Rosemary Tonks.

Last year Jonathan Law, as part of “his occasional series on artists who have vanished into thin air,” had a fascinating Dabbler piece on a poet I (and very likely you) had never heard of, Rosemary Tonks. She had a brief, sparkling career half a century ago, publishing six novels and a handful of poems: “her first collection, Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms, came out in 1963 and a second, Iliad of Broken Sentences, in 1967. For once, the cliché about ‘slim volumes’ is entirely apt: the books contain Tonks’s complete poetical works – a total of 46 short poems.” The poems are remarkable; they don’t sound like any other English poetry, though they do sound like her main influences, the French symbolists, especially Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Here’s a bit from “The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas”:

I particularly like it when the fog is thick, the street
Is like a hole in an old coat, and the light is brown as laudanum
… the fogs! the fogs! The cinemas
Where the criminal shadow-literature flickers over our faces,
The screen is spread out like a thundercloud – that bangs
And splashes you with acid … or lies derelict, with lighted waters in it,
And in the silence, drips and crackles – taciturn, luxurious.

Then, “at some point in the mid-1970s Rosemary Tonks slipped out of that big house in Hampstead and to all intents and purposes vanished. She would never publish again and for many years the literary world had no idea if she was alive or dead.” Over the years readers kept discovering those few poems, and from the late ’90s on they started appearing in anthologies; apparently the 2002 Bloodaxe Books anthology Staying Alive: Real Poetry for Unreal Times won her quite a few fans. But hardly anyone knew much about her life until she died; I won’t spoil it for you, but after you’ve read Law’s piece you’ll want to read Neil Astley’s Guardian obituary, published last Friday. (I got these links from the MetaFilter post, which has more if you’re interested.) While she was alive she refused to allow any collections of her work to be published; hopefully now that will change. (And no, I don’t believe the wishes of dead authors should be respected; otherwise we’d have hardly any Virgil or Kafka.)

Comments

  1. “Adult novels”; does that mean porn?

    As soon as I read the above, I thought of Eliot, who is indeed mentioned in Law’s article. Then I thought of Ginsberg, or perhaps Ginsberg channelling Eliot. Or vice versa (do people channel their descendants, biological or spiritual?) Whitman. Sandburg. There are lots of analogues in English poetry, but it’s not news unless it’s “the best or the only or both”.

    Looks like she had a hard time in the 1970s and just said the hell with it, and went to live a fairly ordinary, if unusually religious, life. That hardly makes her an Amelia Earhart.

  2. Looks like she had a hard time in the 1970s and just said the hell with it, and went to live a fairly ordinary, if unusually religious, life. That hardly makes her an Amelia Earhart.

    A comparison with historical linguists might be more apt.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    If she refused to allow republication, how did a few of the poems appear in these best-selling anthologies in the last decade and a half? Was she inconsistent in how she responded to requests, or were some of the slim stack of poems governed by different contracts than others so that someone else had the right to decide? It doesn’t *sound* like there’s likely to be some huge cache of unpublished work, but who knows, and likewise who knows (did she have a will? are we to infer that she was childless from the obit’s mention of a marriage but silence as to children?) who will end up now with control of whatever she had not signed away control of.

  4. > And no, I don’t believe the wishes of dead authors should be respected; otherwise we’d have hardly any Virgil or Kafka.

    These days, when you wish to support your opinion without actually, y’know, supporting your opinion, the fashion is to use “because” with a noun phrase or adjective or verb. So I guess you meant to write:

    > And no, I don’t believe the wishes of dead authors should be respected, because lame.

  5. A collection is a book containing works all of which are by the same author. Refusing to authorize a collection is not the same as refusing to be anthologized, and the rights are separate: she may not have had the anthology rights.

  6. a poet I (and very likely you) had never heard of, Rosemary Tonks

    No, I hadn’t heard of her, but her great-uncle Tonks, at one time a surgeon who was later known and feared by students as the head of the Slade School of Fine Art (part of University College, London, and still my favourite art school). His own paintings seem pretty lame considering he was working at a time when Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism – one of his students was the Vorticist Percy Wyndham Lewis – were all emerging, but his work is also quite peculiar. His knowledge of surgical procedure meant he had a unique perspective as a WW1 war artist. You can see some of this work in Wikipedia.

