The analyst is always right

Mark Ford

  • Collected Poems with Translations from Jacques Prévert by A.S.J. Tessimond
    Bloodaxe, 188 pp, £10.95, November 2010, ISBN 978 1 85224 857 4
  • BuyComplete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose by Bernard Spencer
    Bloodaxe, 351 pp, £15.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 1 85224 891 8

When he was 23, A.S.J. Tessimond (Arthur Seymour John, Jack to his family, but known as John in later life) wrote to Ezra Pound, who had recently settled in Rapallo, enclosing some poems and an article on George Bernard Shaw. Tessimond’s letter does not survive, but Pound’s reply does. ‘Dear Sir,’ he wrote,

If you were in the least familiar with my work you wd. know what I think of criticism in general & not try to arouse my interest with a perfectly innocuous specimen of same. Also you wd. know that I think Shaw simple shit, with no base, and not pick that particular bit of revery. Of course I think all England chiefly shit, and none of Shaw’s generation capable of serious thought, or even mental honesty.

If Tessimond wants to be a poet, Pound advises him, he should get out of England, which is ‘gone to hell, pustulent [sic] etc’ and contains ‘nothing but carion [sic] and pus’. He found Tessimond’s poems uninspiring (‘impression of yr. work neutral’), but he did furnish the young poet with the addresses of a number of magazines in America and Europe, and a few years later This Quarter, based in Paris, published ‘A painting by Seurat’, which was among the batch submitted by Tessimond to il miglior fabbro for comment. On the back of his letter Pound had scrawled in pencil: ‘Not hopeless if you are less than 21.’

Tessimond died just under 50 years ago, in 1962, and over that half-century his work has attracted flickering rather than sustained attention. Hubert Nicholson, his friend and executor, put together two posthumous selections that included a number of uncollected and unpublished poems, Not Love Perhaps … in 1978 and Morning Meeting in 1980, and then a Collected Poems in 1985, handsomely designed by students in the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading and published by the department’s press, Whiteknights; it is now reissued as a joint venture by Whiteknights and Bloodaxe. Pound always rather prided himself on being ‘out of key with his time’, to quote from the first line of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’, and in his letter to Tessimond observes that the young poet ‘must be very much out of the world to have invoked me … from oltre tomba’. Tessimond’s neglect, both in his lifetime and since, is generally put down to his being ‘out of step with his contemporaries’, as the jacket copy to this volume puts it, meaning out of step with Eliot, Auden and Pound. Certainly he never really sounds like Pound or Eliot, despite a brief early fling with Imagism and a number of poems about cats, and he lacks Auden’s intellectual scope and ambition, although he does have a certain amount in common with the Auden of more occasional pieces, in particular the choruses and songs composed for film and theatre projects in the 1930s.

Tessimond was born in Birkenhead in 1902 into a relatively prosperous middle-class family; his father was a bank inspector. Like Thomas Lovell Beddoes, an earlier oddball of British poetry, he was sent to Charterhouse School; he can’t have enjoyed it much, for when he was 16 he ran away to London, naively hoping to establish himself as a journalist. This bid for independence lasted all of two weeks, after which he let himself be ‘trotted back to Birkenhead’, as he put it in a letter to Nicholson. On graduating from Liverpool University in the early 1920s he tried his hand at school teaching, but didn’t like it, and then moved to London for good, where he worked in various bookshops. Eventually he found a congenial métier as an advertising copywriter.

Two posthumously published poems present antithetical perspectives on his chosen profession: in ‘The ad-man’ he attacks ‘this trumpeter of nothingness’, ‘this mind for hire, this mental prostitute’, who takes the

True, honourable, honoured, clear and clean,
And leaves them shabby, worn, diminished, mean.

But in ‘Defence of the ad-man’ he suggests that advertising can be seen as performing a positive, even curative role by ministering to the disappointments of the era and the individual:

         With permitted dope
He medicines the sickness of our age;
Offers the ugly, glamour; the hopeless, hope.

Compare these pieces to Larkin’s advertising poems, such as ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ or ‘Send No Money’; or ‘Essential Beauty’, with its ambivalent response to the vast billboards that ‘Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise/Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon’. These are perfect pictures, Larkin sternly counsels, ‘of how life should be’ but isn’t, since in life nothing’s ‘new or washed quite clean’, and the glamorous girl beckoning us seductively on turns out to be a harbinger of death.

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