Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne by Robert Fraser – review

night-thoughtsA visionary brought back from the dead

The Isle of Wight is different. And though it stands within teasing sight of the mainland, jagged needles of white rock trouble the casual visitor, making that small separation feel like a tide of rising panic, the nagging anxiety of a road that is too empty; retirement houses and curtained bungalows so self-contained they speak of thunderhead psychoses, imminent breakdown. Coming here in 1995 to record David Gascoyne for a poetry event at the Royal Albert Hall, when he didn’t have the stamina to join Allen Ginsberg, Sorley MacLean and Paul McCartney, my companion said: “This is like finding yourself in a Look at Life film. Being trapped in the 50s when they started to use colour but didn’t know what to do with it.” The island, once a gulag for the extended mourning of Queen Victoria and her shaggy laureate, Alfred Tennyson, uses the glittering sea lanes between Ryde and Portsmouth as a manifestation of that difference: as between poetry and prose, elective exile and the humdrum business of ordinary mainland existence.
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The legend of how Gascoyne was brought back from the dead, to be given a last act of domesticity and a measure of grudging cultural acknowledgement is reprised in Robert Fraser’s painstaking biography. Here was a fragile personality, a premature revenant, on the fringe of all the movements. An autodidact blessed like his peers – Dylan Thomas, George Barker, David Jones – in avoiding a university miseducation. A convinced internationalist (last wave of high modernism in Paris, first wave of speed-freak meltdown in the US), Gascoyne was the poets’ poet, subsisting on the wrong kind of patronage: the patronising reviews of Stephen Spender rather than the munificence of Joycean benefactors, adulating Left Bank paymistresses and New York manuscript collectors. A tall, thin, nicely spoken lad, gone in the teeth, sexually unfocused, in thrall to the dangerous virus of language, Gascoyne, the former Salisbury choirboy, travelled the blacked-out cities and hamlets of wartime England as a jobbing repertory actor, when the other bright young men were away in uniform.

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