Wilmer, Clive

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Nationality: British. Born: Harrogate, Yorkshire, 10 February 1945. Education: Emanuel School, 1956–63; King's College, Cambridge, 1964–67 and 1968–71, B.A. (honors) in English 1967, M.A. in English 1971. Family: Married Diane Redmond in 1971 (divorced 1987); one daughter and one son. Career: Teacher of English, British Institute of Florence, 1968, and Oxford School of English, Padua, 1971–72; assistant lecturer, University of Padua, Verona, 1971–72; freelance teacher and journalist, Cambridge, 1972–73; teacher of English, Bell School of Languages, Cambridge, 1973–86; visiting professor in creative writing, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1986. Since 1986 freelance teacher, writer, and broadcaster. Presenter, Poet of the Month radio program, 1989–92; member of the faculty, University of Cambridge, 1992; research associate, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1997–99; research fellow and poet-inresidence, Anglia Polytechnic University, 1998–2000; associate teaching officer, Fitzwilliam and Sidney Sussex Colleges, Cambridge, 1999. Editor, Numbers, 1986–90. Member, organizing committee of exhibition for centenary of Ezra Pound, Pound's Artists (Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, and London), 1985. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1979; Artisjus translation prize (Hungary), 1980; Author's Foundation grant, 1993; Mikimoto Memorial Ruskin Lecturer, University of Lancaster, 1996; honorary fellowship, Anglia Polytechnic University, 1997; Hungarian PEN Club Memorial Medal for Translation, Budapest, 1998. Member: Companion, Guild of St. George, 1995. Agent: Michael Thomas, A.M. Heath and Co. Ltd., 79 St. Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AA. Address: 57 Norwich Street, Cambridge CB2 1ND, England.



Shade Mariners, with Dick Davis and Robert Wells. Cambridge, Gregory Spiro, 1970.

The Dwelling-Place. Manchester, Carcanet, 1977.

Devotions. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.

A Catalogue of Flowers. Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1986.

Amores. Wivenhoe, Essex, L. Bell, 1986.

The Infinite Variety. Florence, Kentucky, R.L. Barth, 1989.

Of Earthly Paradise. Manchester, Carcanet, 1992.

Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.

The Falls. Tonbridge, Kent, Worple Press, 2000.


Poets Talking: Poet of the Month Interviews from BBC Radio 3. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Editor, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography, by Thom Gunn. London, Faber, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1982.

Editor, Unto This Last, and Other Writings, by John Ruskin. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1986.

Editor, Selected Poems and Translations, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.

Editor, News From Nowhere and Other Writings, by William Morris. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1993.

Editor, with Charles Moseley, Cambridge Observed: An Anthology. Cambridge, Colt Books, 1998.

Editor, With the Grain: Essays on Thomas Hardy and Modern British Poetry, by Donald Davie. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.

Editor, with George Gömöri, The Life and Work of Miklós Radnóti: Essays. Boulder, Colorado, East European Monographs, 1999.

Translator, with George Gömöri, Forced March: Selected Poems, by Miklós Radnóti. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.

Translator, with George Gömöri, Night Song of the Personal Shadow: Selected Poems, by György Petri. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990.

Translator, with George Gömöri, My Manifold City, by George Gömöri. Cambridge, Alba Press, 1998.

Translator, with George Gömöri, Eternal Monday: New and Selected Poems, by György Petri. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1999.


Critical Studies: By John Mole, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 13 January 1978; by Peter Gilbert, in Jewish Quarterly (London), summer-autumn 1980; by Martin Dodsworth, in The Guardian (London), 19 August 1982; in PN Review 30 (Manchester), 9(4), and in Times Literary Supplement (London), 4 December 1992, both by Thom Gunn; by Tim Dooley, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 7 January 1983; by Ruth Padel in The Times Saturday Review (London), 23 January 1993; by Vernon Scannell in Sunday Telegraph (London), 14 March 1993; by Roger Garfitt, in Poetry Review, 84(2), summer 1994.

