ALAN SILLITOE, SELECTED POEMS
Chosen by Ruth Fainlight
Alan Sillitoe is one of the leading British novelists of the twentieth century, as well as an award-winning poet. He wrote over fifty books, establishing an enduring critical and popular success with his early novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), which set a new direction in writing about the reality of working-class lives in post-war Britain.
Sillitoe said that his poetry and fiction came out of totally different territories, and that his poetry revealed his own inner life in a way that he found impossible to do in fiction.
Here are poems of love and poems that reflect on the world as he saw it, as well as poems that use the story-teller’s skill to bring to life people and places that capture his imagination and take him on a search for meaning – fascist graffiti scrawled by an unseen hand on a wall in Irkutsk, three sons standing in silence by the grave of their father. This is Sillitoe’s world as seen with his poet’s eye, a vision that is at the same time clear and precise, politically engaged, fiercely intelligent, and deeply personal.
This selection, drawn from his eight volumes of poetry, has been chosen by his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight.
Winner of the European Poetry Prize 2008
“The poems of a well-travelled man, a reader of maps in many senses, who ranged widely, restlessly, in his life and in his mind; poems that, whether brief lyric or extended parable, all speak to Alan Sillitoe’s flintily individual grasp of the world, in all his voices, authentic, humorous, sardonic and compassionate.”
“It is when he engages the novelist’s eye for incident that he is most successful. “Car fights Cat” relates how a cat faced down a Daimler, tumbled beneath its wheels, then “shot out with limbs still solid, / Bolted, spitting fire and gravel / At unjust God who built such massive / Catproof motorcars in his graven image”. There is a fine poem about a map of the Somme (one of several war-related pieces) and there are some welcome lighter moments in different voices – the rather brilliant duologue “Full Moon’s Tongue” and the jaunty monologue “Derelict Bathing Cabins at Seaford”.”
John Greening, The TLS, May 15, 2020
Alan Sillitoe (1928 ‑ 2010) grew up in Nottingham, leaving school at the age of fourteen to work in the local Raleigh bicycle factory. In 1945 he joined the RAF as a wireless operator and was posted to Malaya, though after contracting tuberculosis he was invalided out.
He met Ruth Fainlight in a bookshop in 1950 and two years later they travelled first to the south of France, then to the island of Mallorca where they lived for four years, becoming lifelong friends with the poet Robert Graves and his wife Beryl. It was there, in the small town of Soller, that Sillitoe began writing the stories and novels about working-class life that were to make him famous as one of the ‘angry young men’ of a new generation of writers.
He won the Hawthornden Prize in 1960 for The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and in 2008 the European Poetry Prize, ‘awarded to a poet from one of the countries of the European Community who has testified, through his work and career, the inalienable importance of a united Europe’.
Ruth Fainlight is one of Britain’s foremost poets. Born in New York City, she has lived in Europe, mostly England, since she was fifteen. She was married to Alan Sillitoe for over fifty years. Together they adapted Lope de Vega’s play Fuenteovejuna, commissioned by the National Theatre and published as All Citizens are Soldiers. She has published more than sixteen books of poetry, including New and Collected Poems (2010) and Somewhere Else Entirely (2018).