The Correspondence of Roy Fisher and Gael Turnbull

Jill Turnbull


Roy Fisher and Gael Turnbull were close friends for almost fifty years. For much of that time they lived at a considerable distance from each other, so their correspondence is a valuable record of their relationship. Gael Turnbull’s archive, housed in the National Library of Scotland as a special collection, contains almost 500 of their letters written from many addresses and ranging from a few lines on a small page to six sides of foolscap paper. Among them are poems, a few of which were not necessarily intended for publication.

     Their correspondence began with a letter from Gael dated 11 July 1956 requesting about a dozen poems for possible publication in Origin, the first of many such invitations. It did not take long for their correspondence and their friendship to develop. Roy’s letters regularly began with an apology for his delay in replying to Gael’s, particularly in the early years.

     Roy and Gael had much more in common than their poetry, especially their extreme self-doubt, which is made clear in their frank correspondence, as well as their tendency to suffer from depression. Gael had to fight every day to make himself get out of bed and face the world. He tended not to discuss such issues with family members, but was able to share his self-doubt, and other negative emotions with his fellow poets, while Roy certainly responded in like manner. 

     In a six-page letter of 6 January 1966 Roy starts: ‘From early November I had a frustrating and demoralizing time at work, a chaos of women, a round of stupidities and loose ends; and then I gave myself a rough ride over Christmas, trying to write something sizable, willed, answerable; and seizing up, day after day, without being able to stop, a sort of strictive. Yet again as always, horribly painful as well as visibly meaningless …’ After more in the same vein, he began to comment on the poems Gael had sent him: ‘Good stuff again, but your way of providing alternatives slackens it all for me … Clouds. Rain etc. Good. Blobby …’

     Among Roy’s letters is one which Ian Hamilton Finlay had sent to Gael, who had obviously forwarded it to Roy. It begins:


I hear you’ve called Roy Fisher

The most distinguished living Midlands poet.

Now, I may be a bit dim,

Away from it all up here – but what I mean is,

Distinguished from what?

Distinguished from anything worth bothering about

should have thought.


And so on, making rude comments about other well-known poets.

     In January 1980 Roy started a long letter talking about his sight problems and the surgery which had been performed. He went on to say that he was taking a sabbatical and ‘had more or less fixed to spend March in the blizzard belt between Chicago and Buffalo, Ottawa and God knows where. Just to prove there’s a little helpless insanity left in me. Gael, I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen to me, or why, except that I just have to die in the attempt to polish off my travel phobia’. Having never travelled abroad before, he went on to list some of the readings he was committed to, ending by hoping to see Cid Corman – and clearly dreading the whole adventure.

     He then starts to respond to Gael’s request for his views on the contents of his proposed Anvil book. Roy’s response was in three parts, starting with his positive comments. After the first two he continues ‘Then there’s the really difficult strand, and the one that puzzles me. I think the life of what you do is in the “vulnerable” poems. The dishevelled (sometimes) un-smart, sometimes naive, trusting, or whatever, Things. Some of the old Knot in the Wood poems, and the Thomas Lundin, author-embarrassing ones …. In a way I feel they should all be there. As a sign that the bones of your skull (what’s that little soft patch on a baby’s head called) have not closed.’ He ends the letter by discussing his own work and publications. The honesty with which Roy and Gael wrote about the other’s poems says a lot about their mutual trust and respect for each other’s views.

     Roy’s experience of writing does not appear to have eased much over the years. On 10 April 1994 he wrote: ‘Poem-writing! Living retrospectively, I’m trying to remember instances of my ever having done any poetry except in the odd circumstances of (1) having somehow arranged to have myself asked; (b)sic having agreed; and (c) being unable to face not coming up with something. It can’t have been my only motivation, but it’s an oddly persistent pattern.’ And so he goes on, looking back at his work, dismissing his sense of having improved on his early poems as ‘a complete self-delusion’. He mentions Kenneth Cox, Ric Caddel, and then describes how he ‘obligingly knocked out a couple of bits of doggerel designed to be put on little posters to be stuck on Birmingham’s buses during the Readers & Writers Festival.

     Gael’s life, unlike Roy’s, was nomadic, moving from America to England and back again. During his period in Ventura, California, typed in an undated letter, he describes a family adventure to the Grand Canyon and the native American pueblos. Starting in Santa Fe, where the family spent four days with Ed Dorn, whose work he published in Migrant press, he went on to meet Robert Creeley of whom he wrote: ‘Like many writers, he often gives a sureness to what he does that isn’t really there.’ He went on to type out a poem called ‘A Ghost Town’, saying he ‘had an earlier version badly “cut up” by Denise Levertov … but this is better. However, I’m unsure of it. No hurry to reply but I want some comment. Thanks.’

     Many of Gael’s letters don’t have a year date but at a later period, when he was working in Britain, he was visited by Allen Ginsberg, something he describes in interesting detail in a letter to Roy, quoting his diary entry, which begins: ‘Ginsberg – two days – Exhaustion – Hair thinning on top – Body Odour (unchanged underwear) – Nicotine fingers – Thick Glasses – Sensual, almost “liver lips” …’ and so on. A memorable occasion!

     It can, of course, be open to question that letters such as those between Roy and Gael should be published. However, there is a comment by Gael written to Roy on 16 March 1966, which says ‘some day we shall publish your letters. Why should the rest of the world be deprived?’ It was something of a surprise to me that Gael seemed, during our marriage, to be perfectly happy with the idea that anything he wrote, from poems he left for me to find on Valentine’s Day, to the very large number of letters he wrote to, or received from, other poets were available for publication if they were of any interest. As he said: ‘So be it.’