Williams, Hugo (Mordaunt) 1942-
WILLIAMS, Hugo (Mordaunt) 1942-
PERSONAL: Born February 20, 1942, in Windsor, Berkshire, England; son of Hugh (an actor and playwright) and Margaret (an actress and playwright; maiden name, Vyner) Williams; married Hermine Demoriane, October 9, 1965; children: Catherine Murphy. Education: Attended Eton College, 1955-60.
ADDRESSES: Home—3 Raleigh St., London N1 8NW, England.
CAREER: Poet and travel writer. Alan Ross, Ltd. (publishers), London, England, assistant editor, for London Magazine, 1961-70; New Statesman, London, television critic, 1983-88, poetry editor, 1984-93; The Sunday Correspondent, London, theatre critic, 1989-91; film critic for Harper's, New York City, and Queen's, London, 1993—. Also worked briefly for Weekend Telegraph.
AWARDS, HONORS: Eric Gregory Poetry Award, 1966; Cholmondeley Award, 1971; Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, 1979, for Love-Life; Henfield Writer's fellow, University of East Anglia, 1981; T.S. Eliot Prize, 1999, for Billy's Rain.
Symptoms of Loss, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1965.
(Editor and contributor) London Magazine Poems, 1961-1966, Alan Ross (London, England), 1966.
Sugar Daddy, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1970.
Some Sweet Day, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1975.
Love-Life, illustrated by Jessica Gwynne, Deutsch/Whizzard Press (London, England), 1979.
First Poems, Tragara Press (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1985.
Writing Home, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985.
Selected Poems, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1989.
Self-Portrait with a Slide, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1990.
Dock Leaves, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1994.
Billy's Rain, Faber and Faber (London, England), 1999.
Curtain Call: 101 Portraits in Verse, Faber and Faber (London, England), c. 2001.
All the Time in the World (travel), Alan Ross, 1966, Chilton (Radnor, PA), 1968.
(Translator) Hermine Demoriane, Life Star, Coward-McCann (New York, NY), 1968, London Magazine Editions (London, England), 1968.
No Particular Place to Go (travel), Cape (London, England), 1981.
(With Christopher Petit) Flight to Berlin (screenplay), 1984.
Freelancing: Adventures of a Poet, Faber and Faber (Boston, MA), 1995.
Contributor to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1982, and Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, Oxford University Press. Writer of the "Freelance" column for Times Literary Supplement.
SIDELIGHTS: Poet Hugo Williams was born into a theatrical family. His father, Hugh Williams, was an established actor who appeared in numerous plays and motion pictures. Similarly, his brother became a successful actor, while his mother had a brief career as a model and film actress. Although Williams did not follow the family pattern, the presence of the stage is obvious in many of his poems, including "Death of an Actor," "The Actor," and "The Stage Is Unlit." The effect of the theater is also visible in Williams's style. Fiona Pitt-Kethley commented in a London Times review: "His writing is subtle and understated in the manner of the best acting."
Not surprisingly, critics seemed to agree that Williams's poems are most effective when they explore the relationships within his family. Pitt-Kethley claim that Williams is "a writer who is at his very best on family life—in Sugar Daddy, a touching tribute to his daughter . . . ; and in the fine poems about his father." In the Times Literary Supplement, Lawrence Norfolk stated that Williams is most powerful when examining the difficult transition from childhood into adulthood: "Williams's skill lies in rerouting immature fears and passions through personae old enough to know better, but who do not know better. It is a recipe for bitter irony which Williams usually transmutes into the hard-edged comedy which is his hallmark."
Michael Hulse, in an essay for Dictionary of Literary Biography, pointed to the brevity of the Sugar Daddy poetry. "The more successful poems, often anecdotal yet laden with insight, create the reverberations we associate with the poet's finest work," said Hulse. He quoted a stanza from "The Couple Upstairs" in which a wife leaves the house abruptly: "they seemed inviolate, like us/Our loves in sympathy. Her going/Thrills and frightens us. We come awake/And talk excitedly about ourselves, like guests." "Here and elsewhere," stated Hulse, "Williams has a talent for touching nerves, for seeing in two words ('like us') the essential instability of worlds, for finding the right, questioning image ('like guests')."
Love—in its emotional and physical forms—is the basis for Love-Life, a 1979 collection. "These areas of experience, always important to Williams, seem at the end of the 1970s to have grown in significance to his personal life and his poetry," commented Hulse. New Statesman contributor Blake Morrison found, "on the face of it, Love-Life is the most extreme example to date of . . . naked declaration of feeling." Noting that in earlier work Williams leaned toward a "cool" ironic distance regarding love, "over the years he has acquired a voice of almost childlike directness, and in this, the most intimate and innocent of all his collections, writes with a seemingly artless candor." Love-Life explores aspects of the poet's youth as does Writing Home, a 1985 collection that Jonathan Barker declared Williams's best book. In an essay for Contemporary Poets, Barker elaborated: "Writing Home takes as its themes his relationship with his father . . . [and enables Williams] to introduce more deeply personal material taken direct from his own family history. The forms of the poems are rhythmically supple, at once fluid and seemingly throw-away, entertaining, yet moving too."
