Saturday, 4 January 2014


Reading Norman Nicholson

I discovered Norman Nicholson's poetry in a school anthology Six Modern Poets (edited by J R Osgerby).  The other five were R S Thomas, Ted Huges, Philip Larkin, D J Enright and - the token woman - Elizabeth Jennings.  An impressive gathering.

Reading the recently published Nicholson biography, The Whispering Poet, by Kathleen Jones I noticed that the issue of provincialism came up several times.  Nicholson's poetry is deeply rooted in Millom, its people and the surrounding (and very varied) landscape.  He titled one of his collections A Local Habitation and wrote a strong rebuttal of the pejorative use of the label provincial:

By a provincial I do not mean someone who merely happens to live in the provinces - I mean someone who lives in the place where he was born; the place where his parents live, and his friends and relatives.  Someone who has shared from his childhood the culture of his native region - the way of life, the patterns of activities ... the vast majority of mankind is provincial.
           ("On Being a Provincial" The Listener 12 August 1954)

The West Indian Nobel prize-winning poet, Derek Walcott, wrote a similar defence.  He considered that provincialism provided advantages for the writer: it forces him into -

a deeper communion with things that metropolitan writers no longer care about ... attachments to family, earth and history.   
            (Sunday Trinidad Guardian 22 May 1966)

You only have to read Norman Nicholson's "The Pot Geranium", one of his best poems, to understand how strongly the poet felt that imagination can transcend physical limitations.  Nicholson contracted TB in his teens and at times he was confined not just to Millom but to bed rest in his attic bedroom.  Yet -

          ... It is the Gulf Stream
         That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit: it is the Trade Wind
         That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.
         My ways are circumscribed, confined as a limpet
         To one small radius of rock; yet
         I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry
         The great white sun in the dirt of my finger nails.

I wonder if there is a Nicholson influence in these lines from Walcott's "Spring Street in '58"

         Dirt under the fingernails of the window ledge,
         in the rococo ceiling, grime
         flowering like a street opera

Norman Nicholson was encouraged by T S Eliot, who became his publisher at Faber and Faber.  Nicholson shared the prestigious Cholmondely Award with Brian Jones and Seamus Heaney.  He received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977 and the OBE for services to literature in 1981.  He was invited to Helen Sutherland's artistic and intellectual gatherings at Cockley Moor, near Ullswater, along with Kathleen Raine, Elizabeth Jennings and David Jones, amongst others.  He recognised the quality of Ted Hughes' early work and the two poets became friends. Hardly a marginalised writer.

In 2012 Nicholson's poetry was included in Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, a major exhibition at the British Library in London.  "Hodbarrow Flooded" and "Millom Ironworks" were included in the section "Post-industrial landscapes" and "To the River Duddon" in the "Waterlands" section.

Contemporary interest in the environment, ecopoetics and "edgelands" makes Norman Nicholson's poetry ripe for reassessment in the year of the centenary of his birth.  That seems appropriate for a poet who always took the long view - in decades, generations, centuries.

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