This is being written in London where I’ll stay for a week until time to go to Spain for the course I’m teaching at Almàssera Vella. It’s been about forty years since London first swam into my ken (see the Keats Chapman-Homer sonnet), and there have been a dozen visits since, three of them long term. I broke up my Guggenheim year into two three-month installments here, one in 1986, the second in 1987. Those months fed a novel I began around that time, later published under the title Part of His Story (still in print with Mid-List Press if anyone is interested). Another long-term stay came in 2005-2006. Though it wasn’t the main motive for coming here (London enthusiast that I am, I don’t really need one), a course I taught then for the Poetry School, which added some variety and company during those months. I also taught a week in Devon for the Arvon Foundation, my partner for the course the poet Mimi Khalvati. Mimi is unmistakably among the top poets writing now in England, though I’m not sure she is well known in the U.S.A. Her recent book The Meanest Flower was a T.S. Eliot Prize nominee, along with Fiona Sampson’s The Book of Common Prayer, but for some reason neither of these books won.
I don’t usually dabble in bean-counting where gender or ethnic categories are concerned, but it does seem to an outsider that women poets in England don’t quite get a fair shake. Most of the poetry editors of magazines are men (exceptions including Fiona, for The Poetry Review, and Martha Kapos for the summer issue of Poetry London, but not one of the big-name publishers has a woman who edits poetry; and few of the small presses for poetry have women editors. How to explain that? There’s certainly no lack of editorial ability here, Fiona being a prime example. Furthermore, I get the distinct impression that the lion’s share of the poetry readership here consists of women. (On the other side, let it be said that Anne-Marie Fyfe presides over the Poetry Society and runs the most visible poetry reading series, the Coffee Poetry evenings at the Troubadour Café. How she does all that, appears at so many literary festivals in Britain and her native Ireland, and still manages to write first-rate poems is a mystery to which only she has the key.) But my point remains: considering how progressive the British literary scene is, why has it lagged behind in finding women poetry editors for the trade book houses? Not that it usually counts for much, but no woman has ever served as Laureate here, either. Apparently Carol Ann Duffy is close to being tapped these days, or closer than she was, now that she has broken off her relationship with Jackie Kay. It seems a woman living in a unconcealed relationship with another woman wouldn’t suit the public, no matter that Duffy is probably (along with Roger McGough and Adrian Mitchell) among the most popular poets now publishing in the U.K.
This leads me to another curious fact. Although same-sex relations between consenting adults are perfectly legal here, and people of the same gender can marry, almost no openly gay poetry is published in Britain. Even Duffy’s lesbian poems are veiled, using the genderless “you” and other kinds of indirect expression typical of queer poetry during the years (what am I saying, centuries) when same-sex relations were taboo, not to mention illegal. Yes, there is James Fenton, but his love poems are all cast in the second person. The only really out-in-the open contemporary gay male poet I know of is Jeremy Reed, who twenty years ago used to be fairly well known but now has been pushed to the sidelines. And I’m sure there are younger gay poets, but they don’t seem to have acquired a wide audience yet. I hope I’m mistaken about this and that someone will correct an outsider’s view. The same goes for Ireland, as far as I know, despite the fact that some of their most famous novelists are gay—Colm Toibin and Jamie O’Neill, to be specific. And then apparently same-sex desire stops at the Scottish border, judging from the apparent absence of gay writing from that part of the island (Wait, though a resident in England now for many years, Duffy was born in Glasgow, so maybe she is the rule-proving exception.) Anyway, I wish someone could explain the weird and unnecessary reticence on the part of writers here insofar as gay experience is concerned. I thought the “No Sex, Please, We’re British” years were over. Even getting Boy George to fess up was apparently like wading through chilled tar.
I’m staying near the Barbican Centre in the City. I’m a fan of the City (as opposed to Westminster) because of its mysterious ancientness, its remnants of centuries of history, all the way back to bits of the original Roman wall built around tiny Lundinium. And yet City’s mostly passed up (excepting the Tower) by tourists, rabidly elbowing each other aside to see the changing of the guards or Big Ben. Finsbury seems to be the currently favored bohemian artist district, an easy walk from here. I just got back from a short expedition to Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, to pay respects to Blake and his wife Sophia, who are buried there, not far from Defoe and Bunyan. By the way, a couple of years ago Tracy Chevalier published a sensitive novel about the poet, or rather, a family that gets to know him. Title: Burning Bright. Recommended. I got acquainted with Tracy the last time I was living in London, when she was being talked about a lot for one of her novels The Girl with the Pearl Earring. There was a natural affinity based on, if nothing else, our respective fascination with Vermeer. Tracy’s an American, married to a U.K. citizen, and now a permanent resident here. Not to mention being a thoroughly likable person and a reader (obviously) of poetry. But then all the novelists I know read poetry, even those who don’t write it—which ought to help destroy the old cliché “Nobody reads poetry except other….”
Yesterday the stroll went in opposite direction, along Carthusian Street as far as the Charterhouse (the French for that would be La Chartreuse, as in the Stendhal novel). This is a tourist-free site because you don’t see much of the edifice from outside; only those attending Evening Prayer are allowed in, and, if you can take that in stride, the hidden courtyards and sanctuary are worth the detour.
From there I walked to the old Smithfield Market, a handsome Victorian limestone and cast-iron structure where, early mornings, meat is sold wholesale. It’s a venerable London fixture, built on the site of Bartholomew Fair (anyone read the Ben Jonson play of that name?), and was, traditionally, one of the roughest districts in London, as you might judge from the play. Walking through the market, you see commemorative plaques from several periods, one noting that William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, was drawn and quartered here early in the 14th century, his only crime having sought Scottish independence. Another plaque summarizes routine and extraordinary events that occurred at the market over the centuries. Those include “wife selling,” popular five hundred years ago. It’s explained that disaffected husbands used to bring their wives to Smithfield and sell their bodies; not for prostitution but as special viands. Unsuspecting wives were jumped, slaughtered, and carved up like veal—which sort of contextualizes Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. True, for us non-meat-eaters, the animals hanging on hooks embody a morality not at all defensible, either, but let that go.
I walked on to St. Bartholomew’s the Great, an older church than Westminster Abbey, similar in construction material (flint, limestone) to Southwark Cathedral; but less often visited. You can see it if you rerun that bit of nonsense Shakespeare in Love, but the movie doesn’t identify the church or attempt to explain what it’s doing in WS’s biography. An interesting fact for Americans is that during a period when the building was secularized and broken up into shops, young Benjamin Franklin worked as a printer’s devil there.
Restored in the 20th century, it was one of John Betjeman’s favorite churches, in fact, he lived in a little flat just opposite on Cloth Fair Street, as a blue marker will tell you if you look for it. Nowadays on the ground floor of his building, there’s a rather stylish pub bearing his name. During the hour of my walk, I saw Londoners engaging in their favorite after-workday occupation: hanging out at pubs, or in good weather spilling outside onto the pavement, pints of bitter in hand. Pub after pub and the same phenomenon. And the snuggeries all have such quaint names, more than half of them metaphorically decipherable as referring obliquely to sex.
I’m struck again by what a leafy-green city London is as compared to other world capitals. Parks everywhere, little squares, gardens, brick walls with elderflower peeping over them. Late spring is a good time to be here, when the leafage is mint-fresh and many shrubs (like elder) are in flower. It all feels very, very familiar now; and Wordsworth’s lines about the “meanest flower that blows” (Intimations Ode) keep coming to mind, with “thoughts too deep for tears” as I look back over my four decades of visiting this city.