WARS OF ELOQUENCE (On Vernon Scannell)
I’ll begin this piece about Vernon Scannell (1922-2007) with a recent poem of my own, since it seems to reflect or at least touch upon certain concerns and ideas about poetry which we both shared. As well as the fact that the seven poets named in it were favourites of his, all were of course indisputable masters of their art. Each of them developed a highly personal voice with its own special music, each was a bold and memorable stylist: these writers proved not only adept at the sonnet form, but they also used and explored a wide variety of metre and rhyme.
This was true of Vernon too. In a 1971 volume of autobiography, The Tiger And The Rose, Vernon wrote appreciatively of another cherished poet of his, Thomas Hardy: “What is astonishing is that so much of his vast output should be so splendid and that so little of it is negligible”. A judgement which could also apply to his own work, for Vernon was in my opinion one of the finest British poets of the latter half of the 20th century.
Vernon himself knew and could quote from a huge range of English poetry, apart from those illustrious names I’ve specifically mentioned above – all of whom he appreciated particularly for their remarkable technical skill and distinctively individual voices. Among other 20th century poets he admired (as indeed anyone writing verse should), Yeats and Eliot, Kipling and Housman, D. H. Lawrence, Auden and Larkin. Poets, in other words, must be aware of the whole great English language tradition, absorbing influences and learning their own craft in humility, avoiding easy superficiality or convenient short cuts. Be truthful or be exposed! But as the opening pages of The Tiger and The Rose make clear, “the poet, absorbed in the solving of formal problems, the struggle with the slippery eels of language, has no time for dissimulation and he tells us more about himself than he knows.”
A very distinctive voice, resonant, clear and well-modulated, helped Vernon become a wonderful speaker of verse, whether on radio or at readings – one who could bring out all the pathos and humour, the drama and music within a poem, whether his own or another’s. However, as a working class autodidact Vernon recognized and would often emphasise the vital importance, for anyone wishing to learn to write poems, of wide, voracious, yet sensibly discriminatory reading. Thus a later volume of prose autobiography, the harrowing and tremendously moving Argument of Kings (1987) describes how – as SUS (Soldier Under Sentence) in a grim, squalid and brutal detention barracks – he came to feel that “Lack of reading-matter was the worst deprivation to endure.”
Vernon was a no-nonsense, no-bullshit friend and colleague, a marvellously entertaining anecdotalist and an excellent companion both to drink with and work with. Over the many years I knew him I increasingly relished his honesty, humour and creative intelligence. Together we tutored quite a few writing courses for the Arvon Foundation and around the country, giving readings and talks and working in numerous venues during the 1970s and 1980s; we visited schools and colleges of every sort, theatres, pubs, arts centres and so forth. Those regular forays here, there and everywhere – away from the desk and that reproachful blank page sitting in the typewriter – would guarantee an exhausting, if exhilarating, sideline, providing a welcome supplement to the freelance writer’s generally irregular income.
Of course, such work openings and opportunities were not so readily available to the likes of Edward Thomas (see lines 3 & 4 of my sonnet above). Ironically enough though, a hundred years after Thomas, it seems de rigueur to have to win poetry competitions and prizes and hustle ever harder (‘networking’ indeed!) for gigs, awards and grants. ‘Career poets’ – an invidious, dubiously expanding crowd these days – must acquire agents and publishers or anyhow manage to promote themselves forcefully enough to be considered for creative writing fellowships and teaching posts. Forty years ago however, there were fewer working poets, genuine or self-styled, and so for a young writer like myself, grown disillusioned with writing and publishing novels and eager to concentrate on poetry – my first, most obsessive love – it proved both encouraging and inspiring to encounter a true and truly accomplished poet.
I’d been introduced to Vernon in the early 1970s by our mutual friend, the wonderfully droll, sardonic Devonian poet Patricia Beer. The pair had known each other for years: both were completely committed to the craft of poetry. They were also two of the most serious drinkers I ever met, and when drinking with Vernon I soon learned to slow down and drink one to his three. Alcohol used to fuel some hilarious occasions, prompting him to embark upon a whole stream of narratives that embraced boxing and prison, war and literature, gossip, jokes and reminiscences involving what Charles Bukowski would call Tales of Ordinary Madness. But Vernon was never in danger of becoming the pub bore holding court and incoherently holding forth.
