SO MUCH FOR LIFE : SELECTED POEMS
By Mark Hyatt
Nightboat Books. 199 pages. £14.99. ISBN 978-1-64362-178-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
I reviewed Love, Leda, the posthumously-published novel by Mark Hyatt, for Northern Review of Books in February 2023, and outlined a few of the basic facts of his life as a necessary background to the book. He was born in 1940 and grew up in poverty. His father was a “hawker”, a street seller, his mother a Romani who died when Hyatt was five years old. He had little formal education, worked from an early age with his father selling groceries from a horse-drawn cart, and his home life, especially after his father remarried, was unhappy and marred with violence, seemingly from both father and stepmother.
As Sam Ladkin and Luke Roberts say in their useful introduction to this collection of Hyatt’s poems, “We don’t know exactly how Hyatt’s escape from the social conservatism of his upbringing unfolded but the grocery cart took him to Covent Garden in central London, close to the coffeehouses and hangouts of Soho, crucial to queer life and new youth subcultures”. In 1960 Hyatt met the writer Cressida Lindsay and was soon living with her “in the bohemian enclaves of Notting Hill”. It was this period of his life that is covered in his novel, and he also appears in novels by Lindsay and Laura Del-Rivo. It was Lindsay who essentially taught Hyatt to read and write, and so started him producing poetry. Interestingly, in 1961 and 1962 he was already having poems published in The Aylesford Review, “a magazine edited by Brocard Sewell, a Carmelite friar”.
Cressida Lindsay and Hyatt had a son during their relationship, but, as many of his poems tell us, his prime sexual interests were in the gay world. He had various affairs, but appears to have long nursed an unrequited love for a married neighbour. The Introduction refers to Hyatt having a liaison with the poet Harry Fainlight who made “a notorious appearance alongside Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965”, an event I can testify to, having been in the audience that night. There were other relationships with various men, some little more than one-night stands, some of longer duration. The novel made that clear, the poems emphasise it.
But what of the poems? They are personal, but not obscure, even if they occasionally puzzle for a time. If the reader knows the facts of Hyatt’s life then it’s easy to see them in his poems. There is always a debate about this, of course, along the lines of, should the reader need to know anything about the poet, or should the poem stand alone and exist purely on its own merits? Ideally, perhaps, but curiosity often impels us to want to know at least something about a person’s life. And biography is big business these days. If we’re happy to know all about the major poets, why not know about the minor ones?
When Hyatt writes “There’s last winter’s blanket/on the floor behind the door./two rusty empty coal buckets,/newspapers, clothes, clean breakfast/plates, half bottles of off country wines,/rags, belts, a mirror facing an ice pick/cigarette ends, dead matches, house games”, he’s clearly describing his own bohemian environment. When he says “Six this morning, work over; now home;/the gypsy sky dark and black holds rain,/under feet the fields are waterlogged,/No poet should live at the top of a hill/and work 12 hours at the bottom, it’s awful”, he’s describing one of the dreary jobs he had to take to survive, and also his predicament as someone without a proper education but with a taste for poetry. The poem might have worked just as well without the final two words. The situation is in the poem, anyway, the poet, high on what he wants to do, on the hill, the reality of earning a living in a dull job at its bottom. The clash between the two worlds is obvious.
When it comes to the question of personal involvements, Hyatt writes, “Let him go in mind/and he pushes lovely strokes/to the bottom of the flesh/making each sensation rhythm./His masculine ribs move/like a reflected mirror lying/strongly feeling want him.”. They’re like immediate thoughts, jotted down as they occur, though seen in the context of the poem as a whole they make for continuity. There are some more-directly detailed lines about sex in a poem called “My Auto-Biograph Hours”, but most of the time in his poems Hyatt is suggesting rather than explaining the physical side of homosexual activity.
He can also be lyrically descriptive, “Smoke flowing out of the hill/into a sky dry of raindrops,/the landline bright white in heat/and sun too hot to look for,/Only the sweat of country light”. I have the feeling, reading the poems, that Hyatt was often confused about what he wanted out of life: “Now I live in the north country/but now and soon I have to go/to London for the trips you know/I smoke with friends and get smashed”. Elsewhere, there seems to be a yearning for a more-permanent relationship and a settled way of life. From a poem entitled “Our Friendship Began on the Foundations of Building a Basement” there are the lines, “Summer/With all its hot days - /under a desire I work./And not for the waste of life/nor to laugh at the world./But to kill a pain/which eats through my heart”.
Stylistically, Hyatt in many of his poems used a short-lined, straight down the page approach. It mostly worked from the point of view of providing an easy movement from line to line. He did sometimes lengthen the lines, and he did experiment by breaking them up and spreading them across the page in an irregular way. I’m not sure that it added anything to the poems in terms of rhythmic emphasis or meaningful content.
The best way to read this book is as a whole, that is taking in the informative introduction and the context provided by the bibliography and notes. Hyatt published mainly in little magazines during his lifetime, many of them now difficult to find, with his one what might be called major appearance being in the 1969 Penguin Anthology, Children of Albion: Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain, edited by Michael Horovitz. I must admit that I feel a kind of affinity with Hyatt from a literary angle, at least. I published one of his poems in Palantir, a magazine I edited between 1976 and 1983, though that was after his death by suicide in 1972. Someone must have sent the poem to me, though I can’t recall who it was. And looking through the list of magazines with poems by him I recognised many of the names. I wrote a column about little magazines and small presses for Tribune for some years in the 1960s and 1970s, and the publications seemed to come in on a regular basis, there were so many of them.
So Much For Life is a fascinating book to set alongside Hyatt’s novel. I don’t think it would be useful, and certainly not correct, to claim that it’s a major collection of poetry. There are some successful poems, some interesting ones, and some that individually don’t add up to much. But I have to say that it’s my usual reaction to most of the poetry books I see. Very little poetry is truly memorable. With Hyatt, I think if his work is seen in the framework of the years he was active (mostly the 1960s) it does have value from the point of view of social and literary documentation. And there are the handful of poems that do have the capacity to outlive any sort of pigeon-holing in a period and will survive on their own terms.