Richard Swigg, formerly Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Keele, died last week. His books on the poetry of Charles Tomlinson constitute probably the most important contributions to a full recognition of that poet who was primarily responsible for introducing the world of post WWII American poetry to the shores of England. Swigg’s publications included Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition (Associated University Presses, 1994) and it is worth recalling the opening statement of that book:
“My subject is the poetry of Charles Tomlinson and the Anglo-American tradition that he illuminates. The lineage of concrete particularity to which he belongs is one that reaches back in verse to the English Augustans, and forward, through Blake, Whitman, and Hopkins, to William Carlos Williams. Above all, it is a tradition of objectivity that has special regard for the world in its solid, separate otherness – for a plurality of phenomena independent of our egotistic projection and unblurred by myth or symbol. Tomlinson, I believe, is unique among contemporary English poets in the way that he has provided the terms by which we see the distinctness of that world and the tradition that describes it.”
Swigg went on to focus on that “distinctness” and in his next book on Tomlinson, Look with the Ears, Charles Tomlinson’s Poetry of Sound (Peter Lang, 2002) he traced the way in which Tomlinson’s poetry evolved from the 1940s to the 1990s as an acoustic means of “seeing” and voicing the physical world. That concern for the voice prompted Swigg to put together the most comprehensive collection of taped readings by Basil Bunting and in 8 separate cassettes he recorded the poet reading Briggflatts (1967) and ‘The Well of Lycopolis’ (1982) as well as interviews with Tom Pickard in Northumberland between 1981 and 1982. Richard Swigg’s energetic involvement with the world of modern poetry is also evidenced in his work done on the poetry and letters of George Oppen and in 2007 Penn Sound published his collection of William Carlos Williams recordings online before going on in 2009 to publish his collection of Oppen recordings. In 2012 University of Iowa Press published his book on Williams, Eliot and Marianne Moore, Quick, Said the Bird and this also is a book worth seeking out:
“It is the keen-edged life tracked as much by Moore in a frigate pelican, a Virginian mockingbird, or the eagles of Mount Rainier as it is by Williams following through the gymnastics of starlings in the wind, a bird winging down to its watery image, or the notes of a redbreast by the Passaic Falls: all instances of a poetic outreach into the zestfully unsilenced which still persists in the later Eliot’s call, “Quick, said the bird,” as the thrush of an English garden points the acoustic memory back to the cries of the Philomela nightingale or the water-dripping song of the North American hermit-thrush in The Waste Land.”
In the early years of this century I was the reviews editor of The English Association’s magazine for teachers, The Use of English, and I arranged for Richard to review Tomlinson’s Carcanet Press edition of Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation. Needless to say the review was terrific as he noted that “Frontiers divide, fissures break open, but in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry they also impel the mind across borders to new connections”. That review appeared in Vol.55, No.2, Spring 2004. Richard Swigg was an academic and teacher who committed himself wholeheartedly to what he regarded as the central work of his life. His eye for detail was precise and his awareness of what was going on in the world of research made his work very important indeed. In a letter that he sent me some fifteen years ago one can detect the investigator at work. The letter was in reply to some little details I had sent him concerning the Oppens and the Tomlinsons:
“As to Oppen coincidences, I have mine! While reading the Selected Letters recently, I noticed that Oppen had done a 1964 reading for the American Academy – a recording which I mentally noted as worth pursuing (since I have several, post 1967, where he reads Of Being Numerous and later poems). The 1964 one must, I thought, include The Materials, surely. Well, hardly had I noted this than I had a reply from the Harvard Poetry Room – the new Curator there, Don Share, who’s done a Ph.D. on Bunting (under Ricks, I think) – about my request for another Oppen tape, to say that he also had the 1964 one. So now he’s sending them over. I’ve also located ones that Oppen did for the Bay Area local radio station, KPFA, in Berkeley, and hope to get these one of the days.”
Don Share of course is now the editor of Poetry Magazine and published the very fine critical edition of Basil Bunting’s complete Poems for Faber & Faber last year.
I last met Richard Swigg at the celebration of the poetry of Charles Tomlinson held in the Wills Memorial Building, Clifton, Bristol on 30th September last year. It was a joy to hear his open-hearted enthusiasm for Tomlinson’s contribution to British poetry.
Ian Brinton, 26th March 2017