Jon Silkin is not the best-known of modern British poets although he was the anthologist of the well- regarded Penguin Book of World War One Poetry and the founder of Stand the country’s longest running poetry magazine, which, apart from one brief interval when the money ran out, he edited from 1952 for 45 years.
Essentially he was an individualist; he might even be accused of being selfish in his pursuit of individualism, certainly becoming the proverbial black sheep of one of Britain’s most prominent and successful Jewish families.
He was the only child of Joseph Silkin and his wife Doris Rubenstein. His maternal grandparents had been refugees from the pogroms of Lithuania and were bound for the United States, when their ship stopped for water in Swansea. The couple disembarked and remained in Wales where Harris Rubenstein started a wallpaper business and thereby established a connection with Wales which would become important for Jon. Like the Rubensteins, Jon’s other grandparents, Abraham Silkin and his wife Fanny also had fled Lithuania and settled in London’s East End where Abraham cleaned the toilets of the Synagogue, gave Hebrew lessons and sold fruit off a barrow. Jon’s father, Joseph, and his elder brother, Lewis, both became lawyers and established a law partnership in Peckham. Lewis later went into politics, becoming a Labour peer with the title Lord Silkin of Dulwich. His sons, John and Sam, also Labour politicians, both became Cabinet ministers.
Jon, who was named after the character from The Forstye Saga was born in Islington in 1930 but the family soon moved to Dulwich, to 70 Croxted Road, and then to 123 Half Moon Lane and Jon attended Dulwich Hamlet School. His father organised League of Nations Union meetings on foreign affairs, specialising in naturalisation proceedings for refugees, some of who stayed with the Silkins in Half Moon Lane on their arrival in England.
When World War 2 was declared Jon was evacuated He later recalled it was to Kent, although Dulwich Hamlet School was actually sent to Ashstead in Surrey. The following year he went to stay with his relations in Swansea and attended a local school. When that school, in turn, had to evacuate following air raids on Swansea , Jon was sent to Dolaucothi in Carmarthenshire. Here he spent his happiest year, exploring its famous former Roman goldmines and where he appears to have had little formal education. His, no doubt, anxious parents back in Dulwich then arranged for him to attend Wycliffe College, itself evacuated to Lampeter, where he joined it and stayed until the end of the war before returning to Dulwich. In 1945 he entered Dulwich College.
His time at Dulwich, where he was perhaps overshadowed by the memory of his brilliant older cousins, was not particularly satisfactory although Dulwich Society member, Michael Rich, who shared lessons in Hebrew with him found Jon good company. Jon was short and stocky and his appearance at school was untidy, a trait which would live with him. Later in life he would cut his own beard and hair when he thought it necessary and preferred to wear clothes he bought from markets at home and abroad. At the College, his critical Dulwich schoolmasters noted his passion for reading and writing poetry but described him as weak-willed and easily led. They were correct in recording his passions but very far wide of the mark upon their other assumptions.
Jon did not exactly leave Dulwich under a cloud and was certainly not expelled as he later liked to recall. It is more likely that having being separated from home and his parents for so long this separation had taken its toll however much fun he had in his ‘wild year’ in Wales. Yes, he did play occasional truant (and did write his own ‘excuse notes’) but this was not enough to warrant expulsion. The truth probably is that his parents just took him away when he was seventeen to cut their losses and perhaps end the embarrassment of his sharing a school where his cousins had shone and his uncle had been a governor.
The year and a half interval between leaving school and being called up for National Service was taken up by spells as an insurance clerk and a journalist. Living in Half Moon Lane, it is inconceivable that he would not have gone to the Dulwich Poetry groups readings discussed in the summer edition of this Journal. Years later he would collaborate in a collection of poems, with its organiser, fellow poet Howard Sergeant.
When his call-up notice arrived he was selected for training as a sergeant-instructor in the Education Corps and this experience seems to have worked well for him in the teaching posts he would take in years to come. Army service also gave him opportunity to write poetry and his first collection was privately printed in 1950 as The Portrait and Other Poems. On leaving the army Silkin found work for time as a grave-filler at Fortune Green cemetery, Hampstead until he was found reading Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan while sitting on a grave stone and was sacked. Evicted from various rented rooms, he may have slept rough for a time. Little wonder then, that a letter from his father survives imploring him to get a proper job. When he did, with the National Cash Register Company, he was dismissed soon afterwards for trying to form a union.
