I hoped it might still be in the BBC archives, but the tapes had been wiped. However, I recently discovered a recording, made back then on a cassette by a YouTube contributor called Evpman[1]. I searched for Tessimond’s books but they were out of print. These verses had proved so inspirational that I snipped them from the Radio Times and kept the cutting in my wallet, where it remained for 24 years until I finally became a full-time writer in 1998. Tessimond fired my imagination; perhaps one day I too could attempt poetry. Or could I?

      On 9 October 1746, in a letter to his son, Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773)[2] said, “I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labour, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.” By adding the adjective ‘great’ to this observation his Lordship would appear to preserve poetry in the aspic of literary haughtiness which marked his times. As a writer bereft of an academic upbringing who came to the trade later in life, I certainly regarded ‘serious’ poetry, inspiring though it is, as the quantum physics of literature. Yet all writers have distant flickering beacons, and as I grew older, I was drawn like a moth to such bright candles as Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. However, as it was with the music of Vaughan Williams, Holst or Mahler, reading poetry always stirred the same question: how do they do that?   The counting of stresses, syllables, what is the alchemy of turning words into emotional gold? What is Iambic pentameter, what’s a sonnet, a villanelle, a haiku, what’s the difference between an ode, a ballad and an elegy, and what about alliteration, assonance, anaphora? Were these the arcane things you only absorbed at Oxbridge? Did Philip Larkin sit down to write with a semantic toolkit?

     As a failed rock star and a one-time folk musician, I had written a few songs. Re-visiting those naïve compositions was underpinned by the old argument about Bob Dylan – were his lyrics poetry or just songs? Then, in 2005, I struck up a close friendship with an authentic, award-winning poet and playwright, Kevin Fegan. He’d been commissioned by the Arts Council to write a prose and poetry history of  Ironville, a town on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border. I was staggered when Kevin asked me if I would co-author the work with him. I said “Are you sure about this? I’m no poet”. He replied that he’d read my published works and that some of my phrasing indicated that I might easily intrude into the field of verse. Nine months later Kevin and I launched the book, Iron in The Blood,[3] at Ironville’s town hall to a full and eager audience. We shared the readings equally and the positive response inspired me to go further. In 2009 I entered a competition run by a British website, Poetcasting, run by Alex Pryce of Leicester University. The challenge was to submit a poem to accompany a project entitled Altered Land, by the Asian photographer, artist and writer Ernest Goh. The subject was the devastation in Aceh, Indonesia, following the terrible Tsunami disaster. The prize was to be a signed Ernest Goh print, and the publication of the winning poem in Singapore’s Straits Times. To my utter amazement, I won the competition with a poem entitled Against Those Gods. Sadly, although I was published in the Straits Times on December 26 2009, I’m still waiting for my signed print.

    By winning the Altered Land competition I imagined that might lead to a flicker of wider recognition. I assembled a small anthology based on my time in the Merchant Navy. I was quite proud of Tiger Heart, Velvet Paw: Poems and Nautical Bearings[4]. A small local publisher took the risk of publishing the 72-page book. At a Leicester University literature weekend I presented a copy to Alex Pryceof Poetcasting and I haven’t heard from them since. I began to think my winning poem had been a fluke – a random stroke of luck.

No-one goes into the poetry game for money. You’ll spend more writing poems than they’ll ever earn. I proved this by drifting into self-publication. I began publishing my own short collections and there have been five issued over the past decade. I road-test the poems on FaceBook and see how many ‘likes’ I get. In 2018 I appeared at two poetry festivals with Kevin Fegan in Nottinghamshire and was privileged to share the stage with the writer, poet, TV and film producer, Henry Normal. Book sales from such events were in single figures.

I celebrated my 78th birthday in April this year. I’ve written all the books I wanted to write. Some were published. I’ve made a meagre, fame-free living in magazine feature writing, the music industry and general copywriting. The calendar ahead of me is much shorter than the one behind. All that seems left to create is … poetry. Have I learned much about meter, similes, metaphors, personification, allegory, and irony? Perhaps not. I simply write lines inspired by what’s happening in the world around me. If they activate an emotional ripple, balance out and scan, if I can read them aloud, that will suffice. That said, I agree with Don Marquis: “Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”

THE HANDS WE’RE DEALT[5]

The thin gauze of summer

Slips from the season’s shoulders

As Winter’s heavy cloak

Is taken from the autumn locker.

The late shaft of leaf-blown sun

Cuts across the table

And illuminates my hands.

There stand the veins of the years,

The brown spots of age

And in those arthritic fingers

Throbs the memory of a life

The work; the lifting, the carrying,

The stroking, the cradling of past joys.

As the sun glints on the wedding ring,

I ponder; when shall we all shake hands again?

Roy Bainton


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvbrYm7uqas

[2] Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]

Letter to his son (9 Oct 1746)

[3] Bainton, Roy, Fegan, Kevin Iron in The Blood (2007) Artery, (Amber Valley Borough Council)

[4] Bainton, Roy Tiger Heart, Velvet Paw EMc Press Ltd. Mansfield (2009)

[5] From my next collection INVISIBLE BY DAY Putilov Press, Hull, to be published July 2021.

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