Peter Scupham obituary | Poetry
Peter Scupham, who died at the age of 89, started publishing his poetry relatively late: a pamphlet, The Small Containers, and a first complete collection, The Snowing Globe, both published in 1972, when he was almost 40 years.
Thus, the apparent casualness of these “early” poems, with their delight in randomly assembled household objects and strange compound words (“flim-flam”, “hugger-mugger”), is already underpinned by allusions to some something deeper. And deepening, in various senses, is what happens in his next two books. Prehistories (1975) opens with poems precisely anchored in the landscape before, in Fouilles, going lower, while in the title poem he writes: “Ghosts are a poet’s working capital. / They reach out their hands from the other shore.
The Hinterland (1977) centers on a sequence of 15 interconnected sonnets that move between the outbreak of World War I and the mid-1970s summer of Dutch Elm Disease. In a note written at the time, Scupham said: “I feel extremely uncomfortable in places where now is the only visible dimension; life is a texture where past and present merge.
This type of layering, which he would self-deprecatingly describe as “sitting on things and crushing them”, inspired much of Peter’s work – especially his sequences, which often relate, directly or indirectly, to each other. to others. For example, a group of theatrical poems in Summer Palaces (1980), where Lighting Rehearsal’s light illusions are tempered by “darkness gathered behind the scenes”, foreshadows a complex set of variations on A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Out Late ( 1986).
Conscriptions: National Service 1952-4, from the Winter Quarters collection (1983), is the bridge between poems about his wartime childhood – a recurring and absorbing theme – and a later sequence about his student years. National service, he once said, was a “time out of time”, and the poems capture it perfectly: “An angry sun, nailed to its meridian, / Disturbs the lazy hours to slide westward , / Idle during their afternoon parade. »
The Air Show (1988), Peter’s favorite of his own books, is a sequence of sequences from his childhood in “Summerland”, juxtaposed with the realities of war: the title poem deals with both airplanes and insects, while Good Flying Unexpectedly Days is about kites rather than bombers. Watching the Perseids (1990) is built around two major sequences, Young Ghost and Dying, in memory of his mother and father respectively; yet, while the poems of the first are formally posed, the unusual free verse of the second consists mainly of fragmented (and in places very funny) dialogues of the dying man with his son, whose identity he vehemently disputes: “You say that you are Peter. / Do you want to persist in this claim? »
The centerpiece of L’Arche (1994) is A Habitat, 11 poems celebrating the “cock-eyed house, beset by open fields / And too windy” in which he had recently moved. Night Watch (1999) has The Northern Line, ostensibly a counterpart to Conscriptions, which turns into an allusive ghost train ride through the 1950s.
Peter’s shorter poems span a surprisingly wide range: from sinuously tender love poetry to sharp literary parodies of The Poets Call on the Goddess Echo (in Out Late); from a hilarious – and, when read, mind-blowing – concoction of answers to Victorian schoolgirls in Answers to Correspondents (from The Hinterland) to enigmatic little tales such as Incident Room (Winter Quarters) and Accident (The Ark).
A recurring theme is the strange integrity of broken and abandoned things, like the overgrown cart and garden lantern (a “dull pavilion” with “dark nonsense in its cavities”) in the Summer Palaces or the damaged cobweb in The Ark: “The web hangs like something wants it to hang / And wouldn’t be more perfect if it were whole.
All of these earlier books were collected in a splendid Collected Poems (2002), followed in 2011 by Borrowed Landscapes, in which many shorter pieces have a pleasingly supple and uncluttered lyricism.
There are also two other sequences: A Civil War draws on the papers of Peter’s German stepfather, while Playtime in a Cold City, set in 1950s Cambridge, brings his extended autobiographical poetry as close to the present that he would allow it. He was always wary of “confessional” writing: “I would like my poems to be windows, not mirrors.
Peter was born in Bootle, Merseyside, to Dorothy (née Clark) and John Scupham. His father, after teaching in Liverpool and Derby, became Controller of Educational Broadcasting at the BBC, and the family moved south to Cambridgeshire. It was a house of bookish intellectuals, in which literary allusion and quotation were norms of conversation; it was pedagogically more formative for Peter than his school years at the Persian School in Cambridge and at St George’s, Harpenden.
After two years of national service, he studied English (quickly switching to history) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He graduated in 1957 and two months later married Carola Braunholtz, an Oxford classic; they had four children.
He taught English, first at Skegness High School and then, for almost 30 years, at St Christopher’s School in Letchworth, where for 12 of them I was lucky enough to be among his colleagues .
He was a brilliant teacher, moving effortlessly from deep scholarly reading with sixth grade to verbal play with younger pupils – for whom his guiding principle was to “keep the English sweet” – while handling all administrative tasks with amused contempt. Once, during a particularly tedious staff meeting, he decreed that we each had to write a poem before it was finished: mine ended up in the trash, his (The Sledge Teams) in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry.
With the school’s drama teacher, Margaret Steward, who would become his companion (and, in 2012, his second wife), he co-directed plays that founded and then reinforced the school’s international reputation in terms of theatre, first in an adapted wooden gymnasium and later in a purpose-built theatre; there was even a group of traveling actors, Phoebus Car, who filmed a production every year during the summer holidays.
At the same time he established with John Mole the Mandeville Press, a cottage industry which produced fine working pamphlets, hand-set, printed and sewn, mostly by new or neglected poets, in the cellar of the terraced house from Peter and Carola to Hitchin. : they started with a small Adana, then moved on first to a Pearl pedal press and finally to a fully mechanized Vicobold.
I remember one of the bigger machines had an electric motor, plugged into the ceiling socket and controlled by a dimmer on the wall, but that can’t be true; or it couldn’t be, except in Peter’s endlessly inventive and improvisational world. The pamphlets were painstakingly composed, character by character, in Baskerville or Ehrhardt.
In 1990 he and Margaret moved to a semi-derelict manor house in south Norfolk, with mermaids in the first floor pediments and, as they soon discovered, Tudor hunting scenes in an attic gallery. There Peter developed his antiquarian and second-hand book business, Mermaid Books, whose idiosyncratic and witty catalogs were sent to many of their recipients in comically decorated envelopes. It was the right place for him to work on Arthur Golding’s 1576 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; its edition appeared in 2005.
For many years there were Shakespearean productions in the garden on summer evenings – including, of course, a memorable A Midsummer Night’s Dream – which were followed by annual poets’ picnics. But many visitors to Old Hall will fondly remember smaller occasions: amiably contested lunches in the large kitchen overflowing with crockery and cats. Old Hall was the perfect expression of Peter’s life and values: it features frequently in his later poetry, and his final forthcoming collection is aptly called Invitation to Visit.
He is survived by Margaret, three children, Kate, Chris and Roger, from his marriage to Carola, which ended in divorce, and his sister, Ann. Another son, the poet and painter Giles Scupham, predeceased him.