Matthew Paul on the life and poetry of Patricia Beer
Born in 1919Though this is erroneously given as 1924 on several websites., Patricia Beer had an unusual upbringing – as detailed in her marvellous, sadly out-of-print memoir, Mrs Beer’s HouseLondon: Macmillan, 1968. – in Withycombe Raleigh, then on the edge of Exmouth, as the second daughter of a teacher-cum-housewife and a Southern Railway clerk, whose Plymouth Brethren beliefs restricted the girls’ activities and knowledge of the world:
We were brought up in isolation from the history of the time. This was partly a rural isolation; Devon was really remote in those days, and London almost inaccessible except to the rich, though as a family we did quite well in this respect, having four free passes a year on the railway and any number of privilege tickets. National happenings were far away. But in our case it was also religious. Politics was for the children of this worldMrs Beer’s House, p.11. The phrase, ‘Politics was for the children’ recurs in her poem ‘One man One Vote’..
I could not go on roundabouts, take part in raffles or games of chance, or do any dancing except Country Dancing. […] There was almost nothing Brethren were allowed to doIbid., p.120..
Beer describes her sister and herself as “girls of working-class background with [a] possessive mother[…]” Ibid., p.185. – as the title of the memoir indicates, Beer’s mother dominated the household, so much so that her father is a largely peripheral figure in the book, and steered her daughters firmly toward the middle classes. Beer had other ideas:
I cannot imagine where I got the idea of becoming a poet. […] I had the notion firmly in my head from a very early ageIbid, pp.170–72..
She does say, though, that her father had “a veneration for literature, especially the poetry of Milton”Ibid., p.195. (See also Beer’s poem ‘John Milton and My Father’. and the Brethren had at least one positive influence: “Hymns were the first kind of poetry I heard”Ibid., p.173..
Despite her background, Beer’s memoir contains fond memories of her years up until her mother’s death, from cancer, in 1933, at which point Mrs Beer’s House ends. Beer went on to university at Exeter and Oxford and taught for seven years in Italy and then England, notably at Goldsmith’s in the Sixties.
In her Collected PoemsManchester: Carcanet, 1988. (after which two late collections appeared), Beer included just 15 poems from her first two books. Foremost among them is ‘The Wake’Collected Poems, p.21., which opens with brilliant precision:
In his tall room my grandfather lay dead.
Downstairs late afternoon lurched like a bee
Round the perennial hearth shadowed with mourners
And the coals shone and clicked like gorse in bloom.
Both similes, so full of the outside world, beautifully illuminate the funereal interior. The poem contains further wonders – “And the river-green eyes of the little girl, my sister, / Flashed with swans” – and ends with a vivid, child’s-eye metaphor:
He was the Alps against the setting lamp
And in his heights we heard no news at all.
Only a bell nodded its way round the mountain
As the warm everyday beasts went home.
Thematically, Christianity’s lingering influence, though long since diluted, seemingly, into Anglicanism, appears in a significant number of her poems: in ‘Concert at Long Melford Church’Collected Poems, p.52. she sees “those coming out of church”
[…] spread all over the churchyard. They scan
The crowd, recognize, smile and shake hands.
By each tombstone a well-dressed person stands.
It looks just like the resurrection.
(Or perhaps Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’.) It would, though, be a mistake to label her as a Christian poet in the way that, say, Eliot or Jennings were, or as a visionary, like Blake or Kathleen Raine; faith doesn’t dominate her poetry. Her subjects were varied and surprising, e.g. an elegy for Constance Markiewicz; Pound in Italy; the Battle of Waterloo; Père Lachaise cemetery; ‘Transvestism in the Novels of Charlotte Brontë’; etc.
I could not go on roundabouts, take part in raffles or games of chance, or do any dancing except Country Dancing. […] There was almost nothing Brethren were allowed to do
Her best poems arguably stem from the personal, not just childhood poems but also those about her locale and daily experience. Take ‘Christmas Eve’Ibid., p.72., which ends with a metaphor that segues into an astounding simile:
As it gets dark a drunk
Comes tacking up the road
In a white macintosh
Charming as a yacht.
