Scupham, (John) Peter
SCUPHAM, (John) Peter
Nationality: British. Born: Liverpool, Lancashire, 24 February 1933. Education: The Perse, Cambridge 1942–47; St. George's Harpenden, 1947–51; Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 1954–57, B.A. (honors) in English, 1957. Military Service: Royal Army Ordnance Corps. Family: Married Carola Braunholtz in 1957; one daughter and three sons. Career: English teacher, Skegness Grammar School, Lincolnshire, 1957–61. Since 1961 member of the English Department, St. Christopher School, Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Editor, with John Mole, Cellar Press, and since 1974 owner, Mandeville Press, both in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. Awards: Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Address: Old Hall, Norwich Road, South Burlingham, Norwich NR 13, England.
The Small Containers. Stockport, Cheshire, Phoenix Pamphlet Poets Press, 1972.
The Snowing Globe. Manchester, E.J. Morten, 1972.
Children Dancing. Oxford, Sycamore Press, 1972.
The Nondescript. Stockport, Cheshire, Phoenix Pamphlet Poets Press, 1973.
The Gift: Love Poems. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1973.
Prehistories. London, Oxford University Press, 1975.
A Mandeville Troika, with Neil Powell and George Szirtes. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1977.
The Hinterland. London, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Megaliths and Water, drawings by Andy Christian. Brampton, LYC Museum, 1978.
Natura. Sidcot, Somerset, Gruffyground Press, and Iowa City, Windhover Press, 1978.
Summer Palaces. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1980.
Christmas Past, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1981.
Transformation Scenes: A Sequence of Five Poems. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Red Gull Press, 1982.
Winter Quarters. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Christmas Games, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1983.
Christmas Visits, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1985.
Out Late. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Winter Emblems, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1986.
Christmas Fables, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1987.
The Air Show. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Christmas Gifts, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1988.
Christmas Books, with John Mole. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1989.
Watching the Perseids. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Selected Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.
The Ark. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Night Watch. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1999.*
Manuscript Collection: British Library, London.
Critical Studies: In New Statesman (London), 29 September 1972; by Michael Longley, in Phoenix 9 (Stockport, Cheshire), winter 1972; in Irish Times (Dublin), 6 January 1973; in The Teacher (London), 2 March 1973; in Encounter (London), 18 May 1973; in Times Literary Supplement (London), 23 May 1975 and 21 November 1977; "Lessons in Survival" (interview), in PN Review (Manchester), 10 (5); "Mature Students: Peter Scupham and Andrew Waterman" by Neil Powell, in British Poetry since 1970: A Critical Survey, edited by Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt, New York, Persea, 1980; "Giants in the Earth: Recent Myths for British Poets" by Avrom Fleishman, in ELH (Baltimore, Maryland), 51 (1), spring 1984; by Roland John, in Agenda (London), 26 (3), autumn 1988; "Poetic Practice" by the author, in The Poet's Voice and Craft, edited by C.B. McCully, Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.
Peter Scupham comments:
I feel with Auden that poetry is a game of knowledge, and I enjoy the complexity of rules that make the game worth playing. I enjoy, and hope my work demonstrates, formalities, ironies, technical complexities, patterns, elegance. But since the game is a game of knowledge, I also hope my poems are about something, that they possess a strong sense of the reality of people and objects. The game should be played for someone or something else's sake, not for the poet's. I enjoy tightrope walking, cadence, clarity, celebrations; I dislike the raw, the self-absorbed, the cosmic. The poets for whom I feel particular elective affinities would include James Reeves, Norman Cameron, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wilbur, John Crowe Ransom. I would like my best poems to unite the dance of beauty with the dance of death.* * *
The subject matter of Peter Scupham's poetry reflects the wide-ranging interests of an acute intelligence: archaeology in "Un Peu d'Histoire: Dordogne"; jazz in "Fats Waller"; children and family in "Small Pets," "Four Fish," and "Family Ties"; and so we could go on. The poetry itself is marked by a scrupulous care in the use of language and form, which results in a precision of expression and feeling.
