Collected Poems and Selected Translations, Norman Cameron, edited by Warren Hope and Jonathan Barker, Anvil Press, 176pp, £12.95 (paperback)
Jonathan Barker and Warren Hope’s shared passion for the life and work of Norman Cameron (1905-53) is what makes his most recent Collected Poems from Anvil such a delightful read. Barker’s erudite critical introduction shows where he is placed within the thirties’ and forties’ canon, while Hope provides a twenty-page biography that is the text’s jewel in the crown. It reveals Cameron as an engaging, humorous individual with an epicurean delight in socialising with others. Though, in general, one would expect the poetry to speak for itself, Cameron himself tells us (with words somehow reminiscent of Ben Johnson’s on the death of his son: ‘… ask’d, say here doth lye/Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie’ [‘On My First Sonne’]): ‘Being a good poet isn’t my greatest ambition. If I have a really important gift, I think it’s compassion.’
Barker’s introduction is in essence a research paper which includes: a survey of written commentary from his fellow poets in journals of the time, notably Roy Fuller and Geoffrey Grigson; evidence of his influence on the fifties generation of Movement poets: Philip Larkin, John Holloway, Elizabeth Jennings, Donald Davie and John Wain; a debunking of the view that he was overly influenced by the poetry of his close friend, Robert Graves; showing how he comes out of the tradition of Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, Dylan Thomas and Rudyard Kipling rather than politically engaged thirties poets, such as W. H. Auden, or the Modernists, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He also includes close analysis of key poems.
Hope takes us through Cameron’s birth in Bombay and childhood in Scotland before the beginning of his writing career as a student at Oxford.There he became closely associated with Robert Graves, Laura Riding and their Seizin Press, living for a time alongside them in Majorca. Both Barker and Hope emphasise that Cameron was a ‘pure poet’ who wrote when poems came to him rather than attempting to live from his verse. He preferred a comfortable lifestyle working as a copy editor. The keynote of the biographical account is his infectiously lovable nature and sense of fun, and Hope draws on a range of people who knew Cameron to endorse that feature of his personality. William Samson notes how, far from being tortured poets, Cameron and his friends seemed to enjoy the art: ‘they made up things then and there, grabbed down stories and myths from the air, wrote down doggerel and verse …’ Robert Mengin remembered his affability during the war when he was employed as a civilian propagandist: ‘He had such a gift for hospitality and was so gracious that one was warmed by the mere offering of a cigarette or a chair.’ Along with this, every direct quote from Cameron used by Hope provides evidence of his spontaneous, natural and light-hearted wit. One is left pleased to discover that Hope’s essay is an extract from a full biography (Norman Cameron: His Life, Work and Letters ).
Barker and Hope’s aim was to redress the unfair neglect of the poetry. Cameron’s opus, though small, supports the view that he deserves more recognition. Barker defines his voice as comparable to Larkin due to his ‘ability to express through an apparently diffident persona, a personal and metaphysical frustration on behalf of his reader’, relying on ‘extended metaphor, fantastic images and a direct yet, at times, tortuous diction.’ The key word here is ‘metaphysical’ given Cameron’s carefully crafted arguments, frequently on the inevitability of failure. Often he focuses on a single human characteristic conveyed through a single extended metaphor. And given this subject matter the end result is frequently poetry that is both self-effacing and rich in pathos and power, such as in ‘Moonlight, Waterlight and Opal’: ‘I’ve learned to be content with nothingness.’ This sometimes results in lines of poetry that are achingly cold in their acknowledgement that one can expect nothing by right. It is seen particularly in some of his love poems: ‘Love as you please – I owe you nothing back’ (‘From a Woman to a Greedy Lover’) and: ‘I fear you and I fear you Barbarous love./You are no citizen of my country.’ (‘Nunc Scio Quid Sit Amor’).
‘All Things Ill Done’ provides good example of Cameron’s reliance on metaphysical construction. Here quoted in full:
All things done ill done, and quitted hopefully As islands no more visited – the sea That washes round that archipelago Must somewhere have another shore. And so Confronted by a sinister stagnation
I recognise in it my own creation. Sea, time, old binding-link of separation That I had left, a fain-forgotten shift, Has coiled around, offering its blank gift.
The poem offers the sheer pleasure of a well-done thing. It comes off the page like a carefully planed solid object. Added to this is the intriguingly odd diction of ‘sinister stagnation’, with ‘stagnation’ implying apathy while ‘sinister’ energises the stagnation into some form of malevolent intent. The complexity towards the end invites us to engage and re-engage with the ambiguous paradoxes in: ‘Sea, time, old binding-link of separation/ That I had left, a fain-forgotten shift’. We are given the satisfying thought that there is a great deal of pleasure to be gained in contemplating all that we have failed to achieve as part of something possibly wondrous about ourselves. ‘The Disused Temple’ provides an even more sustained metaphor of failure with delightful diction to capture how our failed endeavours contribute to what we become:
It stays as a disquieting encumbrance. We moved the market-place out of its shade; But still it overhangs our whole remembrance, Making us both inquisitive and afraid.
Once more we have tantalisingly strange juxtapositions, such as ‘inquisitive’ and ‘afraid’ – a mix of human vulnerability and personal growth as we fail in our pursuit of what ‘the disused temple’ might have offered us. Meanwhile, ‘whole remembrance’ conveys a comforting sense of how we have nevertheless grown in spite of the ultimate failure.
The combination of cold emotion and crystalline structure is particularly suited to the vast, desolate landscapes of his poems on European war, travel and conquest. Like those above they also act as extended metaphors of failed endeavour. Here he focuses on mass movements where invaders are seen as interlopers onto otherwise untouched landscapes. History’s cycling of swords into ploughshares does permanent damage to the land, as in ‘Virgin Russia’. Similarly, ‘Voyage to Secrecy’ appears to be on the side of the landscape rather than the endless explorers:
When shall their compasses strain wide and crack, And alien milestones, with strange figures, Baffle the sagest of geographers?
Though ‘Central Europe’ is a little patronising, it is saved by the wonderfully concrete language used to portray the primitive Central European peasants where: ‘Whimpering fear of baleful gods and wolves –/Have set a bloody darkness in their souls.’ The harsh gutturals reinforce both the physically bleak landscape and this dark ignorance as they wait for ‘Sailors and nabobs with new foreign gifts,/To blow their crannies free of ancient fear’.
For those new to Norman Cameron’s poetry, this is certainly a real find. The selection of, mainly French, translations are superb where his commitment to craft and his skilled diction are particularly beneficial. It is likely to have you tracking down his fuller collections of Rimbaud and Villon. Barker and Hope have done a great service in promoting Cameron’s work and have made it clear that their view that he needs a greater airing is well justified.