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Jenny Penberthy

Kenneth Cox 1916–2005


This piece is 2,600 words or about 6 printed pages long.

Kenneth Cox

Kenneth Cox

In 1969, replying to Kenneth Cox who had evidently demurred, Lorine Niedecker wrote, “K.C. not critic? — then explainer extraordinary!” Basil Bunting, questioned in 1978 about critical articles on his poetry, named one critic: “I think that Kenneth Cox generally shows considerable insight into anything he writes about, and he has written about me.” Michael Hamburger regarded him “as one of the few living critics independent and searching enough to illuminate anything he wrote about.” Thom Gunn said he “learned more from Kenneth Cox’s essays than from any other living critic of twentieth century poetry. [Cox] writes with masterly directness about the masters of indirection, and his summarizing power rivals that of Samuel Johnson.” Donald Davie described Cox as “incomparable simply as a describer of a poet’s distinctive procedures...” His essays, said Davie, affirm “the essential dignity and necessity of poetry.”

In his first letter to me, in 1986, Kenneth Cox wrote, “No prospect at present of an edition of my essays. The last publisher I heard from said the authors treated ‘aren’t exactly household names.’” His purpose was “to introduce new difficult or neglected work.” The lacuna in the publisher’s list was a talking point in Donald Davie’s 1989 history of contemporary British poetry, Under Briggflatts: “if there is any respectable reason why no British publisher has been ready to collect Kenneth Cox’s criticism into a book, it may well be his fierce repudiation of the well-regarded Geoffrey Hill.” Certainly Cox’s rebukes could be withering. Roy Fisher said, “I knew ... the bite of his bark very well ... he was the only critic I can think of whose felicity could make me laugh out loud, especially when he was quietly removing the bricks from the base of a fraudulent structure.” He referred to Cox’s “use of a trick of Gibbon's .... The soft-shoe technique of listing the characteristics of somebody or something and then in the same sentence and with equal amiability adding the killer punch that demonstrates the inevitable lousiness of those qualities.” Cox himself wrote: “I...cling to the idea that, if my essays are worth anything at all, they are worth having for themselves and not merely as publicity material” (8 July 1991).

Kenneth Cox published his first essay, “The Aesthetic of Basil Bunting,” in 1966. Over the next thirty-five years, his frank and authoritative essays and reviews appeared regularly in either Agenda (London) or Scripsi (Melbourne, Australia) and less often in Cambridge Quarterly, PN Review, and Montemora. These published essays dealt with writers who at the time had attracted little critical attention: George Gissing, R.C. Hutchinson, Allen Upward, Basil Bunting, Wyndham Lewis, Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, Louis Zukofsky, Tom Pickard. But he had no luck with placing his revisionist essays on established writers such as Conrad and Chaucer.

I’ve not succeeded in finding a publisher for [my Chaucer piece]. I’ve sent some 30 copies to editors, literary men, Chaucerian scholars. I’ve had replies from three of the last, no-one else, none helpful. I know what I’m up against: indifference everywhere except the small closed shop of medieval scholarship, whose basic assumptions I oppose. (3 July 1997)

Cox’s search for a publisher for a collection of essays continued. Overtures to the most likely in the UK and the US had failed and by 1999 he began to think of resorting to “some form of samizdat.” He was 85 years old when Collected studies in the uses of English was published by Agenda Editions in 2001 [see the note at the foot of this page: Ed.]. But the anguish didn’t end with the appearance of the book.

My own experience as an author is so depressing from almost every point of view that it is kindest not to think of it at all. One review of my book has appeared but so uncomprehending, so out of touch and feeling with its chief concerns, as to make me wish the book had never been printed. That wish has in fact almost been granted....I have no hope at present of seeing the work noticed. (1 Oct. 2002)

He felt nothing less than loathing for academics and their failure to see beyond the range of their self-interest. Writing about poet Keith Owen, he said, “It can happen that a young man passionate for literature, when brought face to face with people who practise it as a profession, flees in horror. That’s what happened to me, only thirty years later I came back” (2 July 1990).

His literary career was dogged by a fierce unworldliness. It is all the more affecting to know that Cox actually thought he lived in the real world. He wrote to me,

If I ever become famous and you need the kind of glowing testimonial from the real world which impresses ignorant academics, don’t hesitate to ask.

