Farewell Performance

Collected Later Poems

Vernon Scannell (1922–2007) was a unique link between the poets of the Second World War and the post-war literary scene – Fitzrovia in the late 1940s, the Mavericks in the 1950s, the 1960s jazz and poetry scene and the New Formalism of the 1980s and 1990s. During a long and sometimes chaotic life, he earned his living as a professional boxer, teacher, novelist, broadcaster and critic, writing over fifty books of poetry across seven decades. Although Scannell published the massive Collected Poems in 1993, he continued to write for another fourteen years. His last six books – The Black and White Days, Views and Distances, Of Love and War, Behind the Lines, A Place to Live and Last Post – are now collected here for the first time. Published to mark the centenary of his birth, this volume shows how his verse remained accessible, entertaining and honest to the end of his life, reflecting on love, war, cancer and old age with recognisable wit, wisdom, humour and craft.

Cover photograph: Alan Benson

Sample Poems

Missing Things

I’m very old and breathless, tired and lame,
and soon I’ll be no more to anyone
than the slowly fading trochee of my name
and shadow of my presence: I’ll be gone.
Already I begin to miss the things
I’ll leave behind, like this calm evening sun
which seems to smile at how the blackbird sings.

There’s something valedictory in the way
my books gaze down on me from where they stand
in disciplined disorder and display
the same goodwill that well-wishers on land
convey to troops who sail away to where
great danger waits. These books will miss the hand
that turned the pages with devoted care.

And there are also places that I miss:
those Paris streets and bars I can’t forget,
the scent of caporal and wine and piss;
the pubs in Soho where the poets met;
the Yorkshire moors and Dorset’s pebbly coast,
black Leeds, where I was taught love’s alphabet,
and this small house that I shall miss the most.

I’ve lived here for so long it seems to be
a part of what I am, yet I’m aware
that when I’ve gone it won’t remember me
and I, of course, will neither know nor care
since, like the stone of which the house is made,
I’ll feel no more than it does light and air.
Then why so sad? And just a bit afraid? 

A Few Words to the Not-So-Old

About old age, here’s something you might find
worth knowing when senescence’s embrace
        begins to squeeze you tight:
your inability to call to mind
from long ago some once familiar face
        seems perfectly all right.

It’s the things of days, or even hours ago
of which you have no memory at all
        that cause you some distress;
a splendid poem I thought I’d got to know
by heart would disappear beyond recall
        within a week or less.

Dates and numbers, names of quite close friends,
even simple words, all fade away
        before they can embed.
I start a tale, but mislay where it ends.
The lively music I could sing or play
        lies dead inside my head.

But certain memories will never die:
Tom Fenton’s smile, part naughty urchin’s
        grin yet just a little sad,
before the bomb blew it and him star-high
near Mareth as our Company moved in
        and the universe went mad.

The Last Fight

This is one you know that you can’t win.
You’ve lost your snap, can’t put the punches in
The way you used to, belting till they fell;
You’ll have a job to fiddle till the bell.
One round to go; backpedal, feint and weave;
Roll with the punches, make the crowd believe
You’ve still got something left. Above all, go
The distance, stay there till the end, although –
Even if you clipped him on the chin –
You know that this is one that you can’t win. 

Safe House

Scent of coffee and the radio’s
smoothly laundered voice the listener knows
        will stay completely calm
whatever blood-smeared news it has to bring
to darken this young Sunday in late spring
        with menace and alarm.

And here it comes: a car-bomb in Baghdad
kills forty-three; a sixteen-year-old lad
        shoots woman constable dead;
Keele student raped and strangled in her room;
Russian miners’ workplace now their tomb;
        Leeds pensioner stabbed in bed.

The listener’s unease soon disappears;
this sun-rinsed kitchen is no place for fears
        of murderous acts or threats.
The radio’s voice, unchanged in pitch and tone,
speaks now of some Press Baron overthrown
        and his enormous debts.

He switches off the voice and, gazing out
at that old innocence of sky without
        a cloud in all the blue
framed in his window, finds it hard to see
how such pacific loveliness can be
        co-existent, true.

And later in the morning, when he goes
along his quiet road to church, he knows
        he won’t be mugged or shot;
but as he smiles, from somewhere out of sight
he hears the low and ominous growl which might
        be thunder, or might not. 

Last Song

for JP


Another day relinquishes
    last memory of sun,
and nightfall prowls the lamplit streets
    as silent as a nun.

I lock the door against the threats
    that populate the dark,
and in my attic room I hear
    a lost dog’s distant bark.

Then perfect soundlessness presents
    me with the chance to sing
one small but heartfelt song for you,
    my love, my everything.

I have no wish to trouble you,
    or make you laugh or weep,
but just to sing you one last song
    before I go to sleep.

One More Last Poem

One final poem before my pen runs out –
an unconvincing metaphor, I know,
but only one thing’s left to write about
and that’s the writing game; so here we go,
though once my real, not figurative, pen
is in my hand I find this is not so;
the acts or artefacts of God and men
are what might make the ink or ichor flow.

Love is what first presents itself to me
to place beneath my verbal microscope,
love, which at once reveals itself to be
less sensual than we tend to think, or hope,
and I recall an enviably neat
trope from Wystan Auden that rings true
in which he says should Lust, ‘the sapper’, meet
with Love ‘hug her to death’ is what he’d do.

This does not mean that passion’s grunt and heave
preclude love’s possibility, although
it is a common error to believe
that wild and wordless sexual longings show
the presence of that precious gift which makes
us humans, of all living things, unique;
for love needs language to define its aches
and ecstasies, and we alone can speak.

What next? Well, love and language, it would seem
are treasures that have never lost their shine,
and music’s interwoven glint and gleam
and dark deliberations still divine
that otherness which never quite leaves earth,
and though angelic strains might praise or grieve
and hymn the miracles of death and birth
dark silence follows, saying we must leave.

Reviews

‘The virtues are major ones... a sardonic sense of humour and a natural lyrical bias.’

Peter Porter

‘Accurate, humane, humorous often eloquent and always well made.’

Anthony Thwaite

‘Fighting qualities of wit and candour as well as an embattled tenderness.’

Robert Nye

‘suffused with clarity and calmness at the prospect of approaching death.’

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