- Pat Didsbury
Peter Didsbury was born in 1946 in Fleetwood, Lancashire.
He moved to Hull as a child, later studying English and Hebrew at Oxford University. After teaching English for eight years, and taking a research degree at Durham University, he became an archaeologist. He also teaches Creative Writing for a number of organisations, including the University of Hull.
His published poetry collections include The Butchers of Hull (1982); The Classical Farm (1987); and That Old-Time Religion (1994). The two latter collections were Poetry Book Society Recommendations. His fourth full-length collection, A Natural History, is included in Scenes from a Long Sleep: New & Collected Poems (2003).
Peter Didsbury has read widely in the United Kingdom, for the British Council in Ireland, and for the Yorkshire Arts Association in Finland. His work has been translated into German and Swedish, and a Selected Poems in Turkish is currently in preparation.
The front cover of Peter Didsbury’s new and collected poems, Scenes from a Long Sleep (2003), is a 1929 LNER poster that shows an 18th century Dr. Johnson-like figure smoking and drinking during a train journey: it is perhaps as good an analogy as any for the playful world of Didsbury’s imagination.
For instance, in one of his numerous dream-like poems, ‘The Guitar’, Aeolus the wind God plays an instrument whose ‘neck is five miles long, / and forms a margin of the River Humber’, and Coleridge falls asleep on a train after lunch. ‘The sky is like an entry in The Oxford English Dictionary’, it continues, ‘The earliest reference for it is 1764, / in Randall’s Semi-Virgilian Husbandry’. Somehow all these (and many more) bizarrely erudite phenomena are made to cohere, and this strange but utterly beguiling poem digresses towards its end, ‘as the mighty lexicon twangs’. Didsbury’s work over more than three decades has been rich in such localized flights of fancy. It resists categorizing and has often baffled attempts at neat critical summary. Despite the apparent linguistic complexity, and admittedly some wilfully obscure pieces, it can also be delightfully simple. ‘Upstairs’, for example, a short poem in his first book, The Butchers of Hull (1982) makes fresh the experience of travelling by bus, pointing out ‘what lies behind walls’, and that ‘yesterday / there were swans, / on the newly cleared drain’.
He is a true poet’s poet. As John Greening has pointed out in the TLS, Didsbury is ‘invariably mentioned with admiration’ by his contemporaries in the poetry world. Explaining the context of his work is less clear. Some critics have seen him as a post-modernist playing about with language and culture, though he is also a writer with ‘a rich, humane vision of England … [as] a kind of tatty or compromised pastoral’ (Alan Jenkins). Early on at least, Didsbury aligned himself with experimental poets such as John Ashbery and Christopher Middleton. Balancing their influence, he actually developed among a group of poets in Hull during the early 1970s, having a close association with Douglas Dunn, and alongside Sean O’Brien; both poets far more identified with traditional poetic forms. Didsbury’s poems first came to prominence within A Rumoured City (1982), an anthology published by the newly emergent Bloodaxe Books, edited by Dunn and with a foreword by Philip Larkin. Dunn commended their ‘often strange patterns’ and wrote that ‘the act of imagining appears to be laid bare in Didsbury’s poems as much as the objects which his imagination serves’.
Perhaps the simplest way to consider Didsbury as a poet is to keep in mind his occupation as an archaeologist, and his adoptive home territory of Hull and the Humber, most obviously in descriptive pieces such as ‘The Pub Yard at Skidby’, and ‘The Pierhead’. But he is no ‘local poet’: his work makes ‘finds’ in all kinds of topographical, literary, historical and religious sources. Its narratives include waking dreams, meditations, asides to the reader, verse-letters, prose poems, and impersonations of figures such as Laurence Sterne. Above all, his language is spectacularly various, moving easily from Biblical rhetoric to romantic expressions and even profanities. He unearths a cornucopia of unusual words, and his speakers frequently digress, Tristram Shandy-like, to comment upon whatever is at hand.
The Butchers of Hull (1982) is perhaps his darkest book, with two pages of much-needed notes at the back for its oblique and at times agonized narratives, as in ‘The Drainage’: ‘He stepped outside. / Not into his street but a flat wet landscape. / Sluices. Ditches. Drains. Frozen mud and leafcake. Dykes. / He found he knew the names of them all. / Barber’s Cut. Cold Track. Lament. Meridian Stream’. The most attractive act of imagining in the book finds its speaker ‘Back of the House’, where he is ‘happy in your garden / this hot afternoon, your English garden’ and ‘A pile of brushwood makes flagrant promises / to Andrew Marvell’. The Classical Farm (1987) balances high seriousness with more humorous high jinks, as in the mock-pedantry of its opening, ‘A Priest in the Sabbath Dawn Addresses his Somnolent Mistress’: ‘Wake up, I say, for Sabbath legs / are landing in the grate’. Some of his finest poems appear, notably ‘Eikon Basilike’, in which the poet walks through a frozen scene resembling ‘a level Baltic town’, led on by the shades of William Cowper’s pet hares ‘Tiney, Puss, and Bess’. ‘The Hailstone’ concerns the aftermath of a disturbing encounter in a shop while sheltering from a cloudburst, ‘like being back / in the reign of George the Sixth’. Also realized in an inimitable way is ‘A Winter’s Fancy’, yet another whimsical scenario provoked by rain. The speaker, ‘exhausting my karma of country parson / in a dozen lives of wit and kidneys’, perceives himself to be at once Laurence Sterne, and ‘an elderly bibliophile’ after his death, ‘before the eyes / of Peter Didsbury, in his 35th year’.
In Stephen Burt’s evocative phrase, Didsbury has the ‘ability to see middle England as if it were ancient Sumeria’. He was no doubt thinking of the title poem of That Old-Time Religion (1994), in which God, Satan and the angels debate the theology of omnipotence, talking in Sumerian while dressed as ‘rich and gifted young Englishmen’. Biblical language also intrudes into ‘The Old Masters’, memorializing ‘those who taught us’: ‘For their classrooms know them not, / and neither are their voices heard in the Hall’. Didsbury’s offbeat theology comes into play when Satan rests from tempting mankind: ‘And go home early this afternoon as well, says the Boss’ (‘The Devil on Holiday’). By contrast with these grand conceptions, Didsbury often makes small oddities out of the domestic: a bear who ‘longs’ to be a sofa, and ‘a morse telegraphist’ friend reports on how a rained-upon bucket instructed him ‘quaintly’ (‘Common Property’).
Scenes From a Long Sleep is prefaced by the new poems of A Natural History, many in his best manner, as in ‘Praying with Kit Smart while Walking to Work’, a celebration which ends by praising the starling, ‘her vibrant and (enunciate clearly) / jewel-encrusted dagger’. The most magisterial poem, however, and certainly the most personal, is ‘Coasts of Africa, 1850’. It draws upon his sea-faring ancestor’s letters about his experiences in the suppression of the slave trade. ‘Hear him tell the tale of the names of the coasts / on imagined bracelets of turquoise and citrine beads. / … ‘Oh summon him here with the names of carronadoes, / with those of comrades, with canister and swivel.’ Didsbury’s peculiarly attractive language repays readers prepared to luxuriate in eccentric Englishness and rain-soaked imaginings. They are rewarded with visionary moments, and extravagances rare in current British poetry.
Dr Jules Smith, 2005