John Fairfax (1930 – 2009) was a remarkable poet whose reputation has largely been overshadowed by his achievement as co-founder of the celebrated Arvon Foundation. Yet his poetry deserves better, not least for its range, integrity and at times dazzling ambition. Born in 1930, Fairfax was brought up in Devon and enjoyed the thrills of a schoolboy’s war at Plymouth College, after witnessing the blitz on the strategic port in 1941. His naval parents were frequently away, and this formative experience of abandonment was to develop into the most compelling and recurrent theme in his poetry. As a young man, though, he lived a charmed, eccentric life. His maternal family was Irish, and included such luminaries as his uncles Kit and George Barker, the one a painter, the other a feckless Faber poet, acme of literary bohemia and his tireless critical mentor. After being imprisoned, briefly, as a conscientious objector to the Korean War, Fairfax cycled to Cornwall and hung out with his uncles and those artists in on the birth of the St Ives School, poets John Heath-Stubbs and David Wright among them. Odd-jobbing, irresponsible and carefree, he wrote poems for beer money in the Tinners Arms, a time vividly sketched in an early poem ‘The Zennor Road’: “Late and the getting later moon calls/After a poet who grabs at the sky/And on his knees, stumbling drunk/Prays for Li Po’s immortal soul.”
Eventually he went to London and discovered Fitzrovia and Soho. He was young and handsome, a precocious bohemian drinking with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Francis Bacon, and selling the occasional poem to small magazines. There he met Esther Berk, whom he married in 1952. After a short stay in Paris, the couple returned to London and lived a precarious existence until the birth of their first son when, happily, Fairfax found a job as a prep school master. Serendipity helped when they discovered a tumbledown thatched cottage in beech woods near the school, and persuaded the poetry-loving landowner to let them live there at peppercorn rent, for which consideration they would rebuild it. The “Thatch” became home and haven, inspiration and model, perhaps, for the ideal Arvon environment. Eventually, after leaving teaching, Fairfax took over the Phoenix Press, and became poetry editor on Panache and Resurgence magazines. As a poet and teacher he worked for the British Council, as well as giving readings and workshops in schools and elsewhere; he relished being creative writing tutor at his old prison, Reading Jail, (“the ghost of Oscar Wilde whispering in my ear”). Most famously, he devoted much of his time to establishing and nurturing the Arvon Foundation, which he founded with John Moat in 1968.
He published six collections and edited several anthologies, notably Frontier of Going:Anthology of Space Poetry (1969), a favourite subject of his, as in ’12 Stations from Gemini’: “Out here memorial/Is nothing: dust/That collects about my head.” . He also co-authored The Way to Write with John Moat, with an introduction by Arvon’s tireless champion and supporter, Ted Hughes. Fairfax was a fine lyric poet, who occasionally and brilliantly wrote in more allegorical, Bardic forms on large ambitious themes. The 5th Horseman of the Apocalypse (1969) gives fierce incantatory life to the fear and menace of mankind’s potential self-destruction. A more Celtic evocation of the pagan imagination pervades the title poem of Adrift on the Star-brow of Taliesin (1974). Yet he could also write the limpid sequence of poems, Wild Children (1985), in which he inhabits and captures the isolation and innocence of so-called ‘wolf children’, drawing on recorded incidents of such rare abandonment.
The first Archive poem, a brief extract from The 5th Horseman, is followed by two late poems concerning simple, unadorned truths: in ‘Alone’ we can just hear the hurt he felt as a young boy, experiencing the ache of loneliness in the midst of war; the other is a love poem, read with quiet matter-of-factness. The final poems, ‘Grotesque Tournament’ and ‘The Imperfect Knight’, come from his last collection, 100 Poems (1992), and reveal his fascination with chivalry, with England and her myths and emblems. His restrained but tense and insistent reading allows the archaic imagery to register like everyday language, so that a legendary, ritualised past is brought to life as if it were taking place, simply, in the present. John Fairfax lived for poetry all his adult life, and regarded language as alchemy. As he himself observed: “Poets are birds of the air, fish of the sea, animals in the landscape and the men, women and children in the days and years of language…It is our heritage and responsibility to hand on our language as bright and sharp as we can possibly make it…Poetry is the jewel of language and language is one of the cornerstones on which civilisation is built.”