Such had been the fate of at least one estimable writer and Soho-Fitzrovian boozer whose work we’d both read and respected. Vernon had known Julian Maclaren-Ross, who ended up as short of friends as of cash, eventually given a wide berth by all and sundry, including generally tolerant and convivial communicators like Vernon himself. So does a prodigious and regular liquid intake like Vernon’s relax or blur, stimulate creativity or reassuringly blot out uneasy memories, even feelings of guilt? Hard to say, but there are some clues in the second section of ‘Six Reasons For Drinking’, a brief and breezy little piece Vernon enjoyed performing and whose comic twists would invariably delight and amuse audiences: “‘I drink to forget.’/ But he remembers/ Everything, the lot:/ What hell war was,/ Betrayal, lost/ Causes best forgot./ The only thing he can’t recall/ Is how often before we’ve heard it all.’”
My copy of The Winter Man (1973) containing that jeu d’esprit bears his warm and witty inscription ‘In Memoriam (Lincoln) &c’ – an ironic reference to the year Vernon, Patricia Beer and I embarked on a hectic week’s tour of ‘Tennyson Country’. Our busy schedule of readings and talks, visits to schools, Lincoln jail, theatres and arts centres was superbly organised and funded by the then ACGB and East Midlands Arts, but the only downside happened to be the fourth member of our writers’ quartet. A bestselling woman prose writer of hybrid documentary fiction whose social realism, both on the page and when read aloud seemed sentimentalised or condescending, this self-proclaimed feminist was a well-heeled heiress keen to expatiate on the grittier dramas of workingclass London life. Sadly, a lack of empathy, plus her evident self-satisfaction and frequent trivial complaints, failed to impress most of those connected with our frenetic yet pleasurable roadshow.
The final night in Lincoln, after our evening event, the four of us dined together at the only place still open, an Indian restaurant almost facing our own excellent if rather grand hotel. Just outside the restaurant’s front door, Milady-of-the-Slums hoisted her skirt, crouched, and pissed copiously into the gutter – an oddly ostentatious yet curiously unappetising display that left a bemused trio of poets speechless during the hundred or so yards walk ‘home’. We managed to stifle incredulous chuckles, but this might have been one of the very few occasions, other than in the ring or on the battlefield, when Vernon Scannell was lost for words.
Generally he remained witty, affable and invariably good-humoured, although as he acknowledged, he bore within himself the scar tissue of violence; there was a deeply melancholy aspect to his personality, alongside that sense of survivors’ guilt almost inevitable among ex-combatants of WW2. I recall one of his favourite anecdotes – a visit to a school whose new Head welcomes him, remarking “It’s a particularly pleasant surprise to have you visit us, Mr Scannell. We thought you were killed in the War.” Vernon would add pleasantly: “She meant ’14-’18, of course!” However, as John Lucas notes in his recent book Second World War Poetry In English, “some poets… didn’t begin to write about their experiences until the war was done with and they were once more home”. Lucas also observes that Vernon “went on writing about the war for most of his life”. And on one “brilliant, white-knuckle narrative poem” of Vernon’s, Lucas comments that it’s “pretty remarkable that a poem written long after the experience it evokes should feel so fresh, so attentive to the actualities of war…”
Another of Vernon’s many writer friends, the poet-critic Alan Brownjohn, has rightly called ‘Walking Wounded’ “one of the best poems to come out of the Second World War”. (It now provides the absolutely appropriate title for James Andrew Taylor’s recent OUP biography of the poet, which I’m sure does Vernon Scannell justice.) This poem I heard Vernon read on various occasions, when it never failed to impress and move listeners young and old – as on closer acquaintance it will continue to move each silent reader.
‘Walking Wounded’ itself admirably exemplifies three adjectives we came to agree upon over the years, both privately and in public; these related to certain vital constituents of a successful poem – that it should be memorable, musical and accessible. Which didn’t mean a poem should be banal or bland, doggerel or trivial. Neither should the good poem prove impenetrably obscure or pretentious, though its meanings could and should be suggestive, multiple. Indeed, it might be a narrative of some sort, a personal story told with feeling, fidelity and truth. The term ‘narrative’ in the broadest sense could equally encompass the lyric, for instance (as being the story or history of a mood), or satire – as focus for anger, critical mockery or even saeva indignatio.
All the above elements are fused together in the forty-eight lines of ‘Walking Wounded’, his fine and much-anthologised elegiac narrative. The poem commemorates the unheroic, individual infantryman, that universal, unknown soldier struggling to survive in the crazy nightmare of any and every war. It’s a coolly observed yet compassionate piece which once read cannot be forgotten. The particular origin of such a traumatic vision Vernon later described in a prose passage of The Tiger And The Rose: “I was affected by the sight of those men in a way that I had not been affected by more dramatic and spectacular events, and the memory of the walking wounded on that road near the Caen Canal has been fixed in my memory ever since.”
