Intrduction to Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet

There was often a moment in Norman Nicholson’s poetry readings – a moment of supreme theatre – when he would lower the timbre of his husky, baritone voice, point his finger at a random member of the audience, and say, ‘You,’ swivelling round to aim the finger at someone else, ‘or You’ . Then he would say, in a whisper that filled the room;

Wait! Wait!
Come closer;
I’ve something to tell.

The lines are from his poem, The Whisperer, an account of his twenty months in a sanatorium where he was forbidden to raise his voice above a whisper in order to protect his tubercular vocal chords. Few who heard his spell-binding performances knew how close he had come to having no voice at all. And when, at the end of his life, a tracheotomy reduced him once more to a whisper, one of his last and most poignant notes to a friend was, ‘They have taken away my voice’.

But his voice on the printed page can never be silenced. His poetry, rhythmical, colloquial, glittering with oral devices, is written to be performed – the Nordic vowels and consonants rattle in the mouth like stones, to be hurled towards the back of the auditorium, ‘like iron quoits’, in the manner known locally as ‘giving it Wigan’ – a colloquial phrase (originating in Rugby League) that is synonymous with total commitment.

Norman was proud to ‘give it Wigan’ to the end. He published seven collections of poetry between 1944 and 1985, four plays, two novels, one biography, and seven other prose works, edited innumerable editions of other writers’ works, reviewed for the broadsheets, made regular radio and television appearances and was the subject of a South Bank Show special, introduced by Melvyn Bragg. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry, the OBE and is still the most famous Lakeland poet after Wordsworth.

But strange things happen after a poet dies. If they are young and the circumstances are controversial it can boost their reputations into the stratosphere; but if they fade into quiet old age, their reputations often fade with them. Norman had the added problem that he had spent his entire life in Millom – almost as far as you can get from the recognised artistic and literary centres of England. Even in his own day he was accused of being a recluse and would remark drily – ‘What they really mean is that I haven’t been seen much in London’. He was branded as a provincial, which, according to Doctor Johnson, was simply another word for ‘rude and unpolished’. It was a label Norman Nicholson claimed to relish, believing that the provincial person, rather than the metropolitan, had a better handle on things than his urban counterpart. But there was always an uneasy defensive element in his responses. And in his poetry there were echoes of regret for some of the choices he had made.

Norman had several relationships with women. The first was a young Jewish woman, four years older than himself, during his time in the sanatorium and the years just afterwards. She introduced him to classical music, encouraged him to write and sent off his first work to magazines. In the late nineteen thirties and early forties he was engaged to a young teacher from Kent, called Enrica Garnier, and dedicated his first collection of poetry to her, but found it impossible to leave his parents and the secure life they provided for him in Millom in order to marry her. Enrica was devastated when he broke off their engagement and she never married anyone else. Some close friends found it difficult to forgive him. In the early nineteen forties he was also in love with the poet Kathleen Raine, and the brief relationship between the two produced some uncharacteristically erotic love poetry. Kathleen moved on, though they remained friends. Then, in 1956 at the age of forty two Norman married Yvonne Gardner, who was teaching at a school in Millom, and they were together until she died of cancer in 1982.

Norman corresponded regularly with some of his contemporaries, finding minds sympathetic to his own northern slant of thought. He became friends with Ted Hughes, David Wright, Anne Ridler, Sid Chaplin, and Charles Causley. He was never in tune with academia and had notable spats with A.L. Rowse, George Barker and Philip Larkin. Norman was a victim of establishment snobbery and even the Poet Laureate John Betjeman, who eventually recommended him for the Queen’s Gold Medal, privately classed him as an ‘untechniqued poet’ one of those ‘silly fools’ who ‘like to see themselves in the Daily Herald’.

His poetry, centred in the natural world and man’s place in it, can often be classified as ‘Eco-poetry’. Norman was ‘fervently green’ before the phrase had ever been coined. Dr Philip Gardner, who wrote the first full-length study of his work, wrote that ‘the connection of man with nature, and of man with man in past and present dimensions – are central to a proper understanding of Norman Nicholson’s poetry’.

