John Hartley Williams: Prolific poet acclaimed for his alliance of flamboyant inventiveness and wit with technical virtuosity


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The Independent Online

It has long been something of a truism to say that the formidably accomplished John Hartley Williams is a bizarrely underrated poet.

Part of him shrugged this away, knowing that a modern poet was never going to be widely read; but he also knew that the poetry world, with its fashions and cliques, was like any other.

So sharp and witty was his A Poetry Inferno that, before being issued as a prose pamphlet in 2011, the piece was accepted and then turned down by an editor suddenly worried not only that several poets might recognise themselves but also that aspiring poets might prove terminally discouraged by it. John’s response to the poetical correctness of this turnabout was a mix of incredulity and laughter.

He disliked critical politeness for its own sake, and thought there was too much of it about, but those who have seen him in operation as a teacher, on Arvon Foundation Poetry Courses, for example, can attest to his generosity of spirit. Educated at the Universities of Nottingham (chosen because DH. Lawrence had been there) and London, he went on to teach linguistics at the Universities of Toulouse, Novi Sad, Yaoundé, and the Free University of Berlin, where he lived from 1976. A professional career that took him to France, Serbia, Cameroon and Germany meant that while English remained his mother-tongue, he was never professionally surrounded by those who spoke it.

The un-English influence of elsewhere is apparent in the exuberant and flamboyant linguistic delight noted by critics who variously referred to his inventiveness and wit, to his “Fellini-like exotic strangeness” and to the often swashbuckling satire that commented all the better on the modern worlds of East and West for never allowing its comic mask to slip. His 2012 collection Assault on the Clouds is a tour-de-force demonstration of Williams’ belief that “Humour without tragedy is a ghastly rictus, the canned laughter of a television audience”.

It was the traditionalist in Williams who insisted that no one can be a poet without taking rhyme on board or attempting difficult forms, like the villanelle. Hex Wheels from 2011 (one of four special editions of work by Williams printed at Hans van Eijk’s Bonnefant Press at Banholt) contains only sestinas, for example. Williams was a technical virtuoso, another rather un-English characteristic, as was his evident relish for eroticism.

Beyond all this, however, he always maintained that his great and abiding model was Byron’s Don Juan, a poem he loved for its “damn-my-breeches, devil-take-the-hindmost swagger”. Add to this his love of Dylan Thomas, WS Graham, and Ken Smith for the fierceness of their writing and it is clear that Williams espoused much that has become unfashionable (and thus easily overlooked).

Williams first wrote poems at the age of 11, a prescient schoolmaster discerning in him “an unfortunate tendency towards surrealism” at a time when the boy had no idea what that meant. But he knew from early on that he was going to be a poet (just as, to his surprise and delight, his daughter, Natalie, knew in her teens she was going to be a jazz singer). When he discovered the work of André Breton and Benjamin Péret while in France for a couple of years after graduating (he was there for les événements in May 1968) his course was set.

One of the attractions of surrealism for Williams was the practice of automatic writing, particularly its natural creation of the surprise he felt all good poetry needs. Examples of such writing are included in the third section of Canada (1997), a wide-ranging collection shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize (as was the later Blues).

Williams admitted to having edited the poems for publication, even if he knew he was countermanding the dictum of “Touch ’em and the bloom is gone”. This mix of the radical and the traditional always characterised his poetic approach (and his response to jazz, his love of Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman alongside Louis Armstrong and Lester Young).

Williams was to publish 11 further full collections after his first, Hidden Identities (1982). That these span a number of important poetry imprints is a testament to how prolific he was. He described Canada as three books in one, because his then-publisher felt constrained to say he couldn’t really afford to publish anyone more often than every five years.

Since the beginning of 2011, eight publications have emerged from five different publishers, including two new poetry collections and the satirical roman à clef Death Comes For The Poets (co-written with Matthew Sweeney) to add to a crime novel, Mystery in Spiderville from 2002-03. Another collaboration with Sweeney, a Teach Yourself Writing Poetry primer, went into a third edition in 2008. If he was underrated, Williams also knew that “What you have to avoid, I think, as a poet, is wanting to be liked.”   

John Hartley Williams, poet and teacher: born 7 February 1942; married 1970 Gizella (one daughter); died Berlin 3 May 2014.