Monday, October 10, 2016

The poet’s destiny

The power of Poetry alone redeems the world, and reunites the blind, confused and fragmentary elements of universal experience within the circle of significance. The supreme task: that of synthesis. How to invoke the welding flame? Ideally, the poet’s destiny is the most glorious of all. And in a period such as the Present, when death and the diabolic are manifest on every side, most difficult of all.’ This is from the diary of David Gascoyne, an English poet embedded in the surrealist movement, who was born 100 years ago today. A precocious and talented writer, he was friends with many other literary and artistic talents, but never quite managed to fulfil his own early promise.

Gascoyne was born on 10 October 1916, at Harrow, north of London, and educated at Salisbury Cathedral School and Regent Street Polytechnic, London, where he met George Barker. When only 16, his first collection of poetry - Roman Balcony and Other Poems - was published. The following year, his novel Opening Day was also published. Further poetry collections followed, and these helped establish him as one of most original voices of the 1930s. When still only 21, he wrote A Short Survey of Surrealism which was published with a cover by Max Ernst. He was involved in organising the London International Surrealist Exhibition with Roland Penrose and Herbert Read.

Gascoyne spent much of his 20s angst-ridden and trying come to terms with his homosexuality. He was an active anti-fascist, involving himself in the Spanish Civil War. He lived in France for long periods, becoming friends with many artists and writers, such Salvador Dali, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. He became increasingly well known, not only as a poet but as a translator of French surrealist literature, publishing widely in books and magazines. After the war, he again lived in France, and continued writing and publishing poems, although without the fervour of previous years, and never really fulfilling his early promise to be a great poet.

Suffering from depression, Gascoyne returned to England, and to his parents’ house on the Isle of Wight. The death of his father caused further psychological difficulties. In 1975, he married Judy Lewis, a nurse he had met while in hospital, and recovered some of his writing ability. In 1996, he was made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture for his lifelong services to French literature. He died in 2001. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, The Poetry Archive, Critique Magazine, or Marcus’s fansite, and in obituaries at the The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

Enitharmon Press first published Gascoyne’s Paris Journal 1937-1939, with a preface by Lawrence Durrell, in 1978. A second volume came out in 1980 called Journal 1936-1937: Death of an Explorer. Subsequently, his Collected Journals 1936-42 was also published. The following selection of extracts comes from the first of the series, the Paris Journal.

18 March 1938
‘Lutte et Destin
What I have suffered during the last week is too intricate to be put into words: it all seemed to crystallize today - tonight, above all, when I was walking down the Champs Elysees after leaving Kay, and the cold spring moon, and the lights, and the budding leaves on the trees, were all blurred because of the tears of self-pity swimming in my eyes. [. . .]

And then at lunch-time, at the Durrells, when we were arguing, futilely, about war and war-resistance, Miller said: ‘Yes, Durrell’s probably right; because he’s a man, if ever there was one, who’s so strongly favoured by Fortune, that even if he were fighting in the front line, he could be pretty certain of coming through without a scratch. But you’re not like that; you ask for trouble; your destiny can only be a tragic one . . .’

Faced by acute financial crisis, spent the afternoon trying to think of a way to get to England until the time to go to Switzerland. Kay having bravely volunteered to get me a return-ticket, I have now worked out a plan for the immediate future, but it’s not a very comforting one ..

In the bathroom of Kay’s hotel apartment, washing my hands, struck by a sudden indescribable desolation while listening to her cross-channel telephone conversation, in the other room, with Freddie ‘Do you love me? Yes, but’ (shouting) ‘Do you LOVE ME? - SAME HERE!’ Standing in one of the basins was an enormous bouquet of daffodils and narcissi that he had had sent to her. (I had never thought that I should one day reach the point when the spectacle of other people’s happiness would arouse only bitterness in me. And when they don’t even realise their own happiness!)

We went out and had a rather gloomy dinner, overshadowed by the horror of the Barcelona air-raids, news of trouble on the Polish-Lithuanian frontier, and the general foulness of the European outlook. Afterwards, went to see Garbo in ‘Marie Waleska’, which did nothing to calm one’s emotions. When we came out, I was feeling so wretchedly lonely that what I wanted more than anything was a long talk with Kay and a certain amount of human sympathy. But no, she was resolutely determined to go immediately back to bed; and though she must have vaguely sensed how I was feeling, this only seemed to have the effect of making her shut herself off completely. ‘Now don’t go and do anything queer’, she said, as I was saying good-night at the door of her hotel - I don’t know why, unless my expression was strange. (She meant, I suppose, don’t go and get picked up by anybody.) Walked away alone, at the end of my tether. ‘Le pauvre jeune homme’, said somebody in a group I passed in the Champs Elysees. Violent resentment of self-pity at gratuitous pity from outside.’

20 May 1938
‘It is raining today. Bent stayed with me here last night again, but he has gone to the atelier now, and I am alone.

I have done no work since I returned to Paris. I have been entirely consumed by the intensity of the experience of Bent. Today I wanted to produce a poem; but I have not yet recovered enough force. I see the Light, beyond, but I cannot reach it; I know the Voice is always speaking, but I cannot hear the words.

To be alone; to make the sacrifice. I wish to become an Instrument, but I am suspended. Will the Energy return? How can I attain the power that would enable me to speak what I know?

Flesh, spirit. ‘Le combat spirituel est aussi brutal que la bataille d’hommes.’ All states reside in me, but they are unresolved. All I can do is wait. I still have faith; I shall always believe that there is another plane. I also know that in order to be able to reach it and to speak of it, one must lose everything, and be destroyed: I am trying to prepare myself to accept loss and destruction, even to desire them.

The power of Poetry alone redeems the world, and reunites the blind, confused and fragmentary elements of universal experience within the circle of significance. The supreme task: that of synthesis. How to invoke the welding flame? Ideally, the poet’s destiny is the most glorious of all. And in a period such as the Present, when death and the diabolic are manifest on every side, most difficult of all.’

11 September 1938
‘Last Monday, recommenced work on ‘Son of the Evening’. [. . .] The other day, conceived the plan of a new novel: ‘The Anointed’, but I suppose I shall have to try to finish the other one first. ‘On n’ecrit pas les livres qu’on veut’, as one of the Goncourt remarked. One needs tremendous determination to do creative work of any sort in a world so disordered and uncertain as the world today. Crise de la politique, crise de l’homme, crise de l’esprit ...

1 November 1939 [this is the last entry in Paris Journal]
And here (for the time being, at any rate), I close this journal. It has served its purpose. The most profound of the many intuitions I have recorded in it have all come ‘true’. The ploughing and the sowing have borne harvest. My life has passed on to another plane.

I am full of a great wonder and astonishment, and of exaltation. The world is very deep, the War is horrifying; yet the Future of this Century has begun to burn with an extraordinary, unseen and secret radiance, which I feel I can no longer speak of here, since it has become my task to proclaim it to those to whom it has not yet appeared May I be granted the grace not to fail or become discouraged before the purpose and responsibility of a new life.’

The Diary Junction

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