  7. These days, when you wish to support your opinion without actually, y’know, supporting your opinion, the fashion is to use “because” with a noun phrase or adjective or verb. So I guess you meant to write:

    Except I did support my opinion, so I guess you just meant to shoehorn in a reference to the “because” fad.

  8. I too immediately thought her poetry reminded me of Eliot.

  9. Yes, Eliot’s probably the closest thing (along with some early Pound: “go! jangle their door-bells!”), but of course he and Pound were influenced by the same French symbolists.

  10. One reason to hope her verse will be republished now that she’s dead is that it’s essentially unavailable now except in libraries. Amazon Marketplace has no copies for sale, ABE has no copy of Iliad of Broken Sentences, one copy of Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms priced at $1477.67 plus shipping. Even for a book whose condition is Fine in Near Fine dust jacket, with a dedication to a friend, that’s a little steep.

  11. She reminds me of tens of thousands of other “poets” whose slim volumes lie unopened and unread for no other reason than they are not very good. “The Sofas, Fogs, and Cinemas”; the affected title alone belies a strained amateurism.

  12. I hate to say it, Hozho, but you’re losing your edge. The hot peppers have been used up, and all that remains is a faintly sour tang vaguely reminiscent of what was once a bracing contrarianism. Step up your game!

  13. Yes, it lacks hózhǫ́ these days.

  14. des von bladet says:

    “I won’t spoil it for you but obituary” is not entirely without bespoilment, if it comes to that, but I do like a slim volume of verse.

  15. des von bladet says:

    Also: I have been to Bournemouth, more than once. It is a place that inspires despair.

  16. I’d like to know more about the history of the phrase “slim volume”.

  17. The OED2 defines it as “a book of verse by a little-known poet (freq. mildly derogatory)”; the first quotation given, from The Daffodil Mystery by Edgar Wallace, is dated 1920. The ODO says “typically verse” and omits the parenthetical remark in both its AmE and BrE versions.

  18. I’ve certainly heard “slim volume” used in a mildly derogatory fashion to describe books in other genres than poetry, including some books that were nonfiction. (An example of a popular psychology book come immediately to mind.)

  19. Perhaps the negative associations of “slim volume” partly explain those of “slim-hipped” in the 60s.

  20. “Both legs broken, pulp-skulled, jelly-hipped [...]“

  21. And that doesn’t sound to you like a whole lot of other contemporary poetry?

  22. It’s a satire. At least I think it is. With Delany it’s hard to tell.

  23. For me, “slim volume” will always be associated with 1066 and All That: “‘This slim volume…’ – The Bookworm

    one copy of Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms priced at $1477.67 plus shipping

    It’s the shipping that really stings.

  24. > Except I did support my opinion […]

    But you didn’t. Your opinion was that people shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions you might disagree with, and your support was to list some such decisions . . .

  25. marie-lucie says:

    LH: I don’t believe the wishes of dead authors should be respected; otherwise we’d have hardly any Virgil or Kafka

    Ran, I fail to see how you can go from the first sentence to the huge generalization “people shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions you might disagree with”. And the second sentence is not a list of “decisions”, it lists “examples” of authors whose works were saved from destruction, in “support” of the personal “opinion” stated in the first sentence.

    LH, I remember a well-known linguist (still alive) advising a group of younger ones to archive their unpublished work, field notes and the like, while they were still in the possession of their normal faculties, lest “in their dotage” later they should decide to burn or otherwise destroy them all instead of leaving them for the benefit of future scholars. Depression or (heaven forbid) dementia often leads people to making decisions which they would not have made in their fully functional state.

  26. But you didn’t. Your opinion was that people shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions you might disagree with, and your support was to list some such decisions . . .

    Don’t be ridiculous. I supported my opinion with a reference to major works that we would not have if the wishes of the authors had been respected; the assumption was that anyone who cares about culture would accept that as a good reason. I don’t know whether you don’t care about culture or are just being obnoxious, but in either case your disagreement with my supporting argument does not mean it doesn’t exist.