Scupham is keenly aware of our vulnerability, of that incidence of tragedy that lies close to the surface of everyday domestic life: "All this dark humus / A soft compound of shared sufferings. / The earth is knit together with absences" ("At Home"). Life is not without menace even in the nursery, where "the small child tosses. It is not easy / To have wolves wished upon you. / They wait patiently beside the bed" ("Wolves"). His preoccupation with prehistory and the earth's geological and historical past is tied in, for in Scupham's world the sense of a common bond between all humanity, past and present, is never far off; our concerns and fears are shared through the ages. It is a poetry of a committed conscience, deriving depth from a historical perspective where responsibility is everyman's. This is seen clearly in the impressive poem "The Nondescript," which Scupham wrote for Friends of the Earth and in which the use of the first person manages to be strongly impersonal and yet all-embracing—"I am plural. My interests are manifold / I see through many eyes. I am fabulous"—so that the poem manages to address the reader while involving him as a participant in its tragic consequences—"I have prepared a stone inheritance / It flourishes beneath my fertile tears."
Scupham's collection The Hinterland marks a movement toward more recent history, and the sonnet sequence that gives the collection its title has as its central theme World War I. The dazzling technical feat of writing fifteen sonnets linked by their first and last lines, with the final sonnet composed of those lines, is such that critics have been beguiled by the quality of the work itself. But the poet has infused his historical perspective with a remarkable emotional immediacy:
Where blood and stone proclaim their unities
Under the topsoil vagaries of green
Works the slow justle of the small debris …
He continues the trend in the collections Summer Palaces and Winter Quarters, and there are splendidly direct and moving poems based on his father-in-law's World War I diaries and his own National Service. The latter collection's wry humor is conveyed in a series of dazzling conceits and metaphors. While it is true that Scupham's poetry can be so loaded with meaning, overtones, and allusions that it reminds one of those great summer bees freighted with rich pollen, he has done the art a service in reminding us that technical excellence and true feeling are not inimical. Indeed, his poetry recalls Jonathan Raban's concept of "The Society of the Poem," and once a reader has entered the world of a Scupham poem and accepted its perceptions and ethos, all falls into place, and the experience becomes profoundly enriching.
In later collections an increased warmth and depth of feeling break through Scupham's formidably meticulous technique. For example, his poem "Cat's Cradle" is so moving that I find it difficult to read without salty eyes. The poem, a small masterpiece, is precisely crafted with an exactness that is a means to an end and not an end in itself:
His face with its sharp look,
His fur grown stray and dim—
For these long miles of sleep,
Let the earth cradle him.
Humor comes to the fore too in the remarkable series of parodies in the collection Out Late. There is the parody of Robert Frost—
It's not that the way was hard.
Though the rocks and the boulders there
Had guessed that another yard
Was a step too hard to bear
—and of John Betjeman-
Blessed bells of Great St Mary's,
Hunting through the April air,
When He speaks among your tumult,
Grant my name may find Him there
—where the real humor lies in the exactness of the pastiche. From these poems there emerges not only a poet who demands an awed admiration but also one who can be a friend.
In the 1999 collection Night Watch Scupham continues the development of his style, moving from a scrupulously tight formal brilliance to a more relaxed conversational mode. Nevertheless, the reader should not be deceived by this seeming relaxation. There are a remarkable compactness and richness of language in which allusion follows allusion, reference follows reference, ideas bounce off one another, and shards of memory are recovered to build up a cumulative atmosphere and recollection of the past.
It is a world in which language and history are retrieved and "packed up in the old kit-bags" ("Terminus"). In spite of the humor, the atmosphere created is often one of a quiet, contemplative melancholy:
You played in childhood at being dead
and look, it all came true.
The collection contains at least one small poetic masterpiece, "Arras Easter 1998," about the discovery of the bodies of three British soldiers, two identified and one not, who were killed in World War I and who are given long overdue military funerals. Marked by its grim humor, the poem skillfully and sensitively recalls the ethos and the language of the time:
three Fusiliers, two metal dog-tagged,
late, but uncrimed for this last posting;
their taken names and numbers
restored for eighty years good conduct.
One, obstinate in a dumb insolence,
dispersed his syllables about the earth
and, carried in to this assize, must be
sentenced to the usual reprimand—
"The Night Kitchen" is another haunting poem in the collection. The scene superbly set in the opening lines—"Headlamps glancing away from the night ahead / glaze the room over"—it proceeds to pursue its theme of mutability—"Everything that happens happens in passing." Scupham continues to be as accomplished as ever.