fragile egos : returning poems to twelve dead poets

Some gravestones are like tweets. Take Nellie Bacon : 1895-1985. All we know is that she lived that time-span, the scope of two World Wars. "No regrets" the stone says.

Dead poets are more doppelgangers than ghosts; blood-kin of the rarely read. At least these twelve. Born between 1795 to 1915, they were previously unknown to me: now I'm standing beneath the Delphic arch of West Norwood cemetery waiting to meet them. I know everything about them.

Curious have commissioned me to create a work for this year's site-trail. Jane Millar, curator, meets me at the gates, stacking unused packs from an another artist preparing to occupy the Maddick Mausoleum. Rule number one of curation and organising, as I've learned: don't be distracted from artist by artist; egos can be as frail as those of the long buried.

I've made an anthology of my poets. Anthologies are usually complied around a generation or movement in poetry: this one is determined by poets who happen to be buried in the same place. This is different than chance: Victorian burials cascaded along complex class structures. Egalitarianism did not spread to headstones.

From each poet I've found a book, in some cases just a poem, and selected from that a two-word phrase to have engraved onto a stone. The stone is the carriage for their work to be carried back to them. I've got the stones slung in a bag across my shoulder; a courier for the undergrowth. In my arms a box of books from an edition of 50 executed at breakneck speed for today's opening by the Henningham Family Press.

The twelve stones will be dispersed across the cemetery, as close to the feet of the poets as I can get them. The books will trickle into dense silence as such books do: a tactile secret amongst the few. An old school friend, Brian Watkinson, has been capturing the research for film with camera-man Steve Gray. We spent a late night at the Poetry Library a month back. Brian reminded me of when I knocked for him to play out when he was ten and his sister said he wasn't "coming out today as he's playing office". Steve, hobbling on hips waiting for surgery, suddenly became alert at midnight as the books were being packed away. He started taking footage of the library office. Future YouTube interest : when was the last time you saw a library at midnight?

Jane shows me the niches in the columbarium. A poet's dream: each niche has a letter from the alphabet above to make identification possible. Each niche is like a box from which a CCTV camera has been stripped - but you still can't help feeling that you're being watched. After Father's Day last week there are blue placards of No. 1 Dad stuck next to photographs of the lost. I think of Pavel and me fishing that day : 5 roach, 13 bream and a perch. One niche has a token can of Stella and 20 Marlboro in salutation of a father, gone. With love. Remembered.

I place down Sydney Carter's stone in a niche that Jane has reserved for me. Carter was the only one of the poets to be cremated. When I was researching his burial spot the receptionist at the cemetery office had offered to give me the contact details for the funeral directors who had taken him away. I declined the offer. Carter wrote, amongst other things, the song 'The Lord of the Dance'. He was astounded at its popularity. If anything he had thought that the idea of Jesus dancing would be taken by the church as slightly heretical. My collaboration - or editorship - of him has proved the most poignant. His stone contains the whole life-death cycled in two words: MY CRADLE.

The columbarium was one of the first in the country, after cremation was made optional  (Shelley, that sea-wrecked maverick, got there long before). The cremation in the UK happened here. During the Second World War the crematorium was bombed and A to L was lost. I've had a week of alphabetical flux. On Wednesday the artist (and poet) Patrick Coyle told me that in poetical terms the alphabet begins at E (he was looking at a rare box of T.S. Eliot pamphlets at the time).

I walk around the cemetery for a while, trying to locate plot numbers and gravestones. It's like a library unindexed. Graves have been plundered, unearthed, excavated. One lies open on its side like an armless mummie; I look, of course, I look: but there's nothing inside.

I get lucky: Colin Fenn, of the Friends of West Norwood, agrees to meet me at the gates. He drives me back to our starting point, the columbarium, and asks about my poets. He knows them too; while I've been digging into collections at British Library and the Poetry Library, extracting phrases for engraving their stones with watchmaker's precision, he's been lifting back headstones and cleaning their graves. Colin has a face lit by restless curiosity: if there's a connection to map out or a link to explore he's happy.

We start with Sir William A'Beckett (1806-1869) facing the columbarium. His grave was cleared in the first sweep by Lambeth Council in the 1960s. A theme of the walk arises: language-location synchronicities. His stone declares an UNKNOWN WAY. He felt the other side of Dickens' lustre. Having come to England to see a doctor due to paralysis of a leg he began to focus his efforts towards full-time writing (he'd written The Siege of Dunbarton in 1824 when was he was just eighteen after "during a month's illness").

Next is Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd (1795-1854). His stone is a demand: SWEAR TO ME. Talfourd was editor of London Magazine, law reporter to the Times and a judge. He was a friend of Dickens. Dickens loved him in fact: Talfourd was an advocate in parliament for the Copyright Bill. His play Ion from which SWEAR TO ME is taken was performed at the Covent Garden Theatre to great acclaim. Acclaim that was never replicated. He died of an apoplectic seizure whilst addressing the grand jury. Bombastic lungs and the gravitas of conviction expelled him into a Victorian puff of dust. Dickens was his pallbearer.

