Nationality: British. Born: Taunton, Somerset, 12 October 1941. Education: King's School, Bruton, Somerset; Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1961–64, B.A. (honors) in English 1964, M.A. 1969. Family: Married Mary Norman in 1968; two sons. Career: English teacher, Haberdashers' Aske's School, Elstree, Hertfordshire, 1964–73; chair of the English department, Verulam School, Hertfordshire, 1973–81; chair of the English department, St. Albans School, 1981–98. Exchange teacher, Riverdale Country School, New York, 1969–70; poet-in-residence, Magdalene College, 1996; since 1998 visiting poet, University of Hertfordshire, and "official poet" of the City of London. Presenter, Poetry Now, Poetry Please, and Time for Verse, BBC Radio, 1983–89; regular poetry reviewer, Encounter, London. Editor, with Peter Scupham, Cellar Press, and Mandeville Press, both in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Since 1979 vice president, Ver Poets. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1970; Signal award, for poetry for children, 1988; Cholmondeley award, 1994. Address: 11 Hill Street, St. Albans, Hertfordshire AL3 4QS, England.
A Feather for Memory. London, Outposts, 1961.
The Instruments. Manchester, Phoenix Pamphlet Poets Press, 1970.
Something about Love. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1972.
The Love Horse. Manchester, E.J. Morten, 1974.
Landscapes. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1975.
A Partial Light. London, Dent, 1975.
The Mortal Room. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1977.
The Tales of Rover. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1977.
Our Ship. London, Secker and Warburg, 1977.
On the Set. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1978.
From the House Opposite. London, Secker and Warburg, 1979.
Once There Were Dragons (for children), with Mary Norman. London, Deutsch, 1979.
Christmas Past, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1981.
Feeding the Lake. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981.
Christmas Games, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1983.
In and Out of the Apple. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.
Christmas Visits, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1984.
Learning the Ropes. Winscombe, Somerset, Gruffy Ground Press, 1985.
Winter Emblems, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1986.
Christmas Fables, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1987.
Homing. London, Secker and Warburg, 1987.
Boo to a Goose (for children). Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1987.
Christmas Gifts, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1988.
Christmas Books, with Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1989.
The Mad Parrot's Countdown (for children). Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1990.
Catching the Spider (for children). London, Blackie, 1990.
The Conjuror's Rabbit (for children). London, Blackie, 1992.
Depending on the Light. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 1993.
Back by Midnight (for children). London, Penguin Books, 1994.
Selected Poems. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.
Hot Air (for children). London, Hodder, 1996.
Copy Cat (for children), with Bee Willey. London, Kingfisher, 1997.
The Dummy's Dilemma and Other Poems (for children). London, Hodder, 1999.
For the Moment. Calstock, Cornwall, Peterloo Poets, 2000.
Understanding Children Writing, with others. London, Penguin, 1973.
Passing Judgements: Poetry in the Eighties: Essays from Encounter. Bristol, Bristol Classical Press, 1989.
Editor, Poetry: A Selection. Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, Dacorum College, 1974.
Editor, with Anthony Thwaite, Poetry 1945 to 1980. London, Longman, 1983.*
Manuscript Collection: State University of New York, Buffalo.
John Mole comments:
Apart from the routine essays, I did not write much at school. I preferred to read novels, and, as for poetry, I was more concerned to know about it than to read it. I was at least aware that there was something intellectually distinguished about claiming an interest in modern poetry, but that was as far as it went. Then, one Sunday in 1960, I picked up the "Review" section of the Observer and noticed a front-page spread of poems by Robert Graves called "Symptoms of Love." I began reading casually, became disconcertingly excited, and by the time I had finished the sequence I knew that I wanted to write poetry. Robert Graves was not an unfamiliar name to me; after all, he wrote novels, but what was this? So off I went and fashioned lapidary love poems with titles like "Prodigal Daughter," "Bard in Exile," etc. With all the presumptuousness of admiration, I sent them to Graves, who was at that time Oxford Professor of Poetry, and he said kind things; he even rewrote the closing lines of one of them in order to tighten up the syntax. It was important to get the shape right; mere feeling, as a later Oxford professor remarked, was too easy. I was hooked. Swinburne had blessed the baby Graves while he was still in his pram, and now Graves had corrected my syntax. The lineage was apparent.
I find poetry hard to talk about except in terms of my shifting enthusiasm for different poets and my permanent concern for patterning and craftsmanship. I enjoy what W.H. Auden calls "hanging around language," and there is usually some verbal sport going on in my most overtly "serious" poems, whether it be counting syllables or manipulating couplets. I do not believe that counting and manipulating, mathematical or geometric though they may sound, squeeze out feeling; I think they pack it in. In general, I hope that the best of my work may be memorable and capable of moving my readers. Anything else to be said about it can be said by others if they will.
