‘Not Revie but/ Reverdy’: Martin Bell’s Gregory Fellowship in “The City of Dreadful Something”
A book launch of Martin Bell Translates Robert Desnos will take place on 6 December in the Alumni Room of the School of English at the University of Leeds. In anticipation of the launch, Karl O’Hanlon writes about this unusual and underrated poet.
‘There was something goliardic about him’, Anthony Burgess wrote in his memoir You’ve Had Your Time. His characterisation captures the contradictions of Martin Bell, a poet for whom that well-worn cliché ‘neglected’ is an inescapable fact of how his critical reputation has languished behind the achievement of his verse. Those contradictions may be the reason why he is relatively unheard of today, despite fond remembrances among students with whom he came into contact during his Gregory fellowship, 1967-1969,and while teaching Liberal Studies at Leeds Arts School, including George Szirtes and Barry Tebb. Perhaps perversely, these tensions are also at the heart of what makes Bell a significant and sui generis voice in post-war British poetry. His poetry is acidly satirical, yet suffused with an intelligent tenderness; it is politically-committed, yet undogmatic; he blends Jungian psychoanalysis, social satire, and unravelled aphorisms in a style that is flamboyantly macabre, and, like the Italian opera he loved, simultaneously earthy, plain-spoken, and extravagant. For all the saucy delight he takes in exploring different registers and voices (‘masks are striptease’, a line from a late poem, might serve as one coda to Bell’s style) and an equivalent breadth of forms and metres he employs, his poetry remains consistently governed by his musical ear and the just, memorable placing of words within the line: a poet for whom syntax and rhythm are the supreme end of the poet’s labour. Like the goliards of medieval France, Martin Bell was both lacerating iconoclast and an oblate to the unfashionable idea of the poet as the purifier of the dialect of the tribe.
The details of Martin Bell’s life and publication history have received the fullest treatment to date in his close friend Peter Porter’s introduction to Bell’s Complete Poems, published by Bloodaxe in 1988. What follows is a potted version focusing on those aspects of Bell’s life and work that have a direct bearing on his time as a Gregory fellow, and his translations of Surrealist verse undertaken in Leeds during the last decade of his life. Due to war service and personal circumstances, his Collected Poems published by Macmillan in 1968 was his first and last book, although he was included in the third volume of Penguin Modern Poets (alongside George Barker and Charles Causley), a series that has recently had a twenty-first century relaunch. (An aside: one of the touching details in Bell’s life was that shortly after meeting Peter Redgrove, who asked about Martin’s poetry collection, he spent the day filling a notebook with handwritten poems to give to Redgrove, titled ‘Unfriendly Flowers: Selected Verse of Martin Bell 1947-1956’). A student of the eminent translator of Rilke, J.B. Leishman, at University College, Southampton, his loyalties to the Communist Party forbade him to become a conscientious objector as he would have wished; determined to survive the war, he enlisted with the Royal Engineers to avoid being drafted as private in the infantry. As the horrors of Stalinism became increasingly apparent to the British left, Bell, along with many others, left the party; nevertheless, he remained (‘hélas!’ he would quip) a reluctant Marxist.
His other animating intellectual passions were Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, undertaken after his demobilisation while working as a teacher in London (during which time he penned his grand, creaking charivari ‘The Enormous Comics’), before marrying and beginning to raise a family. Jung, in particular, seems to have been a decisive influence; a later poem imagines him being welcomed by Wallace Stevens into a heaven that is a kind of sumptuous ice-cream parlour. Bell’s interest in the Archetypes was extremely superstitious; he believed in all seriousness that his poem ‘Headmaster: Modern Style’, which takes aim at a hated principal, functioned as an actual hex. I will say little here of Bell’s political poetry such as his anti-war poem ‘Reasons for Refusal’, or his ‘Ode to Psychoanalysis’, but I flag them as recognisable strains of interest in his work, along with his keen observation of social transformation in post-war Britain, catching as early as 1961 a yuppyish backlash against the post-war consensus:
We didn’t want to say the way things went
Pissed on the hopes we entertained,
Naïve, of course, but vivid and still pissed on –
The old gang born again in young careerists –
(Christ, boy, they’re reading The Times now!)
Porter and Bell tussled strenuously, ultimately successfully get Peter Redgrove to vote Labour in 1959.
