B. 1931 D. 2014
Gerard Benson's poetry transfigures the ordinary and leaves an aftertaste of mystery in the mind.Michael Glover, The Independent
About Gerard Benson
How delightful to know Mr Benson
Everyone wants to know him
So witty and charming and handsome
(Though some think he’s ugly and dim).
Delightful indeed, and of course the homage to Edward Lear is unsurprising for this prodigiously gifted writer of nonsense verse and ingenious master of riddling. It was that same Anglo-Saxon word game, often concealing innuendo and wisdom in equal measure, which intrigued and delighted thousands of travellers on the London Underground new to the delights of the brilliant Mr Benson. But there is more to the late Poet Laureate of Bradford than the rumtytum tricksiness of sparkling humorous verse. Mr Benson was a superb poet with an astonishing range of voices and forms, which he inhabited with a classy performer’s poise, whether writing for children or the rest of us.
His start in life had a dash of Enid Blyton and Edna O’Brien; he was born in 1931 to an unmarried Irish “jazz-age flibbertigibbet” in a red brick villa in Golders Green, where the attendant nun was charged with carrying him off to an orphanage but left with an empty basket. Thereafter he was chastened by humbler life in Ealing, and there followed all the usual panoply of school, National Service (a naval rating in Gibraltar) and university (one year at Exeter), with careering ups and downs, from code-breaker to window-cleaner, from actor to temp. He tells it more comically of course:
If I hadn’t been a writer,
I might have been a vet,
Or then again I might ha’
Played the drums in a Quintet
After a promising thespian debut this jack-of-all-trades would swap the solemnity of Stratford’s memorial theatre for the provincial pubs and church halls of England, when he joined The Barrow Poets in the early 1960s. That famously bonkers folk poet group lasted some forty years, and Benson wrote some of their best songs, preserved on a handful of collectible rare LPs. Another member was Cicely Herbert, with whom he went on to set up the Poems on the Underground installation, probably the most successful example of literary Public Art in the world. He taught at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama for over two decades, and on numerous writing workshops across the world; but he was especially chuffed to be the Poet in Residence at Dove Cottage, as he was to be made the Poet Laureate of Bradford, his adopted city a world away from watching cricket at the Oval or his beloved Lord’s. He was also a compulsive ‘comper’, and therefore especially thrilled to become the editor of Nemo’s Almanac.
Gerard Benson’s poetry needs no elaborate exegesis or searching critical intelligence, for all his technical accomplishments and astonishing breadth of reading. It is evident from his prize-winning children’s anthologies that he had a good ear and clear eye, and they served him as well in his own verse as they did in his choice of others’. The selection he made for the Poetry Archive contains just a few of his poems for children, although it is as a marvellous children’s author that many will know him. But his other work also meant a good deal to him, and at his best he could write a poem which perfectly and uniquely mirrors some half-remembered ache and momentarily intense reflection in the reader’s own interior life. Consider sonnet 83 from his ‘Sonnet Journal’, Bradford and Beyond, (not included in this reading), which takes Wordsworth’s famous sonnet on the River Duddon as its starting point, and after opening with a magical echo of ‘Tintern Abbey’, moves into a wider temporal landscape:
There’s a sense
of time entire, told in a single day –
of seasons gone, of afternoons that pass
in squandered minutes, unregarded hours.
This is a fine poem which makes memorable a particular moment, at once experienced and distilled in exquisite musical language, a sonnet both highly wrought and deceptively simple, beautiful and faintly melancholy; which of us does not know that “sense of time entire” but may have waited until now to be reminded of it? Sitting in Wordsworth’s chair may have awed him, but it clearly inspired him too.
In the archive reading we have several poems from the Bradford collection, and Benson’s later unpublished crown of sonnets on his boyhood in Brookside Road, cast in the challenging form of the sonnet redouble, heroically and masterfully done but read with easy conversational intimacy in a warm, confidential tone of voice. These vivid recollections flicker into life like early home movies, and perhaps owe their freshness to his thespian mastery of emotional recall, a useful acting technique for any writer making frequent forays into the world of childhood. Young Gerard was an evacuee during the Second World War, and a pair of grainy snapshots conveys the excitement and wonder of bomber planes and naked bathing in the placid Windrush. Other poems reveal a characteristic passion for chess, or show off his verbal conjouring skills, as in the dazzling and hilarious ‘A Tale of Two Citizens’. Just a few speak of serial murderers, of terrorists and other disquieting stuff, including ‘Bionic’, some macabre doggerel on his own extensive cardio-thoracic surgery. ‘Cumberland Wall’ is a rugged carmina figurata if you rotate the poem to the left, its long and short lines suddenly projecting upwards like cock and hen stones.
Few contemporary poets can match such imaginative range and virtuoso technique, and still fewer write instant classics of children’s verse. When Benson was a boy the first “real poem” that changed his life was William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. It makes a cameo appearance in the unforgettable classic called ‘Hlep’, an hysterical laugh-out-loud nonsense poem that celebrates language, and delights like perhaps no other verse by the witty and charming Mr Benson:
Something has gone wrog in the garden.
There are doffodils blooming in the nose-beds,
And all over the griss dandeloons
Wave their ridigulous powdered wigs.
Even my trusty Tygerwriter
Is producing the most peaqueueliar worms.
Helg me Sam Biddy. Kelp me!
Helg! HOLP! HELLO!!
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 21 February 2014 at The Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.