Beer’s Devonian identity surfaces in many poems: ‘Driving West’Ibid., p.120; the title perhaps alluding to Donne., ‘Return to Sedgemoor’Ibid., p.153. (“I first made love on a battlefield, / I remember – though not which or who – / And realized there was a difference / Between love and war: I don’t remember what”); ‘The Lie of the Land’Ibid., p.181., about the miraculously safe crash-landing of an Exeter-bound flight in a field near Ottery St Mary; ‘The Scene of the Crime’Ibid., pp.215–216., about Lorna Doone; and ‘The Branch Line’Ibid., p.75., which, with trademark neatly-turned phrases and unobtrusive rhymes, is a key poem. It relates the passing, in 1967, of the last train on the Beeching-axed Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton line, a subject which, given her father’s profession, must have been dear to her heart. Initially, the tone is cynical:
Photographers were there,
For the only time perhaps
Since the railway groped
Down into these shires
But the poem proceeds to stress the importance of the railway: “The villages that gave / The stations their names / Were always out of sight, / Behind a hill, up a lane, / Dead, except when a train / Fetched somebody forth alive.” The line’s axing, “has left no ghost / Even”; yet, the ending spills into undisguised bitterness, in stark contrast to the previous indifference, and implicitly compares the axing to an altogether different kind of cessation:
My past has been defaced
Because it ran together
So often with this line.
Trains exist elsewhere
But different, sinister:
Heads, looking out for a last
Good-bye, freeze and weather
To the sky, as at Tyburn.
Beer frequently wrote about the seasons, but without sentimentality. ‘The Underground Garage’Ibid., p.84. Its setting is reminiscent of the opening sequence of the equally quirky 1967 TV series The Prisoner. would seem to be an unlikely subject for a poem; in Beer’s hands, though, it becomes an existential tour de force:
Now the bad breath
Of the garage meets the no-breath
Outside. Two months ago Hyde Park
Breathed mildly, wetly and its leaves
Fell in a twist of scents. Winter
Has made everything too dead to smell.
‘November Evening’Ibid., p.148. is more disconcerting; eleven lines across four stanzas, with large leaps between them. Its opening lines are lulling, but as soon as the description of the moon as “brown enough” appears, one knows that this poem is extraordinary. That weirdness continues in the opening line of the second stanza, which is shocking in both content and expression, but redolent of the language of young-reader books: “The child sets fire to the house”. The reader is then thrown by the explanation – ‘Hoping to see his fireman father / Clanging up the street in uniform’ – for the boy’s behaviour (it’s interesting that Beer uses ‘child’ before ‘his’ reveals the gender). The third stanza leads somewhere else still:
Nobody now bothers to please.
Frill after frill has blown off
The avenue of skeletons.
The generalising, self-contained first line augments the strangeness. With that “Frill after frill”, which is either scathing or merely descriptive, the next two lines possess a pleasing ambiguity beyond the face-value meaning that the skeletons, presumably put up outside houses for Hallowe’en (or the Day of the Dead if this is Mexico or another Latinx country), have been stripped of much of their decoration by the same winds which have denuded the trees. The final stanza returns to the leaves, and puns on ‘soles’, which, following the third stanza, recalls All Souls. The off-rhyme pattern of the line endings adds a modicum of coherence to an otherwise disquieting poem.
Her best poems arguably stem from the personal, not just childhood poems but also those about her locale and daily experience
Beer brings her great technical skill to bear in longer, elegiac poems too, like ‘The Conjuror’Collected Poems, p.170. Beer’s reading of the poem is available here: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/conjuror/. , a beautifully funny poem wrought from attending a funeral, and ‘Lost’Collected Poems, p.191., her heartfelt response to the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981. ‘The Conjuror’ is a poem which could easily have been over-egged, but manages in its four quirky quatrains to evoke a wholly believable life out of death. In ‘Lost’, Beer’s approach to tragedy is exemplary in how it acknowledges and shows the impact of the events on the wider West Country community. The distance from Upottery, in East Devon, where Beer lived, to Penlee Point, in Cornwall, where the lifeboat was based then, is “two moors away and three lighthouses” as the poem says, but the congregation are nonetheless greatly affected by it:
Yet when the vicar paused in his prayer that Christmas Eve
There was true silence in the church as though
The lost souls had been found for a few minutes
Who had no time for ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.
