The strange case of the 'lost' poet: on the trail of Rosemary Tonks

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A poetry detective story, about the tracking down of a poet “lost” since the 1970s, and who died earlier this year at the age of 85, was revealed at the Aldeburgh poetry festival on Sunday.

Bloodaxe Books has just published a collection of poems by Rosemary Tonks, Bedouin of the London Evening, although in later life she had turned her back on literature in favour of religion after a series of personal setbacks, and lived a solitary life in Bournemouth, interspersed only with occasional trips to Speakers’ Corner, where she would sit in a deckchair and try and hand out Bibles to passersby.

Bloodaxe’s Neil Astley, who tried to make contact with her over the years, and Brian Patten, who made a radio programme about her in 2009, discussed her “voluptuous, exotic” and difficult to categorise poetry in the Peter Pears Recital Room at Aldeburgh.

Patten recalled encountering her at a “chaotic” Commonwealth conference of poets in Cardiff almost half a century ago, when she seemed very much an outsider: “The hotel staff were on strike. Rosemary was there, she seemed very prim and proper, and didn’t like any of the other poets of my generation, and the chaos we were into … she was very much out on a limb.”

But if her manner was prim and proper, her poetry certainly wasn’t. “She was heavily influenced by Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and her poems seemed to me like translations of these poets,” Patten added. An extract of a radio interview was played in which Tonks could be heard complaining that “poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions”. A number of poems, read by Tonks, were also played, including ‘Gutter Lord’, referring to “dungeon floors which / Cobras have lubricated”, and ‘Badly Chosen Lover’: “Criminal, you took a great piece of my life, / And you took it under false pretences, // Your heart, greedy and tepid, brothel-meat / Gulped it, like a flunkey with erotica. / And very softly, Criminal, I damn you for it.”

The critics often didn’t know what to make of this, and Tonks took some dismissive verdicts to heart. Astley explained that other events at the end of the 1960s brought on a crisis - her mother died suddenly, she split with her husband, and suffered a number of health problems. “She started looking for God in various places, went to see healers and Sufis, and got into all kinds of different religions. But she didn’t find answers from any of them.” While doing vigorous eye exercise in an extreme form of Taoist meditation, she suffered two detached retinas, and her eyesight, never good, took a long time to recover. When she was able to read again, the only book she would pick up was the New Testament.

Her books went out of print, and she had disowned them anyway. Occasionally her poems turned up in anthologies, such as Emergency Kit. Astley wrote to her in 2004, and received no reply. In 2006 he went to see her, but she hid in her house and wouldn’t answer the door. He also let her know of the date of Brian Patten’s radio programme, and on that day she took one of her trips to Speakers’ Corner.

There is evidence that just before she died she was seeking to get back in touch with the outside world. In a last note to a cousin she said: “I was boxed up, under the most frightful, frightful pressure … Give me time, please. I long to explain it to you.”

Tonks left no instructions in her will that her works should not be republished, and Astley was able to obtain the permission of her family to do so. A number of her relatives were in the audience, and one cousin, Tim Butchard, said at the end: “Inevitably, there has been quite a lot of gloom in this conversation.” He added: “Rosemary was a life-enhancing figure in her young days, in her heyday. She was a hilarious person to be with, she effervesced. It wasn’t doom and gloom then … it was just later that it all fell apart.” Referring to the “intensity of her work”, and to the men she had affairs with, including other poets, he said he did not think her poetry was fuelled by guilt: “I think it was disappointment.”

Greg Freeman

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