Geoffrey Holloway was born in Birmingham in 1918. His early years were spent between Liverpool and Shrewsbury. Before the war he worked in the Shropshire County Library, then in 1939 he went into the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in a field ambulance, a general hospital and, later, in 225 Para Field Ambulance, dropping on D-Day and over the Rhine. After the war he went to Southampton University, emerging with a qualification in Social Science. He then worked in a mental hospital, as a Prisoner’s Aid Society agent, and from 1953 to his retirement in 1983 as a mental health worker for Westmorland then Cumbria County Council, where he lived in the same village, Staveley, for over forty years. He was one of the leading spirits of the group called the Cumbrian Poets that included, among others – William Scammell, Christopher Pilling, David Scott, Jacob Polley, Neil Curry, Patricia Pogson, Peter Rafferty, M.R. Peacocke and Norman Nicholson.
However, Holloway was not some local poetic hero. He began to publish poems nationally as early as 1946, contributing to the Times Literary Supplement, The Listener, Encounter, London Magazine, Yorkshire Post, PN Review, Poetry Review and countless other small magazines and anthologies. He was also an intensely active and visible figure in the small press scene for many decades. In some ways you could say that he embodied that scene – moving between the mainstream and avant-garde with dexterity; developing a mastery of formal and free verse, of demotic as well as a classical syntax; and oscillating between the sublime and realism in subject and theme. What was always consistently right in his work was tone. This was all his own, and his integrity of feeling and response was the heart of it. His many subjects included the memory of war, the consolation and difficulty of love, and his alert responses to the natural world. With W.S. Graham, his exact contemporary, he was one of the most distinctive voices in twentieth century British poetry, with a genuinely gifted ear for the music and the movement of language.
Readers recognised and responded to his gifts. Between 1972 and 1997 Holloway published twelve collections of poetry, including the book that established his reputation, Rhine Jump, a Poetry Book Society Choice in 1974. Rhine Jump is an astonishing book which still yields a huge energy and alertness in its language. Subject-wise, it feels like a massive gamble made by a poet who did not wish to speak much about his war experience, but could no longer resist the ghosts trying to speak through him. The honesty and humility in its tone makes the book very distinctive and necessary within our own time. It is still one of the best places to start reading him.
Geoffrey Holloway died in October 1997. He was mourned by his many friends and admirers, by fellow poets and dedicated readers – his books were cherished by those who possessed them. Holloway’s reputation as a poet quietly increased as more and more readers and writers began to realise not only how much they missed his presence, but how much they missed the poems that made a small magazine worth reading because it had Geof’s poems in it. After his death, Holloway’s poetry also became important to some poet-critics. He occupied a similar critical position to W.S. Graham. That is, his excellence was in danger of oblivion through simple neglect. Like Graham, Holloway needed critical champions. Not only that, but many readers also voiced the necessity for a Collected Poems, for Holloway’s work to be offered to generations of new readers.
Therefore, when Geoffrey Holloway’s widow, the poet Patricia Pogson, contacted me with a view to editing his work, I could not have been more honoured. Geof had been exceptionally kind to me when I was making my way as a young poet and scientist, looking at my early poems and suggesting reading. To my mind, he was, and remains, a poetic exemplar. What I then set myself to do is read, digitise, and then check every poem from every volume published by the poet during his lifetime. These included more easily available volumes such as All I Can Say from Anvil Press (1978), but also cyclostyled and stapled pamphlets with short print-runs such as Percepts Without Deference – Holloway’s bold attempt to write contemporary English-language poetry within strict Welsh verse forms – from the fugitive press Aquila (1987). Patricia also photocopied poems that had appeared in magazines but were unpublished in volume form, and sent these along to me for consideration and scanning. She forwarded other poems she considered substantial – including the delightful ‘Migrant’ dedicated to his friend the poet Gerda Mayer which features as the final poem in this book.