‘The Lost Woman’Ibid., p. 197. Beer’s reading of the poem is available here: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/lost-woman/. , concerning, or, rather, arising from, her mother’s death, was published fifty years after that event, reflective of its traumatic legacy. Beer and her sister, then 14 and 15 respectively, were not allowed to be with their mother at the end or to attend the funeral. It’s little wonder that the poem becomes fantasy: “She never returned and I never saw / Her buried. So a romance began. / The ivy-mother turned into a tree / That still hops away like a rainbow down / The avenue”.
It ends movingly and painfully: “But my lost woman evermore snaps / From somewhere else: ‘You did not love me. / […] You are the ghost / With the bat-voice, my dear. I am not lost'”.
Weeds start up out of the wall now that summer has ended.
Holiday-makers already begin to turn yellow.
Shadows look brave but have lost the bone-marrow of August.
The poem finishes in a hospital, where “an old man, / Fenced in by chrysanthemums, […] follows the agile young nurse with his eyes, calling ‘Mother’”. It’s a quintessential Beer image; dryly finding humour in unlikely material.
Beer wrote, “I have never been accused of imitating any particular poet”Ibid., pp.15–16., and it’s certainly difficult to discern any major influences in Beer’s poems. She mentions a liking for GraySee: Mrs Beer’s House, p.180. in her memoir, borne out by an early poem, ‘Epitaph in a Country Churchyard’. She also stated, “Our audiences at poetry readings have demanded that we go confessional, that we go American, with threats that if we do not we shall be labelled […] cold, academic or parochial”Introduction to Collected Poems, p.16., but her tacit refusal to accede to those demands shouldn’t be mistaken for any kind of manifesto; conversely, her poems could be as intense and quietly personal as those of, say, Lowell or Plath, albeit not ostensibly influenced by either.
If ever a poet were ready for re-discovery, it’s Beer.
If there are any lines among Beer’s poetry which could be read as her own personal creed, of a highly successful woman in a then overwhelmingly male-dominated field, it’s those which close ‘In Memory of Stevie Smith’; sub-consciously at least, as much a portrait of herself, presumably, as it was of Smith:
A heroine is someone who does what you cannot do
For yourself and so is this poet. She discovered
Marvels: a cat that sings, a corpse that comes in
Out of the rain. She struck compassion
In strange places: for ambassadors to hell, for smelly
Unbalanced river gods, for know-all men.
If ever a poet were ready for re-discovery, it’s Beer.
Patricia Beer’s poetry from Autumn and Collected Poems is reprinted here by kind permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK.
|↑1||Though this is erroneously given as 1924 on several websites.|
|↑2||London: Macmillan, 1968.|
|↑3||Mrs Beer’s House, p.11. The phrase, ‘Politics was for the children’ recurs in her poem ‘One man One Vote’.|
|↑7||Ibid., p.195. (See also Beer’s poem ‘John Milton and My Father’.|
|↑9||Manchester: Carcanet, 1988.|
|↑10||Collected Poems, p.21.|
|↑11||Collected Poems, p.52.|
|↑13||Ibid., p.120; the title perhaps alluding to Donne.|
|↑18||Ibid., p.84. Its setting is reminiscent of the opening sequence of the equally quirky 1967 TV series The Prisoner.|
|↑20||Collected Poems, p.170. Beer’s reading of the poem is available here: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/conjuror/.|
|↑21||Collected Poems, p.191.|
|↑22||Ibid., p. 197. Beer’s reading of the poem is available here: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/lost-woman/.|
|↑23||Manchester: Carcanet, 1997.|
|↑26||See: Mrs Beer’s House, p.180.|
|↑27||Introduction to Collected Poems, p.16.|