Sucking in the Sixties
Charlie Baylis gobs a Tonks flavoured lollipop


Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems, Rosemary Tonks (Bloodaxe)






   I don't understand why poets are quick to pick up trivialities,  but are
   terrified of writing about passions. I remember it was Stendhal who
   was praising Byron at the time, because he said here is a great
   contemporary who writes of human passions, and this is something
   that has complete gone out of fashion
     [Rosemary Tonks interviewed by Peter Orr]

   No I go to the cinema,
   I particularly like it when the fog is thick...
...the fogs! The fogs! The cinemas!
     [from 'The Sofas, Sogs and Cinemas']

Rosemary Lightband (nee Tonks) died in April 2014. Rosemary Tonks will live forever. I, self appointed president of the Tonks Preservation Society, first entered into her gaudy coloured, high art glossolalish, impressively contradictory world in a light and lithe anthology edited by Edward Lucie-Smith (Hello twitter friend!). I believe it was called British Poetry since 1945 and it had a horrible blue and yellow striped cover, presumably inspired by vomiting in the bathroom. 

My first thoughts on the book after a nonchalant flick through were: What's with the idea that these poets are modern?
can a book remain contemporary? No. In a hundred years it will be in the bin, along with the rest of the scum my parent's generation pissed into the flower filled gutters of the 60s. Fortunately for our facebook generation, poetry from our parents era will be buried with all the horrible acres of miserable art in divans deeper than tombs, mixing with all their cheap wine and unimportant chit chat. What offended me most about the anthology other than that no-one had managed to improve on (or get anywhere near) Eliot, was that Sylvia Plath was missing (she was added to the second edition), but then, she wasn't actually British, or was she (by marriage?). I'm confused. I remain confused.

Fame. The anthology contained several poets who made it big, which can't have been particularly hard in the bleak decades of art and verse that followed the swinging sixties. Anyway, somehow, despite the casual ineptitude of the Group, the Movement and other idiotic, bardic criminals that dogged the era, some poets from the Penguin anthology stumbled down a road to nowhere. I don't remember their names and neither do you. The famous anthologized poets were Seamus Heaney (just getting started with his potato digging shtick), Basil Bunting (who!?) (BB had an absolutely incredible poem in the anthology), Roger McGough, Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas (verbally accosted by a lesser poet in the introduction) and, arriving fashionably late to the word table, Rosemary Tonks. 'Fame fame fickle fame', as Morissey would have it, and as Rosemary equally might have hinted at in 'Done for!':

   Take care with whom you mix in life
   ...
   If you make love to the wrong person

   In some old building with its fabric of dirt,
   As clouds of witchcraft, nitro-glycere, and cake
   Brush by (one autumn night) still green

Not so much as make love to the wrong person, Rosemary Tonks married the wrong man (at least for poetry's sake), divorced him and then abandoned poetry (a la Rimbaud) to live a sedate Christian life (definitely not a la Rimbaud). Stylistically always highly assured, Rosemary Tonks was certainly never going to forgotten. She was far too chic and lively for the boring sods around her (including many critics). Tonks wrote for a different audience, or as Auden suggests, her poetry created its own, more refined, audience. However, as previously mentioned, she didn't try too hard to be remembered. Instead she pissed off into the distance, leaving just two complete collections and a BBC documentary explanatorily titled the Poet who Vanished.

Whether she vanished or not, the only decent argument worth having about Rosemary Tonks is the most facile one. The meta question: Was she a good poet? Unfortunately, if fortune favours the trite, the verbs and nouns that surround the Tonks legacy have split apart so waywardly that the answer, if there is an answer, will always end up being elusively both yin and yang, both oui and non. Was she a good poet? Yes and no.

   I sniffed you to quench my thirst,
   As one sniffs in the sky huge, damp sheets of lightning
   That bring down the Chablis
      [from 'Hydromaniac']

Perhaps a poet can be good and bad at the same time. Perhaps in the same three lines. Tonks' imagery is splendid as a summer rose on a H.D.-enamelled Pound-pounded coin. Here she uses big colour concepts concepts like the sky and storms, coupled with a classic francophile-style decadently dazed eroticism, it doesn't fail, but then imagine her antecedents failing (Eliot/Pound Dadaists, Baudelaire), failure is completely out of the question. However Tonks' poetry is also quite bad, listen to the line ending noun Chablis
, listen again, Chablis. Do you hear it wobble? it's a bad note, it's not poetic, not there, not then. It sounds effing shite, the dull ring of the word puts me of my Chablis (it's Champagne for me), though Rosie, it could have been Rose, or, well, anything but Chablis.

The most pressing influence on Tonks in terms of style and tone were not the grand French poets and artists she cited in interviews. Stylistically Dame Edith Sitwell is her most formative forbearer, here is the great dame dancing with Gods in 'Neptune - polka':

   Where the waves seem chiming haycocks
   I dance the polka; there
   Stand Venus ' Children in their gay frocks

Whist the younger poet encounters 'Orpheus in Soho
':

   The little bars as full of dust as a stale cake,
   None of these places would exist without Orpheus
   And how well they know it.

Roman gods, Bacchanalian orgies, self conscious exoticism. The decadent flowering of Sitwell runs so strongly through Tonks' hedonistic cafe outpourings that it is hard to imagine Tonks as a separate entity, or the same poet, without Edith Sitwell. Therefore it is no great surprise to learn that the poets lived around the corner from each other in trendy Hempstead and, according to Neil Astly, were regular 'hobnobbers' in the extremely naff seeming, London literary (read cheddar and Chablis) scene.

The problem with dismissing Rosemary Tonks verse out of hand is that it disregards one of the most colourful poetic lives. As the poem 'Bedouin of the London evening' alleges, she spent 'ten years in your cafes and your bedrooms'. It is important to recall that poets are not just figures on paper, that is why boring shits like Francis Berry do not make good poets. We want poets to be mad like Byron (at least, I do). Tonks was a Wildean aesthetic minstrel with looks, great taste and a port addiction, she could never truly be bad, she knew how to live. Life is a primary colour, knowing how to live is more important than knowing how to write. She also talked up a storm in interviews:

   I want to show people that the world is tremendous, and that is more
   important than making notes on even the most awful contemporary ills.
   One wants to raise people up, not cast them down.
     [Rosemary Tonks interviewed by Peter Orr]

The contradictions in her world were everywhere. Whilst protesting not to like or enjoy, promoting her work via talks and recitals, (something she said 'killed' Dylan Thomas), Rosemary was also one of the biggest party animals in the poetry world. In her twenties and thirties she embodied every quality of the ideal poet: Mystical. Essential, yet somehow not quite on point. Tonks crafted her own magic but seemed equally happy to squander it (in verse as in life); her inevitable descent into madness led her to disown her entire back catalogue, something a number of sixties poets should have had the decency to do:

   Devils gain access though the mind; printed books carry,
   each one, an evil mind, which enters your mind
     [Rosemary Tonks quoted by Neil Ghastly
        in 'Bedouin of the London evening']

Forever aloof, spinning with the fickle literary world and then turning her back on it, like a Royal Ballet Principal slipping in a pas de deux. In the end, to deliberately misquote Larkin, what will survive of Rosemary Tonks is art.

      Charlie Baylis 2015