Review - Poetry: Memories of a poet's passion

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Poetry: Remembering Jon Silkin

Troubadour Cafe

It was fitting that the poet Jon Silkin, who died in November, should be remembered, by poets and friends, in an evening of poetry and personal reminiscence at the Troubadour Cafe on the Old Brompton Road. For it was here, in this rather moodily candle-lit, catacomb-like room with its plain brick walls, where the ghosts of dead saxophonists always seem to be playing mutedly to each other, that he did his last London reading, in September, just weeks before he died.

Silkin's presence was as striking as his poetry - he was extremely short in stature and stocky of frame, but with a magnificent head, and a shock of white hair that fell across his face like a waterfall when he spoke. He was evidently proud of that hair. And of his brown shoes, too - of such a singular decrepitude that even Charlie Chaplin would have disdained to eat them.

"He was such an extraordinary presence, even as a young man," said Emmanuel Litvinoff, a friend who met Silkin in London in 1952.

At that time Litvinoff was deputy editor of the Jewish Observer and Middle East Gazette. Silkin, then 22, had approached him in a Jewish art gallery and tried to sell him a copy of a small, privately printed tome of his called The Portrait and Other Poems. Litvinoff was clutching that copy as he spoke. "Could I do anything for him to get him a little better known? That's what he asked me," said Litvinoff. " 'But what can we do for a young and entirely unknown Jewish poet?' my editor replied, somewhat despairingly, when I put it to him.

"I told the editor that he was an example of the Angry Young Man Poet, and he thought, after a pause, that he might after all deserve a mention. So I took Silkin down the Strand to some cheap photographer and told him to look angry. He did his best."

Silkin was passionate in his pacifism, as Litvinoff was to discover when they both attended congresses of Anglo-Jewish writers in Israel.

The other striking thing about the young Silkin was that he desperately wanted to be a proletarian - regrettably, he had an uncle in the House of Lords at the time. "When I asked him what he did for a living, he replied, with shy pride, that he was a gravedigger."

Silkin was dedicated to two things - poetry and Stand, the literary magazine that he founded and promoted with a passion for more than 40 years. The poet Michael Horovitz remembered him working the Everyman Cinema queues in the Fifties, dressed in some woebegone mac, and clutching his secret blue invoice-book. With his mixture of charm and tireless persistence, he usually persuaded almost the entire queue to buy a copy.

Silkin was a provident editor and, when he died, his magazine, entirely unsupported by Arts Council grants (though he had received small sums from Catherine Cookson), was in the black to the tune of pounds 75,000. What other small literary magazine could say the same.

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