OBITUARIES: Professor Eric Mottram

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 Revi ew 1972-77; died London 16 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue