It says something, perhaps, about the power and mystery of Rosemary Tonks’ life (once the toast of literary 1960s Soho, turned religious recluse who repudiated all of her work) that I should have heard of her long before I read one of her poems. The image I had of her was a person who had disowned the craft of poetry but was still followed by a select band of stalwarts, initiates and rare booksellers. Until recently, I think there has been some truth in that, but Neil Astley is to be praised for all of his excavation, research and archival work in collecting together Tonks’ long out-of-print work and bringing it so accessibly to our attention in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. My major fear before reading these poems was that Tonks’ uniquely fascinating but agonised life story would threaten to eclipse the achievement of her poems, or at least strongly influence my reaction to them. Indeed, Astley’s detailed and scrupulous introduction gives us plenty of extra biographical information whilst also retaining a hint of the enigma, but the main achievement of this collection seems to be to present a rounded sense of Tonks as an artist prior to the radical change in her life in the late 1970s and her retreat from writing and literary life. For instance, Astley reprints two of her reviews and a rare interview with Peter Orr, which shows the visionary intensity and integrity that shaped her work:
[p.110-111, extracts from ‘Interview with Peter Orr’, 1963]
TONKS: …”I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions…I want to show people that the world is absolutely tremendous.”
As to Tonks’ poems, I can speak as someone who has read them for the first time only recently. Astley points out Tonks’ kinship with French Literature, of flâneuring and Baudelaire, who was one of her particular heroes. While I sense this nostalgie de la boue in her poems about cafes, mouldy bedsits, gutters, and starving artists, I was also struck by how a number of the poems reminded me more of the New Apocalyptic movement, which would have been coming to an end in the mid-1940s as Tonks was setting out as a precocious talent in London. Take, for example, the strongly bardic tones of ‘Poet as Gambler’:
Now like a gambler on an errand
Of my wasted youth, when gutter and heavens
Were my lottery, and my estate
A shirt of water-lotus that the night wind
Loved to rock as I went to do my gambling
Alone at dusk in that dark city
To out-bid Eternity (…)
In interview, Tonks cited the importance of influences on her work, saying that “the best thing about an influence is to realise it and to swallow it, and never to throw it away” (p.113). While I am struck by the at times dazzlingly individual nature of Tonks’ poetic aesthetic, I can also detect many intertexts in her work, which for me give it more power and connection/belonging. I can hear Larkin (who incidentally was a friend and supporter of Tonks) in her phrase “toad-winner” in ‘The Ice-Cream Boom Towns’ which in itself has the seaside decrepitude of Larkin’s ‘Sunny Prestatyn’. Tonks also writes about April as an “old greengrocer” which for me comes close to Eliot’s “cruellest month”. There are elements that mark Tonks’ work out as ahead of its time, such as the candour of certain bedroom scenes:
[‘Story of a Hotel Room’]
Very well then, in the gloom
We set about acquiring one another
Urgently! But on a temporary basis
Only as guests – just guests of one another’s senses.
Tonks paints London as both a cultural nodal point and the end-point of a decadent, Imperialist civilisation in a way that is striking and original, with poems full of dispossessed people wandering as nomads and Bedouin in their dressing gowns or with broken suitcases full of books. We see Tonks as one of the last bohemians, her contempt made clear for careerism and wage-slavery in the recurrent use of “cabbage” almost as a synonym/metonym for blandness. In a highly positive review of Tonks’ poems by Kathryn Gray in The Dark Horse 33 Gray nonetheless concedes that “Tonks’ predilection for the dramatic can irritate” (p.90) and poems such as ‘Song of the October Wind’ show this with lines such as “My sofa wrote her creaking, narcoleptic’s Iliad. / My bathroom drank the Styx”. It is at times hard to tell when Tonks is being ironic or mock heroic for effect. However, this can all be traced back to her urgent call for passion and higher emotions to be re-injected into a dry poetic climate, dominated at that time by ‘The Movement’.
The poem ‘Orpheus in Soho’ perhaps best showcases Tonks’ ability to operate within historical frames of reference but make glowingly modern statements. The poem is all about the struggle of the search for something, and Tonks suggests that our most decadent and direful parts of cities are based on the Orpheus myth “and how well they know it”. The poem dramatizes Tonks’ twin desires for privacy and exhibition and show a poet always driving purposefully towards the centre of the action, and taking all the risks that entails:
He plunges into Hades, for his search is desperate!
And there is so little risk… down there,
That is the benefit of searching frenziedly
Among the dust-shops and blind-alleys
…there is so little risk of finding her
In Europe’s old blue Kasbah, and he knows it.
Richie McCaffery’s first full collection, Cairn, was published by Nine Arches Press in 2014.
Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems by Rosemary Tonks is published by Bloodaxe, 2014, £12
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)