‘Storming Heaven in a Book’:
A Poet of Compassion
Preface to David Kessel's Collected Poems, O the Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken,
Survivors' Press, 2006
To say it is as much a privilege to know Kessel the man as it is to know Kessel the poet is to deviate from the true task of a literary preface, but bearing in mind the essential humanity of Kessel’s work, I think it is germane to express this. Kessel’s personal qualities of humility and sincerity are all the more striking in light of the chronic paranoid schizophrenia from which he has suffered since his first breakdown at 17. He is now 57.
On first meeting Kessel in 2004, I sensed palpable inner struggles when greeted by a shy, vulnerable man with large pained eyes, Jude the Obscure’s ‘Little Time’ grown up – gaze on the photo of Kessel as a boy on this cover and you will see depicted a harrowed-eyed version of Jude Fawley’s troubled son; a precocious sense of moral responsibility burdening his brow like that fictional twisted innocent. And responsibility is one thing Kessel the poet never shirks: he writes with naked honesty of the brutal truths on the psychological front line. There is a genuine analogue here: the trauma of schizophrenic breakdown expressed as a metaphorical shell shock, its symptoms the shrapnel from breakdown’s abstract battlefield.
Indeed, in his spiderishly scribbled letters to me over the last year, Kessel has often quoted Wilfred Owen: ‘Poetry is a savage war’ – as well as Joseph Conrad, from Lord Jim: ‘In the destructive element immerse’. This too Kessel does, fearlessly. He takes much inspiration and spiritual strength from the sentiments of the soldier poets of both world wars: Charles Sorley, Drummond Allison, Sidney Keyes, and his personal favourite, the inimitably barbed Keith Douglas. On one of my visits to Kessel’s flat in Whitechapel, he showed me his treasured spine-cracked edition of Keith Douglas’s Complete Works (replete with brittle brown dust-jacket), intricately inscribed with cramped notes framing each poem; and as you will see, some of Kessel’s poems begin with Douglas quotes. Stylistically and expressively however, Kessel’s poetry has more in common with that of Ivor Gurney and, in particular, Isaac Rosenberg. Interestingly Kessel’s cultural background shares similarities with the latter: while Rosenberg was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant who settled in London’s East End, Kessel is the grandson of a Jewish tailor of German-Jewish ancestry (‘kessel’ is German for ‘kettle’) who emigrated from South Africa to North London. Kessel has also lived in the East End since he was 24.
Kessel’s familial background is, in his own mind, indelibly etched in his psychological make-up: with a Jewish tailor grandfather on his father’s side and a Blackshirt poet grandfather on his mother’s, Kessel himself thinks it a truism that he has been more susceptible to schizophrenic symptoms than most. This poses an intriguing genetic theory on the illness, and Kessel is ever the self-analyst (see The Utopianism of the Schizophrenic on page 98). His parents too play crucial roles in both his psychology and his poetry. His father is the field-surgeon Lippy in ‘Arnhem’ (page 78), whose experiences of war obviously heightened
Kessel’s idiomatic identification with war and its poetics; and his mother, who converted from Catholicism to Communism during World War II, presumably had some influence on Kessel’s own politics (discussed later) and indeed his poetics – gifts she inherited from her oppositely political father – as evident in a piece of her verse printed on her son’s request at the back of this book. It is arguable that the fusing of a Blackshirt’s poetic impulses with the polarised social awareness of a Jewish immigrant has resulted in the leftwing polemical outpouring of the poet grandson.
