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 http://baroqueinhackney.com. Thanks.
* This article is interesting.