As the twentieth century drew to a close, Williams produced two new collections, Billy's Rain and Curtain Call: 101 Portraits in Verse. Of the former, winner of the T. S. Eliot Award for best English poetry, Lancet critic Daniel Davis thought the volume "might easily have been a novel. The collection tells a story; there are scenes; there are characters; and there is dialogue. Despite its brevity, [Billy's Rain] tells the story as satisfyingly as any work of fiction." The account of an extramarital affair depicted in the poems led an Economist writer to wonder if the work is autobiographical, adding that Williams "denied that these poems had anything to do with his blissfully contented present—but the reader cannot help but wonder whether the book might not have been written in this way, blurring the distinction between fiction and fact, in order to provoke a little attention-stealing speculation of this kind."
In addition to recognition as an accomplished poet, Williams has also received praise for his travel writings. In a review of the worldwide travel journal All the Time in the World, a Times Literary Supplement writer explained that "One of the most refreshing things about Mr. Williams's book is its complete lack of pretentiousness.... What emerges is a young man who is fresh without being gauche, open but not soft-centered." Such a "lack of pretentiousness" seems more extreme in No Particular Place to Go, a satirical account of Williams's lecture tour in the United States. In his Times Literary Supplement review of the book, Blake Morrison painted a portrait of Williams's arrival in America in stark contrast to that of Oscar Wilde. Morrison described Wilde as "humping a trunk about so that he could adorn himself in velvets and furs," whereas Williams "travels light, cramming most of what he needs into nine pockets and eventually disposing of his vomit-stained leather jacket in a Coney Island trash-can." Morrison ultimately found greater value in Williams's anecdotes than the obvious entertainment value of penniless bus travel, claiming that Williams "deserves to be read as an inventor as well as documentor, a writer who has made the most of not making good in America."
Still, it is as poet that Williams remains best known. His poems, said Barker, "are able to express real emotions from the past and the present plainly and with honesty and a limpid deftness of rhythm. He has, rightly, been called a writer able to celebrate the moment, and his poems are sure to endure."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 42, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Contemporary Poets, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Williams, Hugo, Freelancing: Adventures of a Poet, Faber and Faber (Boston, MA), 1995.
Agenda, spring, 1995, review of Dock Leaves, p. 124.
Economist, March 18, 2000, "Whose Voice Is It Anyway?," p. 14.
Encounter, November, 1975, Douglas Dunn, "Manana Is Now," pp. 76-81; January, 1980, Alan Brownjohn, "An Unprovincial Province," p. 68; February, 1982, p. 66; November, 1986, p. 62.
Lancet, March 10, 2001, Daniel Davies, "The End of the Affair," p. 812.
Listener, March 10, 1966, Graham Martin, review of Symptoms of Loss, p. 359; January 31, 1980, p. 157; January 7, 1982, p. 23; December 5, 1985, p. 33; July 5, 1990, p. 34.
London, March, 1966, Ian Hamilton, review of Symptoms of Loss, pp. 95-97; October-November, 1975, Gavin Ewart, "A Handful of the Best," pp. 97-100.
London Review of Books, February 18, 1982, p. 15; February 20, 1986, p. 20; February 21, 1991, p. 14; February 23, 1995, review of Dock Leaves, p. 26.
New Statesman, July 24 1970, Alan Brownjohn, "Masquerades," pp. 93-94; September 28, 1975, Blake Morrison, October 30, 1981, p. 31; October 11, 1985, p. 36; December 20, 1985, pp. 60-61; October 11, 1985, p. 36; December 20, 1985, pp. 60-61; December 17, 2001, Adam Newey, review of Curtain Call: 101 Portraits in Verse, p. 113.
New Statesman and Society, April 7, 1989, p. 39; June 22, 1990, p. 52; December 15, 1995, review of Freelancing: Adventures of a Poet, p. 66.
Observer (London), November 1, 1981, p. 33; October 6, 1985, Peter Porter, "A Performer Waiting in the Wings," p. 25; December 1, 1985, p. 17; June 11, 1989, p. 42; July 16, 1989, p. 42; August 5, 1990, p. 54; November 14, 1999, review of Billy's Rain, p. 13.
Poetry, November, 1966.
Poetry Review, winter, 1970-71, Raymond Durgnat, "Men of Two Worlds," pp. 366-369.
Review, October, 1966, Stephen Wall, "Pipe and Slippers," pp. 36-39.
Spectator, November 21, 1981, p. 20; June 10, 1989, p. 39; January 14, 1995, review of Dock Leaves, p. 29.
Stand, winter, 1990, p. 24; autumn, 1991, p. 11.
Times (London), March 11, 1989.
Times Literary Supplement, March 9, 1967, "On the Road," p. 200; September 11, 1970, "Flights and Depths," p. 994; February 1, 1980, Vicki Feaver, "Performances in Feeling," p. 112; October 30, 1981, Blake Morrison, review of No Particular Place to Go, p. 1254; September 27, 1985, Roy Fuller, "Domestic Echoes," p. 1054; June 30, 1989, p. 715; July 13, 1990, p. 761; October 13, 1995, review of Freelancing, p. 37.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1986, p. 638.*