Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Talking about Oliver Bernard

Oliver Bernard, photographed by John Deakin in 1956

In the morning Tony C came over to do a fifteen minute interview for Future Radio in memory of Oliver Bernard (1927-2013) who died just a few weeks ago and we chatted on happily for an hour and a half.

I knew Oliver only a little so I wondered whether to agree to the interview.  Feeling something of a fraud, I suggested another friend - Elspeth Barker - who had known Oliver for much longer and far better.  But then I found my copies of his pamphlet Quia Amore Langueo, 1995 (dedicated)  the poem itself also included in his collected poems, Verse &, 2001, and fished out his 1992 memoir, Getting Over It , though I had to nip in to UEA to pick up the first two from my office and, having done so, decided to go ahead.

Oliver was the oldest of the three famous brothers, the other two being Bruce and Jeffrey. The linked obit for Bruce begins:

Bruce Bernard, who has died aged 72, was an alarming, angry, affectionate and singular man...

That is not far from the impression I got of Oliver on our few meetings, who, on the jacket of Getting Over It, was, we learn, seduced at the age of fourteen by an older woman, then was briefly 'a male prostitute', did wartime service in the RAF, joined the Communist Party, worked in Paris and Corsica, took jobs as a kitchen porter, as a manual worker, as a copywriter (and became head copywriter), and as a teacher of drama and that he was also a member of CND on account of which he was once arrested and served time in Norwich Prison. He was beside all this a Soho man like his brothers, acquainted with Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Elizabeth Smart and George Barker. But Oliver had a kindly side too and, when in warm mood, he radiated a benign happiness.

I met him through Elspeth, George's widow, his last wife after Elizabeth Smart, but I first read him, not as a poet in his own right, but as the translator of the poet I fell in love with in my late teens, Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud being perhaps the one poet you can fall in love with at age seventeen and still be in love with at eighty-seven. So, for me, Oliver was a figure out of adolescence. It was like meeting Robert Graves.


It soon transpired that Tony and his wife, Ren, had themselves known Oliver Bernard for fifty years and that Oliver had taught Ren Latin. In light of that it seemed more natural that I should be interviewing Tony rather than the other way round and I said as much, adding that I could only really talk about Oliver's poetry,

What then of the poetry?

The surprise is that there is so little of it, 127pp generously printed in Verse &; and that verse split into a few sequences that might represent bursts of activity. A good number of the poems, it seems, did not appear in book form at all.

What is included in the book however does two paradoxical things: on the one hand it ranges quite widely in approach from echoes of Elizabethan lyric, through Modernism, to the polemical Peace poems; on the other it retains an identifiable, clear voice. In other words it is the product of a single, indeed singular, personality. It is the genuine thing, poetry driven by its own fitful fires.

The shifts from lyric form to terse almost prosaic comment often occur in the same poem as though the poet had a fear of looking - and maybe feeling - too slickly graceful, too comfortable in his own purloined self. Publishing so little and so infrequently, living both at the fringe and at the odd centre, his instinct might have driven him from thoughts of conscious style and consistency, from anything that added up to what people sometimes call 'the poetry business' or more repulsively, 'the poetry market'.

In this he reminds me of - indeed his poems sometimes remind me of - Martin Bell, whose taste ran more to burlesque and was less liable to embark on pure crystalline lyric but whose foot in the real world was established by similar anti-poetic lines and phrases as if to say, I am living in this world not the world of literary studies. But one might think as well of Norman Cameron, Robert Graves, or indeed George Barker.

Quia Amore Langueo is a thing of beauty, a delicate modernising out of Middle English. But I very much like to think of him as the author of poems such as this:

Good night you'd wonder who or why
suddenly out of nowhere said
and laughed absurdly pleased alone
to speak it on the way to bed
brushing my teeth in case I smile 
Tomorrow if it comes you will
see me if we meet and look
otherwise and innocent
of me my mind this open book 
how can you be in some small poem

No comments: