Leeds University Library

John Heath-Stubbs

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John Heath-Stubbs was 34 when he became the second Gregory Fellow in Poetry. Although he found Leeds an "uncongenial milieu," he appreciated the time the Fellowship gave him to write, and established activities which were to become standard for future Fellows: student poetry seminars and a close relationship with Poetry and Audience magazine.

John Francis Alexander Heath-Stubbs, the poet and critic, was born in London on 9 July 1918. He was educated at Worcester College for the Blind and the Queen's College, Oxford, where he studied English Language and Literature. He became friends with the poet Sidney Keyes whilst at Oxford, and his first published poems appeared in Eight Oxford Poets (London: Routledge, 1941), edited by Keyes and Michael Meyer. It was also Keyes who took the manuscript of Heath-Stubbs' collection Wounded Thammuz to Herbert Read at Routledge, leading to the publication of his first book of poetry.

After leaving Oxford, Heath-Stubbs taught at a private preparatory school in London and worked as an editorial assistant, compiling entries for a popular encyclopedia. During this time he became involved in the London literary scene, attending poetry readings at the Ethical Church in Bayswater (where, along with James Kirkup, he was championed as a young poet by Ross Nichols), and frequenting the Soho literary pubs and clubs where he met, amongst others, George Barker and David Wright, both of whom were to become friends. He had first come into contact with Wright at Oxford, and was later to spend time in Cornwall with Wright and John Fairfax (George Barker's nephew).

Between 1952 and 1955 Heath-Stubbs held the Gregory Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Leeds. He was approached as a candidate for the Fellowship by T.S. Eliot and Bonamy Dobrée having: "intimated to Eliot and Read that I was looking for some kind of appointment." (1) Speaking to G.H.B. Wightman in 1978, he stated that Read had "helped [him] a lot," and that "it was he and Eliot who ... recommended me to the Gregory Fellowship at Leeds." (2) Heath-Stubbs had come into contact with Herbert Read as poetry editor at Routledge; it would appear that he first met Eliot in London in 1944, when they were both involved in a poetry reading at William Empson's home.(3)

From poem 'Notes Towards a Palinode' in a typescript draft of Heath-Stubbs' collection Naming the Beasts; Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection MS 20c Heath-Stubbs/1/5. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of John Heath-Stubbs ©

Heath-Stubbs admits to having found Leeds an “uncongenial milieu," finding the city cold, damp, grimy and ugly, and having difficulty coming to terms with “Yorkshire bluntness." (4) Despite this, he appears to have been very active during the tenure of his Fellowship, organising a regular student seminar on the appreciation of poetry; contributing both advice and poetry to the student literary magazine Poetry and Audience, then under the editorship of Ralph Maud; and being commissioned to write an Easter play for the University Church. The play, written on the subject of the harrowing of hell, was never performed, but later appeared in Helen in Egypt and Other Plays (London: OUP, 1958).

During his time in Leeds, Heath-Stubbs came into contact with the artist Jacob Kramer, and developed friendships with Arthur Creedy (a lecturer in the English Department) and Kenneth Severs (head of the BBC in Leeds, and a former student at Leeds University). In his autobiography, he describes meeting with students at Creedy's flat on Cemetery Place, now part of the University campus. Writing on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, Creedy also remembered playing bouts rimés with Heath-Stubbs and, "fellow university poets and poetasters." (5) Through Severs, Heath-Stubbs became involved in a BBC Northern Service discussion programme featuring Philip Toynbee and John Betjeman, an occasion which resulted in him accompanying Betjeman to a show at the City Varieties.

In the third year of his Fellowship, Heath-Stubbs shared a house in Armley with the painter Tom Watt. Bonamy Dobrée, who he describes as "a most remarkable man," persuaded the University to commission Watt to paint a portrait of Heath-Stubbs. Watt's portrait is held in the University's art collections. (6)

From poem 'Notes Towards a Palinode' in a typescript draft of Heath-Stubbs' collection Naming the Beasts; Leeds University Library, Brotherton Collection MS 20c Heath-Stubbs/1/5. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of John Heath-Stubbs ©

Also whilst at Leeds, Heath-Stubbs co-edited the Faber Book of 20th Century Verse with his friend and future Gregory Fellow David Wright. He recommended Geoffrey Hill to Bonamy Dobrée when a vacancy arose for a poet on the English staff; and when the tenure of his Fellowship was coming to an end, Thomas Blackburn was amongst those he recommended to Dobrée as the next Gregory Fellow in Poetry.

Following his Gregory Fellowship, Heath-Stubbs went on to teach English at the University of Alexandria from 1955 to 1958, a position gained with the help of Bonamy Dobrée. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1960 to 1961, at which time Geoffrey Hill was also a member of staff. Also during the 1960s, he became an external examiner for the English Department at Ahmado Bello University in Nigeria, then headed by former Leeds student Tony Harrison. From 1963 to 1973 he lectured in English Literature at the College of St Mark and St John, Chelsea. Thomas Blackburn was Head of English at the time when he took up this post. Like him, Heath-Stubbs collaborated with Peter Dickinson of the school's Music Department, who set his poems to music.

In 1953, Heath-Stubbs became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He received the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1973, and has been awarded several other literary prizes including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1989. He was also awarded the OBE in 1989.

Heath-Stubbs was a prolific writer, producing over 30 volumes of poetry in his lifetime, as well as translations, criticism, drama and an autobiographical work. He is noted in particular for his translations of Middle Eastern poetry. His last collection, Pigs Might Fly,was published by Carcanet in 2005.

John Heath-Stubbs died, aged 88, on 26 December 2006.


Notes

(1). Information from Heath-Stubbs' responses to a survey on Writers in Education conducted by Alan Brownjohn for the Arts Council in 1979 (Leeds University Library Special Collections).

(2). G.H.B. Wightman, 'Interview with John Heath-Stubbs,' Aquarius, no. 10 (1978), p. 72.

(3). John Heath-Stubbs, Hindsights: An Autobiography (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), pp. 120-121.

(4). Brownjohn, Writers in Education survey, 1979 (LUL Special Collections); Hindsights (1993), p. 151.

(5). Arthur J. Creedy, 'A Few Memoirs,' Aquarius, no. 10 (1978), p. 37.

(6). Hindsights, p. 196.

See also John Heath-Stubbs, Naming the Beasts (Manchester: Carcanet, 1982), which includes 'Notes Towards a Palinode' and 'Letter to David Wright.'