Book of a Lifetime: Collected Poems 1937-1966, By Martin Bell


The only book Martin Bell published in his lifetime was his 'Collected Poems', a hardback between mustard-coloured paper covers with a wood engraving showing a contemplative Puritan poet. There was nothing else until ten years after his death when, in 1988, Bloodaxe published the 'Complete Poems', edited by Peter Porter.

It is unusual to publish nothing but your 'Collected Poems'. Your productive life appears to be over the moment it begins: the rest is, by implication, a kind of coda. So it was in some ways, but not all. I met Bell in 1969, two years after his annus mirabilis, as a first-year art student at Leeds where he ran a weekly poetry group that I attended. He had been Gregory Fellow at the university, awarded in 1967. He would have left London just as his book was appearing to vanish into his hated North.

"A shilling life will give you all the facts," wrote Auden in his poem "Who's Who". Bell has never had a shilling life but the poems remain original and full of energy. Al Alvarez said he wrote "a rather bitter, tensely colloquial verse based, it seems, on a radical dislike for both himself and pretty much everything else", but that does him no justice at all. The poems glitter with laughter and desire.

His "Ode to Groucho" begins with an invocation whose first two lines are, "Pindarick, a great gorblimey Ode / Soaring on buzzard wings, ornate" and continues in the same high spirits, through "a back-cloth rattled by oom-pah" into a celebration of the anarchic. There is, it is true, self-hatred and self-mockery but they are part of a comedy that comprises terrors left over from the war and mischief aimed at the controllers of life: headmasters, mayors, all the snobbishly high-minded.

Italian opera was his love. The great tragic aria combined with the buffoonery of below stairs was his natural métier. That strange unwritten shilling life should tell how he is represented in Philip Larkin's 'Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse' by a single poem, a translation, the only translation in the book. It is "Winter Coming On", subtitled "A caricature from Laforgue". It is a magnificent poem in which Bell turns Laforgue into a heartbreakingly yearning opera buffa. Together with Larkin's own "Whitsun Weddings" it is one of the two great poems of post-war England, not written from Larkin's train but by a demob from the platform, the B&B and the park bench.

I always return to him. To him and Eliot. There hasn't been anyone like Bell since.

George Szirtes's new collection is 'Bad Machine' (Bloodaxe)