About Peter Didsbury
Peter Didsbury has described himself as ‘someone who’s constitutionally fascinated by myth and the weight of the past’ and indeed his poems seem to conjure a particular, possibly bygone England peopled with men working the land, butchers, fishermen, kings and classical scholars. While the poems take in urban settings as well as rural, the intimacy of the poet’s relationship to his environment is perhaps something more commonly associated with nature poetry. It’s this that gives the poems their unusual texture, as Peter Porter suggests when he notes, in a review of Didsbury’s first collection, the poems’ ‘seedy urban pastoral’.
Didsbury has published four collections with Bloodaxe; The Butchers of Hull (1982), The Classical Farm (1987) and That Old-Time Religion (1994) are discrete volumes, while the fourth, ‘A Natural History’, forms part of Scenes from a Long Sleep: New & Collected Poems (2003). He was given a Cholmondeley Award in 1989 and both The Classical Farm and That Old-Time Religion were Poetry Book Society Recommendations.
Born in 1946 in Fleetwood, Lancashire, Didsbury moved to Hull at the age of six. He read English and Hebrew at Oxford and has spent most of his working life as a professional archaeologist, a fact not unremarked on by reviewers, who have found it a useful metaphor for his approach to poetry. One writes: ‘Didsbury’s profession of archaeologist doubtless has much to do with how his poems construct themselves, offering seemingly discovered fragments which in themselves seem superficially recognizable and safe, but which, when conjoined together, offer glimpses of an alternative world, an unknown civilisation lurking in the foundations of our own.’ It’s worth noting, however, that most of the poems in Didsbury’s first two collections were composed before he became an archaeologist.
The poet’s reflection on the ‘weight’ of the past is apt; the world as described in his poems is nothing if not substantial: everything – even (and sometimes especially) the abstract – takes on a powerful physicality. His aesthetic could sometimes be described as Chaucerian: in ‘In Britain’, for example, a musical performance is imagined in gruesomely bodily terms: ‘The music, on fat bellied instruments. / The fingers, swarming down ladders / into the bubbling cauldrons of sound . . . The gross imaginations, bulging with viscera.’ Elsewhere this focus on physicality simply captures very cleanly the tangibility of life. In ‘Cider Story’, a poem about a blind scholar reluctantly dependent on his daughter (one thinks of Milton or Wordsworth, both cared for by daughters in later life due to their failing sight), the narrator’s sensory experience is conveyed through the poem’s attention to sound and texture: the daughter’s ‘skirts on flagstones’, the narrator’s ‘rigid black questions’, his chair ‘released . . . from the native oak / . . . and set . . . down upon limestone’.
Didsbury’s reading of his poems is arresting for its combination of calm and tension, bringing out the darkness and somewhat unsettling quality of some of the poems; his work is always leavened with playfulness and humour however, for which his deadpan delivery is the perfect foil. One poem, ‘Common Property’, begins its short narrative with the disorienting phrase ‘I’m lying of course, but…’, as if reminding the reader, like all the best writing, to never quite believe what we hear.
Peter Didsbury’s recording was made at The Soundhouse, London on 30 March 2013. The producer was Anne Rosenfeld.
Scenes from a Long Sleep (Bloodaxe Books, 2003)
That Old-time Religion (Bloodaxe Books, 1994)
The Classical Farm (Bloodaxe Books, 1987)
The Butchers of Hull (Bloodaxe, 1986)
Peter Didsbury Reading from His Poems
19The Old Masters
29The Green Boy
The writer and broadcaster Clive James introduces a few of his favourite poems in the Poetry Archive.