Steeped in the rhythms and traditions of the English language, a Londoner to the core, Cox nevertheless presented himself as an Anglophobe. “My linguistic attainments are in fact modest but they derive from my Anglophobia (=hatred, not fear) rather than the other way round” (4 September 1997). He spoke and read fluently over a dozen languages. (As a boy he taught himself French reading the labels on cartons of imported French goods in his father’s grocery.) He disdained British newspapers, subscribing instead to Le Monde and El Pais. Once home from the war, he seldom left England, opting instead for a kind of exile at home. The writers he admired and wrote about were either neglected in the UK or they lived abroad. He translated the prose of Frederigo Tozzi and Leopardi, he wrote in French and English about Malherbe and Laforgue, and about Conrad as a speaker of Polish, and he translated or what he called “Englished” a long poem by Sorley Maclean. He admired writers like John Berger and Michael Hamburger who was

. . . brought here in flight from Nazis at an age (10–12?) too late to pick up the language quickly and as if born to it, too soon to have a proper knowledge of adult German. By immense labour he has made himself a master of both languages not quite happy in either. . . . Unacademic like me he remains one of the few living writers I respect and even occasionally consult. (25 July 2004)

American modernism, full of exiles and immigrants, caught his attention early. In 1933 he read Louis Zukofsky in Ezra Pound’s Active Anthology, and many years later in Agenda 1971, he would say that, “Zukofsky’s poetry is the most important yet written in English by anyone born in the twentieth century.” Two decades on he was still pondering: “In spite of all this and LN’s enthusiasm too I still have difficulties with LZ’s writing....I’m quite used to writings from different cultures, examining them is indeed my principle interest, what makes LZ different is his ambivalent balance between two” (30 January 1992).

Kenneth Cox and I met in 1986 after he read my review in the TLS of the 1985 edition of Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Writings. We stayed in steady contact through the mail until his death on 4 March 2005. I visited him twice at his small, spare and under-heated flat (one of his letters notes the indoor temperature of 6 degrees) on Burlington Road in Chiswick, London. On the first visit I went for lunch but stayed also for dinner. He had evidently been cooking for days. Saying he had no idea what I would want to eat, he had prepared a vast array of small dishes, some of them Asian, flavoured with lemongrass and fish sauce. I remember also the stewed and spiced Bramley apples with cream. He played the tape recording of Basil Bunting reading Wordsworth that he’d arranged for the BBC to record. As he listened, tears streamed down his face. On my second visit in 1998 we walked in Kew Gardens.

Our first topic of conversation was always Lorine Niedecker whose work he had known since the mid-1960s. Their five year correspondence began in 1966 after he’d written his first and the first critical essay on her poetry. But it was three years before he was able to place the essay. He wrote to her about The Cambridge Quarterly:

I could wish you a happier home but the hard fact is I have found no literary magazine in Britain worthy of the name. One in Paris I thought possible had folded up just before I wrote. Agenda is looking backwards and the swarm of little magazines, littler than ever, that die before nightfall, useless for my purpose. (May 1969)

Early in their correspondence, his questions about life on Black Hawk Island set in motion her long poem “Paean to Place.” They talked about William Morris as she prepared “His Carpets Flowered” and about Louis Zukofsky, Keith Owen, Cid Corman, George Oppen and others. She asked to use a line of his letter in a poem: “I hope you had a good week, the last of your leave, you say. I like that tho sad — I may use it if you don’t mind: the last of the leave. Have a good October, the last of the leaves” (10 Oct. 1970). Kenneth also sent her a long poem of his own called “The manor.” Niedecker was frank:

In haste to get the postman up at the box — I shd. try a judgment on the poem you sent but I’m not sure of myself there — it is a bit too low of key for me. You are the soul of integrity and right in my eyes for a critic. But I may not have seen the Cox poem as yet that holds enough excitement for me. I think of you as a Frenchman, a Valéry in prose, let’s say, someone else (and I hesitate to say) maybe in rare instances, Mallarmé. (22 June 1970)

Since Kenneth was eager for exchange, I sent him everything I wrote on Niedecker. In the long process of deciding how to organize the Collected Works, I spelled out my unfolding ideas in letters to him. He took each new dilemma with utter seriousness and wrote back at length with his suggestions. Often these were less proposals than vigorous assertions; they were always interesting:

At present I merely query your heading, ‘Unpublished Poems’. Does it not seem to you self-contradictory? I would advocate ‘Poems previously unpublished’ but it’s a bit of a mouthful. Shelley’s widow published his under the title of ‘Posthumous Poems’ but that to my literal mind means poems he wrote after his death. The Germans have Nachlass for all a writer leaves in manuscript only, the French have the light little word inédits for such works. It means ‘unpublished’ but in usage has a wider spread, becoming almost equivalent to ‘new’, in effect ‘you’ve not seen this one yet’. Wish we could use it. (4 Sept. 1994)

He attacked my prose style without mercy. Often whole paragraphs would assail my choice of a single word. Kenneth’s standards were stringently applied — even his own letters were full of revisions, usually deletions, made by hand. He would flag a sentence, writing in the margin: “Cancel first sentence of this para. It’s a journalistic link devoid of substance” (30 January 1992). Regarding the typesetting of his second essay on Niedecker, “The Longer Poems,” he assured me that on the subject of “spelling and punctuation I’m on the whole easy-going” (19 Dec. 1990). Then followed a dense page of prohibitions.

