© Image by Caroline Forbes

Hugo Williams

(b. 1942)

"Keep it simple and make it visual seems to be the best idea." - Hugo Williams

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These poems come from a special recording for the Poetry Archive:

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Select bibliography

  • Symptoms of Loss, London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1965 - out of print
  • All the Time in the World, London, Alan Ross, 1966 - out of print
  • Sugar Daddy, Oxford University Press, 1970 - out of print
  • Some Sweet Day, Oxford University Press, 1975 - out of print
  • Love-Life, London, Andr√© Deutsch, 1979 - out of print
  • No Particular Place to Go, London, Jonathan Cape, 1981 - out of print
  • Writing Home, Oxford University Press, 1985 - out of print
  • Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1989 - out of print
  • Self-Portrait With a Slide, Oxford University Press, 1990 - out of print
  • Dock Leaves, London, Faber & Faber, 1994
  • Freelancing, Faber & Faber, 1995
  • Penguin Modern Poets 11 (contributor with Michael Donaghy and Andrew Motion), London, Penguin, 1997
  • Billy's Rain, Faber & Faber, 1999
  • Curtain Call: 101 portraits in verse (editor), Faber & Faber, 2001
  • Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 2002
  • Hugo Williams Reading from his poems, CD, The Poetry Archive, 2005
  • Dear Room, Faber & Faber, 2006
  • West End Final Faber and Faber, 2009
Hugo Williams (b. 1942) is the son of the actor Hugh Williams and the model and actress Margaret Vyner-Williams. His glamorous yet financially precarious family life provides much of the inspiration for his poetry. Williams' first book of poems, Symptoms of Loss, appeared in 1965 and has been followed by seven further collections that have eschewed literary fashion to build a body of work acclaimed for its wry wit and meticulous control of tone. Billy's Rain, a painful, darkly funny account of a love affair, won the 2000 T. S. Eliot Prize and he was recently awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Williams has lived in London for many years and is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.

Williams has stayed faithful throughout his writing life to the virtue of clarity. However, whilst his poems may be plain, they are not simple. They seem to offer candour through their first person explorations of the past but the 'I' of a Williams' poem is a complex, self-reflexive presence. Not surprisingly perhaps, given his theatrical background, performance is an important element in his narrative style: mirrors, masks and make-up are recurring images. However, he avoids narcissism through the unsparing quality of the gaze he turns on himself: paradoxically the more he makes us aware of the theatricality of his writing - "God give me strength to lead a double life" ('Prayer') - the more honest he appears. Memories are a central concern, whether painful or pleasurable, or more often both, as in the gentle intimacy of 'Dinner with My Mother'. Whilst taking us into his confidence, though, the poems also insist on the personal nature of memory, how each moment carries "a hidden watermark" of significance ('Everyone Knows This') that it's not always possible to share.

The quality of the writing embodies a similar tension, employing an informal diction that creates a confiding tone, but which is the product of rigorous re-drafting. Like the casual elegance he was taught to emulate as a boy, Williams' own reading of his work is an artless art, his precise tones providing enough context to illuminate the poems but without adding to their creative autobiography.

The quality of the writing itself embodies a similar tension, employing an informal diction, but subject to rigorous re-drafting. Like the casual elegance he was taught to emulate as a boy, Williams' own reading of his work is an artless art, his precise tones providing enough context to illuminate the poems but without adding to their creative autobiography.

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 28 February 2003 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by John Green.

Hugo Williams's Favourite Poetry Sayings:

"Cultivate simplicity, Coleridge, or rather, I should say, banish elaborateness; for simplicity springs spontaneous from the heart, and carries into daylight its own modest buds and genuine, sweet and clear flowers of expression. I allow no hot-beds in the Garden of Parnassus." - Charles Lamb

"I could inform the dullest author how he might write an interesting book - let him relate the events of his own life with honesty - not disguising the feelings that accompanied them." - S. T. Coleridge

"In the amorous realm the most painful wounds are inflected more often by what one sees than by what one knows." - Roland Barthes

"But the only technique that matters is that which compels words to express an intensely personal way of feeling, so that the reader responds, not in a general way that he knows beforehand to be 'poetical', but in a precise, particular way that no frequenting of the Oxford Book could have made familiar to him." - F. R. Leavis

"A good poem is one in which the form of the verse and the joining of its two parts seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed." - Basho

"There is nothing as dead and damned as an important thing. The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things, things you would be ashamed to talk about publicly. You are ashamed and then after years someone blabs and you find that you are in the secret majority." - Patrick Kavanagh

"How many paltry foolish painted things,/That now in coaches trouble every street,/Shall be forgotten, whom no poet sings,/Ere they be well wrapped in their winding-sheet!" - Michael Drayton

"To make verse speak the language of prose, without being prosaic, to marshal the words of it in such an order as they might naturally take in falling from the lips of an extemporary speaker, yet without meanness, harmoniously, and without seeming to displace a single syllable for the sake of rhyme, is one of the most arduous tasks a poet can undertake." - William Cowper

"If it doesn't look easy, you aren't working hard enough. " - Fred Astaire


1966 Eric Gregory Award

1971 Cholmondeley Award

1975 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Some Sweet Day

1999 T. S. Eliot Prize (winner), Billy's Rain

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