James Fountain in conversation with Clare Morris about his new book ‘The Poetry of Joseph Macleod’

James Fountain in conversation with Clare Morris about his new book ‘The Poetry of Joseph Macleod’

‘Macleod is a modern master and utterly vital. I was absolutely thrilled to be the one entrusted with orchestrating his reintroduction to the world and rescuing his work from obscurity, after initial groundwork by Andrew Duncan’

Poet and reviewer, James Fountain talks with Clare Morris about his book, The Poetry of Joseph Macleod, and explains why we could soon be seeing a resurgence in interest in the work of this forgotten ‘virtuoso of form and rhythm’.

Joseph Macleod James Fountain

‘The Poetry of Joseph Macleod’ by James Fountain
Published by Waterloo Press
Price £15
Publication date January 2021 

Hello James. Thank you very much for talking to us about your new book, soon to be published by Waterloo Press. I know you’ve already explored your PhD experience in a recent article for The Blue Nib, ‘To PhD or not to PhD?’ but could you start by reminding us of what led up to your decision to make Joseph Macleod your PhD subject?

I was offered a position on a PhD at the University of Glasgow in 2004, while I was in the middle of a teaching contract in Austria and Italy at the age of 24. It was a tough decision to leave a decent job in so beautiful a place as Vienna, but I was delighted my application to research a comparison of British and American Interwar literatures was accepted. I loved my four years in Glasgow as an undergraduate, 1998-2002.

However, my end of year review showed that although I’d made good progress in publishing original research on the works of Langston Hughes, Orwell, Auden and Dos Passos, my overall plan was deemed too wide by the internal reviewer. I had to pack it up. Finding me sat dejectedly in the postgraduate bar with a pint of Guinness, Professor Nigel Leask, a world expert on the work of Robert Burns and Regius Chair of English and Scottish Literature at the university, ordered a drink and approached me. He said there was a vacancy for someone to do the first ever PhD on his cousin, Joseph Macleod (1903-1984), whose best friends were Graham Greene and the highly influential art critic Adrian Stokes. He told me Macleod knew Ezra Pound and Aldous Huxley, and one of my favourite poets, WS Graham. Leask also described the vast, rich archive of largely unseen correspondence and diaries, and the huge number of published and unpublished manuscripts of poetry collections, novels and plays. He also informed me Macleod was one of the four London-based newsreaders for the duration of World War II. Bursting with excitement, and unable to believe my luck, I immediately went off to read the couple of Macleod works that were housed in Glasgow University Library, and it started from there.

What attracted you to Joseph Macleod’s poetry initially?  Could you explain a little about his craft?

I’ve always been fascinated by his use of vocabulary, and his style. If anyone is interested in language, Macleod will stretch their knowledge and add to it. He is a virtuoso of form and rhythm, and he was the first poet to achieve Gaelic sounds within English language verse through his verse, which was published under a pseudonym he used to conceal his identity whilst at the BBC, ‘Adam Drinan’. The incorporation of Gaelic sounds is an indicator of enormous skill and depth of talent, as it is very difficult to achieve. His earliest book, The Ecliptic (1930) was accepted for publication by TS Eliot at Faber and Faber in 1930 at Ezra Pound’s insistence, in the same batch of three as WH Auden’s first book.

The Ecliptic was regarded by influential British modernist poet Basil Bunting as the most important publication in English poetry since Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and, to me, it’s easy to see why. It is a masterclass in usage of diction and the pinning together of an ambitious overall scheme, which is built around the twelve houses of the zodiac (though it has nothing to do with horoscopes, rather it is infused with Greek, Roman and modern culture). It fizzes with originality, and there is not one spent phrase among its 2700 lines. This is what attracted me to modernism in the first place: the exciting use of language and deft lexis of the poets associated with the period. Macleod is a modern master and utterly vital. I was absolutely thrilled to be the one entrusted with orchestrating his reintroduction to the world and rescuing his work from obscurity, after initial groundwork by Andrew Duncan in his Cyclic Serial Zeniths from the Flux: The Selected Poems of Macleod (2009), also published by Waterloo Press. My chosen supervisor, poet, poetry professor owner of Carcanet, and editor of PN Review, Michael Schmidt, certainly helped me to understand some of Macleod’s complexities. But much of the time I had to work these out for myself, which I found utterly engrossing.  

Joseph Macleod had a number of high-profile admirers.  Why was that? What did they see in his work?

