OBITUARIES: Professor Eric Mottram
Thursday 19 January 1995
Eric Mottram was above all an enthusiast. He did everything to the full extent of his capacity, and his capacity was prodigious, as is proved by the great extent of his writing, poetry, criticism and the variety of essays, articles, polemics, commentaries and introductions that went into much more than 50 published books, of which nearly half were his own poems. As a teacher he was in his element - he loved the classroom, was tireless in helping his students, generous with his time; he was much loved an d admired by them, and within hours of his unexpected death the grapevine of those who had studied with him had spread the news through many continents.
He could claim to be the father of American studies outside the United States, teaching modern American Literature in the Netherlands before he started to do so at King's College, London, in 1961, where his course in English (American) Literature was remarkable enough to inspire a Times fourth leader. He was co-founder of the Institute of US Studies at London University in 1963 and became Reader in English/ American Literature in 1973.
He would go as frequently as possible to the US, where he was much in demand as a lecturer. He taught the Beat writers in the Netherlands long before they were remotely respectable, and continued to do so in London. His American visits were by no means unconnected with his great love of jazz, which often carried him into places far more dangerous than the fashionable clubs of Greenwich Village.
This experience and his observations of the less salubrious side of the music scene were invaluable when he was asked to give evidence at the Old Bailey trial of Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1967. He was the second expert witness to appear, following Frank Kermode into the box, and spending half a day there to explain the importance of literature in documenting an age and how, from Dickens and Zola onward, our knowledge of the amoral world, of criminals and of those whose lack of any educational or moral opportunity can create a substratum of society, will, through the novelists, eventually awaken social concern and necessary action. If the jury was more swayed by the prosecution's argument that as men of the world they knew a bit of dirt when they saw it and did not need professors of literature to tell them about Art, and by the presence of David Sheppard, a cricket hero in a dog-collar appearing for the other side, that was hardly Mottram's fault; the judge on that occasion engaged him in a long exchange about jazz. He later appeared in another obscenity trial on behalf of the Bill Butler bookshop, which sold poetry and alternative literature.
By the time he became Professor of American Literature in 1983, the first in Britain, Mottram was the established authority on what has now become the most fashionable school of American writing, the Beats, and he had taught his students the work of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and their colleagues, as well as older and more conventional figures. He wrote the first book on Burroughs (The Algebra of Need) just as Burroughs was first being published in Britain andreceiving mainly hostile reviews from establishment critics, among them John Willett, whose survey in the TLS of Burroughs' trilogy of novels that included The Naked Lunch was headed "Ugh". This led to a voluminous 14-week corres pondence, in which EricMottram played a prominent part: the journal increased its correspondence pages under a flood of letters, attacking and defending, with comments in other newspapers and humorous reference to the "Ugh Supplement" of the TLS.
Eric Mottram was born in London just after Christmas in 1924, the son of a civil servant who was transferred to Lancashire. Eric went to Blackpool Grammar School and from there won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied literature and took a tripleFirst. After school, the war being on, he joined the Navy and spent four years mainly on minesweepers, emerging as a petty officer and second in command of his vessel. His admission to Pembroke College followed his naval service, and he lef t Cambridge in 1951. He then went abroad, teaching in Singapore, at Zurich University and in the Netherlands before King's College.
Although he had to retire five years ago, and declared at a retirement party in Chelsea given for friends that he had no intention of taking things more quietly, he could not be said to have retired at all. King's found new courses for him to teach and invited him to lecture, and he kept up all his other activities.
A festschrift, Alive in Parts of This Century: Eric Mottram at 70, was prepared in honour of his birthday three weeks ago: its 81 contributors number many eminent authors, including those whose reputations owe much to his enthusiasm and teaching.
Mottram's published poetry includes a Selected Poems (1989), and his important volume Against Tyranny (1975) should also be mentioned. His critical books covered Faulkner, Rexroth, Ginsberg, Burroughs and others. He co-edited New British Poetry (1988), as well as many other anthologies. Eric Mottram was unique as an influence on changing taste, wider horizons and unprejudiced approaches to novelty, the least academic of teachers, and a friend to everyone he met. Literature was so important to him that he never had time to get married.
John Calder When the dust has died down and he would have been the last person to want it to die down, Eric Mottram will take his place among the most important British poets of the century, writes Clive Bush. From Inside the Whale, published by Bob Cobbing and illustrated by Jeff Nuttall for Writers Forum in 1970, to Volume 3 of Masks published this month by Lawrence Upton for RWC, Mottram wrote more than 20 books of poetry and was the best-known "unknown poet" in England.
He was partly stimulated into writing poetry through personal contact with the great American poets of the 1950s and 1960s, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser among many others. In the American writers he found forms and encouragement for his own exuberant invention and passion for life.
Yet it would be a mistake to see his work as an offshoot of American 20th-century poetry. The Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhsz, the French poet Rene Char, among other European writers, have rather more than equal claim to have stimulated and influenced his work. His intellectual heroes were Sartre and Wittgenstein, but his take on all these writers was profoundly British and in a tradition that reached back through F.R. Leavis's Cambridge to the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century. His love of the British landscape, particularly the coastline around Tenby, was evident in his poems. He returned there with pleasure after his international trips to read and lecture.
From the Seventies onwards he produced a series of books whose covers were beautifully and sympathetically designed by Peter Donelley. The theme of law, power, an acute sense of 20th-century horrors and political betrayals and, perhaps above all, of how to maintain cultural confidence inside a decaying post-imperialist Britain, were tackled again and again in as many experimental forms as he could muster. From Basil Bunting he had learnt that music and form were the ultimate test of poetry and his own love of music reinforced the lesson. Mottram's Elegies were always visionary celebrations of forms of possible life. As he wrote in Elegy 4 of Against Tyranny, dedicated to his friend Jackie Kaye: to restore the earth against priests of science psychologists of money to restore windspeed to gardens in balance let the boundary between yourself and fire disappear to be sun fire the conscious garden mutual preparation a circle of eyes ray the fire hearth Eric Mottram, poet, teacher, editor: born London 29 December 1924; co-founder, Institute of US Studies, London University 1963, Reader in English/American Literature 1972-83, Professor of American Literature 1983-90 (Emeritus); Editor, Poetry Review 1972-77; died London 16 January 1995.
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