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Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu: Poet, Critic, Editor-Publisher

by T Wignesan

 A former botany student - becomes the first "ruler" of the "Fitzrovian Kingdom" in London with his "Poetry-London-New York" magazine.

Introductory Note

Meary James Thurairajah TAMBIMUTTU was born on 15 August 1915, the second son of six brothers and a sister, to Mary Ponnammah and Henry T. Tambimuttu in Sri Lanka. Henry Tambimuttu, an erstwhile journalist who ended up serving in the Government Printery in Colombo, was the son of S.TAMBIMUTTU PILLAI of Atchuvely, Jaffna. The Tambimuttu family claims descent from the kings of Jaffnapatam, the last of whom, King Cankili II, was toppled by the Portuguese in August-September 1618. Two of M.J.T. Tambimuttu's uncles [according to the poet himself] also achieved fame in the first part of the twentieth century: the Jesuit lexicographer, Gnana PRAKASAR and the renowned aesthetician and art critic/historian, Ananda Kentish COOMARASWAMY. [Dr. Rama P. Coomaraswamy, the only surviving son of the latter, however, told me in 1995 that Tambimuttu was not related to his family in any way whatsoever.] The family's claim to prominence in modern times resides in the efforts of the English language poet, Meary James Thurairajah (better known as "TAMBI") as a publisher of poetry in London, notably as founder-editor of Poetry London and as editor of the publishing houses, Editions Poetry London (in the 1940s) and Lyrebird Press (since the late 1960s). Tambi, himself, attended Jesuit schools in Trincomalee and Colombo and later, having failed to make headway with his botany studies in Colombo, turned up in London, in 1938. By 1949, when he returned to his native capital, he was already a "legendary" literary figure. The rest of his life was spent in a vain attempt to recapture some of that glory, first in New York (1952-1968), then in London again (1968-1983). He was married and divorced thrice, his only child, Shakuntala, being born to his last union in 1962. Before he died on 23 June 1983 in a London hospital, he had laid the groundwork for the establishment of Indian and Sri Lankanese Arts Councils for the betterment of cultural relations between the United Kingdom and her former possessions. His corpus as a poet and critic is meagre and ineffectual, but he enjoyed a formidable reputation in the United Kingdom, India, Sri Lanka and the United States as an editor of poetry in the English Language. 

Mention of this Ceylonese poet and literary editor either in writing or in conversation evokes principally two different sorts of responses, for he was and is a controversial figure, controversial mainly because of his role in publishing English poets in England: one, very warm and dithyrambic, largely from the poets and writers he published under the imprint of Editions Poetry London, and the other, a lukewarm or even critical response that sometimes reverts to outright condemnation both of the man and his work. I do not place, or find, myself in either category, nor am I interested in ascertaining my own responses in this respect.  

Central to both categories of responses is the spurious argument which seeks to enthrone Tambimuttu in the mainstream of English literature, claiming in the process a fundamental role in the development of English poetry in the past half a century. To my mind, it matters little whether the activity took place in the metropolis or in Anuradhapura; it is still writing in English that we are dealing with, in all its variety and wealth. Crucial to this argument is also the fact that some friends of the poet wish to see him changing the course of English writing in London like some Hercules diverting the course of the Thames down the Ganges, citing in the event one of R.C.Churchill's numerous lapses in the Concise Cambridge History of English Literature as a sort of testamental backing to Tambimuttu's "Englishness".1 

One of the difficulties of researching an author such as Tambimuttu derives from the scarcity of his writings and publications. Mercifully the better part of them may be found in his own magazine, Poetry London, and Jane William's festscrift, Tambimuttu: Bridge between Two Worlds. The three slim books of poems he printed before he left for London in 1938, according to reliable reports, have disappeared without trace. In this paper, I limit myself to a consideration of his poetry as a complement to my article on Tambimuttu's life and poetics, entitled: "Tambimuttu: 'A Prince Among Poets'".2 