I first came across Kessel’s work when thumbing through the poetry collections for review when I started at Survivors’ Poetry: his hefty chapbook, The Ivy – Collected Poems 1970-1994, with its inside quotes from
Edith Södergran and Christopher Caudwell and absent contents page instantly intrigued me, as did the heartfelt Preface by the author
himself; and the empathic introduction by the late Arthur Clegg (reproduced on the back of this book) with its emphasis on David as a ‘poet of compassion’. After reading this generous selection of consistently powerful and emotionally challenging poems (which I reviewed in Poetry Express Issue 20), several words competed in trying to sum up his
intensely expressive style: ‘raw’, ‘ragged’, ‘visceral’, ‘spiritual’, ‘polemical’, ‘bitter’, ‘contused’, ‘bruising’, ‘inspiring’, ‘lyrical’, ‘imagistic’, ‘onanistic’, ‘political’, and so on. But perhaps the word which best summed up
Kessel’s work was that chosen by Clegg: ‘compassionate’. Whatever one thinks of this poetry, few can deny the almost tangible spirit of compassion – a disappointed and enraged one perhaps – seething through practically every poem. This is demonstrably a poet who cares deeply for people and for the ‘Broken city’ macrocosm in which he observes his fellow beings (or Londoners), as if peering into a bustling rock-pool from which he
himself is, for a multitude of reasons, separate yet attached; an anomic anemone. And a Cockney cockle: throughout his poems he alludes to an almost semi-mystical motif of the ‘Cockney’, apparently embodying his
aspiration for a true 20th/21st century, self-possessing working-class identity – a macro-Cockney. Consciously or unconsciously he perhaps also alludes to the label which fictionally broke the will of John Keats (who was more thick-skinned than posterity gives him credit for): a poet of the ‘Cockney School’ – the snobbish drubbing by John Wilson Croker in Blackwood’s magazine, April 1818.
On first reading Kessel I was struck by the frequent ideological references littering his work. In the very first poem in The Ivy’s sequence, ‘Arnhem’ – a war-inspired piece strongly reminiscent of Siegfried Sassoon and Keith Douglas* – erupts the line ‘Down to fifty and like Lilburne won’t be beaten’, signifying a political significance in the choice of this 17th century Leveller* as a symbol of defiance. Clearly this was a poet whose sympathies lay on the Left. A few pages on, ‘To The International Brigade’ further cemented a – noticeably historic – leftist erudition. ‘Beautiful Ireland’ proffered the equally telling reference to Robert ‘Tressel’ ((sic): the single ‘l’ misspelling, an unconscious mirroring of ‘Kessel’?), author of the British Left’s favourite work of fiction, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, as a figure of ‘passionate commitment’. In ‘Songs of Soho’ Kessel openly expresses his ideological aspirations, albeit slightly obliquely: ‘Will I and my world-joining hope of Socialism be drowned in this lusting ocean?’ And the almost incantatory ‘For Zoe’ is littered with other telling tributes as Kessel – almost reminiscent of the late Ian Dury and his nostalgia-loaded pop lyrics (i.e. ‘Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3’) – lists the ‘things’ (human and inanimate) that inspire him: ‘Keir Hardie’s eyes’, ‘Robert
Tressel’s (sic) passion’. There is also, at the front of this collection, the beautiful quote from the granite-willed Nye Bevan along with one from British Marxist Christopher Caudwell and a reference to the Burford Levellers; into the collection, two poem-accompanying quotes from Edgell Rickword, veteran of the World War I Artists Rifles and Socialist poet, including his striking “That forward blasting vision love”; and a dedication to the late Michael Robinson, ‘London teacher, anti-racist and Communist’.
A poet of the underdog, the outsider, the societally-labelled failure, under-achiever, or purely fate-thwarted, Kessel carries a torch for those unhappy numbers among whom he no doubt – and unfairly – counts himself; a willing martyrdom on behalf of the disenfranchised side of the Us and Them equation. He writes of the posthumous known, both real and fictional: Robert Tressell (unjustly unpublished in his lifetime because the publishers refused to read his manuscript in long hand); Thomas Hardy’s Jude (the Obscure) Fawley (‘In Memory of Jude’), rejected by Christminster University on account of his lowly social status;
and lesser known ‘obscuritans’ (this writer’s term for individuals unrecognised in their lifetimes) such as Mike Mosley, ‘Grey, calloused, forgotten at fifty’, and Kessel’s late friend Harold Mingham to whom he dedicated The Ivy, lauding him as ‘a great working-class poet’. Might we then say that Kessel’s poetry is Socialist: that of today’s true, forgotten working-classes scribbling fugitive lyrics in East End tenements? Well, we might. There’s certainly a strong sense of solidarity, artistic and social, surging through his poems. He quite clearly lays out his poetic manifesto in the polemic ‘Poetry and Poverty’ (originally published in Outsider Poems, 1999):
The poetry of the common people has been driven underground since 1660./ Poetry and otherness; the otherness of the common people./ When we cease to share, our language becomes a cipher, the language of the/ despatch box and the popular press./ Towards a new lyricism we need to rediscover a deciduous language, that of/ Winstanley and Emily Brontë./ There can be no cockney power without cockney poetry.
