Thursday, July 07, 2011

"Anna Wickham: A Poet's Daring Life" (2003)

Anna Wickham was famous in her time. She was friends with D. H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell and Dylan Thomas. She moved in the circle of Natalie Barney, the American heiress and lesbian author who drew the fashionable artistic and literary set to her Paris salon. The poetry of Anna Wickham was published in England by Harold Munro of The Poetry Bookshop, and in America by Louis Untermeyer. It received favorable comments from Pound and Eliot. After World War II she killed herself (by hanging) and dropped out of sight.

Jennifer Vaughan Jones, the author of this biography, has performed a real service by bringing back to vivid life this compelling woman. Building on the work of R. D. Smith, who published his memoir of Anna Wickham, with a generous selection of her poetry and her prose, in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet at the centenary of the poet's birth, Jones researched the archives of three countries, looking at newly discovered correspondence, and interviewed Anna's family to write her book. Anna's own "Fragment of an Autobiography" was also mined, critically.

The story Jones pieces together travels from Victorian London to colonial Australia, back and forth between London and Paris, before settling down in Hampstead Heath, the home of writers. The story traces not only the evolution of a poet, but also the development of a feminist consciousness. Her husband, a passionate student of Romanesque churches and then of astronomy, wanted her to be his muse and audience. Her desire to be a mind in her own right led to violent quarrels in the marriage. Encouraged by her father to win fame as a writer, to compensate for his own failure, and mesmerized by a strong-willed dramatic mother, who carried the family through hard times in Australia, Anna Wickham could not be contented to be any one's wife merely.

Her poetry records that determined struggle, as does this biography in accessible and measured prose. Also in the book are photographs of Anna and her family, which show why she struck such an impressive figure among the literati. There is also a bonus of 14 poems included at the end. The selection begins with the much-anthologized "The Fired Pot," the poem that led me to the poet. "Envoi" gives a strong sense of the poet's voice:

God, thou great symmetry
Who put a biting lust in me
From whence my sorrows spring,
For all my frittered days
That I have spent in shapeless ways,
Give me one perfect thing.



My work has the incompetence of pain.
—Anna Wickham, “XL Self Analysis”

Living in rented rooms, I do not care for stuff,
for cherished things will complicate the move.

A string breaks? I carry fewer books.
A friend died? I hurry through the wake.

Even love I hold with light fingers
as piano chords, not longer.

I have avoided pain by accommodating it.
I have avoided pain so that I can write

with objectivity
of pain that is less than agony.

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