Explore the complete works of John Bradburne

A brief introduction
to the poetry of John Bradburne

John Bradburne breathed poetry. It came out of him like water from a tap - and the tap was always on. The climax of a remarkable poetic life, which began in his youth, was the decade from 1969, when he wrote over 4,000 poems - sometimes a dozen or more in a day. Several of them are thousands of lines long. The quantity of his work has no precedent in English literature: it is, I estimate, over three times as much as Wordsworth wrote, and we have not yet discovered all of it, for much still remains hidden in letter-form in many an attic or drawer. He is probably the most prolific poet in English literature, and this was recognized in 2014 by Guinness World Records.

He literally couldn’t stop. In ‘L’Ensuite’, written in 1974, he tells us how he keeps wanting to add just a bit more to a poem.

I love this inability to end
Ever without just adding one more verse,
It seems to me a sempiternal trend
For blending with The One is none the worse
Even for endless aeons unbegun,
To wit: God - Holy Spirit, Father, Son.

In fact, the thing that made him end a poem was usually arriving at the end of a page, or having to change the paper in his typewriter. And every bit of the paper is used up. Often he writes a couple of sonnets on a foolscap sheet and finds he has just an inch of space at the bottom. So he fills it with a 2- or 3-line poem!

As one would expect, with such an outpouring, the quality varies considerably, from the sublime to the banal, but his work throughout displays a single-minded enthusiasm and clarity of vision that is compelling in its intensity and endearing in its humanity. Take this example, written on the 20th of April 1969, which illustrates the appropriateness of such metaphors as ‘breathing’ and ‘outpouring’. He begins a letter home to his mother like this:

Dearest Mother,
many thanks for your three last letters: of the 9th, of the 12th and of the 15th. Writing in anything other than verse is to me a sterile, fruitless and abortive pain, so I am sure you will allow me the pleasure of replying in verse, and in verse of giving you what news and Paschal tidings I may have. In saying that writing in anything other than verse is to me heaviness, I do not refer to what I receive but to what I send ...

And he then launches exuberantly into a poem of over 100 lines, in which joyful romanticism and domestic chat are obliviously intertwined:

It makes me happy and augments my glees
To read about the pleasure which you had
In Paschal greetings on Masasa trees
The sight of which in Spring makes many glad;
Bless-ed be God that Allelulias leapt
To Easter sunshine best of twenty years,
Receded winter cold, no longer slept
The daffodils but trumpeted their cheers!
Hurrah for Mary gladdened in the way
With Auriol on Easter holiday.

Such marked improvement in the health of him
Whose name is Charles (which rhymes with nothing well)
Is also Alleluliattic, swim
May he this Summer, sound as any bell ...

His best work contains lines of great beauty and profound spiritual insight. Many of his images are original and vivid:

Adhere to Truth as flies do to the ceiling ...

The Thought of God is written in the air ...

He can produce romantic images of startling quality, inviting comparison with Robert Browning or William Blake:

Dreams are a chequered commentary made
In sleep along the deeps of our desires
Moving like riddles through a magic glade
Lightly they touch the leap of hidden fires ...

He looks at nature in ways that Wordsworth or Keats would have been proud of. Here is an image of bees:

The night-sound of a hive is like the fall
Of fairy raindrops on the tops of time ...

And one of ravens:

Ravens are Yahweh’s craftiness with wings ...

And one of swans:

Companiable not, as ships that sail alone
With unhailed mast upon the vast uncharted seas
So is the single solitary swan to own
Tis never less alone, O Lord, than, throned with Thee,
Upon a pilgrimage where none but One can be.

And here is an atmospheric narrative opening:

There’s a long dark wood where the witches dwell
By a marsh where the curlews call
And above and beyond there is conned a Fell
Whence a Wind doth the dales befall ...

What makes John Bradburne special as a poet, however, is his mastery of the traditional features of verse, such as onomatopoeia, verbal allusion, rhythm, and rhyme. He is a great formalist. He experiments with every conceivable metre and verse scheme. No blank verse for him:

If only you had time for writing verse?
True poets have got time for nothing less!
Vers libre I am consigning to the hearse,
With rhyme and rhythm onward John will press!

He wants to ‘weave with rhyme’ - though he can produce a free verse style when he wants to - but his rhymes are not restricted to the ends of lines. He glories in rhyming words within lines, using alliteration and assonance, and gleefully neologising:

Take towers, turrets, copper-beeches, aisles
And roses, rows of reverential yews
And lilac and laburnum and the smiles
Of Maytime married to the chiming views
Of swallowdom and cuckomerry mews ...

He can take alliteration to almost tongue-twisting lengths:

First Eve fell fast for fallen fiend’s false fable ...

Words resonate against each other in unexpected ways. They are probed, twisted, stretched, and pummelled, to yield every ounce of structure and connotation. Bradburne’s poetry is a punster’s paradise:

Yield, though letter last but one,
On Alpha bet
As being Omega’s own Son
And End shall never set:
Give, vibrate, penultimate,
Till all is Zed and done save Zen ...

He is obsessed with word-play and allusion, and he knows it, calling himself rhymster and punster in mock self-disparagement. I doubt whether anyone could wring more linguistic changes out of a word: Eve, Eva, Ave, Mary, Maria, mare, au mer, Miriam, Admire I Am ... And he is always ready to play, as in this extract from ‘Cosmic Cogitations’:

A is for Apple,
B is for Beads,
C is for counting them
D is for deeds,
E is for ecstasy,
F is for flight,
G s for Gabriel coming by night,
H is for happiness
I is for ink,
J is for jotting what is not too dotty to think ...