This Leveller-style manifesto – far more than mere agitprop – focuses typically on Kessel’s ‘Cockney’ motif, marrying historical and contemporary working-class political culture by implying the natural inheritors of working-class lyrical polemic were the pop songwriters of the punk era:
Cockney poetry is underground poetry/ expressed in Rock music; downbeat,/ dissonant, demotic; e.g. The Clash, The Jam, The Free.
Certainly there’s some truth in this: how many poets – or even songwriters for that matter – of the last twenty years have written about urban hardship or social alienation? Well Kessel is one, but he’s certainly in a minority (bar Tony Harrison and Pete Morgan, I struggle to think of many others). Occasionally one might be reminded of, say, The Jam’s Paul Weller-penned lyrics such as ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, ‘That’s Entertainment’ and ‘Town Called Malice’ (1977-82)** when traversing Kessel’s urban inventories (both writers echoing Blake’s London-centricity), indicative of a definite punk flavour to his poetry; that bittersweet blend of social nihilism in the face of unaccountable consumer culture, mingled with a surprising leftwing optimism; Modism rather than Modernism. And like the punk-Mod ideologists of the late Seventies, Kessel thinks there is another way for us to live, and certainly not ‘the third way’. He still clings to the second: Socialism.
It’s also in this polemical piece that inevitably emerges that other great 17th century proto-Socialist, Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers. There is indeed something of the social pamphleteer in Kessel, which is one way of summing him up: a militant poet polemicist. And in a similar spirit to the inimitable, mainstream-bashing tirades of Sixties Press poet and polemical pamphleteer Barry Tebb, the uncrowned laureate of Leeds (also at heart an urban-Romantic), Kessel (the pearly-crowned Cockney laureate) makes no bones about his contempt for the contemporary poetry ‘establishment’:
Established poets are idiots and liars,
also by definition great poets sleep in gutters
love is pure contingency
the eyes are everything.
The more fractured and oblique ‘Glass Is Dynamite’ however is the true polemical tour de force of Kessel’s poems. It is dedicated to Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and, most fittingly, T.S. Eliot: the piece certainly echoes
aspects of the latter’s apocalyptic masterwork, The Wasteland. The poem seethes with frustrated yet efficacious creative force and offers the strikingly anarchic Rimbaudian rallying cry: ‘O the windows of the bookshop must be broken’ (the inevitable title for an inevitable collection). On one of my visits to Kessel’s Whitechapel digs I asked him what he meant by this extraordinary line, and he replied: “The only things that were alive in Hampstead were the books in a shop I went into. I thought, the windows of the bookshop must be broken, so the books can spill into the streets”.
Poverty is an integral theme throughout Kessel’s poetry, nowadays perceived as ‘the poet in the garret cliché’ by a largely suburban mainstream. Yet we all know only too well how un-lucrative poetry is, especially today, so why the surprise that some poets, especially un-established ones, live in similar material hardships to the Chattertons and Davidsons (cue his anthemic ‘Thirty Bob a Week’) of yesteryear? And that given, why not write
about it? Anyone who has experienced poverty will strongly empathise with such themes, and anyone who has not might well learn much from
attempting to; and what better means than through the naked self-expression of poetry? Perhaps in Blair’s ‘progressive society’ we like to
pretend poverty doesn’t really exist, or just happens to other people, certainly not to reasonably well-educated verse-scribblers. But let’s not forget that not all ‘poets’ living today hail from Oxbridge or the conveyor-belts of the UEA: there are also the state-educated ‘naifs’ (to use one of Simon Jenner’s idioms), the Redbricks, blue-overalls and pinstripe poets (those who hold down ordinary jobs and write in their spare time) and occasional isolated autodidacts who slip through the net into some
measure of public consciousness. You could do a lot worse than Kessel for swatting up on the material hardships some inspired minds scrimp in:
A deadly man with loveless breath.
Time eating the stomach. Can’t afford fags.
We live with uncertainty,
our giros and our dreams.
