Charles Tomlinson, RIP.

I was shocked to learn from wood s lot that the wonderful poet Charles Tomlinson has died. As Michael Yong’s Bristol Post obituary says:

He was one of the first English men of letters to appreciate the great achievements of the American poets of the mid-20th century, particularly the work of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Yvor Winters, Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen – all of whom he came to know personally – and his poetry showed from the start, particularly in its versification, a strong American influence.

That’s doubtless why Yanks like me responded so readily to his work (Wallace Stevens was another early influence). Go to the wood s lot link for Michael Schmidt’s Guardian obit and a beautiful pairing of Tomlinson’s short poem “Reeds” with a color photo by Mark Woods (the proprietor of the s lot); he also quotes a majestic longer poem which I will reproduce here as an appropriate read for this late-summer day:

        IV. The Fireflies

I have climbed blind the way down through the trees
(How faint the phosphorescence of the stones)
On nights when not a light showed on the bay
And nothing marked the line of sky and sea—
Only the beating of the heart defined
A space of being in the faceless dark,
The foot that found and won the path from blindness,
The hand, outstretched, that touched on branch and bark.
The soundless revolution of the stars
Brings back the fireflies and each constellation,
And we are here half-shielded from that height
Whose star-points feed the white lactation, far
Incandescence where the single star
Is lost to sight. This is a waiting time.
Those thirty, lived-out years were slow to rhyme
With consonances unforeseen, and, gone,
Were brief beneath the seasons and the sun.
We wait now on the absence of our dead,
Sharing the middle world of moving lights
Where fireflies taking torches to the rose
Hover at those clustered, half-lit porches,
Eyelid on closed eyelid in their glow
Flushed into flesh, then darkening as they go.
The adagio of lights is gathering
Across the sway and counter-lines as bay
And sky, contrary in motion, swerve
Against each other’s patternings, while these
Tiny, travelling fires gainsay them both,
Trusting to neither empty space nor seas
The burden of their weightless circlings. We,
Knowing no more of death than other men
Who make the last submission and return,
Savour the good wine of a summer’s night
Fronting the islands and the harbour bar,
Uncounted in the sum of our unknowings
How sweet the fireflies’ span to those who live it,
Equal, in their arrivals and their goings,
With the order and the beauty of star on star.

(I strongly suspect there should be a period after “unknowings,” but the Poetry Foundation text doesn’t have one, and since I no longer seem to have my copy of the Selected Poems I can’t check it against a printed copy.)


  1. Wow, that’s lovely. I’d never met his poetry.

  2. Indeed. But what is American versification? I thought (except for weird effects with RP vowel length and perhaps rhyme) that versification was quite global.

  3. That’s a real shame. His Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation is fabulous as well. I must have dipped into it at least once a month for the past 20 years or so.

  4. I strongly suspect there should be a period after “unknowings,”

    Oddly, it’s not there in the Selected Poems either.

  5. Huh. Well, either it’s a typo that’s survived all editing, or it’s what Tomlinson wrote, but in the latter case I’m damned if I can make it work syntactically no matter how many times I reread it.

  6. Tomlinson is a great loss, right enough, but it’s been a bad couple of weeks generally for Anglophone poetry. Shortly before Tomlinson, Stephen Rodefer died in Paris ( &, and before him again, Lee Harwood in Brighton ( &


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