Remembering William Cookson and Agenda by Anita Money, the niece of W.H. Auden

Extracts from the above essay, which appears in full here, are included in the Lauds issue of

Agenda Vol 43/ 2-3

                                                   

William Cookson, who died January 2003, described how he founded Agenda in his Introduction to: Agenda, An Anthology: The First Four Decades 1959-1993 (Carcanet Press 1994), copies of which are still available from Agenda’s present address.

"Poems were with me from the beginning: my father, George Cookson (1870-1949), was the author of two books, both published in Swinburne’s lifetime. They contain well-wrought poems, having qualities he had learnt from Wordsworth (an ancestor), Keats and the Classics. In 1936, three years before I was born, he founded English, the magazine of the English Association. Before the war, he edited it from the same mansion block, Cranbourne Court, that has always been Agenda’s H.Q. So for me, editing a poetry magazine was to continue a family tradition. My mother also wrote poems – a few were published in Time and Tide. She was a great support to me in the early days of Agenda and over twenty years later, shortly before her death in 1982, I published a late poem of hers under her maiden name, Rachel Pelham Burn. I’ve included it in the anthology.

The founder of Agenda was Ezra Pound. Probably early in 1955, when I was fifteen, in a bookshop in South Kensington, I bought a little book with a yellow dust-jacket: A Selection of Poems. I’ve no idea who was responsible for the choice, but it was a good introduction to Pound, and in its eighty pages, included a bit of everything, ending with a few Cantos. At first, I found the poems difficult – I’d already been reading Eliot and his impression had been more immediate – but I persevered and was soon buying every work by Pound that I could find. At first this was not good for my meagre poetic talent as I started to pick up Pound’s mannerisms and tone of voice. It may be better for a young poet to learn the rudiments of his craft from a minor poet rather than a major one.

In the Spring of 1956 I got hold of the first, Scheiwiller edition of Section Rock-Drill (Cantos 85-95) that had appeared in Italy in September 1955. I don’t remember being so excited by a book before or since. The experience of reading the lyric, paradisal Cantos 90-95 for the first time was akin to that of falling in love. There was a sense of great happiness – of light and air.

About this time I had met the English poet and editor, Peter Russell. He had recently published the final issue of his excellent magazine Nine, which I regard in many ways as a precursor of what I have attempted in Agenda. He was then a bookseller and he introduced me to the work of many writers who later were to become important to Agenda, among them Hugh MacDiarmid and Tom Scott. He also had the courage, when no one else would have touched them, to publish Pound’s Six Money Pamphlets and A.B.C. of Economics. Reading these polemical writings was an enormous help to me in discovering what the Cantos are about.

In the same year, I had my first experience as an editor when Edmund Gray, Howard Burns and myself decided to revive the Westminster School literary magazine, The Trifler, which had an intermittent history dating back to the eighteenth century. In the second issue (July 1957) I reviewed Rock-Drill. To my amazement, Pound liked what I had written, saying, ‘Forget if I thanked you for best rev/ of Rock-Dr since Stock’s. He began writing to me regularly, and, with characteristic generosity, tried to educate me and put me in touch with people all over the world. He was pleased that I hoped to get to Oxford; he began a letter of 23 October 1957, ‘Yes I think it an excellent idea that there shd/be at least one y.m. at Oxon who knows the score, or at least wants to know it.’

I continued to correspond with Pound throughout 1958. These were the last years of his incarceration in ‘the bug house’, as he called St Elizabeth’s Hospital where he had been held prisoner since 1946. He was particularly pleased that my school friend, Edmund Gray, was the grandson of Laurence Binyon. He named him ‘Binbinides’ after his nickname for Binyon which was ‘Bin Bin’. Edmund was to become Agenda’s associate editor at the beginning and is now a trustee. Often Pound wrote about anything that happened to interest him at the moment; he asked me to find out what I could about Linnaeus at the Natural History Museum, ‘I keep gittin round to second kindergarten studies’. The tone was usually affirmative, ‘The enemy is IGGURANCE, not jews or masons’….’best defence is POSITIVE’. Also, ‘Every man….has the right to have his ideas examined one at a time; and ‘one shd/not make the battle line on the edge of race’.

Pound was released in May, 1958. Soon after this event, he wrote to me, ’25 Maggio/ Dear Cookson/ as you are the youngest I am writing to you for the others, as you have greatest interest in preserving the vestiges.’ In the Autumn, my mother and I took a three-week holiday in Italy. Pound invited us to stay for a week in Brunnenburg, the castle in the Italian Tyrol belonging to his daughter and son-in-law where he had gone to live on leaving the USA. Although he had warned me in a letter (12 September) ‘I alternate short bursts of energy, with total exhaustion, don’t expect me to function as dynamo, or diesel, when yu get here’, Pound was in reasonable health. I remember how he rushed into the room to see us – there was no formality about his greeting. As Mary de Rachewiltz has written of her father, ‘He brought with him a dimension of – no, not stillness, but magnitude, momentum’.