  27. I do care about culture, but I also care about humans. (I wouldn’t have thought that those beliefs were at odds, but apparently they can be!) Just because an author’s work could have cultural value, that doesn’t instantly mean the author should have no say in whether and how it is made public.

    I remember reading, a few years ago, some criticism of antidepressants, arguing that certain great artists might not have created their works if their depression had been properly treated. (Naturally the critic did not use the phrase “properly treated”.) And I have to ask — what gives us the right to decide that? If a human would benefit from antidepressants, we don’t have the right to deny their humanity on the basis that they’re also an artist.

    If someone wills their work to destruction, we shouldn’t say “I don’t believe that artists deserve that choice. I can decide better than them.”

    (Full disclosure: I’m writing this in part because you’ve posted similar views in the past. Nabokov had a partially-finished novel, and you felt that his son (IIRC) should disregard his father’s wish that it be destroyed. In that case you were much more clearly wrong, since Nabokov obviously had a right to determine the disposition of his unpublished work, and a right to trust his son to honor his wishes. The current case is admittedly rather different, since Tonks’ work is already public.)

  28. Just because an author’s work could have cultural value, that doesn’t instantly mean the author should have no say in whether and how it is made public.

    The author does have a say, but is sometimes overruled. There is was no “instantly” about it in the cases I know of, for instance when Brod downvoted Kafka. Quite the opposite: hands were wrung and consciences closely inspected.

    That’s part of the spectacle expected from people who do things they shouldn’t do. “A prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard”. This was a commonplace in the “mirrors for princes” writen in the 16C-17C, not just in this one from which I quote.

  29. “With a heavy heart and a sigh of regret”, as Luhmann puts it.

  30. I also object to the dead hand, especially the infinitely prolonged dead hand. It’s appalling that a letter John Adams wrote in 1755, before there was a United States, is still in U.S. copyright and will be until 2052. As Hat said (in opposition to a point I was making, but what the hell) there is a difference between cutting off your hair (setting reasonable restrictions) and cutting off your head (destroying your work).

  31. marie-lucie says:

    The author does have a say, but is sometimes overruled.

    There is an obvious analogy with wills disposing of property. Theoretically, a person’s wishes as stated in the will should be respected, but if those wishes turn out to be unreasonable, unfair, etc the will can be contested. This happens especially if the person’s last will, made shortly before their death at an advanced age, is quite different from earlier wills and gives indication of outside pressure or disturbed mental functions or both.

    In the case of authors, if they really wanted their work to be destroyed, why didn’t they destroy it themselves much earlier?

    As for artists creating while depressed, I don’t believe that they would not have created anything if they had not been depressed, they would have created other works, quite as good if not better than the ones they did create. But currently prescribed antidepressants might not have been the solution to their depression, since those drugs do have side effects affecting mental functions in general, including creativity. There are other approaches to treating depression.

  32. I do care about culture, but I also care about humans.

    So do I. A dead human is no longer a human; a dead human is just a lump of organic matter. I understand the need people feel to treat the corpses of their loved ones with dignity, and I respect it, but that is for their own sake, not for the no-longer-existent person. As long as a writer is alive, they should of course have full control over their work; once they’re dead, they are (or should be) irrelevant to its future fate. To sit around wringing one’s hands and pontificating about what the deceased wanted done in a world in which they no longer exist is pious nonsense, and to make a comparison with the situation of a living artist who may or may not need antidepressants (and are you suggesting that antidepressants should be forced on them against their will?) is either not thought through or said in bad faith.

    In that case you were much more clearly wrong, since Nabokov obviously had a right to determine the disposition of his unpublished work, and a right to trust his son to honor his wishes.

    As you will have gathered by now, I entirely disagree. His son had a right to do whatever he wanted, as literary executor, and the dead author had no rights at all.

    In the case of authors, if they really wanted their work to be destroyed, why didn’t they destroy it themselves much earlier?

    Exactly.

  33. O.K., I see what you’re saying.

    (I still disagree, but at least your point of view now sounds reasoned-out rather than narcissistic.)

    > and are you suggesting that antidepressants should be forced on them against their will?

    Certainly not! Simply that we shouldn’t oppose antidepressants on the principle that Art might benefit from some people’s depression.