Kessel has often related to me his own take on Keats’s Negative Capability (“...when a man is capable of being in uncertainties ... without
any irritable reaching after fact and reason” – Keats, 1817): he describes his poetic ethos essentially as ‘anti-intellect’. I have taken this to mean Kessel believes in putting the heart, soul and guts back into poetry, and steering it away from the cerebral extremities of some Modernists; those Don Paterson for one has referred to as ‘obscurantists’. But perhaps
Kessel’s true target should be the ‘populists’ – as Paterson terms the mainstream poets –, many of whom arguably indulge too much in the plain and mundane, the apolitical ‘just-so-ness’ of society, the preoccupation with ‘things’ and ‘tangibles’ to the neglect of ‘ideas’, ‘abstracts’, ‘phantasms’ (i.e. the imagination); whose conscious attitudinal postures, or Poetical Correctness, might take heed – along with their polar opposite ‘obscurantists’ – of Keith Douglas’s humanistic dictum cited by Kessel as the source of his own poetic ethic: “‘Bullshit’ – it is an army word, and signifies humbug and unnecessary detail. It symbolises what I think must be got rid of – the mass of irrelevancies, of ‘attitudes’, ‘approaches’, propaganda, ivory towers etc., that stands between us and our problems and what we have to do about them” (from a letter to JC Hall, August 1943)***. This viewpoint is echoed in Kessel’s ‘Beautiful Ireland’: ‘If I could cut out my bullshit intellectualism/ as easily as I crap in heather/ there would be no more wars or leaders’. Kessel also says of his Douglas-inspired humanist emotionalism: “The invaluable purpose of poetry is to create hope in difficult circumstances****, which manifests in the significance of the British war poets. Standing where people, creatures, things hunger. Being essential, how few are the things that are really essential”.
Modernists (and even ‘populists’) might scoff at Kessel’s somewhat ‘naif’, cathartic style, spitting out the term ‘confessional’, apparently a contemporary insult. But surely the urge to express oneself is in some sense
synonymous with the urge to confess? Or is it just the Catholic poets among us – practising or lapsed – who feel this urge to purge themselves through poetry? And do we take it that they are currently doing so in a climate of Protestant Poetics? A personal communion with the Muse not to be communicated publicly until transubstantiated into a palatable and rational draft; a trend for individualistic as opposed to socialistic subject; a preoccupation with private perceptions and issues as opposed to public and political ones? In that case, rage on the Recusant School.
No poets would espouse wilful ‘obscurantism’ – a conscious closing-up to the general readership through a semantic esotericism that only the most erudite of eyes can decode – yet certain types of Modernist poetry can be (mis-)interpreted this way. Equally it is difficult to believe that any adherents to the more pellucid mainstream would champion dull diction and flat prosiness of form, yet many are undeniably guilty of this. Striking the right balance between metaphoric colour and emotional directness is the steepest hill for any poet to climb, but I think Kessel has come close to reaching this elusive summit, in spite of his work’s somewhat ragged, imperfectionist qualities. Kessel expresses his emotions nakedly and uncompromisingly in combination with metaphor and evocation, the nerve and fibre of poetry. He combines the visceral with the spiritual instinctively, producing work which is both innocent and experienced at the same time:
The church is harder than my desire
though much less real,
as hard as my patronising lust,
and so I masturbate in the wet grass.
Kessel’s ‘anti-intellect’ stance might be doing his work a disservice in that such a self-label detracts from the demonstrative intellect pulsing through it. One is led to conclude this is a deliberately contentious claim on his part, a necessary exaggeration or over-emphasis to get an essential, humanistic point across to those who might brush off less absolute phraseology. Kessel’s intellectual gifts are as evident as his expressive ones, his poems littered with tantalising aphorisms and metaphors:
The rain is falling
on chipshop and battlefield.
(‘For Drummond Allison’)
A rasping melody of charlady morning challenges conscience.
(‘Songs of Soho’)
Eyes melting like song in the evening street.
(‘In North London’)
Listening to the soft rain on the leaves
I hear the decency and realism of friends’ humour...
I who am as dangerous as these cliffs
strive to be as kind as the meadow...
I fear this mountain I must climb more
than I fear fascism in a loved-one’s eyes. (‘Beautiful Ireland’)
Today a sweetheart’s sigh is more dangerous
than massed armies.
A bored mouse storming heaven in a book,
the look took all my caring.
Combined with this accomplished imagism is a gritty Romanticism, a sometimes breathtaking Shelleyan lyricism – often punctuated with the Kesselite sing-song, exclamatory O – all the more striking for its post-industrial backdrops:
O to share a fag on wintry evenings
in a lonely street – all iron and sleet.