In some ways, the easiest part of the project was over once the book was edited – for publishing a Collected Poems is itself a greater feat these days than putting the poems together. Before his death, Holloway had complained to me about the problems and pitfalls of poetry publishing in the United Kingdom. The haphazard nature of the enterprise had caused him to migrate from press to press. He knew also that, although that poetry publishing had its difficulties, when you made that leap into publication, getting the British poetry world to give notice to the output of any small, independent press was nigh-impossible. Faber, Chatto, Secker and Oxford University Press were the sleekly visible part of a small but skewed market in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was worse to come.
By the mid to late 1990s, if poetry were a species, it would have entered the red list. Bigger publishers dropped their poetry lists or shrank them to a trickle of slim, overpriced volumes. Prominent poets, once published by the big houses, were forced to seek out new habitats within powerful specialist presses such as Carcanet and Bloodaxe. However, one of the unpredicted and unpredictable results of this cultural shockwave was the subsequent rise of independent small publishers, and an increasing sophistication in their publishing and marketing methods – not least through the use of websites and print-on-demand technology. New presses such as Arrowhead Press, Salt and Heaventree began to occupy some of the ground left by mainstream operators, and show them not only how to do the job better but how to keep their stable of poets in print. I suspect that Geoffrey Holloway would have been wryly amused to know that his Collected Poems is now published entirely within a renewed – if still penniless –independent sector, and again by a specialist press in the North of England.
When I was scanning his poems into my computer, a letter to me from Geof fell out of one of the books. In that letter he voiced his desire for more pleasure and challenge in contemporary poetry. As he put it he wanted ‘to hear poems by folk who speak personally, directly, lyrically if you like. One to one.’ We no longer have the pleasure of Geof’s company, or the delight of any new poems, but we do now have the pleasure of this book which contains all of the pieces he published. Personally, directly and lyrically, this book returns him to us, one to one.
DM, Warwick, March 2007.
It would be easier if they were on
a cinema screen; one could absorb them.
Here on this station platform
the feeling’s faintly voyeuristic.
Though why is enigmatic: these
are only naked with happiness.
A dangled scarf and a pair of high heels —
they look to be seventeen, no more.
She flutters off to a sweet machine,
falls on him like a sunbeam,
feeds him chocolate neat as a bird.
He takes her into the haven of his smile,
hands on shoulders rocks her gently,
as a lazy tide a boat.
And now she’s crowded into his arms again,
stippling his face with quick, light kisses.
Explosive as a Samurai sword
the northern flier slices past.
It could be a breeze, the notice it gets.
Why are they travelling? We don’t know.
What they’re waiting for they already have.
They dropped us on the guns, left us in a flaring
lurch of slipstream kicking like sprayed flies, —
till canopies shook sudden heads, inhaled, held
a breath, —
alive again we slanted down,
too many, into their doomed sights,
One scrambled moment it was red, green,
dragging to the door of the Douglas then
falling through a monstrous aviary roof
on Guy Fawkes Night (only this was day)
into shrill scarifying glory...
then Germany, the Fatherland, a zooming field —
banged down on it, stood up among the chaos,
fingers flopped like rubber gloves trying
to slap one’s box, slough the afterbirth of chute,
make somehow that snatch of wood.
There were chutes already in those trees, caught:
battalion boys who’d dropped too late or
harness-ravelled, cocooned there —
like silkworms, moveless, wet...
so easy, against all that white.
But not so many resistive earthworms —
the early birds had seen to that.
Soon, it was rendezvous: a stodgy farm.
The war was folding: fight-thin.
Prisoners happened; columned, toneless.
Next day it was hearing tales again,
having a kip in a pigsty, scouting the dropping —
to get silk (knickers for sweethearts, wives);
maybe a green envelope, speculation
about leave, Japan.
Oh and a gun-pit by the way, an 88:
bodiless, nothing special, —
only the pro’s interest in other’s kit:
grey slacks for the use of, old, ersatz;
with a brown inside stripe: non-ersatz.
Turned, your belly’s soft
I could gut you with a thumb.
But those humped eyes
gold as grain.
Primrose-leaf-backed old gargoyle
in the wild Elizabethan court-shoes
sit in my lappy hand
till it sinks, —
then swim for it, who better?
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Last modified: September 8th 2007