Rosemary Tonks: no news but the ghost of Baudelaire

I missed Brian Patten’s recent BBC radio documentary about the vanished poet Rosemary Tonks. I even foolishly missed it on Listen Again. It was very annoying as information about Rosemary Tonks is available in directly inverse proportion to how interesting she is.* She’s one of those poets people talk about. She is very influential, but only if you’ve managed to read her work: John Stammers, for example, cites her influence and even took the title of his second book, Stolen Love Behaviour, from one of her poems.

Tonks – of whom I have never seen a picture – was, or seems to have been, an intensely glamorous figure in the sixties, with a rich banker husband and a big house and some kind of dissolute life – or at the very least a very dissolute inner life. I don’t know which. She wrote stories and poems and reviewed poetry for the BBC. She wrote two volumes of poetry which amount, I hear, to a total of 46 poems; a few autobiographical, symbolist (from what I can make out)  “poetic novels” (which you can get a bit cheaper); and that’s it.

Her main, and rapturous, influences were Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and Cavafy, and it has been said of her that she is one one of the very few contemporary English poets to try to learn something about symbolism and surrealism from the French. The poems are very raw-nerves, set at a pitch of immediacy and discomfort I would find it difficult to sustain even as a writer, much less to live at. They are intensely electric. And full of absolute killer lines.

Here is an extract from The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas:

On my bad days (and I’m being broken
At this very moment) I speak of my ambitions…and he
Becomes intensely gloomy, with the look of something jugged,
Morose, sour, mouldering away, with lockjaw….

I grow coarser: and more modern (I, who am driven mad
By my ideas; who go nowhere;
Who dare not leave my front door, lest an idea…)
All right. I admit everything, everything!

Oh yes, the opera (Ah, but the cinema)
He particularly enjoys it, enjoys it horribly, when someone’s ill
At the last minute; and they specially fly in
A new, gigantic, Dutch soprano. He wants to help her
With her arias. Old goat! Blasphemer!
He wants to help her with her arias!

No, I…go to the cinema,
I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum…

She stopped publishing poetry in the early seventies, apparently converting to Christianity, and in the late seventies she vanished entirely. Apparently she lives in some kind of garden shed or something and won’t communicate with anyone at all. Though how melodramatic this account is, who can say. I’ve even seen one account that says she packed it all in after seeing the ghost of Baudelaire. There is a reasonable rationale on Wikipedia:

Her fiction in particular moved from a dissatisfaction with urban living found in both her collections of poetry and in satiric novels such as The Bloater and Businessmen as Lovers to a pronounced loathing of middle to upper-middle class materialism in her later work. Her distaste for materialism meant that Tonks also developed an interest in the movement of symbolism that eventually led her to a conception of spirituality as the only alternative to materialism. This embrace of what she called “the invisible world” may have ultimately led her to distrust the act of writing itself, and caused her to abandon writing as a career.

She repudiates her poetry, which makes it impossible for anyone to republish it. Here she is, though, talking about it before the cataclysm:

“I have developed a visionary modern lyric, and, for it, an idiom in which I can write lyrically, colloquially, and dramatically. My subject is city life—with its sofas, hotel corridors, cinemas, underworlds, cardboard suitcases, self-willed buses, banknotes, soapy bathrooms, newspaper-filled parks; and its anguish, its enraged excitement, its great lonely joys.”

So then I had an email from someone I don’t know at all, in New York, asking me about this documentary and how he might get hold of her books. I went on Abebooks to see if there were any copies and there weren’t – possibly post-documentary. When there are, I’ve never seen one for under about £40; wrote back saying no books, good luck, etc; and thought no more of it.

Until a few weeks later when he sent me this link.

Er, and if you’ve enjoyed this, the blog is now operating at Thanks.

* This article is interesting.


Filed under poetry

13 responses to “Rosemary Tonks: no news but the ghost of Baudelaire

  1. kareatine

    I hope Tonks and Plath had drinks….at least once.

  2. Rob

    That link is so wrong!! But, before it disappears (as it surely will), I confess I now have committed it to a Word .doc. I hope I can be forgiven.

  3. Rob, that is why… but never mind. Me too, me too. I’m considering it a public service. Full in the knowledge that if her books were republished tomorrow I’d buy them.

  4. John

    I feel terribly guilty about copying+pasting them if she wanted them lost, but I read three at random and they were brilliant and I’ve done it anyway.

    Googling for a picture, I came across this:
    I can’t see any way it could be her if she’s been living in a shed since 1977 – but all the same, I wonder who it is (and where the blogger found it).

    (and isn’t the poem wonderful).

  5. I’ve been blathering to people for years about Tonks, whose books really are impossible to find.

    Somebody bring this poet’s work back into print!!!

  6. John, feel no guilt whatsoever dear! A young person such as yourself needs reading material, and the more of it the better. Think of it as foraging for food.

    Don, from what I gather the UK’s poetry publishers are in some kind of race, all desperately trying to track her down and get the rights. But it’s like one of those weird meta-games: there will be no winners, only death can change the status quo. And they all seem pretty hale so far.

    Tammy, those are the novels there. There’s one copy of one of her two poetry collections, for £35 which is not a bad price. However, I have conceived a notion to read her novels too. Why the hell not, after all.

  7. Anyone who heard the last series of my Lost Voices programmes for BBC Radio 4 will know Tonks is alive, that her whereabouts are know, but her privacy is being respected. She doesn’t want to be disturbed, even though her family are keen to keep up contact with her. Nor does she careto be republished though there are many who would like to do so, and not for profit, simply because they admire her, like so many of us. Good intentioned people have tried…

  8. Hi Brian, nice to see you and yes! So true. And I know many people have tried. It’s a fascinating story, not least because there doesn’t seem to be a single poet who doesn’t admire her work. And she continues to be a real influence in UK poetry, even though you pretty much can’t get her books. (THAT is maybe the power of poetry, if we were looking for it…)

  9. nieznany

    Rosemary Tonks was a friend of my mother, and to that extent I got to meet Rosemary during my teens. She was always very kind to us as children, and had a delightful sense of humour – she could get us all into fits of laughter remarkably quickly. I was in contact with her certainly up to 1976 – and maybe 1977. After that contact became well nigh impossible, but it is an acquaintance even now I’d be happy to renew.

  10. Pingback: Waiting for a left-wing bureaucrat to make a heart-beat: The electroacoustics of Rosemary Tonks « Superintendent Idle Tiger

  11. bibek

    though english is not my natural language i am reading english poems for the last 25 years, initially i didn’t know about the mysterious disappearance of mrs tonks; having found her poems different, in language and in sensibility, i searched more of her poems and came to know of her religious or otherwise exile (in six or seven poems i have read i find a very disturbed psychology behind them). with only 46 poems in her quiver, she wrote like a major poet who had already found her voice, style, syntax just right for her content. poetry lovers like me (neither a teacher nor a student of english or any kind of literature) would be the real gainer if her books are republished.

  12. Tonkians will appreciate Michael Foley’s ‘application to be fostered by Rosemary Tonks’; it appears on p10 of his New and Selected Poems

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