A Mythology of Savage Gods: The Spirit of Protest in the Poetry of Brenda Williams

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Brenda Williams was a poet and political activist from Leeds, who died in 2015. Her posthumous collection ‘Selected Poems’ was published the following year by Sixties Press. Fellow poet Alan Morrison gives an in-depth review.

Brenda Williams Selected Poems front cover

Brenda Williams Selected Poems, (Sixties Press) 2016

Reading the posthumous Selected Poems of Brenda Williams has provided respite amidst the brouhaha whipped up over a piece in PN Review criticising a collection by a high profile ‘spoken word’ poet for lacking poetic craftsmanship. If there is one thing that the poetry of Brenda Williams will be remembered for it is its indisputable craftsmanship.

Williams was a virtuoso at the sonnet form, having composed, almost by compulsion, several hundred in her lifetime, invariably in the Shakespearean or Spenserian template with final rhyming couplets, strict rhyme schemes and pitch-perfect iambic pentameter. This requires much poetic discipline and application to pull off, especially so prolifically. Here’s an excerpt from a typical ‘Williamsian’ sonnet:

…The bedraggled language
Hardly anyone now can understand,
A monologue nothing can yet assuage,
The tardy eschatology just fanned
Out like a mushroom from the livid day,
The manifest apparitions of night,
The voice of God that will not go away,
The past tense that can never be put right.
The co-ordinates of my life meet in
The Sanatorium’s summer ruin.

Williams’ earliest poetry was far from the compact formalism for which she has become known. One such poem, dated 31st December 1983, ‘In Memoriam: Herbert Howells’, is a proto-sonnet, a stream-of-consciousness fourteen-liner in un-capitalised, unpunctuated syllabic blank verse, which closes on the cryptic: ‘with time inextricable it strikes upon itself’.

‘Cyril Williams’ is a short lyric about Williams’ troubled father, which closes on a striking trope:

once when the light
went out wind blown
branches through the glass
spoke as men.

Williams wrote with astonishing honesty about her father, a belatedly diagnosed schizophrenic who self-medicated with alcohol, and who subjected her timid mother, Kathleen, to emotional and physical abuse. From ‘The Fordwych House Extract’:

Nothing
Could prepare her for its outcome each night
Nothing would halt or prevent the ending,
And we never let him out of our sight
So that my mother could escape if she
Had to and we hung on his every word
From the half-open door she had to flee
Through when the shouting stopped or went unheard
In the silence of his lunge towards her…

And all the times she walked in Torre Hill
She must have known that nothing would alter…

Williams more as witness than protagonist is the compass by which we navigate this harrowing familial saga. Such unadulterated candour in depicting domestic abuse is reminiscent of Thomas Blackburn:

Her fare amounted to nothing, and while
He was shouting in the endlessly drawn
Out pattern of years, he knew the trial
Of words was about to end, almost worn
Out as a black groove widens back before
The laceration of recorded sound.

Love was never like this, and to the end
Of his last syllable, mutely I stood
Before her paralysed and listening,
I who could have said so much said nothing.

That devastating last line poignantly echoes the open mouth and ‘silent scream’ of her intimidated mother, and blooms a timeless symbolism, recalling Cordelia’s silence in King Lear. Williams pays homage to the memory of her mother and the suffering she endured as a result of her husband’s mental instability in the 32-sonnet sequence ‘We are Stardust’. It includes some heart-stopping couplets: ‘Clutched in the hand of the only witness,/ The unacknowledged Morse of your distress’. Both mother and daughter were meted out the same unfeeling instruction: to ‘pull’ themselves ‘together’.

Unsurprisingly, given such a traumatic background, Williams was a lifelong sufferer from depression, for which she was sometimes hospitalised. One detects an attempt to apprehend and contain the uncontainable debris of being within cramped pentameters:

So many are the days, I no longer
Belong to them and I cannot summon
An echo or its momentum after
For the buried words I am lost among.

Imagination running on empty
Parrying the end and the verb to be.

(‘Prologue’)

This is poetry sprung from depression –if there’s bleakness it’s a Keatsian bleakness occasionally wonderstruck with sunny intervals:

Time overturned from the black soil receives
Soft December rain piled beside cypress
Rusting tindered arched towards outstretched leaves
And left prone in green imprinted witness.
Outlasting the words Nature falls between,
The end is no more than a poet’s mien.

