3 February, 2014Issue 24.2BiographyLiteraturePoetry

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The Poet is Always Potentially Subversive

Daniel Hitchens

James Andrew Taylor
Walking Wounded: The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell
Oxford University Press, 2013
448 pages
ISBN 978-0199603183

Vernon Scannell occasionally worried that his poems were too easy to understand. He wondered whether he should make the reader work a little harder. On the other hand, he knew that this could turn into an excuse. A friend remembers him saying that

the trouble with a lot of non-explicit verse is that the poets fail to be explicit because they’re not sure themselves what they want to say and, at worst, a smokescreen of pretentiousness is put up with nothing at all behind it.

Scannell’s poems nearly always know what they want to say, and what they don’t. In ‘Dejection’, he distinguishes the feeling in question from the ready-made glamour of despair:

No dark night of the soul, but afternoon,
Quite dark it’s true, and grizzled with chill rain;
The whole terrain a wintry cabbage patch;
Some stale confetti trodden in the mud.

How tempting to convert gloom into existential crisis, to bring in the full orchestra. But that would flout the first duty of poetry, which, Scannell thought, was truth to experience. “The poet is always potentially subversive”, he wrote, “because he does not know what the truth is until he has voiced it, and it may well turn out to be something that surprises him.” That was one reason why Scannell generally used rhyme and metre. Form makes you adapt what you wanted to say, he argued; and what you wanted to say was very likely clichéd and self-deceiving. Rhyme and metre drive you back to the honest truth.

In a number of ways, Scannell was the artistic cousin of Philip Larkin. He did not quite have Larkin’s exceptional gifts: the ability to find the exact right word which nobody else would have chosen in a million years (“a wind-picked sky”) and that indescribable sense of autumnal light irradiating everything. But they had similar principles: a thoughtful traditionalism about form, a commitment to giving a true account of emotion, and a desire to write poems which (in Scannell’s words) “could not only be understood but actually enjoyed by simple blokes and literary gents”.

Scannell had a flair for storytelling: from his own perspective and from that of a wide range of speakers. The wheelchair-bound misanthrope, the insanely jealous ex-husband, the foul-mouthed racist soldier—nobody is too strange or unsympathetic to be the hero of a Scannell poem. And there was a philosophy behind that:

What captivates and sells, and always will,
Is what we are: vain, snarled up, and sleazy.
No one is really interesting until
To love him has become no longer easy.

As James Andrew Taylor shows in this exemplary biography, Scannell learned that sympathy the hard way. He was born in 1922, the same year as Larkin, but their paths were very different. Larkin called his childhood “a forgotten boredom”; too short-sighted for active service, he went to Oxford during the war and then began the series of library jobs which lasted the rest of his life. Scannell could have wished for such dull beginnings. His mother was unloving and sarcastic; his father used to beat up his sons, and shouted at Vernon for his pathetic habit of reading books. Aged 19, Scannell joined the army, going on to fight in North Africa and at D-Day; he described the latter experience as “being dehumanised, reduced to being little more than an extension of your equipment and weaponry, the constant feeling of being used as an object, manipulated by blind, invisible hands, controlled by a force that was either malignant or stupid.”

He ran away from the army several times and properly deserted twice. The first time, in North Africa, he was quickly caught and sent to a horrific military prison where the psychological abuse was unrelenting. The second time, at the end of the war, he managed to evade the authorities for longer. By the time he was arrested and court-martialled, he had been through several jobs: making dolls’ heads, selling perfume, tutoring schoolchildren, boxing on both the professional and amateur circuits. Meanwhile he had been writing and getting to know the literary worlds of London—where he drank in the same pubs as Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice—and then Leeds, where he was taken under the wing of the university English faculty. And so, when the president of the court martial asked Scannell what he wanted to do with his life,

I explained, as I thought reasonably, that I wanted to write, that I had to get away, otherwise I’d be finished. He said, ‘What do you want to write?’
I said, ‘Poetry.’
He said, ‘Send him to a psychiatrist.’

