Nationality: British. Born: Spilsby, Lincolnshire, 23 January 1922. Education: Queen's Park School, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire; University of Leeds, Yorkshire, 1946–47. Military Service: Gordon Highlanders, 1941–45. Family: Married Josephine Higson in 1954; two daughters and three sons (one deceased). Career: Professional boxer, 1945–46; English teacher, Hazelwood School, Limpsfield, Surrey, 1955–62. Since 1962 freelance writer and broadcaster. Resident poet, village of Berinsfield, Oxfordshire, 1978; visiting poet, Shrewsbury School, Shropshire, 1978–79, and King's School, Canterbury, 1979. Awards: Heinemann award, 1961; Arts Council grant, 1967, 1970; Cholmondeley award, 1974; Southern Arts Writers fellowship, 1975; Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1987. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1960. Granted Civil List pension, 1981. Address: 51 North Street, Otley, West Yorkshire LS 21 lAH, England.
Graves and Resurrections. London, Fortune Press, 1948.
A Mortal Pitch. London, Villiers, 1957.
The Masks of Love. London, Putnam, 1960.
A Sense of Danger. London, Putnam, 1962.
Walking Wounded. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
Epithets of War: Poems 1965–1969. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1969.
Pergamon Poets 8, with Jon Silkin, edited by Dennis Butts. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1970.
Selected Poems. London, Allison and Busby, 1971.
Company of Women. Frensham, Surrey, Sceptre Press, 1971.
Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 4, with others, edited by Jeremy Robson. London, Corgi, 1971.
Incident at West Bay. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1972.
The Winter Man: New Poems. London, Allison and Busby, 1973.
Meeting in Manchester. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1974.
The Loving Game. London, Robson, 1975.
An Ilkley Quintet. Privately printed, c.1975.
A Morden Tower Reading 1, with Alexis Lykiard. Newcastle upon Tyne, Morden Tower, 1976.
New and Collected Poems 1950–1980. London, Robson, 1980.
Winterlude. London, Robson, 1982.
Funeral Games and Other Poems. London, Robson, 1987.
Soldiering On: Poems of Military Life. London, Robson, 1989.
A Time for Fires. London, Robson, 1991.
Collected Poems 1950–1993. London, Robson, 1994.
The Black and White Days: Poems. London, Robson, 1996.
Views and Distances. London, Enitharmon, 2000.
Poetry (for children)
Mastering the Craft. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1970.
The Apple-Raid and Other Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1974.
The Clever Potato. London, Century Hutchinson, 1988.
Love Shouts and Whispers. London, Century Hutchinson, 1990.
Travelling Light. London, Bodleyhead, 1991.
Radio Plays: A Man's Game, 1962; A Door with One Eye, 1963;
The Cancelling Dark, music by Christopher Whelen, 1965.
The Fight. London, Peter Nevill, 1953.
The Wound and the Scar. London, Peter Nevill, 1953.
The Big Chance. London, Long, 1960.
The Shadowed Place. London, Long, 1961.
The Face of the Enemy. London, Putnam, 1961.
The Dividing Night. London, Putnam, 1962.
The Big Time. London, Longman, 1965.
Ring of Truth. London, Robson, 1983.
Edward Thomas. London, Longman, 1963.
The Dangerous Ones (for children). Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1970.
The Tiger and the Rose: An Autobiography. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1971.
Three Poets, Two Children, with Dannie Abse and Leonard Clark, edited by Desmond Badham-Thornhill. Gloucester, Thornhill Press, 1975.
Not without Glory: Poets of the Second World War. London, Woburn Press, 1976.
A Proper Gentleman. London, Robson, 1977.
A Lonely Game (for children). Exeter, Wheaton, 1979.
How to Enjoy Poetry. Loughton, Essex, Piatkus, 1983.
How to Enjoy Novels. London, Piatkus, 1984.
Argument of Kings: An Autobiography. London, Robson, 1987.
Drums of Morning: Growing Up in the Thirties. London, Robson, 1992.
Editor, with Patricia Beer and Ted Hughes, New Poems 1962. London, Hutchinson, 1962.
Editor, Your Attention Please: An Anthology from the Open University Poets. Winchester, Hampshire, Hesperus, 1983.
Editor, Sporting Literature. Oxford, Oxford University Press, l987.*
Manuscript Collections: British Library, London; University of Texas, Austin.
Critical Studies: "Naming the Unicorn" by Gavin Ewart, in Ambit (London), 1975; "Towards Text Typology" by Graham C. John, in Applied Text Linguistics: Six Contributions from Exeter, edited by Alan J. Turney, Exeter.
Vernon Scannell comments:
Major themes: violence, the experience of war, the sense of danger that is part of the climate of our times. These are contrasted with poems of a more private nature that affirm the continuity and indestructibility of the creative spirit. Some verse satire. The work is traditional, very direct, and firmly rooted in recognizable human experience.* * *
Vernon Scannell is the ordinary man as poet, yet with not an ounce of that English failing of inverted snobbery in him. Why? Because of a genuine, unparaded humility—
...how insolent to make
These blurred attempts when Shakespeare, Donne
Have done what they have done. And yet it tempts,
This longing to make wicks of words...
