Monday, January 23, 2017

Patricia Beer

Patricia Beer

[Image source: ]

In 2008, for some reason, I found myself trapped in a room with The Oxford Book of Verse 1945-1980....

The Oxford Book of Verse 1945-1980
Chosen by D.J. Enright. "For reasons hinted at above, the anthology may be considered reactionary. It could with equal justice be reckoned revolutionary - and with equal senselessness, since neither adjective has any certain or central place in this domain" (from the editor's introduction). In other words, Enright knew the anthology would be called reactionary and it would never occur to anyone to call it revolutionary.  I'm quite impressed by his valiant effort, hopeless as it is, to taint the former charge with the evident absurdity of the latter. I've yet to hit on a poem I liked, though I know there must be some.
OK, so let's be serious. There are authors here that I do like: Elizabeth Bishop, R.S.Thomas, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, and Peter Redgrove. Especially Redgrove. But we don't go to anthologies to fall back on poetry we already like. So I'll go for Patricia Beer. I am not supposed to like this kind of poetry, which hasn't the smallest concept of being new.
The Letter

I have not seen your writing
For ages, nor have been fretting
To see it. As once, darling.

The letter will certainly be
About some book, written by you or by me.
You turned to other ghosts. So did I.

It stopped raining long ago
But drops caught up in the bough
Fall murderously on me now.

Her poems here attract me by intelligence, or rather by what that intelligence discovers: Witch, Birthday Poem from Venice, Leaping into the Gulf. The discoveries turn out to be rather wilder than is compatible with the poetic.  Or, as I imagine, the life that nurtured this poetic. That feels like the best kind of gift a poet can give.


Back to January 2017. Patricia Beer was born in 1919 and died in 1999. Disappointingly few of her poems can be read online. She evidently published a good deal in the London Review of Books, but all of this archive material is for subscribers only, so it doesn't really count.

Here are a few online poems that I did find:

The conjuror
The lost woman
Parson Hawker's farewell
The voice

Guardian obituary:
Independent obituary:

She was a Devon poet, brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and a student at Exeter university. (When I was at Exeter Uni in the 1970s, some of my Christian Union pals were Plymouth Brethren.)

On Google Books you can read much of the first chapter of her book Reader, I married him: A Study of the Women Characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot (1974)

The opening words of the Preface are off-putting:

"The highly important and enjoyable books that have appeared in the last ten years both in England and America on the subject of women's Lib have one shortcoming. Whatever they may claim to do, in fact they treat literature as if it were a collection of tracts into which you dip for illustrations... etc"

Gosh, "women's Lib", there's a phrase I haven't heard for a while. Somehow, the hostility of "Whatever they may claim to do" so outweighs the praise of "highly important and enjoyable" that we understand the praise to be sarcasm. (Those were also the days when only a pedant would presume to notice that the UK and England are not synonyms.)

But overlook this awkward opening, and at once we're off on a rollicking, fierce journey (a  profoundly feminist journey in many ways) into the psychology of the novelists, with particular relevance to sex and marriage. I'm not at all convinced how reliable Beer's biographical intuitions are, but the book feels real - that is, not academic, not guarded - and I want to read more of it.

[Beer was in fact perfectly aware of the term "feminist", and she uses it within the book; for instance of George Eliot's friend Bessie Parkes, who insisted on addressing her as Miss Evans rather than Mrs Lewes, thus risking trouble with the landlady.]

Beer's book was, one would think consciously, an essay in an archaic form: the serious book about literature that was not written by an academic. It dispenses with references. It barely mentions secondary literature, though one pays the compliment of assuming that a sufficiency of secondary literature has been absorbed. (Beer's enjoyment of novels and experience of marriage are conceived as more important than her work in the archives.)  Learning is "worn lightly".  These books were based ultimately on trust that a person of a certain class may become well-read in the course of private life. This is criticism in the reverse line of C. S Lewis, Lord David Cecil, Chesterton...

[The archaism was certainly noticed at the time, see e.g. Liane Ellison Norman's 1976 review in Nineteenth-Century Fiction,  available on JStor. ]

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