So, I was in the Amnesty International Bookshop yesterday, and found, stuffed and crinkled round the back of some other books, a pamphlet with a plain brown manilla cover. Recollections of My Fellow Poets by Count Potocki de Montalk. I only knew the name Potocki from Manuscript Found At Saragossa (1815), an astonishing novel which indirectly saved my marriage (but this is not the time or place to talk about that). However, even that tiny shiver of a coincidence was enough to make me pick the pamphlet up and start reading. The first paragraph of the first recollection, the first words I read by Potocki de Montalk, were these:
‘The poets born in New Zealand in approximately my generation were decidedly better, more interesting and more genuine as poets, than any born in England (as opposed to Ireland etc.) in modern times. The so-called Georgian poets may perhaps have been Georgian, but they were not poets. They were a collective fraud. Each of them in the “first fine careless rapture” of youth wrote about one and a half fairly good poems, and traded on this initial success most effectively for the rest of their lives, both financially and socially. Even now at this very moment, we have a Poet Laureate who is a dreadful poetaster—and look at that insufferable rubbish which T.S. Eliot did about cats. Though he indeed was not an Englishman, but a remarkably efficient imitation.’
I was, to say the least, intrigued. The pamphlet cost a steep £8.00, and the Bohemian continuation to this story would have me slipping it into the waistband of my trousers and sidling out the door of the bookshop. But I have a conscience, and the Amnesty International Bookshop has CCTV. So, this afternoon, I slid over to the University Library and found the following books:
Count Potocki de Montalk, Recollections of My Fellow Poets
Count Potocki de Montalk, Whited Sepulchres: Being An Account of My Trial And Imprisonment for a Parody of Verlaine and Some Other Verses
Count Potocki de Montalk, Surprising Songs
Stephanie de Montalk, Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk
There’s a rather uncomfortable nexus to be found in some English writing of the 1930s, where patriotism bleeds into jingoism bleeds into fascism (the blood and soil rhetoric that sounds so strange to me, reads as insincere however sincerely it is meant): I’m thinking of Roy Campbell and Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton and the shonky bits of Pound and Henry Williamson and his otter. Potocki de Montalk fits into this rough group quite neatly; he was the founder of The Right Review, which aimed to provide an intellectual background to an extreme right-wing worldview (and ended up being a private press to publish Potocki de Montalk’s own work). Potocki de Montalk is also, obviously and visibly in his writings, an eccentric, though I’m not sure if he’s a crazy-as-a-fox eccentric or a real one. This makes him quite funny: the degree of spleen which he manages to display, his command of an anecdote, mean that it is pleasant to spend a couple of hours in a library with him, in a miasma of obscure threats and joyous obscenity:
‘His Majesty’s Police at the time of my arrest were, owing to the villainies of a certain person who shall be nameless till I print in France, under some grave misapprehensions, which probably had more to do with the proceedings against me, than the actual matter of my obscene poems.’
‘Here Lies John Penis
buried in the Mount of Venus.
He died in tranquil faith
that having vanquished death
HE SHALL RISE up again
and in Joy’s Kingdom reign.’
‘There were some amusing incidents in Brixton. The night of our “reception” we were put through a questionnaire, together with a number of other prisoners. When it came to my turn, and the officer asked: “What’s your religion?” I truthfully replied: “Pagan”. The officer began to write it down, and spelt it out wrongly. “P-A-G-A-N” I explained. Next came Mr. Glass. “What’s your religion?” “Pagan.” This was duly written down. After us came an unfortunate Cockney debtor in a bowler hat, a sort of petty Micawber, a hopeless and resigned recidivist where debts were concerned. He was of shortish stature, a little bent; and moderately cheerful in the best tragical Cockney manner. He was about forty-five, and characteristically kept his hat on his head. “What’s your religion?” asked the officer. “Pagan,” said the Cockney proudly. Everyone looked up and smiled, including the officer. A ray of Apollo’s brightness had penetrated “Reception”. But all the same the officer would not allow mere Cockneys to arrogate to themselves the religious luxuries claimed by literary prisoners or aristocrats. Mr. Glass, being with me, was allowed to be a Pagan, but to the debtor the officer said with humorous severity: “You were Church of England last time. Religion, Church of England,” he repeated as he wrote it down.’
Is he any good? Not really. He’s a good example of the minor poet who clearly embodies the trends of his time: unlike the true innovators, he’s using the themes that others have discovered without making anything new of them. I found several lines in Surprising Songs I quite liked (maybe liked enough to steal them for myself), but not a whole poem. He also suffers from existing at this 1920s cusp of wanting to write about sex but still being trammelled by not having a legally permitted or emotionally secure vocabulary to do so.
All the same it was good to feel your colder western will
flooding against mine like volts of light
in disastrous, sacramental fight—
cold against cold, heat against heat, like volts flooding on steel.
I was not made for rivalry or battle—I am no warrior,
old fighting blood has turned in me to peace,
the earl’s crown is woven with laurel leaves—
but your blonde hostility was good, made the sky starrier.
All the olympian fights of earth are waged on this wise
and one may not wear armour nor shed tears.
The soul is sculptured on the tips of spears
into beauty; and at our pain is sorrow in the skies.’
And here’s another one to finish with, but you see how it falls apart in the final few lines.
‘I hope, surely, that some day I shall write
poetry like Skryabin’s music or like a zoned
American skyscraper in the modern style.
Meanwhile I offer this: and though this is
not in the manner “dernière mode” nor quite
the latest in sophistically-toned
verse, these songs may hold the drawbridge while
I think up something much more like Ulysses.
The cleverest modern mental machinery
working on the gold of English words, will not
manufacture with all its expert skill
in micrometric measurements of time,
a single book of real poetry.
Besides, shrewd critics, poetry is what
a poet writes, and therefore we are still
unchallenged princes in the realms of rime.’
I spent most of the time I was reading him thinking that he was the kind of author who, if I had discovered him when I was a teenager, might have been a cult for me and anyone else who I was talking about books with. But I am too old for cults, and have no one to talk to.
There’s a documentary about him on YouTube (posted by someone with the username ‘Gaelic neoreactionary’, which seems about right): I’m going to go and watch it now.