Emotional recollections in tranquillity? Who knows. By then, the chilling vision of the walking wounded – that whole grim experience of witnessing the tortuous and pitiable procession emergent from the misty morning landscape of Northern France – had turned into the famous title poem of his 1965 collection. But the longer, later prose version of this episode is moving too, and I recall that Vernon would sometimes recommend to students and writers’ groups that they first try setting out poems in the form of prose, just as Ben Jonson and Yeats frequently did. This method could narrow the focus, concentrate initially confused emotions, and help wouldbe writers assimilate a complex experience, aiding them to sketch out and capture at least the bare outlines of any elusive yet potentially relevant or useful thoughts, feelings and images. After that process, the disparate components might more or less cohere, shaped into a tighter structure, when with luck, time and hard work there could come justification of the writer’s prolonged and always difficult struggle with their material. (The end result being in F.R. Leavis’s phrase a ‘fully realised’ poem.) A strategy, we agreed, that almost amounted to a form of personal survival, and on occasion a rather useful poetic battle-plan…
Vernon Scannell believed that the poet should deploy every technical resource that came to mind or hand: he himself had become a master of all kinds of verse-form. This isn’t to suggest he was ever a flashy or pretentious writer, but then neither was he a diehard traditionalist although he knew, loved and could quote from, the whole canon of English verse. He adopted, and adapted, the basic iambic pentameter line for ‘Walking Wounded’, because as often remarked, it remains the most flexible, and still perhaps one of the most expressive, of all English-language metres. Vernon took the line then, as so many others continue to do (Pound and the Americans notwithstanding), that there’s still plenty of mileage left in iambics. And provided that – I’ll risk a boxing metaphor – the poet’s footwork was unostentatious, nimble, and skilful enough, the outcome would be satisfactory. Well, Scannell could indeed scan well, and the outcome is more than satisfactory: ‘Walking Wounded’ is an original triumph, and in its muted indignation, a heartfelt and immensely moving tribute to downtrodden, suffering humanity.
Attention is here paid to the ordinary soldier – a nameless fragment forming just an infinitesimal part of a huge mass of frightened and dehumanised cannon-fodder – and to everyone who, without will or choice, must struggle simply to survive any war, all the while obliged to observe and to participate in the apparently endless horrors of combat. “A humble brotherhood” the poet calls them, towards the end of his unheroic, very unHomeric narrative, “not magnified by noble wounds”. He has by then made it horribly apparent that “There was no splendour in that company”, and the poem moves to its inexorable and devastating conclusion.
It’s what might be called, paradoxically, the drama of anti-climax, for now we are watching a confused and ragged trail of stunned, speechless supernumeraries, bit parts and extras, as they stagger and shuffle awkwardly away from that centre-stage where so many of the principal players, the “heroic corpses”, stay on in “their decorated sleep”. A powerful visualisation of powerlessness indeed. And as portrayed via Vernon Scannell’s apt and unflinching words, the particular graphic quality of this grotesque – if all too horrific and commonplace scene – calls to mind and parallels that equally compassionate yet indignant oil painting from WW1 by the war artist John Singer Sargent, Gassed. There’s mist not gas in ‘Walking Wounded’, but nature as depicted has been assaulted and damaged: “Birds had died or flown”; the lane is “mauled”; trees “smashed”; a deadly crop of “ripe grenades ready to drop and burst” hangs from branches; chunks and splinters of metal and flesh litter the “broken” farms while a once tranquil landscape is brutally desecrated, trampled and destroyed by monsters mechanical and human, anomalies of every type. The poem’s first line “A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.”, ends with a full-stop, as if the poet wants us to halt, to reflect immediately on this forceful opening statement; it’s a hint that what follows, as well as being straightforward realism, is a metaphorical and oneiric representation, which aims at the starkness and the documentary quality of some monochrome wartime newsreel stripped of any belligerence or patriotic propaganda. Its alliteration, long vowels and consonants have a solemn, mournful Tennysonian resonance, a melancholy elegiac tone. Accordingly, the more emphatic consonantal alliteration continues to the end of the second sentence, with “gruel/green/grenades”, and in addition to the alliteration strategically placed throughout, the poet goes on to enlist a wide variety of assonance and half-rhymes too, especially at line endings. The work develops in the best and most effective sense rhythmically, musically – for Vernon much enjoyed music of every sort, from Mozart, Brahms and Delius to the traditional ballads, Rodgers & Hart, jazz and so on. He became a renowned reader and performer of the spoken word, and as I soon realised, a master of technique, of tonal shifts and many varied forms of sound-patterning.