II

Out of this War,3 a single poem in six sections, completed in October 1940, spans only fifteen pages and constitutes his only "book" of poems published in the West, and which is mainly - as the title indicates, with the exception of the "preface" poem in two pages - patently philosophical cogitations on and about War in general, on the figure of the hero, about air-raids on London, about the retreat from Dunkirk, and the minatory looming shadows of Hitler and Mussolini across Europe. These six poems have as much a connection with one another as the separate sections of The Waste Land, an obvious model for him despite the recourse to symploce à la Eliot's "The Hollow Men" and epistrophe between sections III and IV. They have none of the immediacy of feeling or suffering that characterised the War poems by Alan Rook or G.S. Fraser, or some of the other poems in the fifth number of Poetry London that he devoted to poets in the European and African fronts. nor any of the experience of excruciating loneliness, helplessness, inner-devastation, horror and detachment of, say, Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" or "Strange Meeting", Edward Thomas' "The Owl" or "Liberty", or Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches", poets mowed down in action by war. Even if this ambience of total desolation is absent in Tambimuttu's war poem, Eliot's influence makes itself felt once too often. 

The time is harvested and hung 
Dying, that brings love and growth snowing its fingers. 
This is the time of bombs and white nightmare 
Soaking red through faces. This is time that lingers 
To touch the brain with madness. Does it care, O does it  
care 
If the slow bells of desolation are rung 
  
Over the dead land. Time was and time will be 
For building and erection. 
Time for work and time for rest. 
This, this is September time: time for action 
Time for murder and time for thrust, 
For plunder, rape, devilry.4 

 

The above lines from the third section, entitled "Air Raid" come after the more urgently and irrepressibly felt moments of the early impressionable London experience, passive perhaps but deeply felt and powerfully voiced. Here's another quote from the same poem. 

And as the dead eye slants from the ruins to the sky-- 
Quick danger of eyes and hell-- 
Will it cry, will it cry 
When will the murder stop 
  
On the blameless head. Fist of love 
Lying bleeding and neglected over the hill 
Of ruin and treason, 
See the fire upon his breast, the unbended will 
Of his hand and reason 
Break terribily from above 
  
On the heroic head.5 

Here the near perfect rhymes abcbca (note the interlocking unity of stanzaic structure) are underscored by enjambement and the sudden arrest of pace, the urgent interrogative calls of the persona, culminating in the epistrophe leading to the next section: "...where, where/ Will we find us after wreck?//", indicate the extent to which he had already mastered some of the craft of making poems. On the other hand, evidence of the lack of rigour, too, proliferate. Platitudinous or unwieldy phrases and cardboard-like associations mar his work: from section III: "But where, O where/ Will he lay the bud schemes", from section IV: "Today the cars of war run only when life/ Is stranded for reason", from section V: "What God has joined, no mortal shall dispense", or again in section VI: "What use correctness, without emotion. What use/ Our honest Goodness, without Emotional Thrust--/ Truth without Sincerity (merely 'culturist')?" Similar defects plague his later work, too. 

There seems also to hover over his verse a pathological need to apostrophise and pontificate in a grave declamatory tone his fatherly and almost priestly overview of mankind at large. From section VI, "Elegy for the Dead", this stanza: 


Descend O warmth into this frigid sex 
And wax the blood to a rigid flame. 
Propose a meaning for the thousand dead, 
Our children fallen on the careless shame. 
The mouths of ash are sighing in France 
And the hoarded woe blowing from China. 
Blood runs dry, this bread is cracked, 
Our limbs are freezing and our trousers patched.6 

III 

For reasons that should become clear as we proceed, I will pause to give you here a portrait of the poet as I see him in his heyday. 

