Tuesday, 16 March 2010

John Jarmain (slight return)

It is a sure sign of John Jarmain's obscurity that a Google search for his name gives one of my earlier posts as its second result. Jarmain has a toe-hold in anthologies of Second World War poetry, but otherwise his Poems are long out of print, and his novel, Priddy Barrows (1944), seems to have sunk without trace. Ian Sales provides a well-judged recent review of Priddy Barrows here. His conclusion that it is not a classic but merely 'a debut novel' which 'promises more than, sadly, Jarmain ever had the chance to deliver' does not inspire anyone to search the web for second-hand copies. Even if they did, they would probably be unsuccessful.

Jarmain's poems deserve a better fate. At his best --- as he is perhaps only three or four times --- he writes poetry which ought to be ranked alongside some of the War's most memorable work. Several of them can be tracked down: 'At a War Grave' (courtesy of Ian Sales again) takes issue with Brooke's 'The Soldier'; his 'Prisoners of War' observes the enemy with a quietude as distant from John Allan Wyeth's 'dull and cruel laughter' as it is possible to imagine; and the poem which still seems to me to be his greatest, 'El Alamein', is here. These may be tiny achievements, but they deserve to last.

Jarmain was a Somerset man, who lived in Pilton and taught at Millfield. The good news is that James Crowden, indefatigable celebrant of the Westcountry in all its aspects (its food, its poetry, its landscapes, its industries, its cider), has plans afoot to publish a book which will incorporate Jarmain's experiences in the Western Desert. Crowden has just written Literary Somerset, which includes as a postscript Jarmain's poem 'Orchids'. With the support of the poet's surviving family, he has tracked down unpublished letters and photographs which will appear in a new book some time during 2012.

8 comments:

  1. That's a nice picture on the cover of Priddy Barrows. Hunting for a higher res version got me nowhere, though. I wonder if it's by Kenneth Rowntree?

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  2. I'm afraid I don't know, Dru. The best person to ask is Ian Sales, who owns a copy. This is his blog: http://iansales.com/

    You're right that it looks like his style. See here: http://dysgle.llgc.org.uk/assets/images/rowntree.jpg

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  3. Thanks to your links I read the three accessible Jarmain poems; call me irresponsive, but only "El Alamein" merits the praise... a rhythmically awkward opening line, a brilliant truncated finish, and much to admire in between, not least the slant-rhymes moving his circling thoughts smoothly onward. "Grave" draws too much from Shelley's "Ozymandias," and "Prisoners" just meanders. (Regarding your comment about the latter, I much prefer the grimness of Wyeth whose book I have now purchased and am reading with great interest; he truly deserves rescuing as America's entry in the War Poetry annals.)

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  4. I agree that 'El Alamein' is clearly the best. 'Orchids', which doesn't seem to be available online, is better than 'At a War Grave' and 'Prisoners of War', but even there you can see too easily what Jarmain has been reading. The poem opens, 'Someone suddenly sang in the darkness', which is far too close to Sassoon's 'Everyone suddenly burst out singing'.

    Glad that you are enjoying the Wyeth!

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  5. There are three copies of Priddy Barrows listed at Bookfinder.com, priced from US $26.51 to $222.33. I'm not sure why the latter is priced so high. The low-priced copy is a reading copy in rough shape, but the in-betweener sounds like it's quite acceptable, albeit without a dust jacket, and going for $37.22. Readers of this blog will undoubtedly snap up all but the overpriced copy!

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  6. 'Orchids' is definitely worth tracking down, as, in my opinion, is 'Thinking of War'. It seems to me that Jarmain wears his influences without anxiety - having been privileged enough to see his unpublished letters, it strikes me that he faces his relationships with his predecessors with an ease uncommon, perhaps, amongst others. Owen, for example, is clearly visible in 'Prisoners of War'.

    'Fear' is another poem worthy of attention, I'd say. Copies of his 'Poems' are out there; mine's an ex-East Riding County Library copy, sourced through a second-hand bookshop in Blackheath about eight or nine years ago...

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  7. I'm glad you enjoyed my review of 'Priddy Barrows'. I also have a copy of Jarmain's 'Poems'. Of the two books, it was the easier to find, although copies are still quite rare. I think I first came across Jarmain in the 'Middle East Anthology of Prose and Verse', edited by John Waller and Erik de Mauny. Or it might have been one of the Oasis anthologies. It was the connection to Cairo during WWII which led me to those books. I'm a big fan of Lawrence Durrell's works, and he was one of the founders of the Personal Landscape group of poets in Egypt at that time. Another poet from the same period I also like a great deal is Bernard Spencer.

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  8. Wow! I saw his grave, or name on the wall of the missing. I live in north Africa, Tunisia. Nice article. I really like his poems.

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