Here however, ‘the music of what happens’ turns into a set of discords, disturbing sounds that jar and clash and eerily accentuate the natural early morning silence of countryside now half-destroyed and threatening. There are audible the engine noises of heavy transport, disrupting that long-gone rural scene, and accompanied by sporadic fire from mortar, bren, machinegun, the distant boom of heavy artillery. Closest of all are the chilling cries and moans of wounded men as they inconsolably enter and exit this sinister Northern French frieze. The scene is perfectly orchestrated: it has the hypnotic visual power and precision of clearly remembered nightmare, contained most suggestively through the artful and expressive combination of sound and sense.
The progression of the poem, though, is both subtle and direct: Vernon Scannell doesn’t use exact end-rhyme until lines 47-48, holding back his poetic knockout punch but concealing two puns of devastating simplicity (ponder those words recalled and bear), until the very end. Or rather, until the forbidding prospect of an end that has no real end – frail figures trapped within the deceptive finality of an antiheroic couplet. Thus concludes a mighty powerful piece of what I’d term memorable disenchantment:
walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
That great writer of the First World War, Ford Madox Ford (a novelist-poet also admired by Vernon Scannell), wrote some valuable reflections on the travails of his friend and collaborator Conrad – words applicable equally to Vernon: “His resilience was his own; his oppressions were the work of humanity or of destiny”.
Vernon’s initial act of desertion occurred in North Africa, and doesn’t appear to have been a decisive Lord Jim-like leap into ignominy. By his own confession he just wandered back from the front line, drifting away from what the court martial called ‘a forward area’. During the previous dreadful phantasmagoria of combat, he’d never imagined such a sight: he now witnessed his comrades systematically looting the mutilated bodies of their own dead and this tipped him over the edge. He simply walked away, not wounded, but in a state of confusion, anguish and nausea, which afterwards he could never rationally explain. Despite the subsequent painful self-examination running through much of his work, Vernon was the last person you’d imagine having to answer charges of cowardice: no stranger to violence (since his father’s early brutality towards him), his physical bravery was proven often, in or outside the boxing-ring – and after all, he’d joined up in the first place. He didn’t resemble the conscript in Boris Vian’s celebrated 1950 chanson Le Déserteur, an anarchic individualist and rather philosophic youth who, declaring “Je n’étais né sur terre/ Pour tuer les pauvres gens”, is fully prepared to walk away from the whole murderous business of war.
As it was, Vernon served part of a three-year jail sentence which involved some exceedingly nasty time in military detention, before being temporarily released (but always ‘under sentence’) to swell the ranks of the vast invasion force required to participate in the Normandy landings. And apropos the horrors of the D-Day beaches, his final collection, entitled with a fitting bow to Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (2007), draws a parallel with the plight of Iraq war veterans. There in the final three lines of his sonnet ‘War Words’, he describes with customarily acute, rueful self-mockery, how things were:
“What I that day with many others shared
But the poor bloody infantry had to fight on, advancing inland. Until, near Caen, Vernon observed the batch of mute inglorious, injured wretches so poignantly delineated in ‘Walking Wounded’. Soon afterwards he himself was wounded in both legs and would be walking nowhere, for months. Not exactly cause for relief (the proverbial ‘blighty wound’), nor did it promise long-term rest or respite. Military hospital awaited him, where he would be detained, still a ‘Soldier Under Sentence’, with the grim prospect of an eventual, enforced return to the front line…
Fortunately for him and for English poetry, Vernon Scannell went AWOL again at the war’s end, surviving in the long run as both civilian and poet. I’d recommend, among so much else, his own fascinating book on his contemporaries, the UK and US poets of World War Two, Not Without Glory (1976). It’s typically modest yet forthright, touching and illuminating, although he precludes mention of himself and his singular and lasting contribution to the literature of war. A favourite of Vernon’s, John Clare, ended a sonnet “Puzzling the power of that great trifle man/ Who finds no reason to be proud at all”. Vernon, during a long, extraordinary, often painful life, gave and received much joy, love and friendship, accomplishing a fine and substantial body of work in the process. And in his classic poem ‘Walking Wounded’ he achieved something of which any poet could indeed be proud.
[The above piece was written for POETRY IN THE BLOOD, an anthology edited by Tony Roberts, forthcoming from Shoestring Press, autumn 2014. © Alexis Lykiard, 2013.]