Brian Beamish on

Howard Mingham
Waters of the Night – Complete Poems 1974-84
(Caparison, 2010)

Wept, honoured and sung

It’s a rare occurrence in the field of poetry to read an entire life’s body of work in one go and to be so moved by the originality of voice, tone and turn of phrase. It’s a sad irony therefore that such a poet should be, to quote Sir Walter Scott, “unhonor’d, and unsung”. From what little is published about Howard Mingham’s life it seems that he died too young and without the recognition that he is now overdue. His untimely suicide in his early 30s only adds weight to the often deeply poignant and sometimes prophetic lines that he composes.

I thought I would begin a review by finding out some more about his life or work and went straight to Google. No such luck. Little is known about either aside from the excellently written forewords by poets Alan Morrison and David Kessel to The Waters of the Night – Howard Mingham – Complete Poems 1974-1984 who seem doggedly determined to keep Mingham’s memory alive – and rightly so.

There are several strands running through Mingham’s work, if one were to approach this exegesis, such as it is, thematically; his socialism, atheism, his empathy for both man and beast. All 25 of his poems show some measure of these and the world is richer for them. What burns most brightly in his work to my mind is his use of Biblical imagery that captures elegantly both the beauty of the original and the tenderness of its application. This is not to suggest that Mingham’s intention was to proselytise – far from it, but given the sum of our experiences and knowledge, these ‘cultural references’ are treated with a lightness of touch that would suggest a very personal respect. From what I can glean of his own attitude to religion, he was an atheist, which is most probably why the imagery itself is handled so poetically rather than religiously. This invests it with a certain gravitas for which the Romantic poets might have called upon Nature. Consider these lines from ‘The Cat’:

Envy-bright
it watches solitary
the plenty birds
Slowly he moves, rehearsing leaps
mind certain as a cut diamond
‘Those things clutter the trees’
said the Lord
‘I am in agreement’, he purred
‘And they remind me of Paradise’.  

The capitalisation of ‘Lord’ and ‘Paradise’ are not accidental and do not go unnoticed – they serve to accurately reference the Biblical texts and in so doing, add the weight of respect and a certain air of mysticism that quietly pulsates behind this poem. Could it be that the ‘story’ of the poem is to suggest an agreement between God and Satan - the hidden voice of the cat, or is it a Darwinian example of natural selection, that re-writes the creation myth? Neither one of these answers is satisfactory in all honesty as they serve to reduce and resolve the poem to a mere fact, where facts are inappropriate. The poem itself, to my mind, stands as it is - beautiful in its simplicity and elevated by its imagery.

Morrison mentions in the foreword to the collection that Mingham’s particular brand of socialism as what Mao Tse-Tung would describe as 'embourgeoised-delusional' and Mingham’s ‘Ode’ is preceded with a fragment of Mao’s speech from the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art of 1942 that is referenced therein. The effect this has is to throw into sharp relief the raw humanity of Mingham and to juxtapose the machine-like world of Mao’s vision with the simple love and fellowship with humanity to which Mingham alludes. He writes:

You say I must learn the workers’ language
You say it does not begin with love
I do not know
I had always thought it did.

The disagreement with Mao’s sentiments is stark in comparison. Later in that same poem, Mingham describes his fictitious son and the aspirations he has for him:

Let him know his left from his right
and not hop the old polemics
of the absurdly just and logically right
[...] Let him not glad
wave the mad flag
or crazy beat the drum
[...] Let him love, deny and know.

Whereas Mao’s vision of art is in complete service to the revolution and meant solely for educative purposes to oppose the counter-revolutionary argument:

[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they
help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1967) p.301

Mingham’s vision is much less antagonistic and he uses his art to build bridges, to reach out to his fellow human and to offer hope for the future. Mingham’s humanistic vision is also incredibly honest; he writes:

Let him rise each day
and modestly study
the large and airy body
of abstractions

here he is not only referencing Mao directly in contradiction, he is confessing that the abstractions of life – love, art – are those that should motivate us, not the dry logic of the Maoist machine. Mingham is essentially an artist, pursuing the belief that art should be as free as the soul from which it comes.

He stands opposed to the dehumanisation that Mao’s contorted brand of socialism created with his brutal ‘cultural revolution’. Indeed there is an inherent difficulty in the contiguous positioning of the words Mao and socialism.

Mingham is rather a true socialist – a humanitarian who values life and love – abstract maybe, but necessary and ideal, definitely. His humanitarianism extends not only to his fellow human but to the animal kingdom as well. It is unclear whether he intends his animal imagery to be metaphorical for humankind, however that may be reading too much into his references. The short poem Sleepless Night could as well be written for the homeless of the world as it is for an urban fox:

Through a long night emptily
And now the dawn and a morning hunger
Stretch, day-long, before him.
 
Considering the era in which Mingham was writing up until his death, there is a retrospective irony considering the subsequent exacerbation of the homeless situation that the Thatcher government was later responsible for in the 1980s. Given the social divisiveness of most of our successive governments it is all-too easy to draw comparisons with Mingham’s socially aware poetry that has humanity at its heart.

Aside from these considerations there is simply some beautiful and memorable imagery in amongst his poetry "I am petrol on the puddle of night,” from ‘Ode’ and “He who was the sky has now become the sea,” from ‘Rain’. Amongst the beauty there is pain, stemming it seems from his schizophrenia and incarcerations in various mental health institutions. Not only does this serve to inspire his poetry but it almost seems from some of the lines that Mingham draws a great deal of strength from this supposed ‘weakness’. He talks of a “marvellous agony” and a “beautiful wound” (‘From Ward F5’) – both oxymora that reveal this dichotomy of his mental suffering and poetic flourish.

It is a sad irony that in common with other outsider artists like Antonin Artaud and Isidore Ducasse, Mingham may ‘achieve greatness’ but will probably never be a mainstream poet or more widely recognised in the established canon. He deserves both of these things but the nature of his oeuvre with its recondite references to the world of schizophrenia, which many people would find either uncomfortable or pass over as the lines of a literal ‘outsider’ would preclude his entry into the poetic canon. This is not necessarily a negative thing however as the joy of discovering a poet or artist that only a select few know about has its own particular pleasure and the appreciation feels more profound in some kind of literary cadre. Therefore when Mingham writes

there are mountains, canyons in the mind
where publishers never wandered nor critics ever climbed
and where only a seldom sun has ever shined

(‘To Scholars and Ken Worpole’)

he is writing prophetically and we, the favoured few who have encountered his poetry are the richer for it.

Waters of the Night by Howard Mingham can be ordered for only £2.99 here exclusively from Caparison/the Recusant

Brian Beamish © 2010