Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
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‘In His Rightful Garden’: Anthony Rudolf, the Poet

‘The last at last seen by him
himself unseen by him
and of himself’.
Samuel Beckett 

All poets are in crisis. The next poem may never come. Rodin calmed Rilke’s panic with, ‘work, work hard, and exercise patience’. No poet I know is as patient as Anthony Rudolf. Not that he doesn’t ‘work, work hard’, but all too often it is on something else. But the ‘patience’ has paid off. European Hours (Carcanet Press, 2017), his collected poems, is a rounded body of work.  

I first met Anthony Rudolf in the early 1970s at the ICA. He had been convening a symposium on poetics with some well-known critics and poets. Impressed by his assurance and knowingness, I saw him as a wheeler and dealer in Literary London. As we became friends I realized how wrong I was. Rudolf was a mover and shaker of the dream of poetry who, where it was coming true, made his presence felt. He had gained the respect and affection of poets as different as Donald Davie, F.T. Prince, Andre Frenaud and Jon Silkin.  

Rudolf opened up the world of books for me, the old and new: Montaigne, Stendhal’s non-fiction, Paz, Borges, George Oppen and the Objectivists, Popa and the Eastern Europeans. As a young Irish poet who had only just eradicated the adventitious roots of Yeats, I was overwhelmed. And so was Anthony, I think, to find himself as a translator, collaborating with Yves Bonnefoy, Claude Vigée and Yevgeni Vinokurov. He enthused about their poetry, and never mentioned his own.     

‘Let me be a garden at whose fountains/ my swarming dreams could pluck new blooms’. Rilke’s lines prompted the young poet of the Letters to write to him. Hilaire Belloc, a multifaceted author and polemist, regretted that he ‘never in my rightful garden lingered’. That is, concentrating on poetry. Anthony Rudolf lies somewhere between Rilke and Belloc (his French side): Rilke who offered himself a life as a pure poet, composing letters and immortal works; Belloc who never stopped writing popular books and unpopular articles for the market, and only moonlighted in poetry.

Apart from his high profile as a translator, Rudolf became internationally recognized as the creative editor of Menard Books, not only publishing poetry and essays, but responding to the nuclear and climate threats with influential pamphlets by renowned experts. At the same time, he was an all-purpose literary and political ‘boy-scout’ organizing readings, meetings and lectures. On top of that, to support a growing family, he had to make a living in the BBC World Service, where his language skills were occasionally put to good use. However, poetry was never far from his sight. While publishing books around and about it, throughout his life he improvised poems and published some of them quietly. Far from being a secondary activity, it was a wholehearted commitment to making poetry out-of-the-ordinary, original and discretely ambitious. Similar in a way to the first-floor garden of his flat at The Oaks, a veranda with flower-pots looking out on neighbors’ allotments. It’s like being in a Morandi painting.  

Collected poems are the graveyard of many a good poet. Deadwood work gets in. Poets I love like Ed Dorn, Edwin Morgan, Christopher Middleton, were diminished by the inclusion of poems that anyone could write. Surplusage is not a problem with Rudolf. There are fewer than a hundred, averaging two a year, although clearly some years were more productive than others. A wish for more can be countered by a purist case for less, all the better to appreciate the achieved. The quality is uneven and some occasional family poems would best be left to the memory book. Most poets who survive the test of time do so with a handful of poems. True, a study of their less remembered work deepens our understanding of the survivors. They may have a new life with musical settings, or revive interest in a neglected influence, or offer biographical information that throws new light on the well-known poems. Some of Rudolf’s poems work like that, and the broader context offered by European Hours’ supplement of prose excerpts and generous notes is frequently enlightening. 

The book begins with the title prose poem. Rudolf has a gift for lists and litotes. It is an understated love poem in which great art is equated with happiness (not an either/or as Rilke claimed). The beloved is an artist visiting with the poet a litany of European art galleries to look again at paintings that are necessary for her work. Since the book is dedicated to ‘Paula Rego at home, in the studio, in Europe’, we know the artist is Rudolf’s partner. The cover painting (Rego,1997) shows a priestly figure perched on a sofa in a red and black dressing gown looking thoughtful, books strewn around him. Rudolf, as her favorite male sitter of many years, is readily recognizable. The grand tour starts in her studio, and ends in a small chapel in Colmar where in the candle-light the artist’s eye catches a fresco of two angels, and takes out her pencil and sketch book, a full circle. It’s a love poem like no other unless one matches it with his ‘Colombine at the Picasso exposition, Paris, November ,1996’, which is a more lyrical version of Rego in her element, looking and knowing what she has to see….     

The rest of this essay can be read in the current issue of the America magazine Golden Handcuff Review (Number 27, 2019)