John Heath-Stubbs, Selected Poems – review

John Heath-Stubbs, Selected Poems ed. John Clegg, 128 pp, £9.99, Carcanet Press

John Heath-Stubbs was a prolific poet whose career can be seen as developing in two parts. In his own introduction to his Collected Poems, he ‘half-repudiated’, as John Clegg puts it, the poetry before 1965. Clegg thinks he was wrong. I think he was essentially right and that by giving over half this selection to the earlier poetry Clegg diminishes his achievement.

Admittedly the early poems show remarkable gifts. Many are not easily forgotten once read. This is already true of Clegg’s first, ‘Leporello’, published when Heath-Stubbs was twenty-three. However, they’re characterised by single-minded intensity and an insistence that can come to seem oppressive. Poems like ‘Not Being Oedipus’ and ‘The History of the Flood’, first collected in 1959 and included here, show the author beginning to relax into the true greatness of his later work.

Emotional range is essential to this greatness. So is the varied handling of metre, rhythm, and cadence, whether in passages of enchanting musical sweetness or vigorously expressive speech. But the crucial quality of the best later poems is the fluid complexity they show in tone, viewpoint and sympathy. We see this on a relatively large scale in ‘Nixon, the Cheshire Prophet’, one of the best in this selection. It’s a gift for reading out loud, shifting in tone between boisterous humour, melodrama, hard-eyed realism and devastating pathos, and its critique of the callous power of ordinary people perhaps has particular bite in this age of food banks and homelessness. Both in very short and longer poems it’s a reflection of Heath-Stubbs’s creative generosity that he writes warmly about apparently trivial things, sometimes in a way that explores or hints at the momentous implications behind them.  Clegg’s selection is to be welcomed if it finds new readers for this outstanding but neglected poet. However, I regret the thinness of the representation of the mature work, and particularly regret how little attention Clegg gives to the religious poetry, which often shows Heath-Stubbs at his finest, whether in a purity and intensity of reverence that seem to belong to a vanished age or in the apparent conflict and doubt of the wonderful ‘Holy Innocents’ Day’ (not printed here). I don’t know whether it’s still available but if it is the Selected Poems of 1990 is a much better stepping stone towards the Collected Poems and the subsequent pamphlets and collections.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for their permission to repost this review, written for The North issue 62.


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