In the mornings Pound was putting the final touches to the Thrones cantos and every evening he read aloud to his family – his two grandchildren were particularly attentive listeners. He read some of the Confucian Odes and he also tried out poems from Confucius to Cummings, the anthology of poetry that he and his friend and assistant, Marcella Spann, had made together. There was some Browning and Hardy, but I chiefly remember how he read, with great delicacy, Ford Madox Ford’s long love poem, ‘On Heaven’ which expressed Pound’s innate gentleness and humanitas – a quality which the rage and fanaticism of some of his writing can never wipe out.

At this time I was a painfully shy and serious youth. My mother told me that he said to her on the stairs, ‘Does he ever speak?’ I wish I had met Pound a few years later when I could have talked to him more easily. However, he immediately set me to work, giving me a pile of notebooks of the Cantos. Most of these consisted of material he had rejected. He asked me to go through them, putting in white paper markers where I considered there were lines or passages worth rescuing. It was typical of his simplicity and openness that he should have entrusted such a daunting task to a young man who had just left school and about whose abilities and understanding he knew little. I assiduously tore up much white paper, inserting it throughout the twenty or so books, with, I hope, a little perception. Whether he found what I had done useful, I shall never know. I wish I could remember more of what was in those notebooks.

The week passed rapidly. When we left, Pound climbed the steep salita from the castle and came with us in the car to Merano. He got it to stop to show us a fresco of a mermaid on the Duomo wall. What remains with me from our meeting was an electric energy, the Chaucerian robustness and humour which make the Cantos such an affirmative poem, ‘holding that energy is near to benevolence’ (Canto 93).

The idea for Agenda grew from this visit. Pound had a scheme that I should organise a four-page section in an existing publication, possibly Time and Tide – my mother was a friend of Theodora Bosanquet who was at one time literary editor of that paper. But after my return to London, this plan came to nothing. Then Peter Russell suggested I start my own publication, and thus Agenda was born. He introduced me to Czeslaw and Krystyna Bednarczyk of ‘The Poets and Painters’ Press’ and they were to remain Agenda’s printers until they retired in 1991. Without the high quality of their work (and at times generous credit) we would not have survived so long.

Pound wanted Agenda to be called Four Pages – a continuation of a periodical which he had similarly instigated. I avoided the name, because, although I was only groping my way at this time, I was vaguely aware that the title left no room for expansion!

The first editorial was ghost-written by Pound in Agenda’s first issue. When I inserted sentences drawing attention to the words of David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid I had, of course, no idea that one day I would be in a position to produce substantial special issues devoted to these writers and a Ford Madox Ford number eventually followed. Our first number also included a translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam by Peter Russell. This may have been the first English translation of that poet to be printed; we continued to publish translations of his work. Peter Russell has received inadequate recognition for his virtual discovery of Mandelstam and his translations are finer than those that have appeared subsequently.

Pound liked the first issue and wrote, ‘Pleased with Agenda. It don’t look too Poundista. At lease not too unadulteratedly.’ He sent many lists of names and addresses, some of whom became the first subscribers. A year’s subscription was five shillings!

Pound regularly sent in items for publication, many to be used anonymously, for about six months. After he had received a particularly boring issue (No 5), he suggested I should stop, but he soon relented, sending £5 towards the printer’s bill to help me to continue, writing, ’Oke Hay / Fluctuat. But get some GUTS into the next issue, and something that isn’t watered down E.P. / and that shows desire to FOCUS various energies.’ He was now tiring, but with what energy remained, he continued his ‘struggle’ (to quote his 1970 Preface to Guide to Kulchur) ‘to preserve some of the values that make life worth living’. He had also begun to write some of his deepest poetry, Drafts & Fragments.

Pound was glad that Agenda had no affiliation with any political party and this remains a tradition of the magazine to this day. As he wrote to Moelwyn Merchant, ‘Cookson and Binyon’s grandson are reviving Four Pages, without connection with ANY political aroma’. Pound’s political views have been more misinterpreted than any other aspect of his work. Tom Scott got to the truth when he wrote in Agenda, ‘I have never known a poet whose politics are to be taken other than poetically, that is to say in terms of his vision of the coming of the kingdom of poetry on earth, the divine harmony, and not in terms of power politics. A poet’s politics are visionary, not political.’ ….Most poets now lack the courage to tackle major subjects. Agenda has always believed that Pound’s ideas and beliefs are of vital importance, and that the passion with which he held them made him a great poet. There is no doubt that the Second World War engulfed part of Pound’s mind in a kind of darkness (‘That I lost my center / fighting the world’ as he wrote near the end of the Cantos), but even his wartime broadcasts, despite their excesses, are essentially a document of anti-war literature. The vision at the core of the Cantos is right in its fight against the makers of war and ‘Usura’; ultimately it is light that wins in the poem. It is also often forgotten that, to adapt Ben Johnson on Shakespeare, the Cantos was not written for ‘an age, but for all time’ – who now bothers about the immediate political turmoil in Dante’s or Milton’s life?"