With druidical sensitivity to the landscape, Colin maps out the plots of the dead poets, cuts through a section of overgrown graves, taking us towards the back wall along which poets Miller, Overs and Milliken are buried. 

Thomas Miller (1807-1874) has been expounded in children's anthologies as poetry's Dick Whittington. He was born in Lincolnshire to poor parents and worked as a ploughboy. Later he became a shoemaker's assistant and worked for a tyrannical master. All the time he wrote poems. True to the moment of metamorphosis in most fairy tales, he threw an iron instrument at his boss. An elemental gesture of overcoming. He then became a basket-maker, received patronage for his poems and moved to London. This was his genius: he began to weave poems into baskets and sell them on the street.  Dickens is like the grand damselfy of Victorian writers; they droned around him hoping for some refraction of his genius. The aqua-green specular-light of the damselfy attracted Miller and he wrote to Dickens for patronage. Dickens declined, commenting to another friend by letter that "he feared he'd missed his true vocation". Miller is the first of the poets to have no remaining stones. Colin, with a boyish plunge into the undergrowth, pulls out a dead log - damp and riddled with lice -  on which to place Miller's stone. We place the stone in an opened trellis of sunlight and realise the perfection: WOOD RESTS.

His neighbour, John Overs (1808-1844), buried next door in plot 8, had more success under the natural lux of Dickens. Another working class writer, buried in the common area, he's also missing a stone. I give him one, if scaled more for a rodent. It reads like a riposte to his economy burial: AMPLE SOIL. Colin tells me that after the burial further soil could be added on top at a cost. Unlikely for the destitute.  Overs had impressed Dickens with some songs he had sent him, after which Dickens had visited him on occasion. Overs spent his evenings reading and writing, curious and driven: the great tradition of the self-educated man. He had gotten ill and had to give up work saying to Dickens - as the damselfly writes in the introduction to Overs' book Evenings of a Working Man: "If I could only do a hard day's happy I should be". Dickens, ever the polemicist, turns the introduction into a mantra for how the working classes should take up reading as it "will render them perfect for the rest of their lives". 

Next along in this triumvirate of the unremembered is Edwin Milliken (1839-1897), an editor of Punch and humorist. He wrote the poem 'Death and His Brother Sleep" which was famously quoted by Churchill when he believed parliament weren't taking Hitler's threat seriously:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain,
and the pace is hot and the points are near,
and sleep hath deadened the driver's ear,
and the signals flash through the night in vain.
For death is in charge of the clattering train.

Auden might have had the metrics in mind when he wrote Night Mail. Ironically he is the only one of the twelve poets who never published a book. His quote, from the poem Churchill quotes, chimes with his later historical relevance: HUMAN NERVE. On his Wiki page Milliken's face has the austerity of a station master. 

We get into Colin's car and he points out the Greek section where Demetrios Capetanakis (1912-1944) is buried. Rain flecks along the windscreen.  Capetanakis arrived in London in the Thirties and fell in with the Bloomsbury Set. He was educated in philosophy and had translated Holderlein. Capatenakis' poem 'Engraved on Two Stones' gave me the idea for the stone-as-poem gesture as well as the words for the title of the book: CLOTTED SUN. The just-over-a-dozen poems he's remembered for are the tricklings of his talent. He died in 1944 of leukemia. Just before his illness he was helping to put together a Friends Ambulance Unit for Greece.

With the tiredness of a long-day tending the dead the word surreal slides out of me.

"You want to hear something surreal" Colin asks? We're heading towards the likely spot of Menella Bute Smedley (1819-1877), a children's novelist as well as poet and relation of Lewis Carroll. Her translation of a German poem influenced Jabberwocky.

"It's likely or at least possible" Colin says, wearing a miniscule tomato-red cap to fend off the rain as we walk towards some rhododendrons "that there's a part if not all of Laurence Sterne buried here".

The effects of the mock-tragic are usually manifested in blood draining from the face. I just laugh. Digging around for twelve unknown dead poets is ludic enough, if a quiet pastime; now I'm finding that a bone-fired genius could be spread out in particles beneath my feet. Was Laurence Sterne a poet? His timeline of Tristram Shandy as a visual poem? I'd have found a way.