Swarthy, broad-faced, angularly sharp-boned, a high dome of a brow often fighting back a shock of slightly wavy, velvety black hair, parted almost in the middle, hardly concealing hoody, out-turned ears, presiding over tautly set features: eyes dominated by large, black pupils whose intensely dreamy gaze distracts from his widely-set-apart authoritative cheek bones, silky, tame eyebrows slightly rising in a V-formation over a slightly psittacine, firm nose-bridge restraining sensual nostrils over equally sensually pursed fully arched lips, all, all balanced by a decisively pronounced and tapering wilful chin. 

These features lend his sparsely framed lankiness and general air of studied disorderliness a further dash of exotic charisma that made him such a success among the poetic fraternity of the forties in England while not forgetting the hardly famished War beauties of shell-torn London where the Windmill chorus girls sang, night after night: "Hail Tambi! King of the Jungle!"  

Yet an almost self-imposed sense of gravely-felt loneliness seems to have overtaken him in his decade of glory. From a "Letter to Joan Wyndham-Shirarg", the following lines attest to an almost pitiful condition.  

But I was always moody, aimless, pointless. 
I never seem to understand the set-up.  
I am, perhaps, the thunder-carrying cloud 
Or brittle wool-pack, and really couldn't care less. 
My home has been the solid London pub 
For eight long years, beloved.7 

In the same poem, he records with disarming honesty, or naïveté, some further truths about himself. Isn't there just that bit of self-pitying envy that clouded his own image of himself? 
  
Why is it I'm always on my own; 
But I accept it as the awful warning 
This is all, this is all there is to love's fiesta. 
  
How is it that all my friends arrange it 
On the LMS flying to home and wife, 
Their baggage bursting with wonderful things to eat, 
With F.L.s, chocolate and their suits that fit; 
But I'm a simpleton, cannot fix my life 
To bring me these nice happinesses and treats.8 

The last two lines proved prophetic. He never seemed able to keep down a job long enough to keep his head above “the beer-line", and all his projects to print and publish poetry in as posh-ly and artistically a Royal manner seemed to take a turn for the worse, and like a Micawber he had to wait for someone to come round the corner to salvage both him and his not-too-life-saving poetical plans. Should anyone think these remarks quite severe, I can only assure him or her that the more I delve into his life as a researcher the greater is the evidence to this effect. 

The long-breathed lines of his "Four Ceylonese Love Songs"9 à la Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali and "Fugitive and Other Poems" - in contradistinction to Tambimuttu's four poems of Hindu prayer10 — re-emerge in his later poems: "For Katharine (Kamala)Bennett and All True Sadhakas" and "Gita Sarasvati"11, possibly brought on by a harking back to his Hindu origins ever since Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder's quest into Hindu and Zen philosophy became respectable literary occupations. Here's a quote from the love songs. 


  And now that you are absent from my arms and the moon is 
resting on the palm, 
a bright veined rose-petal on unflowing water 
My heart is cracking like a dry stick beneath the weight 
of this loneliness too 
lonesome to bear because it is the loneliness beloved 
For you12 

The later Tambimuttu poems that I have already commented on in my published article are by and large attempts to arrogate for himself a philosophical tradition, and none more ready-made or readily available than Hinduism in all its mystic and mythical splendour. Eric Mottram, the great English poet, critic and editor, presently Professor Emeritus of English and American Literature at London University, has this to say, among other things, as a commentary on my article on Tambimuttu's poetics [cf. note 2]. 

Certainly, his credo, on page 55, is bizarre - a ripe  
confusion of religion and art. And perhaps this was T's 
problem: he wanted to be a priest, and so live not by art 
or intelligence but by self-styled privilege."13 

IV 

Tambimuttu grew up in four different areas: Atchuvely, Trincomalee, probably Kuala Lumpur and most of all in Colombo, and in "My Country, My Village", supplemented by a prose piece, "Hindu Rock, Raga Rock", he gives a rather straightforward account of his upbringing, influences and preferences. Already at that early age, even as a student at the two St.Joseph's, he found himself drawn to his Hindu origins. I have already elaborated on this point in my published article. Here are three stanzas from his celebration of three of his homes. Note his eye for his surroundings from an early age. 
  