(‘The Roof Garden’)

Williams perfectly captures the sense of inner-desolation that depression inflicts on the sufferer, and, for the poet, the cruellest affliction of all, the loss of inspiration, the sudden dawning of language’s limitations:

…the words had failed and I could not go
On, for my mind was burnt out entirely,
A rudimentary black smoke, hollow

Even reality was a black haze
A smoke engulfing buildings

Poetry had lost its meaning for me,
It had become a weight and a pressure…

(‘Dismantling Fordwych House’)

Every morning now I wake to a dread
Beyond imagining and a failure
Of nerve enough for the silence ahead,
Something of infinity and its lure
Is still confined in me, yet encompassed
Round about are words that cannot get out,
With an origin that was meant to last
And a language I have to live without…

(‘Prologue’)

In here earliest poetry, the depressive tendencies had yet to be tethered to poetic form, and Joycean word associations and repeated sound-patterns read almost like graphorrhoea:

…needless humiliation over
the Venus de Milo and for eight weeks on Hebrew
the official university card in his own hand
and P. H. declaiming on an Etruscan cup
May snow in the underworld pine smoke in the pine dark…

For those readers familiar with Williams’ main body of work, the Ginsbergesque gush and clang of ‘For the Big Boys at the Gates of Magdalen’ might seem completely unexpected:

Ginsberg have you tried to carry that red and gold volume
around midway with a chair up bus steps I’ve cursed you yet
hard as the loosened sound inside bricks turning on hardened
cement or the outerside pounded LA Albuquerqe
Wichita Vortex Bayonne iron Horse Apollinaire

coming to Howl and thought Whitman irresponsible why
so long why can I read you now in Magdalen…

my last day by the railings residual sadness
the Mexican episode do we end or begin at all
Griffin give them guns

These formative swerves into vers libre are aglow with imagery that sometimes borders on the surreal –as in this surging passage from ‘Death and The Maiden’ (1984): ‘and flight utmost the shadows at the time of abandon/ in a green world seen through a great Victorian sideboard/ brooched silver wrinkled black on astrakhan and rain walls rose’. Closer inspection reveals each line is exactly fourteen syllables. Williams’ ability to experiment with grammatical structure whilst keeping within metrical restraints is remarkable: ‘without end when rain ran once down Regent Street relentless’.

In these senses Williams’ prosodic development follows a similar pattern to that of W.H. Auden’s: from modernist experiment to formalism. Once she discovers her metrical metier she still allows herself, particularly in her longer poems, to enjoy language: ‘the slow/ Words curl black a cursive script scorched peeling/ Back from language into another tongue’; ‘Gable-ends from the back-to-backs of old/ Leeds reared sloped angles of rain to the cold’ (‘The Fordwych House Extract’).

An occasional focus on the clash between past and present, old and modern, rural and urban, could be an unconscious synecdoche for the poet’s minority formalist technique and tonal sincerity in an era of free verse and affected irony:

Can London’s massed and tangled garden die,
Piled, banked green, its laurel awaiting yet
A grab-loader, Muck and Rubbish Clearance.

(‘The Roof Garden’)

A moving passage in ‘Killingbeck Drive’ touches on the profound sense of bereavement felt by a parent who has lost a child not to the finality of death but to the limbo of mental illness and the arrested development of personality which that can entail:

There exists no word in the language for
Parents who have lost their children, childless
Is not a fit description any more
Than children there yet not there, the endless,
The relentless presence of their absence,
Whether it be death or mental illness…

Though at times there is a Miltonic austereness to Williams’ sonnets, she can break into luscious descriptions:

Our Lady’s Candles were still emerging,
Chestnut leaves unspread, recently broken
Under hazed green smoke, were slowly drifting
Upward through the grey pall of winter…
…Darkness broke from the cordon of April.

That trope is from the sonnet sequence, ‘In Memoriam Christine Blake’, Williams’ tribute to her friend and fellow psychiatric outpatient who tragically took her own life in 2002 after being ‘denied refuge’ at the West Hampstead Day Hospital.

In ‘Margaret’, another poem depicting the apparent suicide of a friend and fellow neglected psychiatric outpatient, we find the poet at the start ‘watching rain slowly falling through/ May’s marble darkness’ ‘…afraid even/ To put one word in front of another’. There’s a perfectly pitched clinical iciness in the trope: ‘At the mercy of crisis teams, a cull’. Ghosts of literary suicides, like Dido-shades, haunt this threnody: ‘Sylvia’, ‘Ophelia’, ‘Virginia’. Williams takes no hostages when apportioning the blame: ‘The crisis team/ Killed her by knowingly dragging their feet,/ By withholding a bed… like Christine/ Before her…’.

Williams was a veteran protestor and campaigner, most notably against the closure of vital mental health services once provided by Camden & Islington NHS Trust, and on which she had been dependent. That her poems are part of those protests gives them an additional dimension of social document. Rarely has protest in poetry been matched by such exacting craftsmanship.

