John Hartley Williams obituary
Prolific poet whose work combined technical panache with extraordinary linguistic range
John Hartley Williams co-wrote the spoof crime novel Death Comes for the Poets, with Matthew Sweeney. Photograph: Jemimah Kuhfeld/Shoestring Press
Wednesday 14 May 2014 17.40 BST
Hidden Identities, the first full collection from the poet John Hartley Williams, who has died aged 72 from cancer, made ripples when it was published by Chatto & Windus in 1982. The next, Bright River Yonder (1987), this time from Bloodaxe, became a Poetry Book Society recommendation. After that, collections seemed to follow each other faster than the eye could blink. As well as full-length books, there were pamphlets and works of translation, including a powerful version ofMarin Sorescu's Censored Poems (2001), and Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (1998), of which Williams was a contributing translator.
Son of David, a headteacher, and Sylvia, John was born in Cheadle, Cheshire, and grew up in London with two brothers, Hugh and Nigel. (The latter would become a well-known novelist.) From 1962, John studied English literature at Nottingham University, where, as a scabrous account in his 1995 prose work Ignoble Sentiments makes evident, he viewed his tutors with – at best – genial contempt. Nevertheless, at the end of three years of mildly dissolute behaviour and occasional flirtations with amateur dramatics, he emerged with a good degree, although not the first which his father, himself the author of a number of critical studies for the general reader, had requested of him. John went to teach English in France, before, in 1968, becoming an English lecturer at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, where he met his future wife, Gizella.
After their marriage in 1970, the pair moved to the University of Cameroon. Then in 1972 it was back to London, where Williams, by now beginning to send out poems to magazines and journals, enrolled for an MPhil at London University. Once that was completed, they returned to Serbia for a year. Finally, in 1976, he was appointed to a lectureship at the Free University of Berlin, the city that would remain his home for the rest of his life.
His experience of foreign places, ranging from the dangerous to the outright lunatic, at least in his telling, made him impatient with what he saw as the tame conformity of much English poetry. "What's that supposed to mean," he asked me of a poet praised for his courageous risk-taking. "He hasn't flown to the moon, has he?" Like his close friends and fellow poets Ken Smith and Matthew Sweeney, he found more to enjoy and learn from in modern continental European and American poets. Surrealism in particular attracted him, because its freedom from the constraints of old-style realism made possible a liberated vision that pointed his own socialist, republican convictions. He was elated by the great 2011 Miró exhibition at the Tate, with its vivid delight in the things of this world.
In 1996, he and Sweeney combined to produce Writing Poetry and Getting Published for the Hodder Teach Yourself series; and the two poets came together again for Death Comes for the Poets (2012), a wildly funny spoof crime novel in which a number of thinly disguised contemporary poets are bumped off, each in a manner appropriate to their work, pastiches of which are provided at the end of the novel.
The pamphlet A Poetry Inferno (2011) provides a grotesquely comic account in prose of the possible tortures awaiting poets who lust after official acclaim. Given that he won first prize in the 1983 Arvon Foundation award, was twice shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, and that his 1997 collection Canada was a PBS Choice, this cannot be put down to sour grapes. But he was ambivalent about popular success, valuing, perhaps above all else, art as eloquent, sometimes sulphurous, defiance of circumstance.
Phone John at any time of the day or night and you would in all likelihood hear in the background a recording of one of his favourite jazz musicians: Billie Holiday, say, or Charlie Parker or Lester Young. But it was another favourite, the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell, who typified as well as any the anarchic, unpredictable creative force he so loved and which he praises in The Theory of Gravity, the "squawking" poem he dedicated to Russell's memory. There, he speaks of the "incivility sublime", a phrase redolent of his own work, which combined technical panache with a restless imagination, extraordinary linguistic range, and, often as twinned components, the celebratory and the ripely caustic.
A tall, handsome man, full of wit and insouciant charm, he came from Berlin with the aid of his friend, Elke Lübeck, for the recent London launch of The Golden Age of Smoking, which proved to be his last collection, and concluded a memorable reading with his elegy for Smith, "His charged verses lie speechless in the sunlight."
He is survived by Gizella and their daughter, Natalie, an accomplished jazz singer. In recent years, John took pleasure and pride in inviting friends to Ronnie Scott's Club in London to hear Natalie perform.
• John Hartley Williams, poet and writer, born 7 February 1942; died 3 May 2014