During the war, in addition to serving in Italy where began a lifelong passion for Italian opera, Bell ran a sawmill in Lebanon, improving his fluency in French. He translated Nerval’s ‘El Desdichado’, the sonnet immortalised by Eliot’s allusion at the end of The Waste Land. Bell’s rendering, which he subtitles ‘a gothicised version’, decompresses Nerval’s gnomic lines without creating slackness, and introducing a melancholy cadence that is all his own with the shrewd, haunting caesuras:
O, to console me, in my graveyard midnight,
Bring back Posillipo and Italy’s seas,
The flower that was my sad heart’s favourite,
And friends the rose and vine there, binding trellises.
From the mid-fifties, Bell functioned as an éminence griseto the Group, introduced by Peter Redgrove, who declared to Hobsbaum and the rest ‘I’ve just met a man who knows EVERYTHING’, after his first chance encounter with Bell in a Chiswick pub. Peter Porter describes Martin in the Group sessions, beginning:
[…] with a cough of emphatic intervention and immediately [he would] develop brilliant technical fantasies on the roneo’d text which left the rest of us labouring behind. He was also a fine delineator of versification and verbal troping. He loved the camaraderie of discussion, the sense that, like any of those involved in the peripateia of the past, we were pioneers of creativity and understanding.
Bell affectionately satirizes the Group in a 1956 poem ‘Mr Hobsbaum’s Monday Evening Meeting’:
[…] Below the ceiling, guardian of the Grail
The ghost of Dr Leavis floats.
A trim breeze stirs the fragile sails
Of Lucie-Smith’s expensive boats […]
Poems condemned must lose their bowels:
Knit brows acclaim the execution –
Expressive consonants, rich vowels
By ladies trained in elocution.
A slow breeze stirs a beard Lear-sized
(Edward not King) to stringent rage:
‘Not in the poem! It’s not realised!
An abstract statement on the page!’
As well as tinges of Augustan satirical quatrains and their most eminent modern handler, Auden, the poem presents the Group’s Leavisite principles of “realization”—the sublimation or transmogrification of content or statement by virtue of poetic craft and the poem’s materia.
In the early sixties, Bell formed and important friendship with Anthony Burgess, who secured him a job as opera critic for Queen magazine. 1965 was a significant year: at the Edinburgh Festival, Bell and Porter rubbed shoulders with Vernon Scannell, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Bell fell in love with Christine McCausland, the muse of numerous poems, often epistolary—completely devoid of sentimentality, fused with feeling.
In 1967 he was made a Gregory fellow at the University of Leeds for two years; he abandoned the unhappy career as a teacher he had laboured at for twenty years, and subsequently separated from his wife. Bell never returned to London, and that last decade in Leeds he lived for stretches in a bedsit on Burchett Grove ministered by a kindly Italian landlady who wore ankle-socks with high heel shoes. Before landing in the bedsit, Bell had been made redundant from Leeds Poly and was subsisting on invalidity benefit, and had previously been evicted from a Victorian terrace owned by the university while hospitalised. Bell describes with savage indignation his squalid conditions in a late poem addressed to Burgess: ‘this tiny room, this cabin, this monk’s cell, / Pantaloon decrepit scholar’s den’. On the walls of the bedsit, he hung an orange and green mandala copied by Christine from an unidentified book in the Polytechnic library’s art section, dubbing it ‘Tiresias', with the winking eye’. As his alcoholism became progressively worse, isolating him from friends and colleagues, Bell felt embittered, almost as though he were in exile.
In the abandoned long poem ‘The City of Dreadful Something’, its title purloined from James Thompson’s City of Dreadful Night, Bell castigated Leeds and all its works in a darkly-comic rhapsody:
They have perpetual winter here in Leeds,
So that they can talk about football all the year round.
So we have rain one day, snow the next, and sleet and fog the next day,
And wind all the time […]
Manager Don Revie says
‘The weather is OK but the boys were tired.’
Not Revie but
People one does not see
Grey sun shattered
Clutter the streets
Vowels cemented flat.
In another poem, he refers to Leeds as ‘this glaring dirty pseudo-Scandinavia’.