‘Lament for the Day Hospital’ is an 18-sonnet polemic on yet another closure (‘I trawl/ The far vestiges of a life ajar’). Each of the numbered sonnets is sardonically dedicated to various members of the management. In ‘for Dave Lee’ we get the following: ‘Already, the sonnets are seen as though/ ‘Graffiti’ peeling from its own shadow’. But from despondency comes anger:

…but in the unseen depths of
The PCT and the low sea mist of
The Trust, in that Bermuda Triangle,
With the Health Authority looking on,
It is us going down with all souls on
Board…

The nautical imagery continues into the penultimate sonnet:

No one is listening? Give. Sympathise. And
Control. Borne along on the barque of poetry,
‘Care is not for life’ like a loaded gun
Left on a hair-trigger when words are done.

The mantra ‘Care is not for life’ is sadly in increasing usage in target-driven mental health care today.

Williams’ fellow protestor outside the Royal Free Hospital was Professor Gertrude Faulk whose companionship-in-placards in the face of terminal cancer is documented in Williams’ epic 166-sonnet sequence, ‘Forever Young’. Another fellow traveller was indefatigable anti-war campaigner Brian Haw who famously pitched a permanent protest at Parliament Square. Williams pays homage to Haw, who died from lung cancer in 2011, in two long polemical poems.

Williams’ later life was beset by the deaths of friends; in ‘Silent in Pond Street’ she mourns yet another: ‘…you would/ Die two days after Gertrude without my/ Knowing… / Everything is left behind, as/ A manifest perpetual regret/ Engulfs my mind’. Gertrude, Margaret, Christine, Cyril, Lily… their names and memories lodge in the daily consciousness of the poet, ghosts from a mythology of savage gods.

There is a strong sense that Williams’ deeply personal, empirical poems were part of a therapeutic as well as poetic method (what might be termed therapoetic?). This, from ‘The Fields of Killingbeck’:

Language alone manages to steer me
Through the hidden straits and open peril
Of insomnia, where rhythms to be
Are stored unknown and unwritten…

While the future crumbles into nothing
As though propped upon its own far shadow
Under a precarious scaffolding…

It’s interesting how often the word ‘scaffolding’ surfaces in her poetry, suggestive of something unfinished and unstable which needs to be supported. Is it poetry itself that is ‘A mendicant language that will not scare’?

The three-part epic ‘The Poet’ comprises 74 numbered sonnets. Williams’ poetic testament is captured in an epitaphic couplet: ‘A life lived out alone for every word,/ As a bird’s solo flight, unseen, unheard’. It’s a pessimistic vision: ‘A poet is destined only to fail/ In almost everything he tries to do’; ‘The unwritten hours with nothing showing’; ‘The tariff rendered at the end, instead,/ But a lifetime unopened and unread’.

There are echoes of Keats’ ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be’ in the couplet: ‘The unwritten verse he cannot salvage/ As poetry takes its leave of language’. The shadows of Donne and Milton also loom large:

…my finger following the drawn
Fold imprinted on a hospital screen,
Wondering if what was written would hold
Against the planetary cold untold…

Leaving without language, right from the start,
Poetry was bought and sold and betrayed
To the lowest bidder in the market
Place, the angelic hordes deafened on high.

Number 28 in this sequence is one of the profoundest on the subject of poetry and mortality: ‘Shadows in the dark undiscerned, this is/ The way my country lets its poets die/ Unheeded, in the blinking of an eye’. Number 29 is no less sublime and with some lovely turns of phrase: ‘Having known something of greatness once, locked/ Within their bones. Poets are born not made/ Though circumstance can shape the spirit…’. Williams muses on the arbitrariness of remembrance:

…The fathomless future
Which lies beneath the landscape of a dream,
Laps against the fabric of things that seem
And the scaffolding of all that has been…

It’s unclear from the first sonnet of the third part of ‘The Poet’ whether Williams’ schizophrenic father, Cyril, actually committed suicide but it seems to be implied:

His wound clock had been thrown from a window
And lay in pieces on the lawn below,
Through window glass he had managed to throw
The one companion, his radio.
The life which he had known, he put an end
To that night…

Williams’ poems are almost always polemical: whether tackling psychiatric abuse, the interminable battle for decent mental health treatment –or the thankless quest for literary recognition, tackled in ‘Coming Through’:

I amount to no more than
A footnote from a protest here and there,
Yet Eliot received the Nobel Prize
The night I was born, the years after were
Encompassed by silence such that it cries
Out for recognition from a mute despair…

This is a bitingly candid poem on coping with poetic rejection and ostracism:

And it was never about coming through
Enough or receiving literary
Charity undeserved unjustified

Then as now, as Keats knew, nothing can be
Altered, the lineaments of language
Are set in stone as the fixed parity
Of the ordinary of a mute age,
And poets die at the edge of its sword,
For we write as we must without reward.

