Obituary: Patricia Beer

PATRICIA BEER was among the most distinctive, engaging and - until quite recently - undervalued poets of late 20th-century England.

Born in Exmouth, Devon, in 1919 into a Plymouth Brethren family, she attended Exmouth Grammar School before reading English at Exeter University, an ample if sternly traditional literary education which effectively nourished her West Country roots but which left her (as she herself remarked) wholly "without guidance or encouragement" when it came to modernists such as Eliot, Pound or the still more recent poets of the Auden generation.

She went on to Oxford for her BLitt and then spent seven years in Italy, teaching English Literature at the University of Padua, the British Institute and the Ministero Aeronautica in Rome while immersing herself in Italian life and culture: "I'd been enjoying myself," she said later, "in a way I wasn't allowed to when I was a child."

In 1953 she returned to England, at an uncomfortably transitional moment, between the Neo-Romantic 1940s and the more rigorous formalities of the later 1950s, for a writer about to embark on her own poetic career. She returned to university teaching and was Senior Lecturer in English at Goldsmiths' College, London, from 1962 until 1968; she then became a full- time writer, eventually settling once again in Devon with her architect husband, Damien Parsons, whom she had married in 1964. Her publications include a much-admired memoir of her childhood and family, Mrs Beer's House (1968), a collection of literary criticism, Reader: I Married Him (1974), and a novel set in 16th- century Devon, Moon's Ottery (1978), but it is as an outstanding poet that she will be remembered.

She was to discard most of the poems in her two earliest books - Loss of the Magyar (1959) and The Survivors (1963) - as overwritten products of her muddled literary influences; but those which do survive into her Collected Poems show that her characteristic qualities of sharp observation and wry, dark humour were there from the start. The opening of "The Wake", for instance, may be leaning a little too heavily on its similes, but they are wonderfully crisp, unexpected ones:

In his tall room my grandfather lay dead.

Downstairs late afternoon lurched like a bee

Round the perennial hearth shadowed with mourners

And the coals shone and clicked like gorse in bloom.

Nevertheless, what she was doing must have looked unfashionably quirky and her early reviewers - she called them the killer bees - gave her a hard time. Nor was her reputation to be assisted by her atrocious luck with publishers: Longmans, Macmillan, Gollancz and Hutchinson, a quartet of once great literary houses, each produced books of hers and then swiftly closed down their poetry lists.

Patricia Beer's third collection, Just Like the Resurrection (1967), marked a brilliant tactical shift of style: not exactly a paring down, for throughout her career she would favour subtle variations on traditional stanza patterns and line-length, but a movement towards almost shockingly pointed understatement. The poem which provides the book's title describes a concert in Long Melford Church - "One of the most moving parish churches of England, large, proud and noble," according to Pevsner - and it certainly ends in an oddly touching way; but this is how it begins:

Long Melford Church is built of flint and glass,

The tombstones make your teeth ache

And the paths leading up to it look

Particularly hard through so much soft grass.

We expect to be told conventionally how affected the poet is by the place; instead we are given the bizarre yet extraordinarily apt image of toothache. It's a trick not be overdone, however, and Beer had the excellent sense not to overdo it: her next collection, The Estuary (1971), opens with a wonderful poem which turns the Exe estuary into two contrasted territories representing her childhood home and her future life: on one bank, "stiff fields of corn grow / To the hilltop"; on the other, "little white boats / Sag sideways twice every day / As the sea pulls away their prop."

With this sharpened sense of personal geography came a new openness about her family: in "One Man One Vote", for example, she recalled how her father voted only once in his life, at 63, for someone who he thought had once been a guard on the railway; and in "John Milton and my Father", from Driving West (1975), she gently satirised his meritocratic conformity, his liking for Shakespeare, his admiration for Milton as virtuous runner- up. Her poems of the 1970s explore themes characteristic of middle age - recalling the past or recording family deaths - while drawing on a wide range of literary and cultural reference: there are also black cats, witches, rustic spells and gleeful hints of wonkily acidic humour.

The Lie of the Land appeared in 1983, but it was Carcanet's publication of her Collected Poems in 1988 which at last began to bring her work into some sort of focus: even though Patricia Beer's pruning of the earlier poetry brought the book down to just over 200 pages, it supplied evidence enough of a really substantial poet. Friend of Heraclitus, which followed in 1993, found her drawing more fruitfully than ever on her West Country heritage: "Coleridge at Ottery St Mary" takes as its central image the church's mechanical clock - "Centuries old, with the earth in its old place, / And round it slid the sun, the moon and one star, / Gold as mimosa on the clock's blue face" - while "Wessex Calendar" similarly combines literary history with an exact sense of place in a sequence of 12 beautifully judged sonnets.

The predominant tone of Patricia Beer's last book, Autumn (1998), is self-evidently autumnal though never unguardedly nostalgic. Nevertheless, something of her early richness blends into her later sharpness in the opening lines of "At Pere Lachaise" - "October evening. Leaves swoop down like owls. / And stun themselves upon the paving-stones." - or, a little later in the same poem: "A cat composed of mice and birds and rain / Turns his head, as scornful as a lighthouse." These are perfect lines, as exact as they are unexpected.

Other poems in the book, such as "Ballad of the Underpass" or "Mine", manage a grim good- humour, but the most memorable work is the taut seven-line poem sequence about illness, hospitalisation and convalescence which ends the book: here, Patricia Beer moves from despair to a note of hard-won affirmation. They are poems to reread and to revere.

Patricia Beer, poet and writer: born Exmouth, Devon 4 November 1919; married 1964 Damien Parsons; died Upottery, Devon 15 August 1999.

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