Obituary: Jon Silkin
Monday 01 December 1997
Jon Silkin, poet: born London 2 December 1930; FRSL 1986; married 1974 Lorna Tracy (three sons, one daughter and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1995); died Newcastle upon Tyne 25 November 1997.
John Silkin was first and foremost one of the most distinctive and distinguished of those British poets who began to publish in the 1950s. He was the founder-editor of one of the country's best known literary publications, the quarterly magazine Stand, a vehicle for new poetry and short fiction which he "drove", in every sense of the word, for 45 years, an extraordinary life for a "little" magazine.
He was a wonderfully acute, incisive and creatively illuminating critic of others' writing; a most gifted teacher of literature and creative writing to both young and adult students; and at his best a spellbinding reader of his own verse. (To observe a large group of cynical and sharp-witted sixth formers, not at all fooled by his pretence that he was working-class, become mesmerised by the quality of his reading, and of what he was reading, was to witness a repeatable miracle.)
He was no nationalist and fervently believed in the importance of poetry in translation. There is a collection of his translations of the Israeli poet Amir Gilboa as well as a new volume of his own in the pipeline. Silkin died in harness: it is poignantly typical of his stakhanovite work rate that from his hospital bed he was sending out drafts of versions of Lope de Vega, inviting friends to comment.
He was a leading authority on the poets of the First World War, not only in his best-known critical work Out of Battle (1972) but in many lectures and writings on Wilfred Owen and his beloved Isaac Rosenberg. His almost intuitive understanding of the war poets whose work he did so much to promote is remarkable. He also produced successful anthologies drawn from both the poetry and (with the poet Jon Glover) the prose of the First World War, and of verse from Stand, Poetry of the Committed Individual (1973). (There was never anything catchpenny about Silkin's titles.) He was, crucially, very conscious of and proud of his Jewishness. It was in many ways one of the principal energising sources of his poetry: one thinks specifically of "Astringencies" about the murder of Jews in York in 1190, or "A Word About Freedom and Identity in Tel-Aviv", but the currents ran deep underground, too.
All of these activities - passions, rather - were seamlessly woven into the same man. He was born in 1930, the grandson of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants whose family was to make important contributions in law, Labour politics, planning and education to British life in the post- war period. Apart from war-time evacuation to Wales (which he thoroughly enjoyed), his early years were spent in London. After education at Wycliffe and Dulwich Colleges he made his way in the world from an early age as a poet.
He began Stand in 1952 to "take a stand" against the moral, social and artistic apathy of the times. Two years later appeared one of the great debut volumes, I believe, of the century: The Peaceable Kingdom, a collection of extraordinary power, accomplishment and lyrical feeling. It still has the feel of the real thing, the authentic tang of indisputably major poetry. It contains his most famous poem "Death of a Son" which has moved audiences for decades ("He turned over on his side with his one year / Red as a wound / He turned over as if he could be sorry for this / And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones, and he died.").
It also offered what is perhaps his major theme, the division between nature and mankind, our fall from that paradisal state in Isaiah II where the wolf "shall dwell with the lamb", images of which one of his favourite artists, the American Edward Hicks, painted over and over again. Silkin too came back to the theme again and again - indeed his 1965 collection which won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize was called Nature With Man in an emblematic attempt, as it were, to heal the rift.
He went to Leeds University as a Gregory Fellow in 1958 and read English there. (The university recently purchased the Stand archive for posterity.) Offered financial support for the magazine by the fledgling North Eastern Association for the Arts, he moved to Newcastle in 1965 where he continued to live until his death, latterly with his partner of some years, Toshiko Fujioka.
The magazine and Northern House, the press for poetry pamphlets he started with Leeds associates, have played a midwife's role, at least in part, to many writers who later became prominent, from the playwrights Harold Pinter and David Mercer to poets such as Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Ken Smith (his Stand co-editor for several years), Michael Hamburger, Roy Fisher, and such Scots as Sorley Maclean and Iain Crichton Smith. Later, through the sterling work of the American fiction-writer Lorna Tracy (his wife for more than 20 years), who was also a co-editor, short stories became an integral part of the magazine, and novelists such as Peter Carey found an early home in its pages. This is the function of magazines such as Stand. Without them, what space for new serious writers, what seed-beds exist? Without them, infotainment rules.
In recent years the stocky, bustling figure of a diminutive Old Testament prophet with white hair and beard, dressed in clothes left behind from Waiting for Godot, has been seen less often badgering queues in wind and rain outside cinemas and theatres to buy copies of Stand; it was once one of the most familiar sights four times a year in university towns and London on the selling-trips that shifted much of the print-run. In an age of evasion, his directness could be very, very blunt.
Curiously, for a man of potent intellect, he could be touchingly naive and ignorant about the world beyond literary affairs. He was a famously difficult friend and he could certainly be combative, prickly and vexatious. But he was also engagingly genial, marvellously funny, a sympathetic and solicitous friend, and endlessly generous with time and attention to the writing of others. He had an unerring finger to put on a poem's weakness but it was tactfully placed, and he was genuinely grateful to the very end for constructive criticism from trusted friends. He loved to dispute with rabbinical energy fine nuances of feeling and interpretation, leaping to his feet every so often to bring Webster's and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to his aid.
He was endlessly surprising even to one who knew him for 35 years: not long ago he asked me which modern poet I thought had been the most powerful influence and model for his early writing. Fixed by that beady gaze and mischievous grin, I made some obvious noises about D.H. Lawrence, Isaac Rosenberg, and threw in Dylan Thomas. He nodded approvingly. "Not bad," he said, "but the answer's Eliot!" Coming from someone who could catch from a mile away the faintest whiff of anti-semitism, who introduced me to the acerbic poem on T.S. Eliot by Emanuel Litvinoff, who had once sent me appalled xeroxes of Eliot's After Strange Gods, this left me speechless, much to his amusement.
His poetry rarely made things easy for his readers - the style was the man to an unusual degree - and his terse and knotty syntax, the compaction and complexity of language, the dedicated exploration of human pain, suffering and cruelty, must have lost him some of his rightful constituency. But he loathed anything that smacked of smooth and easy elegance or playing to the gallery, and in the last few years, suffering as he was from angina and concerned about his diabetes, he began to feel to his chagrin that he was being sidelined.
It is time new readers came to his glorious "Flower Poems", the Lawrentian poems about creatures, the American and Australian insights, the sharp and funny social-political poems of the 1960s ("Many liberals don't just / Make love, they first ask each other . . .": "Respectabilities"). Soon there will be nearly a dozen volumes to choose from. Apart from the poetry it may well be that one of his most challenging and valuable works will turn out to be The Life of Metrical and Free Verse in Twentieth Century Poetry, which appeared earlier this year and is typically dense with provocative insights.
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