Williams goes for the jugular on the homogenisation of contemporary poetry: ‘Dullards are now the arbiters of choice/ Drowning out the individual voice’. ‘Four Months’ focuses on the endemic shortcomings of mental health treatment:

My feelings have been found to be extreme,
Summed up measured and found to be wanting
They are not acceptable to the team
Any more than a poem’s existing…

A captive held there somehow to be lured
To a false and final diagnosis,
The slipped unnoticed noose of psychosis.

Williams’ is the poetry of rumination: she ploughs themes so thoroughly to churn up surprising insights:

There a mounting dread
Accompanied me, as anxiety
Was seized upon as something you could fix
With the worst of the anti-psychotics.
I am expected to release my pain
As though it was some long imprisoned thing…
…just to let it go
I must walk away from my own shadow.

In that last exceptional line Williams finds the perfect metaphor for the impossibility of complete psychical healing amid the impatience of a compassion-fatigued mental health system.

There is an unabashed bearing of the soul in Williams’ poetry which perhaps explains her neglect by a postmodernist mainstream so soured in irony. Her oeuvre has more in common, tonally, with the ‘New Sincerity’ across the Atlantic. It also shares much in terms of confessional tone with American poets John Berryman, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.

Her English influences: the Romantics, particularly Keats; Emily Brontë, whose Wuthering Heights throws a folkloric shadow over the Yorkshire-raised Williams; Christina Rossetti and Stevie Smith, in terms of death-haunted themes; doomed alumni of the Rhymers’ Club, Ernest Dowson and Francis Thompson; and Thomas Blackburn, especially in the archipelagos of the longer poems which, impressively, still adhere to iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes.

Williams’ word-stock –‘shadow’, ‘echo’, ‘assuage’, ‘language’, ‘leaf’, ‘pall’, ‘scaffolding’, ‘unalterable’, ‘reflect’, ‘hollow’, ‘clamorous’, ‘ricochet’, ‘immeasurable’, ‘interminable’, ‘ruins’, ‘lodestar’– comes from the Romantic idiom (by turns, Keatsian, Tennysonian), but also conjures the Graveyard School, and Gothic and late Victorian poetics. Williams’ leitmotivs: ‘Lethe’, ‘Charon’, the ‘Sibyl of Cumae’, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Sylvia’ (Plath). Plath’s suicide is also the subject of ‘23 Fitzroy Road’:

I stand before a house and the blue plaque
Of Yeats that drew you without warning or
Omen to that last February dark,
The incongruity of its closed door
And the street leading off into Primrose
Hill spanned almost by a tree’s winter girth…

You alone sustain and your moon’s black hour
Lets fall a snow’s indelible shower.

Unlike Plath, but like Stevie Smith, Williams’ suicide attempt, outside Keats’ House in 2006, was unsuccessful: she recounts it in a prose piece, ‘The Overdose’, included at the back of this volume.

But it is for her supreme application of iambic pentameter exemplified in her beautifully crafted sonnets for which Williams is most admired. She composed her last sonnet, ‘Words Towards an Obituary for Poetry’, only twelve days before her death from lung cancer on 19th July 2015. This is its closing volta:

Unimaginable those early days
The spirit conjuring its poetry,
Forgiveness he cannot borrow or lend
Words unfinished as the first light of day,
Lost as they are, forever on the way
The flickering candle he cannot trim
The undeciphered script of tomorrow.

7th July 2015

This handsomely produced posthumous Selected Poems is the perfect introduction to the poetry of Williams. Its still considerable 338 pages are inclusive of a short section of critical essays on her poetry.

In his compendious ‘prolegomenon’ Barry Tebb writes: ‘Of no poet is it more certain that the life and the poetry cannot be separated’. And nor can the relationship between the poetry and the protest: years spent clutching placards at ‘outside ‘sit ins’’ seemed the perfect metaphor for her sense of being perpetually on the outside of the poetry establishment.

Williams was in many senses the epitome of the ‘survivor’ poet, and her oeuvre deserves recognition not only for its poetic merits but also as psychiatric literature. That she dated each sonnet adds a diary-like quality of social document to her work. Now the poetry itself will continue its protest into posterity:

…what am I
But something the world cannot understand,
Poetry and protest go hand in hand.