When I was young, the flame-tree and the jasmin 
Gilded my youthful eyes with tenderness 
For natural things - the lotus-pond and the palmyra: 
The ring-dove tore the air with natural passion; 
At Atchuvely, my Northern home, all else 
Seemed unimportant beside a bassia star.14 


There was peace in Trincomalee too: 
With leopard, deer and buffalo I roamed 
The jungle paths with Elizam and my brothers; 
And beyond were the dead cities, the clue 
To ancient hubbub, now becalmed - 
All the mighty dead Anuradhapuras.15 


Colombo was home indeed. The silver lights 
Etched the night's dark with fauns and delicate shapes,  
The streets magical by the half-light; 
And when the moon dispelled the grey nights, 
Silver palms stood by elfin capes, 
Proud and feminine in their lissom flight.16 

There's real talent in this last stanza. In easy, deft brush strokes Tambimuttu evokes a whole scene and gives us a memorable tableau of Colombo through an adolescent's dreamy eyes at the dying of day which makes me wonder if there was not a post-impressionistic painter stashed away in his psyche, fighting to make himself felt through his poems. The same poem offers us a plethora of fauna and flora, a consequence of his attempts in vain to obtain a degree in botany in Colombo. Apart from those you have already noted in the above three stanzas, here are further examples of his awareness of his early environment: "carrion eagle", "big owl", "tethered cow", "goat", "pecking hens", "big-eyed mongrel of a dog", "frog", "guava", "mango shoots", "pomegranate", "oleander's and trumpet-lily's show", "pencil of grey areca nut", "Fringed with lantana eyes", "grain, tobacco, shallots,/Garlic, pepper, bay-leaves, ginger, saffron,/Yams, greens, herbs, fruits, famed/For delicacy and flavour", "pretty shells", "Goatsfoot", "a trout stream", "a blackbird among the tumbling bushes",17 and that, I'm afraid, is all. I really think Tambimuttu was taking it out on his botany examiners for not awarding him a degree. 

In 1938, at the age of 23, he turns up in London, after having then spent his adolescence and early adulthood in Colombo, and he apostrophises his hometown, not without a sense of lasting debt. "The island's harlot, and the Empire's accolade/ In those days; still you were home, a mould/That shaped me in the Western swirl and rush.//"18 The key poem which epitomises his between-two-worlds-stance is the "Preface" to Out of this War. Here are two quotes that best exemplify his sense of alienation and his particular psychological dilemmas that I have already remarked upon in my other article on him in the Journal of Eelam Studies.[cf. note 2] 
  
I roll the suns of twenty-five summers in my fist, 
Their bellies filled with fruit and corn and thunder. 
The many-flavoured waters of the East slide in my veins, 
And I am ripe for plunder. 
  
A simple polyp, crossed with life, and maiden, 
From a seaweed-dangled house of tropic sea, 
I bit the narrow stone of a London alley, 
A burning cipher on the changing face.19 
  
  
The Indian Ocean is arched with pearl and coral, 
And a many-scented life blooms on the jasmine stick. 
But Life is a rolling apple; experience a pin; 
A wind-starred apple that I cannot pick. 
  
That's why I stretched a rope across the ocean, 
Became the tight-rope walker of my dreams. 
Searching for antipodeal experience, to round 
The small circumference of a sesame-seed.20 

In a footnote he says that the sesame-seed is a symbol of smallness in the East. We might therefore legitimately conclude that he needed a larger theatre or arena of operations. In London, he was befriended by some of the erstwhile greats: T.S.Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Lawrence Durrell, Nicholas Nabokov. He published fourteen issues of Poetry London, from spring 1939 to 1949. In 1942, the publisher Nicholson and Watson, backed Tambi's magazine, but, after a few years, having incurred heavy losses, they parted ways until Richard March came to his rescue. The fifteenth issue of PL he instituted, and Richard March continued the editorship after Tambi was excluded, until 1951 when Editions Poetry London, which had by then run into severe financial straits, was sold. 

