Michael Norman (1923 - 2003)
by Tony Turner
Michael John Thornley Norman was a poet who loved Dorset so much he walked every inch of it and wrote eight books of poems largely about it. And yet he remains mostly unknown to the Dorset poetry world. This article attempts to explain this and put it right.
Born in Surrey, obtaining first class honours in Agricultural Botany at Reading, he spent much of his life out of England, with a long period in Australia, where he became Professor of Agronomy at Sydney University. But his love affair with Dorset began with holidays in the ‘50s and his love affair with poetry even earlier. He read avidly, devouring classic and modern works, sharing the view of Robert Frost about “tennis with the net down”. He loved what he called “cultivated rural” settings, as he explains so clearly in I Need A Small Piece Of Chalk:
Mountain and moorland
I loved as a boy
But heather and bracken
Never juniper, dogwood or traveller’s joy.
In 1983 he retired to Virginia with his American wife, Nancy, where they lived two years before returning to England to settle permanently in Cerne Abbas. There he could indulge his enthusiasm for walking in the sort of countryside he loved, and write. His first book, The Bride of Dorset, had appeared in 1983, after holidays in England walking and visiting Dorset pubs:
Stone, thatch, a dog, secluded corners
For cool discussion, cheerful talk,
Or rest from an Elysian walk:
If this were death we’d have no mourners. (Goat And Compasses)
Between 1987 and 1997 there followed four books: This Side of Dorset and A Place to Lie Down/We Would Sit Down/I’ll Take A Stand. In this light-hearted trilogy in ballad form, fictitious characters visit most of the towns and villages of Dorset in the company of the ghosts of William Barnes, Thomas Hardy and other literary notables.
The Bride of Dorset went out of print, but three-quarters of the poems were included, with new poems, in Dorset Places, Dorset Faces (1998) – the eighteen Faces all being sonnets in rhyming couplets – and Verses Late And Early (2001). Last Dorset Sonnets (2000) contains forty variations on traditional sonnets. Here’s one from This Side of Dorset:
Quaker Graveyard, Bridport
No, not Nantucket—a gentler place which the sea
Left long ago, though Channel fogs still blot the street
Drifting up the river flats; here the dead lie neat
In lavender and roses. In the rough wall’s lee
Charlotte, Ann, James and Gulielma Kenway (odd,
That baroque Italian name). The stones stood new
In the unpitying decades after Waterloo,
Their people expecting little help except from God
Against intolerance, slack trade, the price of bread.
Note the ages and the time of year: James and Ann
Past eighty, the others under eight, the earth-span
Of all ending in mid-winter; their weakened thread
Snapped by frost. Hard in those times to be young or old,
With lamps at four o’clock, the sea-fog creeping cold.
His poems have descriptive beauty, informed by his deep knowledge of all flora, they have humour, and an almost mystical belief in the healing powers of the countryside. He takes pleasure in people, places, churches, history, the seasons and country life.
Changes at Burton Bradstock
The framing hedgerow brown, the meadow short and green.
Grass thickens: now blackthorn flowers, believing
The quickly broken promise of the sun.
Stems reach up, heads burn bronze and ruffle
In the wind. Soon the swath lies flat
And dries calmly: the crisping mat
Is tedded, gobbled up: bales shuffle
From the back of the machine. All is done,
As the last load clears the gate and turns, leaving
The meadow short and brown, the framing hedgerow green.
His rhyme and meter are precise and his inventions clever. But most of all his work is suffused with a warmth, which I find very moving, for an English way of life he feared was disappearing.
Behind it, Eggardon’s rack of ramparts
Darkens in cloud; the distanced quarter-chime
Of Powerstock sounds across the cooling air
To tell the strings of cottages it’s time
To think of evening meals: a tractor starts
Down the final furrow. From this nowhere-
In-particular place – not chalk, not clay,
Not hill, not valley, a wavering slope
Of grey housing that peters out in scrub
And farmyard – light takes its leave. We all hope
For a visa back to Eden: one day
The plain hamlet and its endearing pub
May re-admit me. It will not be soon,
But some damp autumn, some late afternoon.
So why wasn’t Michael Norman better known in his adopted county? He was an academic and self-promotion was anathema to him. He told me once, “I’m afraid [my books] are not on sale publicly – no one wants to stock them!”, but I don’t think he tried very hard, perhaps feeling, as he said, “rhyme is almost passé now” and that, maybe, he was too old for joining poetry groups. He had a series of illnesses from 2000 on and died in 2003.
His reticence has certainly been our loss. He deserves a much wider audience. All his books were self-published and printed in Dorchester by The Friary Press and Epic Printing Services. All have ISBNs. His daughter Caroline, to whom I’m indebted for much of the information about his life, has limited stocks for sale (at £3 per book) to those interested (please contact me via SOUTH).
First published in SOUTH 32, 2005, ISSN 0959-1133
(Tony can also be contacted by e-mail at: Tony Turner, Ed.)
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