—and because of a long and intelligent experience of day-to-day life. The character projected in his verse is that of the eternal British Tommy who has seen it all, who knows what "makes things tick" (for example, see the poem "Any Complaints?"), and who is downright honest—as far as it is given to any human being to be so. He is like a Roy Campbell without the bravado and that much truer to life. He is a man with guts, and Scannell's own truest character is perceived through this admiration for a certain Jack-the-lad, a quondam schoolfellow sympathetically portrayed in the poem "A Kind of Hero." He is a bad but noble lad who in
The end was killed at Alamein.
He wore handcuffs on the troopship
Going out: his webbing
All scrubbed as white as rice;
And we, or others like us,
By his last, derisive sacrifice.
It was also in the roped-off crucible of the boxing ring that Scannell learned not only to trade with his fists but in the honesty of truth of well; he learned a humane realism through playing by the rules. In the rough experience of the ring he came to appreciate real men, those who
The failure of success...they were real
Members of our craft, good workmen, proud
To wear the badges of the trade, a breed
That if it dies, could surely mean the end
Of what I still believe the greatest game.
Scannell is firmly of those whom the hard school of life has taught a respect for nothing but the truth, a responsibility that the poet has to take doubly seriously, for as he says in his autobiography The Tiger and the Rose, "a poet has no time for duplicity or propaganda: he is too busy trying to get his words right."
Scannell is a workmanlike poet who uses rhyme well but not notably and whose imagery is often startling but rarely far-fetched. His principal themes are mortality, the persistent itch of love and lust, and man's inability to know the whole truth about anything. He is about as nondidactic a poet as it is possible to be without sinking completely to the level of a purely descriptive writer. From A Mortal Pitch, published in 1957, to Funeral Games, in 1987, and the later and lighthearted Soldiering On, Scannell has not really developed. His style, a demotic-toned, sometimes slangy brew that is sweetened from time to time with lines of almost sugary beauty, remains the same. His very unphilosophical explorations rarely break new ground, but such is his skill and accessibility that he takes one easily into the everyday world and makes the reader exclaim admiringly at each nicely balanced, perceptive observation. His is an Augustan sensibility in rough-hewn form.
Although he is more than just a descriptive poet, Scannell's powers of description are considerable:
Endlessly the stream slides past,
Jellies each white flat stone
Which stares through its slithering window at
The sky's smeared monotone.
These lines are from "The Anniversary," in the 1975 collection The Loving Game, a poem illustrating two of his most important stylistic features. The first is an excellent gift for surprising, but 100 percent accurate, terms; an example is "Jellies each white flat stone," which calls up precisely and freshly the effect of water passing over stones. Second, as this same poem neatly demonstrates, his ability to personalize the so-called objective or inanimate things of nature is tastefully and not incongruously analogical.
There is a great deal of gently perverse humor in Scannell's poetry too, a humor that relies not so much on situation or exaggeration as on memorably ludicrous lines like "I am not old enough to cope with age" or "Oh Christ, I'll always be too young to die" ("Two Variations on an Old Theme"). Then there are lines of excellent perception seasoned with a touch of humor, like this from "Report on Drinking Habits": "His eyes' brightness advertises / Good meals and unadventurous sleeping." One does not quite know whether to applaud these lines most for their wisdom or their fun.
Scannell's volumes Funeral Games and Soldiering On are eloquent epitomes of the character and range of his talent. The beauty and tenderness of "Candle Reflections"—
Their tears silent, warm and lenitive
Cooling to translucent blebs like pearls.
Their element has always been religious...
—both contrast with and complement the earthy, half-barbaric language of "Swearing In" or "Bayonet Training":
Be brutal, ruthless, tough.
I want to hear you scream for blood
As you rip out his guts...
This ordinary man's bard retains a verbal energy rooted very much in the common tongue, yet it rises frequently to that perfectly heightened vernacular that has always been, and will always be, the language vehicle of true poetry. Though what will endure of Scannell's work, as with that of any poet, can be only a few poems of a sufficient but inescapable brightness, perhaps his most remarkable achievement is the tactful balance he has always maintained between honest accuracy of observation and the free, unhindered play of the imagination ("Its fragrant and substantial presence …"). There is both body and soul in all of his poems: "Through every sense the quintessential fruit … / Here, domestic, familiar as a pet." Finally, there is wisdom and maturity that shows in an understanding of memory, best expressed in "The Long and Lovely Summers," from Funeral Games:
And yet we still remember them—the long
And lovely summers, never smeared or chilled—
Like poems, by heart; like poems, never wrong,
The idyll is intact, it's truth distilled
From merciful fact, preserved as by the sharp
And merciful mendacities of art.
For poetry, as the Greeks said, is a daughter of memory, and the truest poetry is memory best understood.