  34. Indeed. Consider Doctor Faustus.

  35. J. W. Brewer says:

    For every literary executor who nobly declines to follow purported directions to destroy stuff, there may well be another one who pursues a strategy that is socially counterproductive and unlikely to be in accord with the hypothetical wishes of the deceased (whether that be by being too tight-fisted with permissions or by just dumping everything on the market at once with no quality control in hope of getting some quick $). It is probably (have never had professional occasion to look at it . . .) permissible in at least some jurisdictions to impose by the terms of ones will or similar legally-operative document some limitations and give some directions, although as a practical matter these ought to be ones that some other still-alive person could go to court to enforce. For example, something saying “none of those sexually-explicit diary passages may be published during the lifetime of my widow without her express written consent” might well be ok, as would something saying “I direct my executor to give Such-and-Such Press the right of first refusal to publish such-and-such manuscripts.”

    I have a published-author friend from college (in the sf/fantasy genre) who was commissioned to complete (with full co-author credit) an unfinished-at-death novel by a presumably well-known author in the same genre, but I have no idea how that came about (whether the concept in general or particular had been blessed by the decedent while still alive, or the literary executor decided to do it on his/her own authority etc.).

  36. In the cases of continuators that I know about in modern times, namely Robert Goldsborough (for Nero Wolfe), Jill Paton Walsh (for Peter Wimsey / Harriet Vane), Eric von Lustbader (for the Bourne series), Jeffrey Deaver (for James Bond), etc., the request has generally come from the estate without regard to the wishes of the deceased, if any. Many people tried to write Wolfe stories in Rex Stout’s lifetime, and he described them all as abominably written and entirely misusing the characters, with one of the worst being sent to him by Robert Moses!

  37. Stefan Holm says:

    Ye men of to much faith! The answer to your quarrels was given by a German jew already in 1848:

    The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

    The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

    In short: If money can be earned by somebody from the work of poor Rosemary Tonks her work will live. If not, it may together with herself and according to her wish, rest in peace.

  38. Why do I feel haunted by a specter?

  39. Nobody’s earning money from this collective work we are generating here; indeed, Hat is losing money on it, and perhaps so are others (on the principle that time is money). Marx misunderestimated how much the gift economy would thrive even under industrial capitalism.

  40. on the principle that time is money

    Now I understand why I am always so short on time !

  41. Stefan Holm says:

    The combination of Hat’s feeling haunted by a specter, John’s equilibristic handling of words, misunderestimated, and Stu’s lack of money would make a great author, could they just find an industrial capitalist like Friedrich Engels to help them out of the gift economy and get published.

  42. Stefan: Misunderestimated was coined by our former president George W. Bush, the Great Miscommunicator. And scholarly publishing, like blog publishing, is part of the gift economy, except that there is a tollkeeper between writer and reader who contributes nothing these days except the title of the journal.

  43. des von bladet says:

    We *are* all published. Here. It is great!

    Publishing poetry, which is where we started, is a loss-making enterprise anyway, even in English. (In the UK it relies on Arts Council, which is to say government, subsidy.)

  44. Stefan Holm says:

    Mea culpa, John, that Bushian neologism (alongside others of the kind) I had actually heard of. But in spite of this minor stroke of mine I of course never for even a fraction of a second thought of your ‘misunderestimated’ as anything but a joke. Subsequently my reply was also purely jocular. Blog publishing is great (why would we otherwise participate) but perhaps sometimes a little bit misoverestimated.

  45. J. W. Brewer says:

    Almost everyone who participates in academic publishing typically gets paid; it’s just that not all of them get paid directly by the purchasers of the resulting books. The employees of the publisher itself get paid, even if the publisher runs at a loss (which is tolerated by the sponsoring entity because the press is believed to add to the prestige of the institution, which generates positive flow elsewhere); the authors typically get paid by their employers, and their ability to get tenured, promoted, hired away by a more prestigious institution (all of which have cash value) is typically associated with the “publications” section of their CV.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    a letter John Adams wrote in 1755, before there was a United States, is still in U.S. copyright and will be until 2052

    *blink* what

    what is this I don’t even

    I can’t even

    I’ve lost all ability to even

  47. All that’s true, but it is a second-order sense of “paid”. You might as well say I get paid to wear pants to the office, because if I omitted them, I’d lose my job. In general, though, I am paid for making ontologies, not for being a fashion plate.