Macleod wrote in a number of different mediums and styles. With his first books of poetry written in his mid-twenties, The Ecliptic (1930) and Foray of Centaurs (1931), Ezra Pound sensed an affinity and a follower, as did Basil Bunting. These three, along with Eliot, have been argued by some to be the key modernist players of the interwar period, the 1930s. Aldous Huxley, and brother Julian, the influential biologist, enjoyed his intellectual knowledge and conversation. His five books published under the Adam Drinan pseudonym are predominantly set in and about Scotland, the Clearances are focussed on in The Men of the Rocks (1942) and The Ghosts of the Strath (1943), and the topics of these books attracted pro-Nationalist Scottish poets, notably Hugh MacDiarmid.        

Others, such as Greenock-born WS Graham, were fascinated by his versification and use of the long form, book-length poems, each with a unifying theme. Macleod was arguably a one-man band in this regard. Women of the Happy Island (1944) comprised 47 soliloquys from the perspective of the women left behind on remote Hebridean Isle of Barra to till the land in the absence of husbands and sons who had gone to war. Macleod regularly holidayed on Barra with his wife, staying with the novelist and MI5 spy, Compton Mackenzie. Script from Norway (1953) is highly political, drawing a parallel between Norway and Scotland; it is an exploration of these countries’ national occlusion from Sweden and England. It is a film script written as verse – highly innovative. It sparked a furious essay from MacDiarmid, who seems to me to have been a touch jealous of Macleod’s innovation!

How important were the friendships of Graham Greene and Adrian Stokes to him?

Joseph Macleod met Graham Greene at Balliol College, Oxford, where they studied, and were close friends there. Macleod wrote poems and short stories for The Oxford Outlook undergraduate magazine, which Greene edited for two years, a pre-cursor to his time as a Political Editor of The Times. They maintained a regular correspondence for the rest of their lives and Greene would use Macleod as a sounding-board for ideas and vice versa. Stokes was Macleod’s closest friend at Rugby School and was entrusted with the protection of the Macleod’s identity while he wrote under the Drinan pseudonym, 1939-1953. Macleod and his wife often visited Stokes at his cottage in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, where Stokes lived, neighbouring some of the pre-eminent painters of his time, many of whom were good friends. Stokes provided Macleod with useful feedback on his various writing projects.

If someone is keen to explore Joseph Macleod’s work, where would you suggest they start and why?

Andrew Duncan’s Cyclic Serial Zeniths from the Flux: The Selected Poems of Joseph Macleod (Waterloo Press, 2009) is an excellent starting point, with an outstanding introduction and notes. Hopefully the critical text I myself have produced The Poetry of Joseph Macleod, which will appear with Waterloo next month, will serve to guide the reader through the broad range of his works and inform how they came about. In the coming months, other titles will be ready to purchase, including a re-release of his 1936 novel, Overture to Cambridge, which is an excellent political satire. I’m currently typing up The Ecliptic and Women of the Happy Island (1944) to be released as one volume, and Andrew Duncan has typed up the so far unpublished We, the River (1937) and The MacPhails of London (1949). We have written guiding introductions to these. Macleod’s work is extraordinarily rich, and I warmly recommend all of his works. As a published poet, I find his work hugely inspirational and in many ways instructive.

He also wrote under the pseudonym ‘Drinan’ which Hugh MacDiarmid said was ‘so long one of the best-kept secrets of the contemporary literary world’.  How did he manage to keep this secret for so long?

Adrian Stokes was vital in his protection of the pseudonym, which was important since Macleod held an important position at the BBC as an announcer and news reader, where he rapidly became a household name. Stokes’ address was used for all Drinan correspondence. Though Stephen Spender, Hugh MacDiarmid and others suspected Macleod was Drinan, only a small circle of friends knew for certain (including Compton Mackenzie, Greene, and of course, Stokes).  It was finally revealed through his publication of Script from Norway (1953), where the author’s name was given as ‘Joseph Macleod/Adam Drinan’. Many were shocked at the time and could not connect the author of the obscure and difficult text The Ecliptic with the Gaelic-based, Highland verse of the Drinan books.

How does his ‘Drinan’ work differ from work published under his own name?