One cannot shake the sense reading this poem that, as with Eliot’s ‘unreal city’, the horror at modernity and sense of dislocation and anguish are subordinated to the opportunism of the poet’s feral ear, Bell’s interest in modulations of vowels and consonants spawning new words, as ephemeral as the sensations he depicts, an imagery enamoured with the glittering exuviae of urban life. Compare this to a solid poem ‘Municipal Moor (Leeds)’, which finds that among the statuary ‘The aldermen / Are more charming than / Queen Victoria’, and, honing in on ‘One white benefactor / With mutton-chop whiskers’: the Caucasian burghers of metropolitan, affluent Leeds, perhaps even a coded, resentful nod to Mssr. E.C. Gregory, the wealthy industrialist who bankrolled the artistic fellowships (the brainchild of T.S. Eliot, Herbert Read, Henry Moore, and Bonamy Dobrée). One feels with a sting of recognition the perennial issue of artistic precarity, reliant on the benefice of creative fellowships(especially vulnerable individuals such as Bell), in Peter Porter’s revelation that a Civil List Pension arrived shortly before his death, too late to alter fate or alleviate his dire straits.
Bell’s grimly humorous conclusion to ‘The City of Dreadful Something’, a sort of Loiner’s Divine Comedy, lists the various manifestations of Hell in extended prose poems: ‘Hell includes also the Merrion Centre with its special subways for mugging’; ‘Hell is a poetry reading packed in to the Albert Hall where you sit and know that sooner or later every single member of the audience, including X and Y and Z, is going to get up and read his or her poem, except when the Cup Final is being played in the Interval’:
Why, Leeds is Hell, nor am I out of it.
Why, I am Hell, nor is Leeds out of it.
This chiastic twisting in the last line is quietly plangent beneath the satire: Bell turns the bitter mockery on himself, his awareness that his antipathy is not really directed at his adopted city, rather the city itself struggles to escape his alcoholic self-loathing: A. Alvarez is on the money when he diagnoses in Bell ‘a radical dislike for both himself and pretty much everything else’, although one might quibble with the word order.
It is hard to argue with Peter Porter’s portrayal of Bell’s Leeds years as a protracted ‘personal decline’ in mental and physical health due to alcoholism and various crises exacerbated by the same. Porter concludes that ‘his period of office as Gregory Fellow was not a success’. However, various poems dating from these years evidence his artistic generosity in terms of poetic kinship, as well as his curiosity in the city’s life, which serves to complicate any image of Bell as isolated in self-pity. He addresses epistolary poems to fellow fellows of Gregory’s largess, for instance to Peter Redgrove (‘Dear Peter, I am very annoyed. / With some bank managers’), and a squib entitled ‘For Pearse Hutchinson’ which seems to poke fun at morning drinking: ‘People are hanged for many a crime. / I always wake up just at opening time.’ He also wrote poems to and for Jeff Nuttall and David Broomfield, colleagues at Leeds Poly, and such occasional poems as his elegy for Alex Henry, a post-graduate who committed suicide in Leeds by throwing himself from a building, a poem that draws a mesmerising analogy between tight-rope walkers and poets as performers of technique and tact, as well as repellent and contemptuous of their audience:
Tight and tense and taut as the rope, I. My feet know the way
Better than I do, the rest’s sense of balance. The spangled lights’ play
Transforms me iridescent, a shimmer-wing insect. The crowd gape in their places.
The best bit is when I stop in the middle and spit in their faces.
Anarchic music-hall wit characterises much of Bell’s verse, early to late; he titles a Marvell-like elegy for a cat killed on the road ‘Incidentally In Praise of Barbara Castle’, who as minister of transport introduced the maximum speed limit in 1967, the first year of Bell’s fellowship. His poems are endlessly fascinated with what A. Alvarez called ‘the gang-warfare’ of literary history:
This is how
Three poets talk:
“Touché! Touché! Touché!”
(Redgrove once drunkenly snapped Vernon Scannell’s umbrella in two, and was put out for the count by the former boxer, a bust-up that Bell recounts in one of his poems).
Bell had particular scorn for the International Poetry Incarnation event at the Albert Hall, 11 June 1965, featuring the high-priest of Beat poetry, Allen Ginsberg:
The Albert Hall was open
For Bollocks to be spoken.
The ghost of André Breton is beating at the door.
If the gadfly laceration of Alexander Pope was one of Bell’s most common modes, as a mentor and teacher he is remembered as gentle and kind. Barry Tebb speaks of his generosity, detailed comments on students’ poems, ‘hunched over his beer, chain-smoking, talking about poetry, always and most intensely talking about poetry.’ Tebb also recounts a reading at Leeds Civic Hall when Bell, with Geoffrey Hill and Ted Hughes in the audience, stood in for Ted Hughes, who had failed to show, inviting Silkin and Hill on stage to read also. George Szirtes has also payed homage to his teacher Bell, who introduced his student to the ‘secret and subversive pleasure’ of poetry; Szirtes describes Bell as a ‘Groucho Marxist’ (a nod to Bell’s ode to the greasepaint moustachioed Marx Brother), and the ‘knockabout and theatrical’ elements of opera buffa that reel throughout his work.