With £5 back pay Jon launched his quarterly poetry magazine Stand in 1952 - “I sell the magazine not only through subscribers and bookshops but also by peddling it hand to hand at cafes and pubs, coffee-houses and universities.”. He worked for a time as an English master at a boys’ prep school and also at an English language college for foreign students in London, his teaching experience in the army now coming in useful.
He was living in Hampstead with Cynthia Redpath, sister of the poet and friend, Fred Redpath A son was born but died at the age of one year and Jon Silkin wrote about it in his most memorable and most-quoted poem, Death of a Son (who Died in a Mental Hospital Aged One)
He turned over on his side with his one year
Red as a wound
He turned over as if he could be sorry for this
And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones, and he died.
In 1958 Silkin was awarded the Gregory Fellowship at Leeds University to be its poet in residence for two years. At 28, he was one of the youngest Gregory Fellows. He was extremely active at Leeds, offering, although not required to, seminars in creative writing and courses on modern poetry through the University’s extra-mural department. He was the first Gregory Fellow in Poetry not to have had a university education - he had been expected to read Law after Dulwich but was let down by his Latin, then a requirement for entry. The truth probably is that he rebelled against entering his father’s profession, and perhaps at the time even of going to university and deliberately flunked his Latin. His translations of Hebrew and Japanese demonstrate that he had an excellent aptitude for languages. In his second year at Leeds he enrolled as a Special Studies student, graduating in 1962 having written a critical essay on his own poetry during his final examinations.
He remained in the city until 1965, completing two collections of poetry and beginning work on the critical study of the poets of the First World War. This was published in 1972 as Out of Battle. An offer from the Northern Arts Association in Newcastle to fund his beloved Stand magazine took Silkin further north and that was where he remained. Today Stand is published by the Leeds’ University, School of English.
Visiting lectureships and fellowships flowed in, from universities in the United States, Australia, Israel and Japan. Between 1970 and 1980 he published five further collections of poetry. In 1979 he was selected and edited The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. He married the American fiction writer Lorna Tracey and they travelled and worked together and were also co-editors of Stand. They divorced in 1994.
His poetry sometimes took up Jewish themes; an early poem, Astringencies, from his 1961 collection The Re-ordering of the Stones, compared the effect on York of the 12th century, where the entire population of 800 Jews in the city was massacred, to that of Europe after the Holocaust. Peter Lawson, who edited a book of post war British Jewish poetry, compares Silkin with fellow Jew, Dannie Abse, who he considered were the two most significant poets of the period. ‘Abse was quite avuncular and benign, whereas Silkin was more angry and campaigning. Silkin was self-consciously difficult, he wanted poetry to be complex’. It was not only in his poetry that Silkin could be confrontational. Even his attitude to Israel bears this out. When invited to Tel Aviv in 1980 to lecture at the university, he publically criticised Israel for acting like Nazis in their treatment of Arabs.
Jon Silkin never threw anything away. Scraps of paper bearing the drafts of the reworked lines of countless poems, contracts, and correspondence with his editors, box upon box are scattered over several universities in the United States where he had some form of contact although the bulk of the archive is at Leeds University. It was at Leeds, in the Brotherton Library in 2015 that the complete works of Jon Silkin was launched. The volume, a brick-sized 915 pages is edited by Jon Glover, Silkin’s biographer, friend and successor as editor of Stand, and by Katherine Jenner and published by Carcanet Press. It was fitting that it took place at Leeds which was the pivotal locus in Silkin’s career.
Jon Silkin displayed through his life a willingness to take risks and to ask difficult questions, to address difficult subjects and try new forms and modes of expression. He said that his Jewish self-awareness had forced him into humanism and cosmopolitanism, contained, as it were by English and Japanese specifics His readings, especially of his own work were said to be spell-binding. In all he published fourteen collections of poetry and translated Hebrew and Japanese works into English, He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1986 and died in 1997 at the age of 67.