  48. J. W. Brewer says:

    David M.: the old Anglo-American tradition was that unpublished works were not strictly speaking copyrighted but could subsequently obtain copyright protection whenever they were first published, even if that was an arbitrarily long time (decades or even centuries) after they had been written. That is no longer the case, but there were transitional issues. The Copyright Office summarizes the current U.S. situation as: “Any work that was neither published nor registered as of Jan. 1, 1978, and whose author died before 1933 entered the public domain on Jan. 1, 2003, unless it was published on or before Dec. 31, 2002. If the author died in 1933 or later, the work will be protected for 70 years after the author’s death.” The Adams letter in question (taking the anecdote at face value) must have been first published in the latter part of the 20th century.

  49. All that’s true, but it is a second-order sense of “paid”. You might as well say I get paid to wear pants to the office, because if I omitted them, I’d lose my job

    That’s not a valid analogy. JWB is saying that though there is an appearance of non-payment in academic publishing, a principal function of academic publishing is in fact to enhance the income and potential income of the people who write its articles. I’m quite sure no principal function of your job is related to your pants or lack thereof.

    Legal publishing is similar, because it’s one of the few ways that lawyers can promote their services (at least traditionally; loosened regulations in some jurisdictions and the Internet have changed the equation).

  50. JWB: Indeed. Copyright ownership in the letter and Adams’s other correspondence was transferred to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1956. They published the correspondence on microfilm and copyrighted it in the same year, renewing the copyright in 1984.

    PO: I think the analogy is quite precise. You don’t get paid more in proportion to how much you publish; you need to publish sufficient quality and quantity to keep your job at all. (Tenure complicates this, but that’s an argument that applies to both sides.)

  51. J. W. Brewer says:

    Note fwiw that everything first published in 1956 (whether centuries-old or just-written) would be in the public domain in the U.S. by now but for subsequent changes in the law thought imprudent in some quarters.

  52. To me, there seems to be a very tenuous relationship between how much I publish as an academic and how much I get paid. There is a relationship between publishing output and how much of a raise I get, but even there it turns out to be a minor contributor. It feels a lot more reasonable to say that I’m paid for wearing pants at work than that I’m paid to publish.

  53. David:

    …finish a sentence.

  54. To me, there seems to be a very tenuous relationship between how much I publish as an academic and how much I get paid.

    Many advertisers have a similar issue: Which advertisement brought the sales? Ditto media relations practitioners: Which article did my client good?

    I am not a lawyer but have worked in the legal realm for many years. Those lawyers who seek to have articles published in law journals and law books do so because it’s one of the few ways to promote themselves among their peers and thus gain client referrals. I have been inside man at the skunk works at a number of multiple-author law books addressed to a professional community where only the general editor received royalty payments, and they were far, far less than what I was paid by him.

  55. Many advertisers have a similar issue: Which advertisement brought the sales?

    That’s partly because of the bizarre way in which ad agencies are paid: the more ads, the more they get. Years ago, Anheuser-Busch and their then agency. Dancer Fitzgerald, agreed to something innovative: DF would be paid not in proportion to advertising but in proportion to sales. If sales went up on a constant ad budget, DF got more; if sales went down, they got less. As a result, DF actually did some research into what worked and what didn’t.

    In particular, they discovered that the only thing people retain from billboards is the name of the product. Since the average consumer sees the name “Budweiser” about ten times a day (on cans, on signs in bars, etc.), DF decided no further exposure was needed, and cancelled all billboard advertising. Big savings, no drop in sales, A-B saved money, DF made money.

    That was a long time ago, and it’s hard for innovations to stick when they don’t catch on. New agency for A-B, new people all around. They are probably back to paying for ads just like everybody else, and may not even remember it was ever otherwise.

  56. Brendan says:

    Does anyone want to buy my copy of Ilead of Broken Sentences it is only £300 ex library copy with some foxing. Definitely a slim volume but packed with great poetry because I intend to buy the anthology when it comes out.

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