Saturday, 10 May 2014

JOHN HARTLEY WILLIAMS, BRILLIANT BRITISH POET, HAS DIED

I am sad to hear of the death of my friend, the poet, John Hartley Williams.  For a few years, in the mid-00s, he and I would meet, have a few pints (or more) every few months when he was in London, and talk about poetry, life, and the relative oblivion awaiting all of our work.



John wrote poems like no other established British poet of his time - fearlessly, with a ribald appreciation of vocabulary, the zany, and the musical - tempered by a strong sense of form, and the tradition.  He was a sort of insider's punk - the most radical "mainstream" poet, somehow outside but always on the verge of being "in".  He was, after all, published by big presses for much of his career, and was nominated for a TS Eliot Prize.  John's poems are always larger than life, ferociously imaginative.  To hear him read, in his beautiful, theatrical voice, was to have already very vivid poetry roar to life.

There are very few poets who read every poem as if it was an event you are glad to be part of - and John was like that.  His poems exploded off the page, and left audiences amazed at his brilliance, wit, and imaginative reach. Typical of John's Monty Pythonesque sense of comedy was that he could title a book of poems Canada, and yet have never visited the country - for him, even whole nations were absurd - as words, as ideas to conjure with.

It is often said that poetry needs a better audience, and this has to be true of John's work - as poet, critic, writer on poetry, and novelist - for he was a great British poet, with not a very large audience. Partly this was because he lived abroad for many years.  But also, I think it has to be said, that John's work proves that poets these days are often throwing pearls before swine.  For if any British poet wrote funny, daring, dazzling poems likely to light up one's mind, and grab one's lapels, it was him - and the fact more readers didn't line up to buy his books in droves says more about the readers, than the poet.  I think John was one of the best poets writing in English in the last forty or more years.  I'd like to think he knew that, and somehow, enjoyed the fact, but he had a melancholy about him, that, conjoined with his warm, smiling, and charming demeanour, somehow continental yet English, marked him apart.

He was like the saddest cool Jazzman you could meet, dapper and delightful, tinged with the Blues, blowing his horn only after midnight, in small rooms, his heart in the music, generous as laughter, ringed with smoke and unspoken regrets.  His poems are surprising eruptions of more than anyone could expect, always delivered with panache.  He had brio in his blood.
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