On the subject of Pound, history and politics, it is appropriate to give the last words to Geoffrey Hill:

Pound’s vision of history in the Cantos focuses on heroic figures, heroic creators and patrons, snatching brief victory from a general context of defeat, their achievement all the more luminous and illuminating because of the darkness that surrounds and encroaches.

His most powerful and cogent metaphors are of light shining all the more strongly, beautifully, because of the surrounding darkness. That Pound’s own great intelligence itself sank into darkness for a time does not, for me, obscure the truth of much that he has to say about the tyranny of Mammon or diminish the noble beauty of his finest work.

Towards the end of 1960, Pound suffered increasing ill health, and it was rare to hear from him, so he ceased to be actively involved in the editing. Agenda remained only a folded sheet until April 1960, when the actress Virginia Maskell gave me £10 for the first card cover. She was a poet, and a friend of Ronald Duncan – I printed a few of her poems in early issues (and in the Ronald Duncan issue, Vol 38 Nos 1-2 ) . When she committed suicide a few years later, ‘a great matter went out of the universe’, to use a line Peter Dale wrote about the death of his father.

In the Autumn of 1960, I went to New College, Oxford, to read English, taking Agenda with me. John Bayley, now one of the magazine’s trustees, was my tutor. Here the periodical gradually grew in size and I started printing long poems – the first, Alan Neame’s memorable translation of what is probably Jean Cocteau’s greatest poem, Léone, which he wrote during the German occupation of Paris. It was Pound who suggested to Neame that he should translate this, and no one could have done it better.

The next turning point occurred about a year after my arrival at Oxford. I had read a poem by Peter Dale, in the student magazine, Oxford Opinion, called ‘Nearly Got the Moon In’, which has not been collected. I was struck immediately that here was ‘the true voice of feeling’ – the sensation, which I remember vividly in connection with this poem (not one of Dale’s best) is impatient of definition, but associated with a kind of electrical force; throughout my years of editing, this feeling has occurred rarely, but it is the only touchstone on which I can rely. At this period, I often saw an Irish poet called Michael O’Higgins; when I told him how much I thought of Dale’s poem, he introduced us. Soon afterwards, Dale started to advise me, and persuaded me to publish a regular reviews section. He did not become officially associate editor until 1971 (and co-editor ten years later) but many of the most useful things we have done were instigated by him (Rhythm Issue, Rhyme, State of Poetry etc.). Dale’s deep knowledge of the craft of poetry and all matters of technique helped to continue the Poundian tradition of the magazine. We also often disagreed, which resulted in a creative tension that may have made Agenda more living than if either of us had been editing it alone.
Our first special issue (1963) attempted to introduce William Carlos Williams to England by printing entire his long, moving love poem, ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’, together with an introductory essay on his work by Peter Whigham. A feature on Theodore Roethke followed, printing one of his last poems, ‘The Rose’, with essays by Ian Hamilton and Peter Levi and then, in 1964, Charles Tomlinson did the first of our guest-edited issues, which was devoted to introducing Louis Zukofsky. In this first decade of Agenda, special numbers followed on Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid (edited with Tom Scott) and David Jones.

I consider David Jones, after Pound, to be the most important ‘founder’ of Agenda. Edmund Gray introduced me to him when I was sixteen, and, in 1961 he designed the lettering that has been used on the cover ever since. He read little Pound, apart from being interested in his writings on money and history. Nevertheless his poetry has qualities in common with the Cantos, which was something to do with the Zeitgeist, as he used to say. I believe Hugh MacDiarmid was right when he described him as ‘the greatest living poet in the British Isles’ and in 1967 I brought out a triple issue which included reproductions of his paintings and drawings, as well as new poems. This was the first really large number I produced and I like to think it was in part responsible for David Jones writing the longest of his later poems, ‘The Sleeping Lord’. I remember he read me about three pages of a poem he had begun in the late 1930s and asked me whether I thought anything could be made of it. I was deeply moved by the fragment and urged him to continue, and so The Sleeping Lord took shape; working often into the early hours, he just managed to complete it in time for our press date. It is the most important long poem Agenda has published.

The next major issue was a triple one on Wyndham Lewis (1969/70). This was done at the instigation of Agnes Bedford, concert pianist and close friend of both Pound and Lewis. Without her help it would not have been possible, but sadly she died before seeing it. I dedicated it to her memory. Other important issues have been the special issue on Thomas Hardy, edited by Donald Davie, and the issue on US poetry, edited by Lord Gowrie, to name but two.

(The above has been edited slightly and amended where necessary by Patricia McCarthy, February 2004. Further information regarding the history of Agenda and examples of early work by now famous poets, plus many new voices can be found in the Celebratory Issue for William Cookson, Vol 39 No 4 which came out in Autumn 2003, 451 pages, £15.)

 

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