It was also during the first summer of his tenure as Gregory fellow that Bell visited Cyprus with the painter Stass Paraskos, meeting and coming under the spell of the charismatic priest-politician President Makarios. Bell had been commissioned to produce a travel book along the line of Auden and MacNeice; the result was an unpublished epistolary verse work Letters from Cyprus. The lurid, cauchemar streak of Bell’s work inherited from the Surrealists can be seen in some of these poems, including ‘To the Goddess’, a neurasthenic ode which remembers a ‘vile black snake’ striking a peacock in a café aviary. The last stanza of the poem is a study of the childlike operations of what Baudelaire describes when he says, ‘I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror’. Bell’s syntax apes the nervous system, and foreboding is not so much an affect, a nebulous mood, but a matter of lineation:
Frighten me again but
Not too much
Do not frighten me to death.
(Incidentally, Bell and Redgrove had a stand-up routine, raucously received by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso at a reading in Bayswater, in which one old man lures and flatters another into accepting a part in a play that will culminate in his death).
Despite the alcoholic penury of the blighted last decade of Bell’s life, while his own verse production comprised modest gains, papers left after his death revealed that he had been meticulously, devotedly translating French Surrealist poetry. In clean fair copy, these included translations of Max Jacob’s Le Cornet à dés, André Breton and Phillipe Soupault’s Les Champs magnétiques, selections from Benjamin Péret’s Le Grand Jeu, much of Pierre Reverdy including Poèmes en prose and La balle au bond, and around seventy pages worth of selections from Artaud, Becker, Éluard, Hébert, Mesens, and Queneau. The Reverdy selections are the only translations by Bell to have yet appeared, published in a edition by Whiteknights Press in 1997 with a foreword by Porter. Appearing later this year for the first time, edited by Christine McCausland from among Bell’s papers, are his translations of Robert Desnos, chiefly A la mystérieuse and Les ténèbresfrom Corps et biens, the volume that Desnos’s own ‘Prière d’insérer’ defended as “le chef d’oeuvre, au sens propre, de la poésie surréaliste”.
With a mordant sense of pissing against the wind of the prevailing insularity of the Movement poetry of the post-war years, Bell advocated a more engaged and less inward-looking literary public: ‘Not Revie but / Reverdy/ For Leeds/ Fragmented.’ Translation, it should be obvious from our present circumstances, constitutes its own political act, and Martin Bell’s hidden labours in a decade inhospitable to it—these remarkable love poems only a fraction of his undertakings—should strike us as exemplary.
What Bell learned from the love poetry of the Surrealists, especially Desnos, was the power of repetition-as-tautology that is nevertheless kinetic and not stultifying (which is, itself, perhaps a terrible trope for the achievement of the poet who finds himself obsessively loving without being loved in return). This is the final stanza of Desnos’s ‘J’ai tant rêvé de toi’ in Bell’s translation:
I have dreamed so much of you, so often walked, talked, gone to
bed with your phantom that nothing more remains for me, perhaps and
nevertheless, than to be a phantom among phantoms, and a hundred
times more a shadow than the shadow that moves and will move joyously
on the sun-dial of your life.
Compare the lyricism of this with Bell’s ‘A New Leaf in a Diary: For C.’:
(love is the figure that makes a pattern a pattern,
Brushes the hair to a pattern.)
In a letter to Ted Hughes early 1978, Redgrove wrote, ‘Do you know that Martin Bell has died? A great stylist, a humourist, and a man with a better understanding of French surrealism than possibly anybody else on this side of the channel’. As Peter Porter noted, ‘the taste of the times has so far not been encouraging to a poet of Bell’s commitments’; perhaps we are uniquely poised to rediscover a poet like Bell, whose work, a flower absent from all bouquets (to paraphrase Mallarmé), is the product of a unique, tender intelligence.
Martin Bell Translates Robert Desnos, edited by Christine McCausland, is published by Art Translated and distributed by Silverhill Press, priced £9.99. To pre-order a copy, email email@example.com
Karl O'Hanlon is a former editor of Eborakon. His essays and poetry have appeared in PN Review, Poetry, and Stand.