Tuesday, February 06, 2007

John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006)

I first encountered the work of John Heath-Stubbs in The Modern Poets: An American-British Anthology (McGraw-Hill, 1963), the groundbreaking collection assembled by John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read, with its elegant photographs by Rollie McKenna. This is another amazing book I bought (for $3) at a library discard sale, and I wonder about America's librarians for letting classics like this get out of their hands. No great matter to me, of course--now I have the book!

John Heath-Stubbs was born in London on July 9, 1918, and educated at schools in Sussex and on the Isle of Wight. Due to his failing eyesight, he continued his education under private tutors until spending a year at the Worcester School for the Blind and then entering Oxford University, where he took a "first class" in English language and literature. He was poet in residence at the University of Leeds and later taught at the University of Cairo (1955-1958) and at the University of Michigan (1960-1961). In 1972, he received a tutorial post at Merton College, Oxford, a position he held for some twenty years. He was the author or editor of more than 27 volumes, including a translation of The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, an autobiography, a collection of literary essays, and his Collected Poems: 1942-1987, published by Carcanet Press in 1988.

In an obituary that appeared in The Guardian following the death of John Heath-Stubbs on December 26, 2006, Johnathan Fryer wrote:

"Though curious to discover new ideas, [John Heath-Stubbs] was not a good listener and could be unbridled when his hackles were raised. He sometimes lost his temper even with close friends, though he would usually ring them the following morning to apologise.

"John could be found in many of Soho's notorious drinking-holes in the 1950s and 1960s, and his own little basement flat in west London was a model of bohemian squalor. Fiercely independent, he lived on his own and insisted on cooking for his guests--surprisingly well, though both the floor and the ceiling showed evidence of mishaps.

"Although John was open about his sexual orientation with close friends, he did retain a certain feeling of Christian guilt about it. It was not something one should discuss in public, he believed, and in his autobiography, Hindsights, he avoided almost all mention of the subject."

On the question of his blindness, Heath-Stubbs wrote, "People tend to exaggerate the effects of blindness. There's a kind of very primitive fear of it. It's the punishment of Oedipus. Blind people don't spend all their time wishing they could see however; they've got more important things to do." I've posted a copy of this, along with a photograph John Heath-Stubbs, above the desk in my studio.

Here's the title poem from his 1954 collection, A Charm Against the Tooth-ache. This poem appears in the Brinnin and Read anthology, along with McKenna's photo of the young poet, (above left) pipe in hand, straining to read the newspaper.


Venerable Mother Toothache
Climb down from your white battlements,
Stop twisting in your yellow fingers
The fourfold rope of nerves;
And tomorrow I will give you a tot of whiskey

To hold in your cupped hands,
A garland of anise flowers,
And three cloves like nails.

And tell the attendant gnomes
It is time to knock off now,
To shoulder their little pick-axes,
Their cold-chisels and drills.
And you may mount by a silver ladder
Into the sky, to grind
In the cracked polished mortar
Of the hollow moon.

By the lapse of warm waters,
And the poppies nodding like red coals,
The paths on the granite mountains,
And the plantation of my dreams.


Blogger rams said...

A local library purged several sections, including poetry, last year. The criterion was whether it had circulated in the last two years. If not -- out. (Check out poetry books, folks. Read 'em, don't read 'em -- but check 'em out.)

9:12 PM  
Blogger Susan Och said...

The same thing goes on at our library. We should erect a false-front libray full of romance novels with a large cave in back full of the good stuff.

12:42 AM  
Blogger greg rappleye said...

Yes! At least, you would think that such decisions would be made by some different standards than the ones for selecting the winner on "American Idol."

4:16 AM  

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