Colin, alert to as little as a dot of moisture transforming a field's humidity, stops where the gravestones end against an impasse of rhododendron and nettle. He feigns throwing the stones of Menella Bute Smedley  into into the bushes. At least half of the poets have been without headstones yet at least I've been able to place a stone at their feet. Smedley, perhaps the most talented and prolific poet of the twelve (the other eleven roll on their side in disgust; turn their lice-flecked backs to me) has been lost to the bramble. Perhaps she would have liked this, her poem 'April Showers' in which I found her phrase is luscious, saturated with the exaggerated effects of nature on a poet's mind. I lay her stone on the fringe of the bushes; it reads as a warning to the unlikely aspirations of immortality in every poet: SUN UNSEEN.   

Theodore Watts-Dunton (1832-1914) is beneath a flat table-length obelisk. Fearing for his friend Swinburne's life, he asked him to move in: Swinburne stayed for thirty years. Watts-Dunton was a cipher of the zeitgeist, a little like Neal Cassidy to the Beats. He was friends with Tennyson, Rossetti and Whistler. Whistler had once dropped him a line asking 'Theodore, Watts-Dunton?'. His face on his Wiki account could have been lifted from the wood figures of Trumpton: rosy-pink cheeks and a handlebar moustache slightly misplaced on a man so thin. His legacy as a friend and supporter to the artists he knew is without question and the stone I lay down on the verge of the kerb LOVE'S BREATH reflects that. Swinburne fans have taken him as a Dame Durden, cleansing Swinburne of his darker addictions. He praised Swinburne's landscape poetry highly but thought little of his sadomasochistic novel Lesbia Brandon. He could steer the addict from drink but not flagellation: there are no simple delirium tremens that can be passed through for the tremors of sex fixation.

I found Samuel Laman Blanchard (1804-1845) late in my research: I have no plot reference for him. Colin weighs up the size of the plot, angles his arms across the cemetery like an experienced golfer about to pitch across a lake towards Hades. The inaccuracy of this missive is poignant: Blanchard had committed suicide after his wife had died young. I project onto his stone a restlessness but also a hope of afterlife unity: ONE DAY. We tuck the stone against the border of the cemetery wall; Colin trails fronds of pink petals in front of it. A bouquet gesture from the loving husband. Colin knows something of the afterlife: at least for Victorian suicides. This sin of the mentally ill and despondent punished with a lack of burial plot. When the church relaxed the laws there was caveat for being offered a burial slot: it would have to happen of a night. After midnight with the Anatomists. Would the anatomists want a suicide? Do these things catch? This was a massive relaxation of effort: suicides were often buried upside-down in an effort to contain their roving spirits.     

We have a plot for Henry Dawson Lowry (1869-1906); the stone is a kind of mottled salmon colour with classic Gothic text simply embossed. Colin lives for this : the gravitas of the Victorians. Lowry wrote a book published in 1904 called The Hundred Widows, its structure is quite modernist, each poem numbered in the sequence imagined as both a window through to the thoughts of the poet and, perhaps, a literal window typed into the white wall of the page. The idea is hollowed by its historicism: it lacks the bite of the pre-Imagists. As I lay the stone at the base of the grave another poem comes to mind, Larkin's "thought of high windows". I place the stone like a half-brick pitched from high ground to the floor, but its impact does not shatter: DAY LINGERS.


Janet Haney said…
Hi Chris, What a wonderful idea. I saw the book in WN cemetery and now long to visit all the graves, and hear the poems. A sound installation, or a live tour with poetry would be great. I wonder what it would take... Great stuff. Janet
oliver dixon said…
Hi Chris,
Drawn there by this post I followed the Curious art trail around WN Cemetery, which was both fun and fascinating, and eventually found your anthology in the Columbarium: the effect of reading it in such a place was eerily moving.
Disappointing,though,that the only map for the trail linking your 12 poets seemed to be in the book itself. Maybe I missed something but I would've liked to go and find the word-stones you "returned" to the dead poets as I loved that whole idea.
Perhaps you could send me (or post) a map of the trail?
Can you tell me more about the possible link to Laurence Sterne and his remains in your 17 July posting?
Chris McCabe said…
Hi Patrick, here's the link, parts of which you might well know more about: Sterne booked himself into a respectable inn on Bond Street when he knew his health was phasing-out. He was buried at St George’s but within hours his body was dug-up by body snatchers. As was common the body was sold to a professor of anatomy at Cambridge who recognised it as Sterne and it was returned back to its plot. In 1969 when St. George’s was being cleared several skulls were dug up that showed signs of being anatomoized and one in particular – a small skull – was similar in dimensions and proportions to a bust that had been executed of Sterne. The skull deemed to be Sterne's and some of the skeletal remains were taken to Sterne’s old parish of St Michael’s, Coxwold. The other remains went for burial at West Norwood. However, Kenneth Monkman of the Laurence Sterne Trust could only say that “they feel reasonably sure” that the skull and bones they’d taken to Coxwold were in fact Sterne’s. Which means, that West Norwood might have Sterne’s remains (or, in Shandyesque style: none at all). No one would have delighted in this more than the once owner of the body, Yorick himself.

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