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.


3 Responses to “John Heath-Stubbs, Selected Poems – review”

  1. Adrian Risdon said:

    Jun 09, 21 at 10:56 am

    I’m in agreement with you concerning the Selection’s imbalance towards the early work. (Do you mean ‘the callous attitude of the powerful towards ordinary people’?)

    But – speaking as one of the large team of volunteers that tried to assist John (who was blind when I knew him [1976-2006]) – I’m dismayed at the yawning gap between the Introduction’s shrewd attention to John’s text and Carcanet’s apparent indifference to accuracy. Errors abound and the second line of “Epitaph” has been dumbed-down. The appearance of a stray syllable (“Jo”) on p62 (I think – I don’t have the text with me right now) scandalously suggests a production thrown carelessly and hastily together. The publishers of this so-called ‘Classic’ edition should hang their heads in shame.

    Twice I offered them my services free-of-charge as proof-reader of John’s verse and got rebuffed. This mess is the result and will give future more scholarly publishers of Heath-Stubbs’ work endless headaches.

  2. edmund said:

    Jun 09, 21 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you for your comment, Adrian. I’m very sorry your skills and experience weren’t used for proofreading – any poet, and particularly one of Heath-Stubbs’ stature, deserves accurate transmission.
    I see now how poorly the sentence you quote expressed my meaning. I wanted to suggest something more like ‘the callous way in which ordinary people exercise power over the helpless’. More than the king, I was thinking of the cooks and scullions who stick Nixon in the hole and just forget he’s there when removal time comes.
    I was writing to a tight word limit, of course. I admire Heath-Stubbs enormously and would have liked to say much more about his poetry.

  3. Adrian Risdon said:

    Jun 23, 21 at 10:36 am

    I apologize for (again) not bringing the book with me – I don’t own a computer and must use other people’s – but I did check and I think the page is 102 (where “Jo” intrudes).

    Now that I live in Hampshire, my chief ‘take’ on John’s verse is his Hampshire-connected poetry. He quit New Milton for a more modern life in London, but always felt guilty (I surmise) about that desertion.

    It’s hard to decide, whether that guilt thwarted or inspired his creativity.

    I tried to persuade him in his old age to write a short verse-drama about Edward The Martyr (d. 978). I’d hoped he’d thereby exit with one last ‘blaze’. But all he came up with was a shortish poem anticipating a trip he and I made to the shrine where Edward’s bones are cherished – a trip he anticipated with some distaste !

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