As early as the nineteen fifties, Norman felt strongly that the National Trust should preserve ‘examples of landscape created and shaped by industry and then deserted’. They should choose factories, coal mines, quarries, lead-workings and iron foundries; landscapes like Millom. ‘They give a glimpse beyond the scale of history; they set man in the greater perspective of biology and geology, of the pre-historic and post-historic processes of nature’. They were examples, not just of ruin, exploitation and decay, but of renaissance. The planet could and would survive whatever man did to it.

Norman’s early brush with death made him conscious of the mutability at the heart of everything, that even the mountain rock we stand on shifts and erodes and eventually finds its way to the sea as grains of sand. There is a natural cycle of entropy, of which we are part. This seems to be the message he wants us to hear. In Rising Five, he plays on the small boy’s wish to seem older than he is, and the ending is bleak.

The new buds push the old leaves from the bough.
We drop our youth behind us like a boy
Throwing away his toffee-wrappers. We never see the flower,
But only the fruit in the flower; never the fruit,
But only the rot in the fruit. We look for the marriage bed
In the baby’s cradle, we look for the grave in the bed:
not living,
But rising dead.

Norman Nicholson was a writer of place, and the industrial fringe of the Lake District was his chosen spot, featuring in his poetry and the two novels he wrote in the nineteen forties. But his prose writings address a much more international audience. He wrote books on the history and topography of the Lake District, a biography of William Cowper, a critical study of H.G. Wells, edited the Camden Classics’ edition of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and anthologies of religious verse. And it was a Canadian scholar and poet who wrote the first academic analysis of Norman’s poetry.

He was proud to be known as a ‘regional’ writer – a phrase often used by critics in a pejorative way. It was defined in 1955 in the Dictionary of World Literary Terms as ‘the tendency of some writers to set their works in a particular locality, presented in some detail, as affecting the lives and fortunes of the inhabitants’ though not, by inference, the wider world. But Thomas Hardy is, by this definition, a regional author, and no one would argue that Hardy’s work is not universally relevant. Norman Nicholson hated the literary snobbery of these classifications. He wrote in the Times Literary Supplement about the inconsistency of labelling some poets ‘regional’ in order to dismiss them as ‘minor’, while failing to include others, like Hardy, in order to exalt their work above the others. ‘To refuse to call a poet “regional” when he so obviously is, is to fail to understand part of what he is saying; to insist on the “universal” aspect of his work at the expense of the local is to show that we have missed something of that which makes him universal’. But it is in the context of the Lake District, like Wordsworth, that Norman Nicholson seems destined to have his work contained.

Any poet writing in Cumbria has somehow to come to terms with the monumental bulk of Wordsworth towering behind them. Norman chose to lock horns with him at a very early age. Although he acknowledged Wordsworth’s place as one of the greatest writers in European literary history, his own, private, opinion of the bard was that his work was very uneven – ‘he is quite capable of hiding his loveliest lines in among a lot of rubbish’.9 And Norman criticised Wordsworth for fudging the truth in order to romanticise the landscape, particularly in the Duddon Valley sonnets, where the river, already altered by man’s early activity, is described as being ‘remote from every taint of sordid industry’.

Norman Nicholson detested the ‘cult of the picturesque’. His chosen space was in the edgelands between the Lake District and the sea. He is the celebrant, not of the emotions aroused by landscape, but of man’s relationship with the land, above and below ground, documenting man’s capacity to produce industrial holocausts, exploring geology and its consequences. Norman had great admiration for the poet William Cowper. He wrote a biography of Cowper and praised him for ‘showing the English country scene more as it really was and less as it was imagined to be’. Cowper’s was not a landscape ‘of mountains, torrents and romantic wildness’ but of a more commonplace reality. Cowper ‘celebrated the usual, the everyday, the humdrum’, and this is where Norman chose to place himself, turning his back on the mountains and torrents that formed the north eastern horizon, to focus on everyday life in Millom.
© Kathleen Jones