Obituary: Patric Dickinson
Monday 31 January 1994
BROADCASTER, playwright, golfing blue and freelance man of letters, Patric Dickinson was above all a lyric poet who stayed the course.
Dickinson produced much of his finest work in his later years when failing health limited his other activities but gave an edge to an imagination which had always dwelt on mortality. Dropped by his main publisher in the early 1980s - a case of the new broom sweeping away gold-dust if ever there was one - he continued to write beautifully crafted poems, at once idiosyncratic and in the tradition of Housman, de la Mare and, more recently, Geoffrey Grigson. Like Robert Graves, he was something of a maverick classicist - with an inviolable core of stubbornness, writing against the fashionable grain, outside the academy in every sense but producing acclaimed translations of Aristophanes and Virgil as well as the immaculately unsentimental poems of love and loss on which his reputation will almost certainly come to rest. It might be said that he began as an imitator, heavily under the influence of Yeatsian and Audenesque rhetoric, but what he became was unmistakably himself.
In 1965 Dickinson published his autobiography, The Good Minute, proudly subtitling it 'Autobiography of a Poet-Golfer' as witness to an abiding passion. Dedicated to his wife, Sheila Shannon, it is a book very much of a piece with the poetry: celebratory, full of gratitude and studded with literary quotation but again with that sardonic, quirky touch which rescued even his most whimsical poems from sentimentality. And as for the golf, his passion was fully informed. He was awarded his blue at Cambridge in 1935, where he studied at St Catharine's College, and 15 years later wrote A Round of Golf Courses in which he made a selection of what he regarded as the best 18 courses in Britain. The book is a delight for the general reader as well as the specialist, packed with history, anecdote and vivid topography. It was recently reissued as a paperback 'Classic' and this gave Dickinson much pleasure although if was impossible not to feel a rueful sense of irony in the fact that then, and subsequently, nearly all his other books, written before he began publishing his later verse with the Mandeville Press, were out of print.
Described on the dustjacket of The Good Minute as a 'poet and impresario of poetry', Dickinson will perhaps be best remembered by many as a radio editor and producer of distinction. After a spell of prep-school teaching (almost mandatory, it would seem, for aspiring English poets in the 1930s) and service at the beginning of the war from which he was invalided out in 1940, he joined the BBC where, between 1942 and his resignation in 1948, he set standards for the broadcasting of verse which became a benchmark for his successors.
This was the heyday of radio drama and features when poets worked at the BBC; when the young Dylan Thomas read the part of Satan in a presentation of Paradise Lost over which there was much argument at a planning meeting as to whether it was a drama, a feature or a talk. That it was, in fact, a poem caused confusion among the categories, and only served to increase Dickinson's determination to carry the torch for poetry. All his work was fired by a commitment to presenting the widest possible range of poems and to having them read in a way that was 'direct, wholly unhistrionic, the discovery to others of the poem'.
Many well-known actors and actresses, among them Robert Donat, Flora Robson and Stephen Murray, gave him what he wanted, and the popular Home Service programme Time for Verse did much to bring poetry to a wide audience. It was of the greatest importance to Dickinson that the BBC's poetic output should have coherence, and he fought with a characteristic and often acerbic tenacity to achieve this. Later radio producers, particularly George MacBeth and Fraser Steel, owed much to his pioneering work, but his wry recognition that the authorities would never be convinced that poetry was poetry and make an unequivocal commitment to the art has been borne out by the piecemeal programming of recent years.
His father, a regular officer in the Indian Army, was killed in 1915, and he became to Patric 'not ever a blank in our lives, but a living absence. Mama loved him all her life long and that love gave her the most wonderful quiet and self-effacing courage.' Such a quality sustained Patric Dickinson throughout his own life, and was the essence of what he admired in others. From the time of his marriage to Sheila, in 1945, he and the family lived in a delightful house in Church Square at Rye, a town to which he became devoted and which reciprocated his affection. In later years he took particular pleasure in his grandchildren, and one of his very last poems, entitled 'Generations', and sent to friends as a Christmas card, is at once a celebration and a valediction:
I might survive
As an echo, a whisper,
A whispering echo, an echoing whisper
You didn't quite catch:
O dear ones, everyone, listen
While you live your lives;
Latch on to every morning
A way of loving and leaving
You can give to the unborn.
For the true poet, everyone is a dear one, and, for a poet who places the emphasis where Patric did, home is both where one starts from and where one comes to rest.
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