In 1949, Vernon Scannell (1922-2007) was working at an English fairground boxing booth, taking a fall in one fight and avenging himself on a hapless challenger in the next. Behind him were convictions for bigamy and desertion, an abusive childhood, short stints as a professional boxer and a private university tutor (despite never having gone to university himself), innumerable bar fights, and a single book of poems.
Ahead were more women, more bar fights, more time in prison, more teaching, and more poems. At the time, he was 37 and living with his divorced mother, writing little. His life seemed to be at a dead end. But as James Andrew Taylor notes in this excellent biography, an opportunity arrived, as would happen many times in Scannell’s life, to pull himself—or to be pulled—from the rubble. In this case, it was a job teaching English and history at a secondary school in West London. At other times, it was meeting a new woman, receiving a small prize or grant, or even having a chance encounter with some old friends.
The seeming incongruity of Vernon Scannell’s life and personality makes him one of the most intriguing figures of contemporary literature. He was a man of immense sensitivity who identified with the weak, the broken, and the cowardly of the world but, when drunk, was a terrible wife beater. He loved children and despised violence but fought in the Second World War and had a lifelong passion for boxing. He was one of the most talented poets of his generation, but he often felt out of place in literary circles and regularly doubted his talent.
He was talented though, and mostly self-taught. Scannell’s poems combine frank statement and penetrating insight in carefully crafted lines. In “Mastering the Craft,” which compares his two great passions—boxing and poetry—Scannell wrote that poets, like boxers, “must train.”
Practise metre’s footwork, learn
The old iambic left and right,
To change the pace and how to hold
The big punch till the proper time,
Jab away with accurate rhyme;
Adapt the style or be knocked cold.
He was a blue-collar poet, though this does not do justice to the range of his work, which deals with love, war, sports, childhood, and, most of all, failure—often with self-effacing humor. When he was in jail in 1974 for drunk driving, his daughter Nancy wrote to ask him what a jailbird was. Scannell wrote:
His plumage is dun,
His appetite indiscriminate.
He has no mate.
His nest is built of brick and steel;
He sings at night
A long song, sad and silent.
He cannot fly.
This is classic Scannell: honest, direct, almost entirely defeated except for the elegant formulation of that defeat. For Scannell, a poet must know his craft, but if he lacks passion, his poems are useless. In “The Poet’s Tongue,” he writes: With industry and patience he must bring / Together his great arsenal; yet the poet ultimately ignores his “intricate machines” to use “bits of flint that hit the target square.”
Scannell was born John Vernon Bain in 1922. His father was a photographer, and Vernon, his older brother, and a younger sister grew up in the small town of Aylesbury, where a nearby RAF base provided a regular source of customers for photography services.
Life was hard at home: Both Scannell and his brother suffered regular beatings from their father. This was not the sort of firm but corrective punishment common at the time, but violent whippings, burnings, and slaps to the face, all accompanied by derisive mocking.
As the boys grew, the slaps became punches. Their mother was unaffectionate and frequently blamed the boys for provoking their father. Scannell and his brother both developed an early love of reading—against all odds, it would seem—and found some solace in P. G. Wodehouse, David Copperfield, and Sir Walter Scott—although this had to be hidden from their father, who viewed reading as the mark of a sissy.
At 12, Scannell took up boxing and discovered that he had a gift for it. He would go on to fight briefly as a professional and would use his skill, as we have seen, to earn some extra money here and there. Later, Scannell would remember his time in the ring fondly, describing an opponent’s head “jerking back as if on an invisible puppet-wire” and “a grey tidal wave of noise” sweeping over him—“warm and exalting.”