Roddy Lumsdenis good
Paul Hullah, whose most recent book is Climbable (Partridge, 2016), remembers a fine poet
Poetry’s a mental state, a mood. Innate and impulsive, it’s a lifestyle, a lifespan its only limit. Instinctive, it cannot be caught or taught. It can be honed and polished, squandered through neglect, and all too easily unlearned.
Whatever shape expression takes, wit’s the key. Wit-less is just words, and everyone has words. Rhetoric, rhythm, melodic metaphoric insight, affective resolution… these are visionary. Some can spell; some cast spells. Poetry’s magic: a cypher for sentience. Cryptographic, consoling, it’s not only what it seems; it’s more.
But it has to be about something. At a New York reading I did, someone said: “I like your poems… I mean, I like the ones that are about something.” Constructive criticism at its sharpest. Poets like Roddy Lumsden know that intuitively. Shakespeareos, satisfiers of ‘The Blue Nile Challenge’: nobody says it’s not good. Some might not like it, but nobody can deny its better-than-the-restness. Lumsden’s good. Top-notch for ‘tinglers’ too: lines that make your heart stand up in ‘Aaaaahh!’ recognition of useful exportable content. Epiphanies in words we remember. Memorability, a good poet’s ultimate end.
It’s a gift. Lumsden was gifted, so here we salute his plangent particular song. (Those craving careful autobiographic cataloguing should proceed to Andy Jackson’s lovingly drawn Scotsman obit, and Neil Cooper’s gorgeous Bella Caledonia tribute. Go google. Your time won’t be wasted.) Working-class bred in St. Andrews, Lumsden turned bard at school, spurred on by 20th-century poets (Eliot, Plath) and post-punk bands. Eventual ringleader of tormented versifiers up north and down south, il nuovo fabbro, he published 9 glorious collections in his 53 years, significantly impacting the UK poetry ‘scene’ (without noticeably representing it), his work a consistently enchanting, shape-shifting amalgam of puzzle and precision.
Lumsden’s best poems are playful mémoire noir snapshots, part-symboliste, part-carefully-classical. His is an elegantly unruly oeuvre, all over the place but pedantically rigorous. “I prefer real poets… with books!’” he liked to say, distancing himself from deluded, vainglorious wannabes flocking to be Roddy’s Protégés. But he selflessly helped those in whom he saw genuine talent. Ian Macmillan noted that many UK poets ‘owe the way they write to Roddy Lumsden’. Over 50 authors were hoisted onto first-time publishing ladders by him.
I knew him as we ‘knew’ people in that transcendental late-80s Edinburgh way: we rubbed shoulders in bars, swapped 2AM stories forgotten by dawn. Circles overlapped, so we went clattering into each other. He was Black Bo’s, khaki-safari-suited, barrel-chested, dart player polo, touring trivia-machine cracker, erudite in everything. But after he moved to England I rarely saw him.
(There was a bizarre 2006 all-nite carousing that only a séance could replicate today: him, Howard Marks, and Paul Reekie. Enough said.) He lastly taught poetry in Rotherhithe, and host-organised readings at the Betsey Trotwood pub in Clerkenwell that, like the 90s Edinburgh Antiquary gigs he did with Mr Reekie, became legend. He contacted me in 2016; praising poetry of mine he’d read online. We pen-palled for a while, comparing scars, publishing leads I never pursued, a mutually-chirpy messaging flurry returning to silence as sudden as his welcome réveille. I didn’t know he was unwell. Hints, but I wept when I heard that he’d died.
British poets swim in oppositional streams: Rule-bending experimenters, all postmodern anti-tradition, for whom The Waste Land roared overdue clarion declaring rhymers’ olden ways and words redundant, incapable of meaningfully describing our broken new world. Or strictly trad acts: nostalgic for song and the comfort of clarity and closure. The former think the latter Luddite; the latter decry the former as vandals. Or not. Some see it’s a broad church, feel the need to swim together, marrying both camps’ virtues while ditching the drawbacks. That’s why Heaney and Larkin are special. And Lumsden.
Wordsworth claimed a ‘great and original writer must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished’. Lumsden duly invented original forms, personalised registers, leaving unique lexical footprints. (How many meanings implode/explode into: ‘the barb-strung malady of love’?). Likewise, he willfully tackled ‘uncomfortable’ subjects, including autism (he was convinced he was ‘on the spectrum… Asperger’s’), and (vicariously imagined) childhood abuse, ‘using certain processes… in forms I have developed’. You can’t go wrong with a Lumsden book. Start anywhere: Third Wish Wasted (2009) and Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (1997) are my favourites. Never lumpen. Innovative and wry: impeccably formed pieces, intense blendings of savvy, smart, hip, musical, wistful, poignant, fragile, literate, all youthful but old before time. He was shortlisted for a T.S. Eliot Prize. He should’ve won. He even managed profitably to engage with American ‘objectivist’ poetry, without making an arse of himself: a feat few other British writers have achieved. Mentor to so many, he revealed himself in ways that others don’t.
‘Savantish… difficult… munificent… infinitely forgivable’: the Twitterati verdict is in. Lumsden’s idiosyncratic poetry was, though sculpted, never forced or unnatural, lovable, moving, funny, full of witty metaphysical physic. Ah, good old Roddy. Scribbling real-time verse while observing Kate Moss dressing for a fashion shoot was, he said, his sweetest commission. A resultant poem, ‘Bloom’, is among his best. The Care Home he died in stands on the site of Millwall’s old ground, The Den, and no doubt he made a magical poem out of that too. Oh, and his drinking, you say? Dutch courage at first, it ended badly. It’s the elephant in the room. Let it stay there: without it, he would’ve lived longer, but we’d have got less of him. ‘Roddy, he’s damaged goods…’ admonishes an early poem.
Ah yes, but then, damage is cypher for good.
(from Roddy Lumsden Is Dead, 2001)
As some malingerer, a strives to force his raw-boned, bedsore body
up, one sunburst morning, muscles weak and ribs ill-ricked, then so it is with Roddy
who wrestles with the memory of love and who, despite his rumoured bag of brains,
can’t pin the bastard, since no brawn
remains after the barb-strung malady of love.
Info: Roderick Chalmers Lumsden, poet, author, teacher and editor: May 28th 1966 to January 10th 2020: Thanks to Ian Stewart and Mark Reed for reminiscence shared. Kate Moss recites ‘Bloom’: . ly/2tWQOWd
Roddy Lumsden and two of his many poetry books