He was a mix of austerity and kindness, often a sweet and solicitous friend. He spoke with delight about the fox he’d spotted at the end of the property on Burlington Road, about his neighbour’s son and my own:

From my window I see the little boy downstairs at play in the garden. He is just five days less than one year older than Thomas. I hunt for books for him to look at and be read to out of from. (20 June 1996)

On my 15 year old son:

I don’t suppose he has a girlfriend yet. He will need one soon. It’s important for boys brought up without a sister. Remember the stuff given to children is mostly the product of adult fear and hatred: Swift Dodgson Kipling etc. What the literary critics condemn as ‘sentimentality’ is a necessary part of life between the sexes. It’s how you take it in books that’s difficult. Don’t despise Dickens, teach to be kind. (6 April 2003)

On my brief illness:

I’m trying to say you shouldn’t make light of virus infection, whether to allay fears or prevent fuss, but take proper care (which often means doing nothing) to make sure you have compensated any neglect or oversight committed during your periods of intense excitement or intellection. The body has never heard of Lorine Niedecker but it’s no fool. (19 Jan. 2003)

On opening the package which contained Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works:

After hesitating a little which end to open I chose the one taped over. Heavy the book almost dropped out and I pulled the front cover back quickly, opening it at random.

At once the room filled with an invisible spirit, a sense of eagerness friendliness and expectancy I knew of old, this time with a certain fearfulness. Part fear that something long waited for you can’t at first believe is there now and part the tremor I used to have when I received a letter addressed in a near familiar hand: would I be able to answer as it deserved, this missive from far away, the simple open frank yet searching message it would contain?

All this happened in a millisecond. It is true. Now I have to tell you things I noticed in a cursory because excited examination of a few scattered pages here and there. There is no way I can bring them into order or correct their oversights. I tell them the only way I can, with all the doubts and questions that ought to accompany initial observations but never do.

Overall that sense which filled my room, the sense that whatever Lorine wrote she was never absent from it, never wrong in what she meant even if it didn’t ‘mean’ anything. Perhaps it’s the quality of speech Bunting tried to describe by saying ‘Lorine never fails’. It characterises everything she wrote. I who never heard her voice live hear it at once. Don’t you hear it too? Some of the saints are said to have possessed this quality, few of the poets. (24 May 2002)

My edition of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works is dedicated to Kenneth. Only gradually did I learn how much this gesture meant to him. To be acknowledged in the context of Lorine Niedecker’s works — much neglected and now finally recognized — was a small act of public recognition that Kenneth and his own writings have been denied.

In the course of our friendship, he wrote three more essays on Niedecker, the last finished just a few months before he died.

The piece on Lorine ends 2 ½ years of relearning to write from scratch after near breakdown in hospital. It’s the best thing I’ve done. One para is out of place where it stands but not inaccurate. Two or three infelicities of diction I hesitate to remedy and don’t much regret. Willing to be recognized as difficult writer dealing deep with one other. (25 July 2004)

Editor’s note: Collected Studies in the Use of English by Kenneth Cox is reviewed in Jacket 22 by Peter Campion.

The book gives extended attention to Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lorine Niedecker, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky. There are also essays on Geoffrey Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Robert Creeley, Roy Fisher, George Gissing, R.C. Hutchinson, Alan Jenkins, James Joyce, Gael Turnbull, Allen Upward, Wyndham Lewis, and W.B. Yeats. The book can be ordered by phone or fax in the UK (Tel: 01435 873703: office hours 9am-5pm), by Email at, or by mail (AGENDA, The Wheelwrights, Fletching St, Mayfield, East Sussex TN20 6TL). Price: $35 USA, $40 Australia, $45 Canada and New Zealand, 12 pounds UK. Visa and Mastercard are accepted (please provide card number and expiry date) as are cheques in foreign currencies.

Jenny Penberthy, 2005

Jenny Penberthy

Jenny Penberthy is Professor of English at Capilano College, Vancouver. She is editor of Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet (1996), Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931–1970 (1993), and Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works (2002).

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