John Ormond: Collected Poems

John Ormond
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
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John Ormond (1923-1990) is one of the remarkable generation of poets born in south Wales in the early 1920s which includes Dannie Abse and Leslie Norris. A journalist on Picture Post during its heyday in the 1940s, he was a friend of fellow Swansea writers Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins, both of whom were key influences on a poetry of consistently high standards. A significant number of his poems, many of them elegiac, probe his Welsh roots, demonstrating an abiding concern with family and locality. Others focus on particular aspects of the natural world, seeking to capture their elusive quiddities. Stylistically, they vary from the extremely plain to the highly-wrought; are witty and ironic, paradoxical and conceited. Typically unsentimental, shapely and meticulously crafted, his are the poems of a sensibility which delights in explorations, probes complex themes and problematical areas of feeling, and refuses to settle for easy answers.

In addition to his writing Ormond had a distinguished career with BBC Wales as a director and producer of documentary films, which include studies of Welsh painters and writers such as Ceri Richards, Kyffin Williams, Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis and R.S. Thomas. The insight and visual awareness which mark his films also inform his poetry, a selection of which was published in the Penguin Modern Poets series.

This Collected Poems draws together all of Ormond’s work, including unpublished material. It includes  notes and commentary of the poems re: their geneses, backgrounds, allusions and meanings, and a bibliography of Ormond’s prose writing, films and writing about him. An index of titles and first lines completes this essential book.

“John Ormond’s poems about people are infallibly accurate and compassionate under the surface of humour. His eye for detail is immensely zestful, he is technically adept and varied, and is prepared to try a different, more ambitious manner, and can bring it off. A poet full of individuality.” – Alan Brownjohn



Review by Jane Blank, Planet

Monday, November 7, 2016

I was drawn first to the comprehensively collected poems of the great John Ormond, introduced by Patrick McGuinness and edited by Ormond’s daughter, Rian Evans. I enjoyed the extensive notes, which put the poems in the context of Ormond’s life (1923-1990) and the literary scene of which he was such a seminal part. Earlier in the month I came across Jeff Nuttall”s poem ‘Notes towards a Suicide Note’, so it was uncanny to read Ormond’s ‘Notes to a Suicide’. I delighted in Nuttall’s characteristic shock factor, while Ormond’s mastery of register and rhythm delivered a dignified and memorable elegy for his friend, the novelist and poet B.S. Johnson.
McGuinness points to the influence of Welsh poetical forms in Ormond’s work: for me it is his meticulous control, particularly of the line break, that illustrates this best. ‘The Birth of Venus at Aberystwyth’ resonates in the mind, the goddess seeming to appear from the sea while less exotically ‘A violinist in a Scotch-plaid dinner-jacket/ Contributed little to the Welsh way of life/ As he played “Thanks for the Memory”.’ I enjoyed his humour here and in ‘To a Nun’.

Review By Andrew Sanderson, The North

Monday, August 1, 2016

John Ormond was born into the predicament of the Anglo-Welsh writer. The experience of divided loyalties. For his 'war generation', which included that cuckoo in the nest, Dylan Thomas-an individual style, a brilliant local boy done good-the problem faced lay in the direction of forging your own voice.

There was the master-servant dialectic too: the functional English of the industrialised south, vying with the offer of a pastoral retreat-miming the seam of traditional Welsh poetics.

You either rejected the influence of Dylan Thomas industry, or you fell under its lethal spell. Or following, Idris Davies, you could develop your own humiliated use of English, with an acerbic, politicised bite. So Harri Webb and John Tripp emerged as the caustic, prosaic, representatives of the south, through the 1960's and 70s, developing specific 'Anglo Welsh' themes of identity and generally reducing the influence of the Mother Tongue to the Freudian 'lost object'.

Or, you could disagree with the 'politicized,' 'angry' approach, and seek to work with technique, device. Here were are on safer ground: Glyn Jones, Roland Matthias, and more recently Gillian Clarke, for example, have hammered out a distinctive voice capable of developing a ruralised subject matter which has more in common with the many English, Scottish, and Irish poets of their generation, all perhaps equally influenced by R.S. Thomas and Seamus Heaney.

John Ormond, clearly found it difficult to forge a distinctive voice, as the body of work demonstrates. Born in 1923, a good friend of John Tripp(born 1927), a journalist working in the 'regional capital,' who made film documentaries of Dylan Thomas, Alun Lewis; friend of Kyffyn Williams, Graham Sutherland, and an artist himself, Ormond clearly worked hard to craft significant work beyond the repeatedly 'occasional' poem.

And there are many good 'praise poems',(that tend to focus on an object or a person as an extended conceit) in this collection: an excellent translation of a 15th Century Welsh poem 'To an Nun'- 'In Mary's name/Leave chanting creeds to all those monks in Rome/Spring is at work in woodlands bright with sun/ Springtime's not made for living like a nun'; genteel, often jocular, well-made poems-some with effective openings, but which sometimes later struggle for direction.

Whilst Ormond doesn't quite confront his influences, or overcome them with a subject matter of his own, he does evoke scenes and places, Welsh and Italian, through at the continual risk of 'tweeness', seemingly choosing aesthetic beauty of landscape and art as a subject which lend themselves to a certain idea of poetry. There are anthologised and online poems here for occasion, like the love poem 'In September': 'Once more I'd wind it in a ring/About your finger, pledge myself/Again my love,my shelter/My good roof over me'...Plenty of technical skill, but sometimes eg 'Postcard from the past', a more disarmed first person, a more direct telling voice catches Ormond by surprise: 'Among old bills, in a cluttered draw/ I came upon it, wonder why I kept it...The stamp's/ Stuck upside down. The post-mark re-endoreses/The name of the resort. Children on rubber horses/ Tame the hard tinted sea...'- a short, less maybe deliberately crafted and very good poem.

This Seren production does foreground Orman's 'craftsmanly pride', through the Introduction by Patrick McGuinness. The allusions to Thomas Gunn's and Wallace Steven's views on craft, and a close knowledge of Ormond's working life, further developed by the editor Rian Evans, the poet's daughter, who includes a detailed chronology, all help to explain the poems for the reader. However, there is a sense that the man, rather than the work, takes the focus.

But then there's the anthology poem of course: Ormond described the sensation of writing 'Cathedral Builders' as a change of energy flowing down his arm to his pen. So the problem then became to develop this source, wherever it came from, into other poems. Interestingly, the 'contingency spur' for the poem came whilst working in 1963 on a film documentary in Arezzo. Ormond heard the whistling of workers on scaffolding repairing a church. In short, the real event triggered the charge and them poem was written 'in 50 minutes flat'. It's his great poem, in which the detail serves the central idea. The form seems nigh-on-perfect, and the comment at the end(as much about the poem, as about the Cathedral) seals the box shut.

Andrew Sanderson lives in Sheffield. 

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