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When I was a very young poet

[ by Charles Cameron -- a suggested solution to what ails the US Congress, Bertold Brecht style -- and trace evidence of some early unpublished poems ]
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from a private communication, dom sylvester houedard, 1964

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I was reading Shivam Vij‘s piece, The epiphanic moment of the lathi charge, on Kafila today, and he included a quote from Bertolt Brecht that was intriguing enough — and appropriate enough to the fiscal-cliff-jumping mood in Congress these last few days — that I looked for the source, and found it in this poem:

The Solution
Bertolt Brecht, tr John Willett
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After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writer’s Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

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When I was a very young poet, my friend Dom Sylvester Houédard sent some very young poems of mine to John Willett, who was then the Editor of the Times Literary Supplement. They didn’t publish them, but I did get a mention in the TLS a little later, in one of Sylvester’s own writings on the British poetry avant-garde. In any case, here’s the note Sylvester sent me, letting me know he’d been submitting my stuff to Willett:

As you can see, Dom Sylvester could do some pretty nifty graphics with his old Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. He’d gotten into the habit while working in British Army Intelligence somewhere in the Far East during World War II as I recall — before he came home and became a monk. Why? Because Army Intelligence demanded he send them 16-page reports, and he could only ever find fifteen pages worth of intel to send them. They disapproved of blank pages, he complied with orders by filling the final pages of his reports with graphical poetry. And thus a tiny whirlpool in the arts was born…

Okay, enough: Sylvester was a phenomenon of mind and heart, and is sorely missed.

As I said, I was very young when he sent those poems of mine to the TLS — it was 1964, and I was a student at Christ Church, Oxford, “chch” in Sylvester’s abbreviation — but the name of John Willett stayed with me, like a runic talisman. So I just can’t help but notice when my daily reading, almost fifty years later, brings up his name again — this time as a noted Brecht translator.

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3 Responses to “When I was a very young poet”

  1. Bryan Alexander Says:

    What a fine story, Charles.  Nifty typographic art.

  2. Madhu Says:

    I love the typewriter graphics.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Madhu, Bryan:
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    You can see other examples of Dom Sylvester’s work on the British Council site.  
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    I have an astonishing collection of his letters from back in the mid 60s, almost all of them heavily decorated in a similar manner, but my personal favorite is the self-portrait he did for me two days before the note I posted above, in which he represents himself as a human-shaped void within a background of the repeated (typed) phrase “supercool nothing behind my inner mask”:
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    I love the blue effects that he’s achieved in the background there with carbon paper and pressure on the typewriter’s rollers, too. Frankly, I think that’s his masterpiece, and that he’s an under-appreciated artist of amazing productivity and interest whose time will come…
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    Sylvester was already a keen student of Buddhism and something of an academic authority on Zen at that time, too.
    .
    I took the Tibetan monk Trungpa Rinpoche, whom I’d met when we were both students at Oxford, to Sylvester’s abbey to meet him — a visit that concluded with Trungpa deciding it was indeed feasible to live a contemplative / monastic life in the west.  Encouraged by this visit, he founded his first Tibetan monastery, Samye Ling, shortly thereafter.


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