In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads nature poetry from a forgotten poet named Ted
Who is being described? This poet was born in England in the 1930s, married his first wife (of two) in 1956 after falling madly in love, made a name for himself as a nature poet (one notable early poem from his first collection featuring a fox), died in his late 60s, and was called Ted? I’m talking not about Ted Hughes but Ted Walker (1934-2004), one of England’s foremost nature poets of the second half of the twentieth century. And yet while Ted Hughes is one of the most recognisable names in twentieth-century English poetry, his namesake has fallen from view.
I encountered Walker’s poetry first of all when I recently picked up a charming old hardcover book, New Poems 1965, in a local charity shop. I read Walker’s poem in the anthology, ‘Heron’, which appears in his second collection, The Solitaries. The same day, I bid for a copy of Walker’s first collection, Fox on a Barn Door (also from 1965), on eBay, and won. This blog post – not quite a review of Walker’s early poetry so much as a series of first impressions – is the result of winning that book in that eBay auction, and reading it (and, I have to say, enjoying it a great deal). Since then, I’ve managed to pick up all five of Walker’s early collections (there was a long hiatus between 1978 and the late 1990s), each for no more than a few quid online. But the focus of this blog post is Fox on a Barn Door, that first collection.
The poems we find inside Fox on a Barn Door are, as the title suggests, nature poems in the main, although there are also some wonderful poems which take in things like the pleasure piers of the coastal towns in Walker’s home county of Sussex. The nature poems are anti-Romantic in the way that Hughes’s nature poems are anti-Romantic; or at any rate, they are not Romantic in a conventional sense. As with Hughes, Plath, Geoffrey Hill, and other post-war poets writing about the English landscape, we find more harrowing imagery in amongst the celebration of the natural world, such as in ‘Breakwaters’, where Walker describes the breakwaters as ‘thin as a Belsen arm’.
Indeed, the sea and the south coast loom large in Walker’s early poems in particular. ‘Porpoises’ begins:
Sometimes in summer the sea
looks infrangible; dull steel
dimpled like a dinner-gong.
This quintessentially English use of alliteration and assonance, harking back to fourteenth-century alliterative verse and even further back to the Anglo-Saxon poets, shows Walker’s ear for the language (‘Sometimes in summer’; ‘dimpled like a dinner-gong’). In another poem, ‘Baby Ling’, the final vowel sound of most lines is picked up at the beginning of the next: ‘Seizured, you sprang from your safe cleft; / You left unlovely fellows stranded, / Landing at my feet…’ But the imagery of Walker’s poetry is also memorable, often vivid and immediate, as in the example from ‘Porpoises’ quoted above. It does what the best nature poets do: make us see the familiar sights of the sea, the forests, and the fields in a new way.
As mentioned above, Walker’s coastal poetry isn’t always focused on nature. ‘Under the Pier’ begins by considering the harmless illusions found at the pleasure-pier:
He has a bargain who buys
the cheap, comfortable lies
they are selling on the pier.
The poem develops into a consideration of the real horrors found in this coastal town:
You’re entitled to forget
crude facsimiles of fear –
you pay to. It’s free down here
to look at the old dead-beats
who lie embalmed in their sweat
without will enough to leer
at the couples doing what
they can against the wall. Not
an urge left in them, they’re
waiting till it’s time to go;
they’d die, but don’t know how to.
Walker married his childhood sweetheart, Lorna Benfell, in 1956, around the same time Ted Hughes was marrying Sylvia Plath. But unlike Hughes’, Walker’s marriage would be a long and happy one (or at least happier than Hughes’), until his wife died in 1987 and Walker, plunged into grief, travelled to Spain to try to rediscover the joy of life in the wake of his wife’s early death (she was only in her mid-fifties). Walker later wrote a memoir, The Last of England, about his journey to reconnect with life following the onset of widowerhood.
Ted Walker’s Collected Poems or Complete Poems have never been published. They deserve to be, especially as Ted Hughes’ was not the only voice in English nature poetry in the second half of the last century, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a lone voice, given the way the dust of literary history has settled. But here in this Secret Library series I like to encourage disturbing the dust a little. Ted Walker’s poetry deserves a readership. Who will put his work back into print?
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.