Arvon is pleased to publish an appreciation of John Moat by playwright Peter Oswald.
John Moat, who has died aged 78, was a poet who was devoted to completeness. Yeats said that poets must choose between ‘perfection of the life or of the work –
And if perfection of the work, forsake
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
John Moat created a heavenly mansion and ‘raged in the dark.’ In fact he co-created two mansions – one for himself and one for others. The one he created for others, with John Fairfax and with his wife Antoinette Moat, in 1968, is the Arvon Foundation. Today it hosts residential courses taught by the very best writers, in Devon, Shropshire and Yorkshire. The one he and Antoinette created for themselves – and family and friends and neighbours – is Crenham Mill in North Devon, where he wrote, painted and gardened for fifty years.
John’s opus of poems, novels and paintings centres on the Welcombe valley, where Crenham Mill stands.
In my hut writing this poem
I was distracted by my breathing
looked up and out of the window saw myself
coming back down the frozen valley
All, from the very start, are formed by a vision which took for its coding the language of alchemy as used by C.G.Jung to give structure to his wildest inner journeys. Jung spoke about the ieros gamos, the divine marriage of opposites, from which the unforeseeable child emerges. And it was this divine marriage and child which was the relentless pursuit of John’s work.
The gift is life. I new-coined from our bed would run
Outdoors…light-threads from the ripped-cloth roar of the sea.
Each day first born.
His first book of poetry, Thunder of Grass, published in 1969, was received with acclaim. But John’s response was to draw away from the literary world – ‘that shark pool,’ and to focus on his particular vision, whether or not that might have publishing appeal. Despite the relative obscurity this entailed, he won the admiration of such writers as Ted Hughes, Lindsay Clarke, Adam Thorpe and Alice Oswald.
John was plunged into the dark at a young age. You wouldn’t have known it, to meet him. Always bursting with schemes, and apparently impulsive, when he saw Ted Hughes for the first time in a pub car park in North Devon, he shouted, ‘Are you Ted Hughes?’ at which Hughes, ‘turned as if a shot had been fired,’ but became a life-long supporter of Arvon, drawing in Seamus Heaney. This impulsiveness, John explained in his last book, Anyway… was actually the mischievous guidance of the god Hermes. What he meant, partly, was that he was a lifelong student of Hermetic philosophy and in it found a form for his own intuitions about the creative potential of seemingly chance events. The darkness hit at age five, when John’s father was killed fighting the Japanese in Malaya. And this catastrophe formed his life. Among the many things that drew him and Antoinette together was the fact that she had also lost her father in the war at the age of five.
John suffered two breakdowns, the first of which led him to electric shock treatment and the second, deeper into Jung. He wrote about the first with great power in his ‘Song drama for two voices and a Chorus,’ And the New Moon is Her Face.
The sea gleams her warning
White breaker, white race
The ground-swell is moaning
Rain shadow in showers
One memory cowers
An old moon is her face.
Moat’s generosity and brightness was the fruit of hard-won recovery from these episodes.
With John the miraculous was never far away. He was scarcely surprised when, after bringing home an image of a Mexican fire god, part of the house burned down. Gifts were prodigious – at different times he offered to my wife and me – an entire smallholding to run, and an entire printing press. Once walking through his house admiring his paintings, our son said he liked a particular one. As we left, John appeared with a print of it rolled up under his arm, as a parting gift. In times of trouble a letter would always arrive, in beautifully curving Indian ink.
When John was given two years following his cancer diagnosis, he wrote to us, ‘78 years is plenty.’ Indeed they enabled him to bring his work to completeness in his book Anyway… which puts his whole opus into clear and spiralling perspective. He gave the world many treasures. Nick Stimson, the playwright and director, was a student on the very first Arvon course, led by Johns Moat and Fairfax. After walking late into the night, Stimson, then a teenager, declared that he had discovered ‘not that writing matters but that everything matters.’ John was a poet and painter whose life and art are indistinguishable from each other, a man whose hugeness of spirit broke down the barriers between those two competing arenas.
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