Bare essential John Tripp

Peter Finch looks back at a poet whose life raged against perplexing questions and whose selected writings are published this week

John Tripp and Dylan Thomas swam in the same sea. He may not have been as famous as his elder compatriot, nor as talented. He never visited America either. But in terms of volume his output was similar. He had comparable dealings with the media, read well on stage, had a voice that was good on the ear, drank gallons, had the same kind of difficulties with money. The two of them swam in the Welsh sea, the one which surrounded a Wales which meant something, a place that was not England.

In his cups John Tripp (1927 – 1986) would chant a personal mantra: “I was born in Bargoed in 1927 and I want to know why.” Those near him in those days all heard it and familiarity through the years allowed it to lose meaning. But for John it remained as real as it could be. The birth in Bargoed gave him a Welsh legitimacy. Better than Cardiff, to some as remote as Llanystumdwy. Among the younger writers he mixed with the 1927 made him an elder if not quite a statesman. The “I want to know why” gave him purpose. A questioning of life he could write about, a realisation that it was all a joke that put him up there with the nihilists, allowed him to be as rude as he wanted to anyone and everyone. And he did this often. The tales of Tripp half-cut are legion.

His years in Cardiff at a heady time for the changing world were accompanied by two girlfriends, a shed of booze, and a formidable output of performable, energised, engaging and highly readable verse. The life of the bar which John chose meant spending copious amounts of time in the company of those who also drank. A daily watching of the clock moving towards stop-tap, talking about nothing and everything to anyone who’d listen, poet of the people, far nearer the ground than most in academia, a hater of pretence and of those who would “not recognise a poem if it came up behind and bit them.”

He was on the side of the young and the explorer rather than the great and the good who’d already arrived. I met him in the mid-sixties when I was starting up what was to morph into an international journal at the cutting edge of new verse, second aeon. Tripp contributed his work, readily, enthusiastically and for free. Ormond wouldn’t do that, he complained to me. Although John Ormond subsequently did, just not with same open-heartedness nor in the same quantity.

John Ormond was someone JT would measure himself against. They both drank nightly at the Conway, Ormond in the front bar among the locals (he himself lived in Conway Road), JT mostly with the rebels in the back. “I’m going in there to sort him out,” John declared one evening when someone among us had been complaining (with no foundation, as history would reveal) about Ormond lording it with the hoi polloi in the front and never being willing to mix with us new beginners. “Who does he think he is. What’s he actually published. I’m going to tell him how it is.” We watched through the bar hatch expecting to witness what was to become a typical Tripp display of  shouting, amazingly personal insults and arm-waving diatribe. Tripp, our man, the only Anglo-Welsh poet on the books who understood the new generation. Instead all we witnessed was the two of them quietly talking. Ormond bought JT a drink. JT drank it. “Yeah, I told him,” JT said to me later, “but he’s not so bad.” JT, man of the even hand. Ormond and he later appeared in the same volume, the last gasp of Penguin Modern Poets. Ormond the measured, the man who took care. Tripp the rager who let it flow.

As a public reader of poetry John had few contemporary equals. This was in the seventies, of course, when performance poetry had yet to evolve. In fact, the very idea that poetry might also be entertainment was in some quarters perceived as a challenge. JT, Harri Webb, Herbert Williams and others were at the heart of the poetry and pints movement, the recitation of in your face and usually funny poems in bars. Verses interspersed with songs from the likes of Heather Jones. No one worried if the audience came and went, occurrences frowned upon at the more sedate readings of the traditionalists.
John had a reputation as a drinker, a man who would forever be borrowing money to fund the next pint and then insulting the donor for being alive. He was known to fall asleep in the readings of others and to leave restaurants either without paying or by collecting the tips for himself. Public scenes in pubs late at night were commonplace. Yet I never once saw him fall off a stage nor stumble his words. A Tripp poetry reading was seriously done. There was order in the selection, entertainment and information in his introductions and perfection in his delivery. Drink later not before. Be seen in the streets with a pint in your hand, fine, but read with clarity first. Audiences loved him.

Not that any of this prevented his regular relapses into writerly alcoholic haze. That’s something that stayed until the end. The whiskey bottle on the couch when he died. The ranting sandwich-throwing, drunken ghost that returned at his Welsh Union of Writers organised wake in 1986 at the Gower Hotel in Cathays. It’s a memory that stays with all who knew him – the poet who walked a tightrope and the man who often ended up falling down.

This essay is adapted from Peter Finch’s foreword to The Meaning of Apricot Sponge – Selected Writings of John Tripp edited by Tony Curtis and published by Parthian Books in 2010.

Also within People and Places