Having fallen out with his London backers, he tried the States, where, between 1956 and 1960, he brought out four issues of Poetry London-New York, which by then had not the effect nor the impact the original PL enjoyed in London. In 1968, he returned to Europe and set up his Lyrebird Press, with the aid of Katharine Bennett. A few limited editions of his "birthday books" was the result. Then, he managed to bring out Poetry London/Apple Magazine, with support from the Beatles, one in 1979, the other in 1982. These were from a literary point of view a greater achievement in my view than his earlier PLs. They even included work by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. All in all, he published in book form about forty writers and poets, edited the Faber edition of wartime poetry on the recommendation of T.S. Eliot, edited with Richard March the symposium on T.S.Eliot, edited an issue of New World Writing and an Indian number of Poetry Chicago. All his own published poetry however can be confined to about forty printed pages and practically all his criticism he published as "letters" in PL. 

Yet his reputation is enormous. He owes it perhaps to his winning ways, his generosity and total devotion to other poets' Muse. He was indeed a precocious youth, a passionate entrepreneur, a pioneer even, but quite possibly a highly gifted man who could have made his own way as a poet or critic in the English language had he only had the sense to pursue a career, any career. Most English publishers, I imagine, would have been glad to offer him a job as an editor in their firms. Instead, other aims and targets goaded him on blindly. And, here, we are impelled to ask with him in his own infelicitous words: 
  
Life is not single or double, but like an ocean 
Drawn round the earth on meeting floors. 
(Movement in the local place disturbs the love-beds all.) 
Hunger and anger are not indigenous, but spread like sores 
Across the earth from Washington to Calcutta. But when the 
pall 
Of smoke and lies is lifted and the deceivers fall, all, 
Where will we find us after wreck?21 
  
I leave you to guess where he found himself. 

Notes 


1. George SAMPSON, The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd. edn., 1970, p.865. 
  
2. T. WIGNESAN, "Tambimuttu: A Prince among Poets", in Journal of Eelam Studies, N° 3 (London), Fall 1989, pp. 34-61. 
  
3. TAMBIMUTTU, Out of this War, London: The Fortune Press, s. d., 24p. 
  
4. Ibid., p.14. 
  
5. Ibid., p.13. 
  
6. Ibid., p.23. 
  
7. TAMBIMUTTU,"Letter to J.W." in Jane Williams (Ed.), Tambimuttu: Bridge between Two Worlds, London: Peter Owen, 1989, pp.74-75. 
  
8. Ibid., p.73. 
  
9. TAMBIMUTTU, "Four Ceylonese Love Songs", in Poetry London, N°2 (London), April 1939, s.p. 
  
10. Id., "Invocation to Lukshmi", "Deity", "The Journeys of the Spirit", "Prayer" in Poetry London, N°4 (London), January 1941, pp. 102-105. 
  
11. Id., "For Katharine (Kamala) Bennett and All True Sadhakas" 
and "Gita Saravati: A Theology of Modern Science, The Creation and Dissolution of Kosmos", in TBBTW, pp. 260-273. 
  
12. TAMBIMUTTU, "Four Ceylonese Love Songs", III, in Poetry London, N°2 (London), April 1939, s.p. 
  
13. Eric MOTTRAM's letter dated November 11, 1990 to T.Wignesan.  

14. Id., "My Country, My Village", in TBBTW, p.25. 
  
15. Ibid., p. 26. 
  
16. Ibid. 
  
17. Ibid., pp.25-27. 

18. Ibid., p.26. 
  
19. Id., Out of this War, London: The Fortune Press, s.d., p.9. 
  
20. Ibid. 
  
21. Ibid., p.16. 
  
[* Paper given at the Third Sri Lanka Conference held at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, April 3-5, 1991, and published in LANKA: Studies in Lankan Culture, N° 6 (Uppsala University), December 1991, pp. 22-31.]  
  
 © T. Wignesan 1992 – Paris, France