Michael Baldwin’s gone, died in February. When The Arts Council, following Fairfax’s and my report on the first Arvon course, granted us money to explore further courses, we needed to find other poets willing to tutor. We were directed by the already active Arvon daimon to first sound out Alan Brownjohn and Michael Baldwin. The accuracy of that directive still astonishes me. The two would become not only the most committed and long-serving of tutors, not only among the very best of the many friends who have been Avon’s extraordinary stronghold, but also essential to the survival and eventual grounding of the operation.
If there had been any substance to Fairfax’s and my make-believe that the first small cadre of mostly poets who would constitute the original Council of Management was the Arvon Musketeers, then there was certain substance to our identifying Michael as the outfit’s Porthos. Entirely one in bulk, generosity, seriousness, humour and thirst – he would never call for wine in a single bottle.
As a writer he could come up with anything, he was that uniquely gifted – novels, film-scripts, short stories, poetry and… poetry. But with the ‘market’ once at his feet he (not the only writer to have had this experience) found that his outspoken, sometimes I dare say brashly outspoken, determination to stay with his core commitment to the imagination led to the market and the ‘review sections’ coming largely to disregard him.
Poetry I’ve mentioned twice – I could have made it thrice. He is, honestly, one of our very few absolutely certain poets. The often dark, depth-charged, and totally on-aim work of his King Horn collection: deeply, unobtrusively cultivated, and with the fullest range of the poet’s skill concealed within the unique surety of his voice. Then the unique song-work of his earlier collections, astringent in their way as Adrian Mitchell”s, for instance Death on a Live Wire, where the humour on the surface stings like iodine, and the after-taste is unaccountably gnomic:
A kiss or two, and she replaced the yellow;
A dance or two, and she replaced the red;
A walk or two, and she was my bedfellow
And all she was lay folded by the bed.
And then there’s the funny, the simply hilarious. When Fairfax and I visited him in Richmond to interest him in Arvon (we didn’t have to try) we sat and drank his wine beneath that very tree. Which tree? The tall pear tree that featured in his poem, The Hunter. I would later hear him read the poem on two occasions, the account of how with all his training in the Territorial Army he went after the damned fat pigeon that was strutting his lawn and pecking at his windfall pears… only to have to shift his sights onto a rival hunter, the neighbour’s enormous cat.
Well, the cat would do,
And his back was turned coyly, inviting temper.
I fired and missed, then rushed him rampant,
Trying to dish him with a lisping broom
But he cartwheeled hissing, then clung to a branch
And went spitting skyward, shaking down pear
After precious pear.
On both occasions, before he’d finished, there were people crying with laughter.
I’m thinking that of you visiting this website, seven or eight out of ten may never have read a poem by Michael Baldwin. Then let me have done you a favour. And if you are a serious publisher of poetry, do yourself and all of us one by bringing out a fine edition of The Collected Poems.
John Moat. March 2014.
John Moat is one of the founders of Arvon.