Secret Library

The Forgotten Movement Poet: The Poetry of Jonathan Price

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle discusses the work of the best 1950s poet you’ve never heard of

Say the name ‘Jonathan Price’ and people are likely to think of the actor who has played characters such as the psychopathic Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies and the fanatical High Sparrow in Game of Thrones. But the actor is Jonathan Pryce: this article is about Jonathan Price. Who was he? Jonathan Price was the editor and poet whose work was admired by Philip Larkin, among others. Yet the poet Jonathan Price (1931-85) remains not just little-known (the usual topic of this blog) but almost entirely unknown.

It doesn’t help that only one full-length collection of Price’s poems ever appeared, and that was just a few months before his death in 1985. Everything Must Go collected together many of the poems he’d had published in journals and magazines over the years. Prior to that, the only volume devoted to his work had been a slim pamphlet in the Fantasy Poets series published by the Oxford University Poetry Society over thirty years earlier, in 1954, at the beginning of Price’s career as a poet.

That Fantasy Poets pamphlet (number 20 in the series) caught the attention of another young poet, who was nine years Price’s senior but who was still struggling to make his own name in the world of English poetry. His name is altogether better-known: Philip Larkin. Larkin wrote an admiring letter to Price praising his pamphlet and encouraging the younger poet to send out review copies of the Fantasy Poets pamphlet to the BBC and the Spectator. Larkin’s own Fantasy Poets pamphlet was the next to be published in the series; a year later, his second full-length collection, The Less Deceived, was published by the Marvell Press in Hull, and Larkin well and truly ‘arrived’ on the 1950s English poetry scene.

But whereas Larkin would become the most famous poet associated with the rather dubiously marketed ‘Movement’ – a group of 1950s British poets, most of them male, whose work was far more plain-talking than the elitist experimentations of the earlier modernists like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound – Price would never publish a collection until he knew he was dying. And even then he only did so at the behest of his long-standing friend and champion, Anthony Thwaite (a man who would also be one of Larkin’s literary executors when the Hull-based poet himself died later in 1985). He appears to have been modest about his own poetic achievements. But this does not mean that his poetic achievement was modest. Many histories of the Movement in 1950s poetry don’t mention Price; at the time of writing, he features nowhere in the Wikipedia page for the Movement, and is seldom mentioned alongside Larkin, Davie, Amis, Thom Gunn, Elizabeth Jennings, and others. But he deserves his due.

True, Everything Must Go is a slim volume comprising just 34 short poems and running to 45 pages: standard length for a poetry collection, but short for a ‘collected poems’. But the poems are a technical triumph which, in many ways, provide a ‘missing link’ or bridge between the taut, epigrammatic style of William Empson’s poetry from the late 1920s and 1930s, and the bluff, direct, ironic voice of many Movement poets (Larkin included). Price is not dissimilar to John Wain here, another poet who followed Empson’s lead in his early work and went on to be associated with the Movement. But although Price’s debt to Empson is more noticeable, he is also the more successful of Empson’s successors. Titles such as ‘Valediction to Venus’ (recalling Empson’s ‘Invitation to Juno’) and ‘Burning Letters’ (‘Missing Dates’?) summon the great leading light of Cambridge poetry in the late 1920s, while there’s also something Empsonian about the title ‘Augury’ (perhaps summoning ‘Aubade’, although Larkin, of course, also wrote a poem with that title). Indeed, when Larkin wrote to Thwaite responding to the news about a planned collection of Price’s poems, he remarked that he found that his faulty memory had misattributed several lines from Price’s poetry to other poets, and he mentioned Empson, Wain, and Donald Davie in particular. Certainly, Price is a poet who had a gift for writing single lines that lodge deep in the reader’s memory, to resurface at the most surprising moments: Empson gave us ‘The waste remains, the waste remains and kills’ and ‘The heart of standing is you cannot fly’ (among many other memorable lines), while Jonathan Price gave us ‘Your dreams tuned to the pitch and sway of ships’ and ‘While a dark root a dark root gripped and bound’. These are the two lines Larkin specifically mentions in his letter to Thwaite. I’d add ‘day’s forced march towards kingdom-come’ from the end of ‘Everything Must Go’ as well as the repeated lines in the villanelle reproduced below. (Indeed, the villanelle form naturally suits poets whose strength is for standalone epigrammatic lines: it’s one reason Empson wrote so many of them, and led the way for later poets in the use of the form. He himself had encountered the villanelle in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.)

The back cover of Everything Must Go (pictured above right) bears a picture of Price with an endorsement from Larkin, which identifies Price’s poems as ‘very much of his time in their form’ while also praising their ‘wit and poignant feeling’. I’d say this has it absolutely right. Like Empson at his best, the poems are not just witty and technically accomplished pieces of verse, but poems containing true feeling. In addition to the (few) Jonathan Price poems already available online (which you can read here), I’d like to add one more. Price’s poetry shouldn’t be out of print, and it would be nice if a publisher would put them back out there. Here, to conclude, is Jonathan Price’s ‘Catch as Catch Can’, which is perhaps the most technically adroit villanelle I’ve yet read. As Empson acknowledged, a good villanelle should lend a new inflection to the repeated lines each time they reappear, and Price manages this wonderfully here.

Catch as catch can what’s asking to be caught
Or else be beaten to it by the bell.
Hardly a day passes without that thought.

Trammelled in tenses, snagged by could and ought,
The careful trekker cannot very well
Catch as catch can what’s asking to be caught,

For what comes gratis, and what must be bought,
And what the long-term cost is, who can tell?
Hardly a day passes without that thought.

Old knots defy untying: guy-ropes, taut,
Stay one securely. Anglers up the fell
Catch as catch can what’s asking to be caught:

To make a killing from an artful sport
They cast fine long lines like a subtle spell.
Hardly a day passes without that thought

As good scouts plod to their prosaic hell.
So can the weaver of a villanelle
Catch as catch can what’s asking to be caught?
Hardly a day passes without that thought.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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