(‘To Bleed With Her’)
The piano scatters wide her mournful seed.
(‘In a Southern English Seaside Town’)
And I’ll follow the night-train to distant starved cities
to bleed and pain and sing
(‘Bus No 253’)
Hancock and Lennon have passed through here without being heard
to find peace in the burning innermost slums.
(‘The Barren Age,
For the Londoners of my Generation’)
Despair in a girl’s heart, where wild
chrysanthemums should be.
Kessel’s striking descriptiveness is painterly, his poems often resembling figurative word-pictures, with an expressionistic quality echoing Lowry’s moth-toned cityscapes of industrial drudgery and Van Gogh’s tangible vividness:
Anger at love that disturbs the malicious street
leaping in the gutter with petrol and stubbed fags.
the rusty smell of the sea and misogynists’ guilt…
(‘A Mug of Black Coffee’)
A Cockney cleaner moves home eastwards
into the bright slums of humanity
(‘In Finsbury Circus’);
A rasping melody of char-lady morning challenges the conscience.
...a drunk’s daydreams break across unfamiliar streets.
(‘Songs of Soho’)
These silent clouds between silent rows of Brockley terraces.
... To meet this earth in full flight
between its suicide and the market-place café.
There’s an unfashionably visionary element to Kessel’s poetry, harking back to Blake’s schizophrenic epiphanies (for example Songs of Innocence’s ‘The Ecchoing Green’; ‘Holy Thursday’ and Experience’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’; ‘London’ – see Kessel’s ‘Elegy For Lost Innocence’, page 58) in its to-ing and fro-ing between polarities of social realism (charladies, bus workers, cockneys and so on) and bucolic utopianism; and William Morris’s aphorisms of romantic utilitarianism and the intrinsic beauty in the useful:
For there is within the soul of labour the tenderness
of the violet beneath the shaking lonely chestnut.
(‘For Emma, Aged 10’)
Tender words and arms by a spitting gas-fire.
Before the triumph of tyranny on the television
dreaming of news from nowhere
(‘England, O England’)
...the summer smell of lilac from a scrapyard.
(‘Willesden High Street’)
Whatever one’s critical judgement of Kessel’s poetry, one can’t deny that it reeks of truth. In other words, Kessel is a sincere poet, he ‘feels what he feels’ as Arthur Clegg said, and not ‘because it might suit an audience’. Anyone who has had the privilege of listening to Kessel reading his work will have been struck by the impassioned, almost prophet-like manner in which he loudly howls out his poems, as if each word robs him of strength from the weight of its significance to him. The truth, as it is to him, is in his words. And like all truth, it is both painful and empowering. Despite the palpable sense of struggle and conflict in Kessel’s poetry, one does ultimately salvage from it a sense of optimism and empowerment, for this poet is still here, still writing, still battling the same lifetime’s demons, but those demons have failed to beat him into mute submission. Contrarily, they have driven him out into the world of others along the same steep-verged path trampled by the likes of Clare, Smart, Crane, Mew and Lafitte before him, through the liberating power of self-expression. His poetry climbs from its circumstances and pillages them for inspiration, producing something far more lasting and permanent, and beautiful.
* It was Keith Douglas’s generation who – exactly 300 years to the month after Lilburne was impeached by the Committee of Examinations for arguing for religious tolerance on 17th May 1645 – voted in the leftwing members of the Commonwealth Party (led by demobbed wing commanders), which in their four bi-election wins in May 1945 forced the resultant Attlee Labour Government into a far more radical leftwing programme of reform than it had previously contemplated under the likes of its manifesto drafter Herbert Morrison.
** Weller’s late poet friend Dave Waller inspired many of his early lyrics, essentially pop poems, in particular the fictional future civil war concept for The Jam’s 1979 LP Setting Sons; Weller also included a stanza from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ on the rear sleeve of 1980’s Sound Affects album.
*** It’s interesting to contrast this with Keats’s comments on Haydon and Horace Smith in the same letter of 1817 which proffered his theory of Negative Capability: “These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables”.
**** similar to the definition of Modism: ‘striving to be respectable in difficult circumstances’; in the Mods’ case this manifests sartorially, in Kessel’s case, poetically.
Alan Morrison, March 2006