Deciphered over five years from rescued papers, the poems throw a fascinating light on the reserved author of The Magus
Fowles, who died in 2005, aged 79, published just one volume of poetry in his lifetime, Poems, which was released only in the US, way back in 1973. But the author actually wrote poetry before he began his career as a novelist, and said that he found it "an enormous relief from the constant play-acting of fiction". "I never pick up a book of poems without thinking that it will have one advantage over most novels: I shall know the writer better at the end of it," he said.
The poems were rescued from oblivion by the author's widow Sarah Fowles while clearing through his papers. She gave Adam Thorpe, the poet, novelist and playwright, access to the manuscripts, and he has worked through the difficult-to-decipher material over the last five years to create Selected Poems, out next month from tiny publisher Flambard Press. "Some are cleanly if faintly typed and have the quality of breath on glass. Others resemble a radio signal dimly made out through a squiggled mass of interference," says Thorpe in his introduction to the collection.
In Leigh, Fowles writes:
Winter, / the wild wind wounds the trees ... Between the bitter blackthorn / and the unflowered dyke / the tide-ebb runs.
His Apollo sequence was written on the Greek island of Spetsai – called Phraxos in The Magus – and was described by Fowles "as the ground from which the novel eventually grew", reveals Thorpe in his introduction, where he writes that "fans of The Magus will recognise the quality of this yearning as much as the setting, and Fowles's hypnotic ability to bring the classical universe to life for our own time".
"The poems we've published explore many of the themes Fowles visited in his fiction – love, desire, nature and suffering," said Flambard managing editor Will Mackie. "There are about 90 poems in total, the majority not published before, and they include sequences, stand-alone poems and some of Fowles's translations from Chinese, Japanese, French and Greek. One remarkable thing about the collection is the time-span: the earliest poems are from the 1950s and the most recent were written in a hospital ward towards the end of his life."
Thorpe says that, despite Fowles' admission that "I wish I could have been an excellent poet" in a 1995 interview, he is convinced the late author "was a fine and serious poet" and that "the prose did not soak up all the poetry".