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Sedgwick, Fred

SEDGWICK, Fred


Nationality: British and Irish. Born: Dublin, 20 January 1945. Education: Various schools in London, 1950–63; St. Luke's College, Exeter, 1965–68, Certificate in Education; Open University, 1970–74, B.A.; University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1982–84, M.A. Family: Married Dawn Anne Toft in 1980; one son. Career: Teacher in Stevenage and Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire; head teacher, Swing Gate First School, Berkhamsted, 1975–81, Bramford Primary School, Ipswich, 1981–84, and Downing Primary School, Ipswich, 1984–90. Tutor, Open University, 1986–87. In-service education lecturer for local authorities and other organizations. Freelance lecturer and writer, publishing articles on education and other subjects in The Guardian, The Times Educational Supplement, Art and Craft, Curriculum, Cambridge Journal of Education, and other publications. Address: 52 Melbourne Road, Ipswich, Suffolk IP4 5PP, England.

Publications

Poetry

Really in the Dark. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1976.

The Garden. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Dodman, 1977.

A Berkhamsted Three, with John Cotton and Freda Downie.

Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1978.

Details. Oxford, Mid-Day, 1980.

From Another Part of the Island. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1981.

A Garland for William Cowper. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1984.

The Living Daylights. West Kirby, Wirral, Headland, 1986.

Falernian. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1987.

Hey! (for children), with John Cotton. London, Mary Glasgow, 1990; with The Biggest Riddle in the World, as Two by Two, 1990.

Lies. Merseyside, Headland, 1991.

Pizza, Curry, Fish and Chips (for children). London, Longman, 1994.

Fifty. Ipswich, James Daniel Daniel John Press, 1995.

Other

Here Comes the Assembly Man: A Year in the Life of a Primary School. Basingstoke, Hampshire, Falmer, 1989.

Lighting Up Time: On Children's Writing. Stowmarket, Suffolk, Triad, 1990.

The Expressive Arts. London, David Fulton, 1993.

Drawing to Learn, with Dawn Sedgwick. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.

Personal, Social, and Moral Education. London, David Fulton, 1994.

Art Across the Curriculum, with Dawn Sedgwick. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1995.

Read My Mind: Young Children, Poetry, and Learning. London and New York, Routledge, 1997.

Shakespeare and the Young Writer. London and New York, Routledge, 1999.

Thinking about Literacy: Young Children and Their Language. London and New York, Routledge, 1999.

Editor, This Way That Way: A Collection of Poems for Schools. London, Mary Glasgow, and New York, McDougal Littel, 1989.

Editor, Collins Primary Poetry. London, HarperCollins, 1994.

Editor, Learning Together: A Practical Guide for Parents, by Dawn Sedgwick. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.

Editor, Two by Two: Poems, by John Cotton. Ipswich, James Daniel Daniel John Press, 1999.

*

Fred Sedgwick comments:

I think of writing as a learning activity: learning about myself, about the world, about the relationship, often dislocated, between the two. I see less and less a real distinction between what I write outside poetry on the one hand—about education, for example, especially children's writing and drawing—and on the other my poems. I think I am more fastidious about my verse, though, putting it through twenty or thirty drafts, discarding more than nine-tenths of what I start.

I seemed at first to be mostly concerned with domestic things, but I always relished telling lies, or making fictions, depending on how you look at it. I have written more political verse, as I have seen the systematic rubbing away of the education service in Britain from uncomfortably close up. I am using rhyme and strict forms more than before.

I do not know who has influenced me, but the poets I admire are Douglas Dunn, Heaney, Larkin, Plath, Auden, Edward Thomas, and Cowper. I write for children, and I am finding less that my work for them is somehow not so important as my mainstream work. Also, many of my poems now seem to have no obvious home as either mainstream or children's. They seem to belong to both.

The worst insult you can offer child or adult is to be dull. I try to avoid that. "For the love of Man and in praise of God" will do for me, as it did for Dylan Thomas.

*  *  *

Fred Sedgwick's earlier poems had the virtues, without the sentimentality, of what was misleadingly called the minimalist school. I say "misleadingly" since I suspect that the superficial, even banal, critical label of minimalist was applied only because the poems were not very long. At their best, in the hands of Ian Hamilton and Hugo Williams, such poems were certainly not minimal in any other sense of the word. Here is Sedgwick's "Details" to show what I mean:

Your clothes are neatly folded, your hair smooth—
even before love you get these details right.
Your arms around my neck,
you close your eyes, moving my body quickly into yours
 
and wonder why I take your hand, pause,
remove the gold ring, pushing lies
and your marriage just beyond the light,
sadly getting the one false detail right.

While a rather more accomplished poem than many of this genre, it is, more to the point, a poem full of narrative reverberations, overtones, and continuing ripples of meaning, with overlaying touches of angst, tristesse, and mutability. If poetry is about condensed language, of setting fuses in the mind, then "Details" is a fine example. Technically it is about getting the maximum of power with the minimum of force and the avoidance of pumped-up language. Indeed, the effect of the poem is in indirect ratio to the force used. It is a poetic economy in which words have to earn their place.

As Sedgwick's poetry began to expand both in technique and subject matter, the deep human concern and sense of ever present tragedy continued to illuminate his work. His series of poems about William Cowper are a case in point, where that sad, haunted genius, ever threatened by breakdown and mental and spiritual distress, is a symbol for the human situation, something akin to what is described in Miguel Unamuno's The Tragic Sense Of Life:

You know there is a storm behind this quiet.
The first big drops distort your face. You scream.

It is a milieu in which a loved one is addressed with "This, my hopeless, is where the summer ends" and in which life and the ghost in the machine that haunts us all are looked at directly and unflinchingly. It is what Thomas Hardy is supposed to have done, where the sentimental exits and concern enters. Yet even the sentimental can serve its turn, as in the poem "At Exeter St David's"—"And you and I, all Brief Encounter and cheap music"—which concludes, "It's very nice. But we can't take it home." There is the lurking primitive beneath the skin in "Another Part of the Island"—"gross, and everyday, like death"—or the directly graphic, as in "The Ballad of Darren Cullen." Yet Sedgwick's poetry can be tenderly compassionate, the more obviously so in the poems about the birth and progress of his son Daniel.

In Sedgwick's poetry we encounter not so much the true voice of feeling as the voice of true feeling. It may sometimes seem harsh, but it is the real thing. Nevertheless, it is not a world without humor, and it can laugh at itself, as in "Love Story":

The sexual telegrams were tender
But came back stamped RETURN TO SENDER.

In the collection Lies, published in 1991, we have the same sharp observation mellowed by Sedgwick's concern for the human condition. There is also sharp literary observation in the series of poems "The Literary Life," with the homages to poets Sedgwick admires adopting the styles of the poets concerned:

The ale is thin, the valley
  We can no longer see
Is scored by car and pylon, not
  The snowy cherry tree.

There also is deeply felt social comment in the series of poems "National Curriculum." It is good to see this humane poet's range and poetic skills widening in Lies.

I should not end without mentioning Sedgwick's poetry for young people. He is one of that honorable company of poets, which includes Kit Wright and John Mole, who succeed in writing poetry for children and not the condescendingly comic joke books or the sickeningly sentimental hearts-and-flowers stuff that threatens to replace poetry for youngsters.

—John Cotton

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