The poet Vernon Scannell died last weekend aged 85. He was a prolific writer: eight novels, autobiographical memoirs, works of criticism, children’s books and several collections of poetry and yet it seems he was not as well known or as highly rated as he certainly deserves. My fellow Reader editor, Brian Nellist is a long time admirer of Scannell’s poetry, likening him to the school of Thomas Hardy finding in his work something of Hardy’s consciousness of cruelty but with a warmth and tenderness. Brian points out that he is an active rather than a reflective poet though led to the reflective by particular incident as in his poem ‘Incendiary’, which we chose as one of the poems for discussion in The Reader’s Food For Thought event earlier this month:
and frightening, too, that one small boy should set
The sky on fire and choke the stars to heat
Such skinny limbs and such a little heart
Or in ‘Ageing Schoolmaster’ reflecting on the huge inevitability of his own death:
Not wholly wretched, yet knowing absolutely
That I shall never reacquaint myself with joy,
I sniff the smell of ink and chalk and my mortality
And think of when I rolled, a gormless boy,
And rollicked round the playground of my hours,
And wonder when precisely tolled the bell
Which summoned me from summer liberties
And brought me to this chill autumnal cell
He was, like Hardy, a craftsman poet. Language fits and operates in harmony within the tight framework of his verse and he was concerned with and interested in form. Extraordinary physical images spring out at you from the poetry. Even so it is still surprising to learn that he was once a boxer, earning a living in fairground fights. This was following a deeply troubled army service in WWII. After witnessing the results of a massacre in North Africa,
Disposed in their scattered dozens like fragments of a smashed whole, each human particle/ Is almost identical, rhyming in shape and pigment, /All, in their mute eloquence, oddly beautiful (‘Remembering the Dead at Wadi Akarit’)
he deserted, only to be caught and imprisoned. He was later released to take part in the D.Day landings where he was wounded and once again ran away. While on the run, he changed his name from John Vernon Bains to Vernon Scannell but in 1947 he was caught and sent to an asylum as an alternative to prison. He was a man who lived life to the full and much of that experience of love, violence and death is reflected in his verse. Perhaps his most famous poem and one of the greatest poems of the Second World War is ‘Walking Wounded’:
A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.
In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;
The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane
Smelled sweet, like blood. Birds had died or flown,
Their green and silent attics sprouting now
With branches of leafed steel, hiding round eyes
And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.
To hear the rest of the poem read movingly, in gravel voiced seriousness by Scannell himself, visit the Poetry Archive.
If you would like to read more of his work, Collected Poems 1950 – 1993 is available from Amazon.
On the back cover of this collection, Paul Fussell, author of The Great War and Modern Memory says: ‘you actually want to go back and revisit the poems many times. Their shrewd structures hold their elements firmly in place and they resonate also with the kind of humanity time is generous to…’
I can think of no better tribute.
By Angela Macmillan