The Complete Poems of Jon Silkin

Last Thursday was the Leeds launch of the Complete Poems of Jon Silkin. Edited by Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner and published by Carcanet, the book comes in at around 1000 pages – a testament both to the prolificacy of Silkin, and to the hard work and dedication of Jenner and Glover.

11169967_10101144848451689_5379500147983438912_n    11133923_10101144848576439_2423459642668631645_n

It’s a wonderful brick of a book, packed with published and previously unpublished work, with an informative and thoughtful introduction by Glover. Nicholas Lezard picked the Complete Poems as his Guardian paperback of the week in March, and it’s easy to see why. There’s so much to read, and it’s wonderful to be able to appreciate the scope and ambition of Jon Silkin’s vision. His poems bring nature and the environment into dialogue with Anglo-Jewishness and the Holocaust. They consider how a poem might affect the social and political conscience of its reader without losing its aesthetic power. The reader is transported from biblical kingdoms to post-war Britain; across the wide open fields of Iowa, through the Australian outback, along the cherry blossom lined streets of Japan, beneath the left-over traces of concentration camps, and back to the flowerbed at the bottom of the local Leeds garden. Despite these changing landscapes and themes there is a consistency of thought, image, and voice that demonstrates the enduring issues that preoccupied the imagination of the poet. Bringing all these poems together in one place allows you to really appreciate this. As Lezard notes in his review: ‘This book is Silkin’s postwar anthology of his own: his gift and his voice – or voices, if you wish – finally have their own monument’.

I’d like to think that the Leeds event on Thursday was also a ‘monument’ to Silkin. It certainly felt like a celebration both of the (under-appreciated) poetry and the man himself. The reading was held in the beautiful Brotherton Room of the Special Collections at The University of Leeds – a fitting location given that Silkin’s archive forms a part of their wonderful ‘Leeds Poetry 1950-1980’ collection (also included are the archives of Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison, Simon Armitage, and Ken Smith). All around us were papers from Silkin’s manuscripts – including drafts of his ‘Astringencies’ poem, and his most famous poem ‘Death of a Son [who died in a mental hospital aged one]’:


This is the original letter sent to Silkin from London County Council declaring his son Adam ‘mentally deficient’, followed by some of the early drafts of the poem that Silkin sent to the poet and translator Michael Hamburger. Here’s the finished poem (originally published in The Peaceable Kingdom, 1954):

Death of a Son [who died in a mental hospital aged one]

Something has ceased to come along with me.
Something like a person: something very like one.
And there was no nobility in it
Or anything like that.

Something was there like a one year
Old house, dumb as stone. While the near buildings
Sang like birds and laughed
Understanding the pact

They were to have with silence. But he
Neither sang nor laughed. He did not bless silence
Like bread, with words.
He did not forsake silence.

But rather, like a house in mourning
Kept the eye turned in to watch the silence while
The other houses like birds
Sang around him.

And the breathing silence neither
Moved nor was still.

I have seen stones: I have seen brick
But this house was made up of neither bricks nor stone
But a house of flesh and blood
With flesh of stone

And bricks for blood. A house
Of stones and blood in breathing silence with the other
Birds singing crazy on its chimneys.
But this was silence,

This was something else, this was
Hearing and speaking though he was a house drawn
Into silence, this was
Something religious in his silence,

Something shining in his quiet,
This was different this was altogether something else;
Though he never spoke, this
Was something to do with death.

And then slowly the eye stopped looking
Inward. The silence rose and became still.
The look turned to the outer place and stopped.
With the birds still shrilling around him.
And as if he could speak

He turned over on his side with his one year
Red as a wound
He turned over as if he could be sorry for this
And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones,
And he died.

(Jon Silkin, Complete Poems)

There is something so simple and yet so profoundly moving and desolate about ‘Death of a Son’. The straightforward nature of Silkin’s description, epitomised in the final line, sits like a stone in the mind long after the poem comes to an end. It also epitomises Silkin’s style – stark, bold, sensual, and intense.

Although this poem looms large in any conversation about Silkin’s work, no one read out ‘Death of a Son’ at the launch. Instead, each reader chose lesser-known poems. I think everyone felt that it was time to celebrate the many poems within Silkin’s Complete Poems that hold the same power and intensity of feeling as ‘Death of A Son’, but that, until now, have not received the credit they deserve. These included: ‘Urban Grasses’, ‘A Death to Us’, Selections from The Flower Poems, ‘Caring for Animals’, ‘No Land like It’, and ‘Trying to Hide Treblinka’, as well as some of the poet’s previously unseen juvenilia.

There were seven speakers in total – Jon Glover, John Whale, Emma Trott, Jeffrey Wainwright, Emily Timms, Kathyrn Jenner, and myself. It was a really nice mix between those who had known Silkin personally, and those who had come to his work recently. We all had our different reasons for appreciating his poetry, but what everyone commented on was Silkin’s bravery – his willingness to take risks, to ask difficult questions and address difficult subjects, and to try new forms and modes of expression. The pieces we chose ranged across the Complete Poems, but what each poem had in common was the bravery, vitality, and ‘commitment’ so fundamental to Silkin’s poetic identity and voice:

My Enemy Weeps

A) There are many voices in my poem
B) Yes, they are all listening

(Jon Silkin, Complete Poems, read on the night by Kathryn Jenner)

The whole event was very moving (I even got a bit choked up during certain poems). It was wonderful to hear colleagues, mentors, and friends who I admire read out poems that are equally so important on both a personal and an academic level. Over the course of my research on Silkin I’ve ‘grown close’ to many of the poems that were read out. But to have them removed from an academic context and voiced in such an intimate setting reminded me why they remain important (and should be more so).

Speaking of voices, it was equally strange and wonderful to hear his poems take on new meaning and vibrancy in the mouths of each reader. Auden may have said that ‘the words of the dead are modified in the guts of the living’, but here it felt as if Silkin’s words took on a new character with each person. Everyone had his or her own style of delivery, and it affected the overall sense of each piece. Old and familiar poems became new and surprising, and it offered an insight into the words, phrases, and images that had landed, like ‘stones’, in the imagination of each individual reader. There were indeed ‘many voices’ in Silkin’s poetry on Thursday.

It’s been a privilege to watch Jon Glover and Kathryn Jenner put together this wonderful book, and I hope that it will bring a whole new generation of readers to an under appreciated and important writer.

One more thing:

It’s fitting that on the same day as the reading the Oxford University magazine ISIS published an interview with Geoffrey Hill, who was a contemporary of Silkin in Leeds. In the interview Hill, the now out-going Oxford Professor of Poetry, described 50’s and 60’s Leeds as ‘the great creative centre of English poetry’. He named Jon Silkin as one of the important figures in this alternative decidedly off-centre movement and called Jon Glover (along with Michael Schmidt) his ear to the ground for new poetry. Given that Hill unavoidably featured in our evening discussion of Silkin and the Leeds scene, it was lovely to hear him echo our sense of Leeds as a vital and under appreciated ‘creative centre’.

(First two images via Amy Cutler. Poems and archive images reproduced with kind permission from the Jon Silkin estate)