It is this pervasive playfulness which prevents his poetry from becoming pompous or self-indulgent.

Go to the second column

He wrote in an extraordinarily fluent way. The manuscript texts show page after page with no corrections or changes of mind at all. And he writes fast. We know this because sometimes he not only dates the poem but tells us the time of day he finished it. For instance, in one year on 10 August he finished ‘To Paddy Bidwell’ at 3.55 a.m. The next poem on the page, ‘Mattins’, also ends with the time: 04.45 on the same night. There are 36 lines in the second poem - and they were written within 50 minutes. A line a minute, more or less.

This might not seem too difficult, until you realise just how complex the writing is. I’m not thinking here of the originality of the thought, or its theological content, which is impressive enough, but of his literary facility. He is a stickler for metre and versification, taking great pains to work out a symmetrical structure for a poem. His rhyme schemes are intricate; his word play even more so. And there is something else. Read this poem, ‘Sonnet on Timu’ (Timu was one of the Mtemwa lepers), written in September 1969:

Timu’s no Timon, Athens were to him
Inseparable word from hens at hand,
Many a time I greet him daily, Tim
Ever is bright, dimness to him is banned;
Intent on converse and on getting round
Wondrously well on only hands and knees,
Enters he here and there, all’s fairy ground
Native to happy Tim who’s born to please;
The produce of his poultry he will beg
That I may purchase any time I pass
Only providing that it is an egg
But not a chicken cheeping “Fresh is grass
Even as I am flesh!”: three pence a time
Duly I pay and Timu’s lay’s sublime.

Did you notice anything? Read it again, this time looking at the initial letters of each line. It is a perfect acrostic.

So, think about it: write a poem like that, with an acrostic, making sure that each line has the right metre and that the sonnet rhyme-scheme is followed (abab cdcd efef gg). Don’t forget to add alliteration in most lines, and a sprinkling of puns. The whole thing has to make good sense, of course. Oh, and do it a line a minute, with no corrections. Something very special was going on here.

He has only one theme, and it is the most profound of themes: the nature of the triune God, as manifested in Jesus, as born of Mary. From this theme come all others - God’s plan in human history, salvation, love, mission ... Bradburne gets as close as he can to the godhead, through the figure of Mary. He sees himself as in the most daring and intimate of relationships to her, as one ‘married to the Queen of Queens’. In his vision, all insights and images come directly from her:

This day thy Queen conceived God’s word by Me.

In such a night as this I know
That what I say she says is so.

And his insights are profound - at times mystical to the point of obscurity, at times burning with prophetic clarity, as in this brilliant image of the Trinity:

Love who is Chooser, Chosen, Choice.

John Bradburne is nonetheless a very human poet. He does not hide his own fears and failings. When his temper gets the better of him, and he treats an unwanted visitor badly, he condemns himself later that evening in a poem. He has good days and bad days: 18 August 1971 was a bad day, and is punished by being sent to bed without any poetry:

Numbers this day amongst the very worst
I’ve had: sad, it shall not be further versed.

And although he often writes at all hours of the night, he finds it difficult to get up in the morning:

After first cockcrow while the late owls cry
And stilly crickets chirp the way to dawn
Ripe is the time to type that poetry
Which stole upon one long before the morn
And got itself imprinted on the mind
Yet seldom then I rise with you, I find!

These flashes of everyday humanity show John Bradburne to be no ordinary Romantic. Do we know from their poems whether Keats or Coleridge found it difficult to get up in the morning?

Many of Bradburne’s poems are flawed in their total structure. In the very long works (of hundreds of lines), the organization can break down completely, and one is carried along by the force of individual verses not knowing where the story will end. Despite their intended metrical discipline, lines sometimes do not scan, and verses become asymmetrical. But none of this seemed to bother him. He laughs at his inability to find a rhyme, and if the last line of a poem isn’t right, he leaves it be, often adding a jocular footnote to draw attention to the point. There is very little sign of self-correction in the original typescripts and manuscripts. As the thought came to mind, so he put it down, at speed and without hesitation, in usually impeccable verse:

We never stop to wonder what to say,
The impetus of our committing muse
Imprisons us in fairy-spells that sway
Whichever rhyme and rhythm she may choose ...

Without such an inspiration, there was no need for revision - and anyway, there was no time, for the next poem had to be written.

Six thousand and more poems. Why did he do it? Did he have a choice? ‘Bards are birds’, he says in ‘Talisman’:

Birds that spontaneously sing
Ask not reward or anything
Of man’s appreciation, they
Being but God’s make songs each day
Especially at morn and eve:
In giving thanks they thanks receive.

But in ‘Paradise tossed aside’ we finally come closer to an understanding of the mission of this ‘strange vagabond’:

... oh may this dunce’s typing
Bestir the springs of immortality
And may my wit befit eternity.

John Bradburne never thought his work would be read. He reflects gloomily, on 16 August 1974, in ‘To the Lodestar’:

When Shakespeare died, at only fifty-two,
Behold, he’d told the thoughts of all mankind!
There is no shade of mood in me or you
Which, in Will’s way, may not expression find;
But, since himself that Bard has done this thing
In such a princely manner for the throng,
Shall I endeavour to go echoing?
Or shall I tintinabulate his song?
Say nay, it were a nightmare travesty
To try to gild the lily of his art
Which is as if The Holy Ghost made free
Both on our mortal and immortal part:
My age is fifty-three, my lines are many
And almost all of them not read by any!

This Website will help change all that.

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