Obituary: David Wright
Friday 02 September 1994
THE DEATH of a poet is always tempered by the knowledge that his words will live and that of David Wright, the deaf South-African-born poet, is no exception. A great admirer of his fellow poet and countryman Roy Campbell, his senior by 20 years, Wright rooted his poetry in the soil of England and the sustenance he drew from Beowulf and Chaucer, whom he translated into modern English.
The assurance of a modest private income enabled Wright to follow his star as a poet. His first book, Poems, was published by Tambimuttu's Poetry London imprint in 1949, and was followed by the much-admired Moral Stories in 1954 and regular collections thereafter, concluded by Poems and Versions in 1993. His collected poems were in preparation when he died.
When in 1980 PN Review celebrated Wright's 60th birthday with contributions from his fellow poets, among them John Heath- Stubbs, George Barker, WS Graham and David Gascoyne, many of them remarked on his felicitous 'ear'. Geoffrey Hill said, 'It is a creative paradox, by which we ought not to be too much surprised, that we owe to a deaf man some of the most finely attuned celebrations of music and some of the most striking images of sound in contemporary English poetry.'
It was my own interest in writing poetry that brought us together. While doing my National Service in London in the early 1950s, I co-founded with Tristram Hull the literary magazine Nimbus, of which Wright later became editor. Hull and I had become acquainted with the poet George Barker, and thus met David Wright, who was one of his circle of admirers.
After leaving the Army I went into publishing, and it was while I was at Barrie Books that Wright founded, with the Irish painter Patrick Swift, the quarterly review X, which Barrie published. It ran for seven issues from 1959 to 1962 and promoted the work of then unfashionable writers and poets, including Stevie Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid, Patrick Kavanagh and Malcolm Lowry, and discussed the work of similarly unfashionable artists - Alberto Giacometti, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and David Bomberg. At that time Wright lived with his wife, the New Zealand actress Phillipa Reid, in Great Ormond Street, and we would meet most Saturday nights in the Soho pub currently favoured by the X editors.
David Wright was born in Johannesburg and at the age of seven lost his hearing. His father sent him to Spring Hill School for the Deaf in Northampton, which pioneered speech as well as lip-reading. Thereafter he went to Oriel College, Oxford, during the early war years, where he met the university poets of the time and commenced a lifelong friendship with John Heath-Stubbs. After leaving Oxford, he worked for the Sunday Times before moving to Cornwall, when his first book was published. He returned to London, where he married 'Pip' Reid, whose career took her to the Century Theatre in Keswick, and after taking a cottage there they moved to a house in Appleby in Westmorland.
Apart from Wright's poetry, he published translations of Beowulf (for Penguin, 1957) and The Canterbury Tales (1964), and Deafness: a personal account (1969). This was an extraordinary first-hand description of coming to terms with the problems of deafness, and was recently reissued by Faber as a paperback. Wright's friendship with Patrick Swift took him on a visit to Portugal, where Swift had taken up residence with his family, and together they wrote three travel books, Algarve (1965), Minho and North Portugal (1968) and Lisbon (1971), all illustrated by Swift.
In 1983 Swift died of a brain tumour and two years later Wright lost his wife through a similar affliction. Shortly afterwards Wright married Swift's widow Oonagh, and thereafter divided his time between his house in Cumbria and Oonagh's home in the Algarve.
Talking to David Wright demanded much determination on the part of the interlocutor. It was Patrick Swift who taught me to talk to him effectively. To see the two of them in animated conversation was to witness an amazing mime show, Swift silently mouthing the words.
After his removal to Cumberland, Wright frequently came to stay with me in London. In my London days I had many friends in the African National Congress, Thabo Mbeki, now vice-president of South Africa, among them. On occasions they would use my house for a small party (drink being banned in their offices) and it was on one such occasion that David Wright arrived on the doorstep and I was able to introduce him to his fellow-countrymen. Corresponding with Wright a short while ago I mentioned the political revolution in South Africa and he wrote back: 'Yes, the news (or lack of it]) from South Africa is miraculous. I wish the Irish could be so forgiving as the blacks.'
Wright paid annual visits to his mother in South Africa until her death in 1983, at the age of 102.
It was not often that David Wright would give a reading, but I vividly remember the occasion of Patrick Kavanagh's funeral when he read over his grave; the look on the faces of the mourners was wondrous to behold.
----------------------------------------------------------------- Encounter in a Glass ----------------------------------------------------------------- Skin coarse, bird-shotted nose, the flesh loose, Almost a hammock underneath the chin; Eyebrows en brosse - a zareba, that one - A sprout of hair in earhole and nostril, Lines traversing like mountain trods the forehead - I almost wondered who the fellow was. I knew him well enough, the non-stranger, Yet was - as, despite a remembered face, One can't identify some familiar Acquaintance in an unaccustomed place - About to make the oddest of faux pas: To offer him my seat, and call him sir. David Wright -----------------------------------------------------------------
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