William Dunlop

Poet with a 'coterie reputation'
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The Independent Online

William Dunlop was a writer whose work was much admired by his fellow writers: as Jonathan Raban rightly said, he had "a coterie reputation as one of the finest poets of his generation". His poems are peculiarly memorable, taut, often bleak, sometimes joyful, always finely crafted. He held faith with form, metre and rhyme, and achieved a subtle and ambiguous clarity.

At Cambridge in the late 1950s he was a student of Donald Davie, with whose work his has affinities, but he also came under the influence of the American poet Theodore Roethke, who lured him over the Atlantic in 1962 to the University of Washington in Seattle. It was a temporary move that lasted more than 40 years. Roethke died in 1963, but Dunlop stayed on, and several of his poems show the tensions between his feelings for England and for his adopted country.

He never took US citizenship, although he flirted (his own word) with the idea, and in one of his last (post-Iraq) letters, as a comment on a late poem entitled "O SAY CAN YOU SEE", he said that he had "never felt less inclined to do so than at present". But he made his home in dissident Seattle, surrounded by family, friends, students and neighbours, many of whom appear, sometimes affectionately, sometimes sardonically, in his verse.

His father, Alexander Dunlop, was a Scot, a doctor from Motherwell who was for many years in general practice in Southampton. There William was born in 1936. Both his parents died, in the same year, when he was 17 and still at school at Eastbourne College. Four years later, after National Service in the Army, he went up to Cambridge, to Queens' College, where he shared rooms (G3, Walnut Tree Court) and argued about Shakespeare late into the night with the glamorous Richard Lindley, later to become well known as a current affairs reporter with the BBC: they were to be lifelong friends.

William as an undergraduate was also committed to an ongoing love of football and opera, but it was as poet, editor of Granta, fellow lecture-absconder and alphabetical neighbour that I came to know him: as Drabble and Dunlop we sat next to one another for our university exams, and he frequently complained that I demoralised him by writing too fast. I read his early poems with admiration. It wasn't an easy time for university writing: in the Leavisite atmosphere, our sharpened critical faculties far outstripped our creative confidence.

He graduated in 1960, and shortly left England for a larger and freer world. There was a long and Bohemian farewell dinner in Soho at which Roethke benignly presided. William didn't vanish: he reappeared regularly and loyally, over the years, with bottles of wine, for more long Bohemian evenings. He published, occasionally, in Encounter, the London Magazine, the TLS, the New Statesman, but the slim volume we were all expecting did not materialise until many years later, in 1997, when Rose Alley Press in Seattle produced Caruso for the Children, & Other Poems. By this time he had three grown children of his own: the title poem is a wry acknowledgement of a parent's impossible desire to persuade his offspring to share his passions.

William Dunlop was devoted to opera, and spoke about it with an erudite enthusiasm that lit up his face with a smile of extraordinarily gentle and pure delight. His other aesthetic addiction was to Venice. He would bring his students over for a summer course in Europe, show them what the bombs and the British had done to Southampton, then take them on to Venice, where he would lead them more or less blindfold down little alleys until they reached the edge of the Piazza San Marco, forbidding them to look up until they could see it dramatically revealed in all its glory. His poem " Venice and the Looking Glass" describes a visitor who was content to "grin like a dog and run about that city": and so, we may suppose, was he.

Why did he not publish more? He was modest and wry, but he knew that his work was good, and he had well- informed admirers. He did not like to press and push. A year or so ago, he began writing poetry again, citing George Herbert: "And now in age I bud again, / After so many deaths I live and write . . . / And relish versing".

The most remarkable of these last poems, to me, is the painful and poignant "Capital", on the theme of the enigmatic parable of the talents (Matthew xxv, 14-30), a characteristically lucid but disturbing performance, which ends:

But the man with the single talent,
who had hidden it deep beneath
a talentless demeanor
(but surely he was no thief?)
was cast into outer darkness
where there's weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And his solitary talent was gifted
to the slickest profiteer;
with him, it increases in interest
a thousand-fold every year:
it's sinful to fear for one's talent
when that talent is something to fear.

He was good at endings.

Margaret Drabble