Rule I by Eric Mottram : ‘Stop writing Literature, You garrulous Indian!’



         For Michael Hrebeniak’s jazz saxophone



[This memorial poem was published in Radical Poetics (Inventory of Possibilities), Issue One (London), Spring 1997, n.p., edited by one of Eric Mottram’s students at King’s College: Michael Hrebeniak.  Mottram for whom a special Chair (Professor of English and American Literature) was created in 1983 passed away on January 17, 1995, the year when, finally, the Nobel Literature Committee’s attention was focussed on him. He left behind an enormous corpus: some thirty books of poems and some fifteen books of criticism. He was unanimously recognized as one of the leading authorities on American Literature and United States Studies. His teaching career extended over half a century and over nearly half the world. He edited 22 issues of the Poetry Review, the organ of the Poetry Society in England during the seventies. He obtained a double-first for his Cambridge English Tripos after serving out the War in a minesweeper. He was the recipient of absolutely no prize whatsoever, for the Establishment everywhere gladly shunned him.] 






                 a life of toil for the man in the centre

                 a hub in the peripheral tireless wheel


                                         where he go then where he go this working man

                                         he go on waking people   working at waking man






no words cling now no words meant in blame

the tongue  he lash the words  they now tame


no shock of blast open laughter rock the hall

everyman there say    there sure were a man


a man  no fear cowed    in communion to other

made for no gods   made for no demons either


all men he know best when he see just once

no second thought resurrect the man if bad


so go tell the magi   no trek in sight in sky

here a man be born  here he so sure die


other no like see one so bright stand up high

other no like feel like sky fall low into ocean


what make ‘m i say with feeling so just

is sure he different  he force hisself work


work work work   work an’ again work

he work nite an’ nite so 50-hour in day


                                   where he go then where he go this working man

                                   he go on waking people   working at waking man


where you go from word born here now

turn and twist   all whoring the alphabet





don’t write anything you can get published’

so publish only what you can’t call your own


writing like reading’s a public coital act

so showing your work is exhibitionism


why don’t you send your stuff around

keeping it to yourself’s sheer masturbation’


reading-watching-listening’s just voyeurism

so sending wares around is prostitutionism


                                  where he go then where he go this working man

                                  he go on waking people  working at waking man






he it was in minesweeper capture aurora borealis

message from extrasensory enter into he word


in Bengal waters alone he hear No-man cry

only in deepdown psyche water drip drip dry


then on land he no see reason to the fight

so he let he wrists spill he guts to the fill


then he take the world on all by he torn self

he spare no skin in dug-Malayan-jungle-out


what he do  what he think he do   he no tell

everybody meet man an’ no see albatross hang


he no tell story like ol’ mariner in dream

he go wake people from dumb dead trance


many many people high up no like this act

some call him stuckup other just ‘im damn


                                       where he go then where he go this working man

                                       he go on waking people  working at waking man


is all he do then     what kind of working this

is big work man ‘cause most body dead sleep


                                       where he go then where he go this working man

                                       he go on waking people  working at waking man



© T. Wignesan 13-15 October 1995





When I first met Eric in the summer of 1957, in London, at Wang Gung-wu’s flat in Shepherd’s Bush [ Wang a former colleague of Eric’s in Singapore - later becoming the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong - is now the Director of the East Asia Institute of the National University of Singapore ], he had already read most of the manuscript of my first collection: Tracks of a Tramp, and more.  He came late for dinner and was so vociferous  and ebullient, I had hardly time to think. Now and then he stopped short to shoot a few questions at me, mostly about my educational background, and, finding there was none to speak of in literature, riled me for not having joined Raffles College of the University of Malaya in Singapore where he taught from 1953 to 1955. By the time he had finished raging over my poems, I thought I might be able to see him in a more relaxed mood after dinner [he arrived in the midst of a delicious Chinese dinner prepared by Margaret, Gung-wu’s wife, a former student of his], but, instead, he gulped the soup down amidst appreciative munching-crunching sounds, jumped up and excused himself for another appointment. I was feeling quite frustrated for I couldn’t even get a word in sideways, but just before he left, he asked Gung-wu to give me his address [for my sleeping quarters then was huddled in the midst of some trees in Hyde Park] but told me not to take any notice of what he had to say about my poems.  Both Gung-wu and Margaret tried to console me like the fabulous hosts they were after Eric had left, but I didn’t let out the fact that I was secretly delighted: I had at last met a vigorously straight-talking person who knew a hell of a lot about writing and literature [the first I had heard of ‘poems are made with words, not ideas’, echoing Paul Valéry] and was not afraid to voice his views, even to a stranger.


Some time later, in the mid-sixties, when I had been published and Eric was then ghosting the American literature columns of the Times Literary Supplement, Eric gave me the best advice I’ve ever listened to in our métier.  He said very offhand-like one day, and his demeanour meant every word he pronounced ponderously: ‘Don’t write anything you can get published!’ with the result I’ve only managed to publish about ten percent of what I’ve been writing since then.


In the early nineties, Eric seemed to me to soften his anti-Establishment stance. He urged me to publish. He appeared as if he would make certain concessions, and it took me some time to realize that he may have changed course for strategic reasons: you can’t fight the Enemy where no one hears of the victory!


Paris, France