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Sunday, 6 July 2014

THE POEMS OF MARTIN SEYMOUR-SMITH

Martin Seymour-Smith? If you haven't heard of him, then be afraid, and ashamed, for dear reader, you are him, one day. Run Press of Ireland has produced a lovely and thick book of all his poems, even the uncollected ones (which includes a very moving late poem to Robert Creeley). As usual, in this important series, the print is too small, but the printing and editorial quality is high.

MS-S (as I shall call him) was a friend of Robert Graves (another Robert) and an opponent of some elements of modernism.  Yet, he was a great editor, critic, when it came to literature, especially the foreign, which he also translated.  In the mid 1970s, in Britain, he would have been a well-known name among those whose reviews mattered.

Of course, like so many (all?) men (and women) of letters, whose main passion is poetry, life is hard, but death is crueler.  Oblivion awaits 99.9% of all poets, and their poems.  Who loves to read MS-S now? And yet, a few of his poems are very fine, such as 'Your Look' and some of the very early macabre poems of burnings, beggars festering in glass coffins, and tortured love.

An imaginative poet of high emotion, tempered by a curious love of the overwrought, rhetorically rococo sentence, his poems sometimes read like FT Prince's work as if it had been edited by a young Philip Larkin - so that you get both a 50s technical chill, but at times a curious Tasso-inflected extravagance.  In 'Mars in Scorpio" he writes:

I am my fate at last: almost becalmed, but
Heading, on this stern lacustrine mirror of your justice
Towards such intensities of cold that I've no choice
But between fear, and fear.

I love this - it resists the workshop ethos, and digs its heels in to diction, and style, and fustian stuff, and grabs poetry to sing thickly.

If you don't like elegant smart literary poems, that are fed fat like a goose for pate with allusions, formal craft, and a sense of the import of the poet's vocation, then you will be flustered and afraid.

MS-S, like Graves, believed in the calling of the poet, as a strange, noble and usually doomed affair between the divine forces and the bestial - and human sexual love was often like that too. These poems reference many torments of the pen, and the lover's pistol. I find this work exhilarating and sad.  Who reads this now, and if not, why not?

Because poetry is not what most people want, mostly.


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