The setting for The Cove (1940) is Cornwall, and the Highlands for the other four books. These books are focussed upon Scotland and deal with her history, the Clearances, their people during wartime and political separation from Whitehall. Macleod was not a member of the Communist Party, but his political interests altered dramatically in the mid-1930s after experiencing an electric shock while working as Managing Director of the Festival Theatre. Like many writers and artists at this time he became pro-Soviet and wrote three books about Soviet Theatre history over the war period, visiting Russia several times after invitations given through his BBC position. This caused his verse to contain a Socialist Realist focus, a simplicity and directness, and his advocation for the oppressed and the poor is obvious. Macleod was a Scottish nationalist of sorts, though never joined the SNP. He had no interest in joining groups of any kind.

A further development of his incorporation of socialist realism was that the Drinan verse contains a much greater clarity than his earlier publications in 1930 and 1931. With The Men of the Rocks (1942), he began to attain a mastery over his own writing: clarity and advocation (Macleod was a qualified barrister, but never practiced) certainly suit his verse. But, personally, I find the opaquer and classically-based The Ecliptic and Foray of Centaurs an exhilarating read, also.

He moved to Florence in 1955 and lived there until his death in 1984. Why was this?

Macleod’s wife, Kit, tragically died of cancer in 1953. He was utterly heartbroken for around a year, but was rescued through meeting Italian-born sculptress Maria Theresa. Their relationship blossomed and they married, then moved to her native Florence, where they had two children. From this point on, Macleod only returned to Scotland for up to three months a year. He loved Florentine life, as is detailed in his book People of Florence (1971).

Playwright, poet, broadcaster, theatrical historian: it’s an impressive CV – why is it that we don’t know more about him?

Because Macleod was not part of any literary group – such as the Auden Group, for example, or the Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al), his work was always in danger of vanishing after his death since he didn’t really produce any important works after 1953, save the self-published pamphlet An Old Olive Tree (1971). Coupled with this thirty-year quiet period, where Macleod busied himself with fatherhood and worked away at often over-ambitious poetry projects such as The Planets, which he never managed to complete, buried in Florence with little contact with UK literary editors, publishing very little – the result was that he was quite unknown by his death in 1984. Macleod was a very quiet, self-deprecating man – he shied away from the limelight after he left the BBC in 1945. But, like the introverts Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins (the latter championed by WB Yeats, hence he is studied in most universities), writers of this quality are there to be rescued. It is our duty to re-release their wonderful work and explain their importance.

This has been quite an undertaking for you. How do you feel now the book is complete?

It was a huge project for a 25-year-old to take on, yes. But it has been massively rewarding over the past fifteen years and, as I say, instructive. As someone who has been reading and writing poetry since the age of eight, who loves hearing peoples’ life stories, reading old letters and diaries, shining a light into an unknown and exciting world, it was the most fulfilling project I could have done. I have been extremely fortunate and privileged. As with any book, it is never complete, but I think it is as comprehensive as it needs to be. My hope is that other literary critics and poets will write more about Macleod and investigate him further. I think I’ve merely set the ball rolling in this regard. Several more books of his work which I have edited and introduced with Andrew Duncan will appear through Waterloo Press in the coming months. It will be fascinating to see the world’s response. But I’m pleased that we are giving Macleod’s work the opportunity to be read by a much wider audience.

What does the future hold for you?

I completed the typing up, editing and introducing of Overture to Cambridge (1936) a couple of months ago during the Lockdown, and will be published by Waterloo in January/February. Poet Simon Jenner, Waterloo’s Managing Director, is a great fan of Macleod’s work and very supportive of the project. We had three of the ‘Drinan’ books, A Drinan Trilogy, re-published in 2012, edited with introductions by Andrew Duncan and me, and for which we had a fantastic launch at the National Library of Scotland where Macleod’s entire archive is housed. Due to the coronavirus restrictions, all launches have all been put on hold, but we are working hard to get Macleod’s major works ready for re-publication in the next year. We are well on track for that.

I am also continuing to write my own poems and as usual have been sending them off to be published or rejected by magazines, and completed my first collection this year, with a working title My First Apocalypse, which I’m hopeful a publisher might be tempted to take on. Who knows? I’m an English Instructor in Saudi Arabia which will hopefully allow me to retire early at some point and focus on my writing full time. That’s my dream.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, James. This has been fascinating. We look forward to reading your book when it is published next month.

James Fountain
James Fountain has two chapbooks of poetry published, Glaciation (Poetry Monthly International, 2010) and The Last Stop (Original Plus Press). Waterloo Press will publish his work on the modernist poet Joseph Macleod in January, 2021.

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