(1995) Perhaps I should add a few words about a relatively recent development—that is, my work for children. I have always felt, in James Joyce's memorable phrase, that "my childhood bends beside me" and do not make an exclusive distinction between poems written for adults and those written with younger readers in mind. I was gratified when the poet Gavin Ewart wrote in the Times Literary Supplement of my first children's collection, "It is hard to separate the childlike from the childish; and this has always been one of Mole's strengths, as he exploits the two-way traffic between both."* * *
There are special qualities about John Mole's poetry. One of them is wit, by which I mean the intellectual enjoyment of and interest in ideas and language that permeate his work. The other quality is more difficult to define but has roots in what we might call old fashioned virtues. It is not that these virtues have disappeared or are not prized today, but they are, sadly, less current. They have a great deal to do with being straightforwardly for what is right or being on the right side as was, say, Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, as well as possessing a touch of undemonstrative courage. If I use examples from fiction, it is because I hope that they help to fix the period and ethos more clearly. I expect that the word I am looking for is "wholesome." As Mole himself put it in his poem "A Sunday Painter," "Unique and wholesome as a loaf of bread."
This could suggest a sort of cozy safeness that might be off putting, but even in Mole's sequence about Victorian playthings, "Penny Toys," which is praised for its lightness of touch, the poems are not as safe as all that. Far from it. While jack-in-the-box may be reassuringly faithful and true, he still "wants you," and there are the rumblings of time's winged chariot and the shadows of the necessary end being cast long across the nursery: "With a hey do diddle my cat Brown / The time has come to put him down."
Then there is the wit of Mole's poems. "Wit" is not a word that any longer figures much in critical writing. Perhaps it is because the word expresses a quality of sharpness of intellect that does not often occur in contemporary poetry. Yet it is a word that springs to mind when discussing Mole's work. This is not only because Mole has written humorous poetry; see, for example, his longish jazz poems and the delightful adaptations of Robert Desnos's "Chantefables," where the pleasure they give is derived from the display of technical high jinks, as in "The Owls":
Mother owls make beautiful
mothers, a few
might brew more nourishing mouse stew
than they do,
but most of them muddle through
It is also because the mind behind and the intellectual pressure driving all of Mole's work are what distinguish it, the poems impinging on us through the impetus of their logical progression. In the poems contained in the collections From the House Opposite and In and Out of the Apple we find the wit and the humor progressing more and more toward penetrating observations of the human situation. The justly celebrated "The Tales of Rover" is a case in point, and even a seemingly light poem like "Bestial Homilies" ends with "Be warned by Nature not to let things go— / The animals prepare to say: We told you so." A certain menace shows through the jokey surface.
The seemingly straightforward and clearly defined everyday scenes often possess a disturbingly Magritte-like quality of mystery: "The rain of course / still falls as it should / which is not on them" ("The Mirror"). "Depths" seems to me to be a key poem in Mole's work, dealing directly with what is basic to the theme of his serious work, prophetically stated:
Such a depth
Is fearful, nothing moves
But thoughts of what may start there
Even at this moment
Mole's 1987 collection Homing further establishes him as a poet of an assured, meticulous craftsmanship and with a sensitive ear for cadence. It is the development of his writing of poetry for young people, however, in which he displays the same technique and care to be found in his poetry for adults, that has come to be of special significance. His poetry for children can be seen as a natural development of his delight in wordplay and word games, the "Chantefables" and the "Penny Toys" poems mentioned earlier being a foretaste.
Mole's first collection for young people, Boo to a Goose (sensitively illustrated by Mary Norman), marked out his territory and set his standards, and it justly won the Signal award. Subsequent collections for young people-including Catching the Spider, The Conjuror's Rabbit, and Back by Midnight—have seen Mole take his rightful place in the tradition of worthy poets writing for children. He can be seen as a direct poetic successor to Walter de la Mare, James Reeves, and Charles Causley, poets who respected their young audiences and did not condescend or write down to them. If there should be a Campaign for Real Poetry for Children—and a case could be made for a dire need for one—Mole and his work would be in the vanguard. Underlying the playfulness of his work is the serious respect Mole shows for young readers through the craftsmanship and the care he takes. The intricate thought and technique of "Jig Saw Man" is an example:
Do you really think you can
Keep up with the Jig Saw Man
Who sits and thinks and thinks and sits
Surrounded by a sea of bits
Of every shape, of every size.
Then suddenly with blazing eyes
Puts this one here and that one there
The superbly crafted "A Ghost Story" begins with
When you come home and it's raining
And there's nobody in
And the kettle's switched off but still steaming
and continues with its reverberations and thought-provoking atmosphere. "A Ghost Story," among others of Mole's poems, lingers hauntingly with you after its reading, a mark of the genuine article.
The 1995 Selected Poems contains a weighty selection of new work, among which is a group of eleven poems, each with two six-line verses, that represent Mole at his assured best as a poet who has come into his own. These are vintage Mole poems, in the rhythm of which one can hear his authentic voice, shown, for example, in "A Browning Version":
No it didn't work out and to cut a long story
She swallowed her pride and a cold cappuccino
Decided his kind was a probable handful
So better press on regardless through customs
Where the ribbon she wore in her coat was admired
By a poet booked in on the cross-channel ferry.
The poems are urbane, with a touch of self-mockery in their confidence, and a delight.