In fact, that may have been a way of letting him off the hook. But within a couple of months of being released, he was once again in court, this time on a charge of bigamy. Scannell had a nasty habit of getting his girlfriends pregnant, marrying them, and then clearing off. The police became interested when he turned out to have done this twice in a row. His second wife, Ella, testified at the trial, and it seems to have been her courageous testimony (risking prison for herself) which rescued Scannell from a jail sentence. Throughout his life, Scannell displayed an extraordinary capacity both for mistreating women and inspiring their loyalty. Taylor interviews several of them. Scannell’s third wife, Jo, with whom he had five children, remarks: “Women were necessary to Vernon. He wanted to be worshipped rather than understood.” And of the end of the marriage, after a long series of infidelities, she recalls:

I knew he would leave, and by then I wanted him to go. I wanted to start again. He sat at this table, and I said, ‘If you’re going, why don’t you go?’ He said, ‘I’ll go when I’m ready, honey, I’ll go when I’m ready.’ I remember those words because at that moment I could have killed him.

Time and again, his diaries tell the same story: at the beginning of a new affair, that he has never met anyone like X, that he has never really been in love before, that he is indescribably happy. A few months later, discontent, insecurity, and jealousy. Then, appallingly, he turns violent. When not too drunk to remember, Scannell felt some remorse at these episodes:

Gave Jo a black eye. It won’t do. I must do something about it all, but God knows what. What I need is a transplant, a spiritual one, that is.

You struggle to have the remotest sympathy with Scannell, but perhaps it is worth struggling. “No one is really interesting until / To love him has become no longer easy.” He had been through experiences which few of us have to deal with: the war, the military prison which made death in battle seem a welcome alternative, and at the back of it all, the childhood where violence was constant and affection practically absent.

In 1987, the problems came to the surface. Scannell published Argument of Kings, a semi-reliable war memoir, and appeared on Desert Island Discs with Michael Parkinson. When you listen to the programme, Scannell, an experienced broadcaster, is articulate and witty. It comes as a shock to learn that he was going through a complete mental blank: he could later remember nothing between leaving for Broadcasting House and finding himself in central London a few hours later.

Thomas Merton once wrote: “The integrity of an artist lifts a man above the level of the world without delivering him from it.” That could serve as a commentary on Scannell’s life. Poetry, he wrote, “builds small barricades against confusion”; Scannell could do that beautifully, but he couldn’t translate it into his life. His poems, with all their honesty, reveal a mind which was never at peace, and never more disappointed than when he got what he wanted.

The whole sad story, told by Taylor with supreme narrative skill, suggests that while villains can be more interesting to read about than Mr. Average, actually being villainous is no fun at all. Even so, sunshine frequently breaks in, especially when Scannell appears as a father and mentor. He could be brilliant with children, something which comes across in his poetry. In ‘Jane at Play’, he watches his daughter talking “grave nonsense” to her toys, and observes that her favourite doll is the ugliest. And then he realises that the child’s idiosyncrasy amounts to a silent judgment on the adult world:

For it is only later that we choose
To favour things which publish our good taste,
Whose beauty proves our talent to refuse
To dote upon the comic or defaced;
Unlike the child who needs no reference
Or cautious map to find her preference.

These lines take the reader very close to the heart of Scannell’s writing. He knew how much it mattered “to dote upon the comic or defaced”, to have the child’s unselfconscious fascination with people and things. Perhaps for an adult to keep this requires a certain sense of the ridiculous; Scannell’s was well-developed. Even in military prison he was able to smile at a fellow-inmate serving ten years for desertion in the face of the enemy, who wore a tattoo on his chest reading ‘Death Before Dishonour’. Scannell contemplated getting one himself: ‘Dishonour Before Death’.

Little absurdities and misunderstandings amused him, such as when the local newspaper sent a photographer round for a feature on Argument of Kings.

‘What sort of book is it?’ the photographer asked.
‘An autobiography, I suppose’, Vernon replied.
‘Oh,’ the photographer said. ‘Who’s it about, then?’

Scannell rather enjoyed that. But actually, it wasn’t a bad question.

Daniel Hitchens is reading for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.