Clive Wilmer comments:

My work is formal, usually in a traditional way, but by no means always so. Form is a matter of artifice and therefore derives from our human sense of order. Language is a means of communicating to others the meaning our experience has for us. Poetry is language at its most intense and most formal. It is something that stands aside from the current of everyday life in an attempt to understand. Behind what I write I always feel a kind of dialogue going on between art and nature, between the flux of undifferentiated matter and the human need for meaning and permanence.

*  *  *

Clive Wilmer's poetry is largely traditional, often unfashionable, and, in view of what it attempts, remarkably successful. Without embarrassment Wilmer can rework a story from Ivanhoe, write of chivalry, honor, and Renaissance courtesy as if they still lived, and use foursquare hymn stanzas without slipping into protective irony or parody. And he can usually do these things without making his reader cringe. Yet he is not an anachronism or a purveyor of nostalgia; he has his own kind of involvement with the present and even has some lessons for those with more up-to-date assumptions.

Wilmer's first strength is as an elegist and epitaphist. His preoccupation is not with death but with the dead and their relation to the living, and he is less concerned with the dead themselves than with their works, the legacy that forms the preconditions of our own entry into meaning. Fascinated by their lapidary force, Wilmer writes verse as strikingly unegotistical, as empty of the posturing lyric "I," as powerful tombstone inscriptions. He is not ashamed to praise and admire greatly, to celebrate virtues and achievements, and he can do so without gush because celebration for him does not entail the suspension of rationality and judgment. In his introduction to Thom Gunn's critical essays, Wilmer quotes Gunn on Yvor Winters: "The conveying [of experience] has little meaning without the evaluation." Wilmer admires both as poets of "contained energy." For him, as for Gunn, Thomas Hardy, William Carlos Williams, and Ben Jonson, all poetry is occasional, and the true poet is "true to his occasions," more interested in the world than in himself. We are apparently back in a world of stable certainties and moral virtues and with a poetry that acknowledges the charm and moving power of abstract as well as concrete language. Wilmer is a Christian who can put his trust in "a simple, disembodied word, the truth," but if that seems far too unproblematic in the late twentieth century, the word "disembodied" suggests the losses, as well as the satisfactions, of abstract certainty and faith.

In his critical writing Wilmer has defended the use of archaisms in poetry. Sometimes his own language seems worn smooth, overfamiliar, or merely imitative of, say, eighteenth-century effects. But more often his poetry demonstrates the validity of his perception that the conventional epithet can be more painful, more pathos laden, than the sharp new phrase. Meaning, after all, is a matter of employing conventional signs. Wilmer is more modern than he appears. His "devotional" poetry, more interested in the text than its writer, finds a way out of the traps of expressionism. Poem after poem shows people rapt out of themselves by becoming absorbed in some work or pursuit: a boy staring at the riches of the seabed or a bird-watcher patiently awaiting his prey's return, becoming "less than himself and more." Likewise, to the intelligent Christian the play of difference is no decentering nightmare but rather another perception of babel, for in the world we inhabit language is "shattered into vagrant syllables" and we can only dream of a world where "the sense / Of things would be the things themselves and words / Would gem the melismatic harmony / Rarely, articulating it." He is well aware of the circuitous approach of language to truth and meaning or of the human to the divine.

The middle section of Devotions shows that Wilmer is no traditionalist merely for the sake of being so, for here he sets aside his taut traditional stanzas and metrics and experiments with counterpoising half lines by weight. Amores, a short poem published on a single folded sheet, is more personal than most of his work, being reflections on the memory of a past episode of love, and its minimal appearance reinforces the poignancy of the subject: "Three afternoons of love, and you must go. / I miss you, scarcely knowing whom I miss."

Wilmer's best work has dignity, emotional force, elegance, and even grandeur. The poems avoid sonority or self-satisfaction by admitting into themselves all of the forces—desolation, terror, malignity, slaughter—that would destroy their scheme of values and then by fending them off, thus conveying the precious fragility of what they seek to create—"A clearing, where love grows, and rests."

—R.J.C. Watt