Poetic champion composed: Josephine Hart’s great literary insight

Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry, Introductions to Great Poets

Josephine Hart

Virago Press. Hardback £18.99

Review: Thomas McCarthy 

If Josephine Hart had tried to be ordinary she would have been, as James Merrill said of Elizabeth Bishop, merely impersonating ordinariness. Like Princess Grace, she was exceptional, attractive and damaged. From the claustrophobia and grief of her West of Ireland childhood to the gilded Saatchi stage of the West End she used poetry as a route map through life.

Poets can’t save themselves, as we all know, but they can save others: that’s the great irony of poetic suffering. When Hart crossed the Irish Sea to England in 1964, she carried a great burden of grief within her, not least of which was the loss of two of her siblings when she was only 17.

In a sense, her early grief was worked out over a busy career of fiction-writing and theatre production that included West End runs of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda.

Her shrewd and knowing novel, Damage, was later filmed by Louis Malle, with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche. She wrote five other novels, the most poignant of which is The Truth About Love. By the time of her premature death in June of last year, she had dramatised the place of poetry in her life through the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the British Library. Like most beautiful people, she knew her name meant something in that perpetually arriviste city, London, and modesty was never one of her attributes.

It is typical of Hart that she would want to stylise and dramatise what is in essence a deeply private act: the reading of poetry. She insisted upon the drama of recitation. It is always a dangerous gamble, even if it is Harold Pinter reading Philip Larkin. Larkin would look back in anger at any fool who tried to recite him — with the possible exception of John Betjeman.

As Lady Ottoline Morrell said of TS Eliot, poets can be dull, dull, dull. It is not their business to be publicly interesting, to be actors. The voice that settles upon a poem comes from a much deeper place than performance. Few theatre directors understand that. A poem communicates directions to the reader through rhythm, vocabulary, idiom and verse structure; but its single most insistent direction is always towards silence, a ruminating silence that allows the poem to expand at the reader’s breakfast table. The breakfast table, the park bench, the airport gate, the pub snug, the school library — these are the great theatres of poetry.

The most important place where I ever read poems, where they communicated most deeply to me, was the old Glandore Cafe in the Cork bus station. A great orchestra of ordinary Co Cork life accompanied my first deep reading of Hugh MacDiarmid, Larkin, Rupert Brooke, Eliot and Ezra Pound. Now that I think of it, I want to take that bus to Glandore. I’ll do it tomorrow. That’s the power of poems. It’s what we do in order to kill time. But Hart’s art also required social drama.

“It is an art of the nerves, this Laforgue, and it is what all at would tend towards if we followed our nerves on all our journeys,” Josephine Hart quotes Arthur Symons in her introduction to a reading of TS Eliot. Her introduction here is brilliant, illuminating, contextualising. It is followed by an equally knowing introduction to Robert Frost whose “best poems represent the terrible actualities of his life”, as she tellingly quotes the critic Lionel Trilling.

While this anthology collects Hart’s favourite poets, in the manner of Edith Sitwell’s Gollancz anthology of 1940, it is the collating of her own introductions that makes Life Saving a really worthwhile book. She was a deep reader with a tragic sense of life. The dark part of her heart is peeled open for all to see in this gallery of dramatic ceremonies for which dead poetry is both object and pretext. She has dramatised an English poetic timeline by calling certain voices out of the chorus-line and presenting them as friends of the theatre management.

Kipling, that enemy of Irish nationalism, is her word-warrior with his rare insight into the common soldier; Milton fascinates her with his psychological insight into the soul of Satan; Marianne Moore she loves for her Escher-like complexity and “fresh-washed quality”. The brilliant Smith girl, Sylvia Plath, is admired for having a seven-year marriage “drenched in passion and pain”, and for the painfulness of her method, the consulting of thesaurus and dictionary for each word as if accuracy could bring redemption.

It’s true that no Irish needed to apply in Josephine Hart’s Binkie Beaumont-world of poetry, apart from Wilde and Yeats. She traded with Mandarins only, the Eliots and Audens, the Byrons and Shelleys. The Irish 19th century of ballads meant for recitation, poems by James Clarence Mangan and John Keegan, for example, would have made for terrific entertainment for a London audience.

No doubt, she had moved on from us — the material of Ireland must have seemed desperately provincial. As a London producer, an introducer, a rain-maker, she had bigger things on her mind. She wanted to save the world from drowning; she needed to be sure that the timbers were sound when they hit the rocks of the West End or Westminster Abbey. As her husband Maurice Saatchi writes, quoting her Life Saving Cert she was awarded at the age of 13: “For practical knowledge of rescue, releasing oneself from the clutch of the drowning, and the ability to render aid in resuscitating the apparently drowned.”

That was her messianic streak: such an impulse of the beautiful and the damaged required public performance. But the privacy of poetry, like an un-salved grief, she must have been aware of too; as in Christina Rossetti’s Memory collected in this anthology:

I have a room where into no one enters Save I myself alone: There sits a blessed memory on a throne There my life centres.


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