Ingres’s Violin – Mick Gowar

As many of you will know, the two forms of writing for which Jan most frequently expressed particular admiration were short stories and poetry. The reasons she gave, which she shared in a number of interviews (some of which are published on this site), was the precision of language which she associated with the finest poets (and Jan had no time for the second rate or meretricious, either for herself or for anyone else) and the meticulous craft required for shaping and structure which she quite rightly believed was required of the poet or short story writer.

The brilliance and variety of her own short stories is well-known and has been appreciated by young and older readers who enjoyed and admired the stories she published in her own collections and in the many anthologies in which hers were the standout contributions, and acknowledged by the many critics and reviewers who celebrated her mastery of the form[1]. But what is perhaps less well known is that Jan wrote poetry and that a small booklet of her poems, entitled Momma Travels Light, was published in 1987. It was produced in the form of a pocket-sized chap book by the poet and teacher John Cotton under the imprint of his own Priapus Press, in an edition of only 100 copies, one of which I own and I’m happy to share with readers.

As you’ll see, I’m placing on this site two versions of the poems: the first consists of facsimiles made from scanning my copy of the original chap book; the second is what Jon Appleton has generously referred to as my ‘choreographing’ of the poems. As you will see from the facsimile scans, Jan’s lines of verse have frequently been shortened and compressed in order to squeeze the poems into the A6 sized chap book format. The inconsistent spacing between lines and stanzas, and also the numerous page breaks, have (I believe) obscured what I believe might have been the intended structures of a number of the poems. I have therefore attempted, in the second version, to restore not only Jan’s original line lengths but also, as far as I can, to recreate – guided partly by the concern with form obvious in the Ruth Prochak poems written for Jan’s solitary adult novel Zeno Was Here – what I believe to be either the intended or most appropriate verse forms. In doing this I hope I have given fitting prominence to the movement and musicality of Jan’s very skilful verse: the rhythms, emphases and pauses; the silences, the cadences and the many subtleties of vocalisation, storytelling and meaning.

The five poems in Momma Travels Light, unsurprisingly, reveal the same ironic wit and dark humour, the same acute ear for dialogue[2] and the same care in shaping and structuring as one finds in Jan’s finest short prose.[3] Jan was also recognised as an excellent judge of poetry, as is shown by her superb short essays when judging the much-missed Signal poetry award[4] and her trenchant, shrewd and utterly unsentimental assessments of children’s own attempts at poetry as a member of the judging panel of the W.H. Smith Young Writers Competition.

Jan’s poems reveal an unsurprising precision in the use of language. As she said herself:

I like the way the English language works and I like precision, which is why I like working with poets and I enjoy reading poetry. I think poets are more precise in the way they use language than prose writers, and they’re much more aware of the technicalities of language construction.[5]

But throughout the poems in Momma Travels Light is a highly developed and formal playfulness in her use of language which friends and acquaintances will undoubtedly link to her skill at solving crossword puzzles. Most guests who accepted Jan’s bountiful hospitality and stayed overnight in her Oxford house will have been intimidated to find that however early they come down for an excellent breakfast there would be a completed Guardian cryptic crossword from that morning’s paper either spatchcocked on the dining table or drooping over the arm of Jan’s favourite chair. A particular love was the fiendishly difficult puzzles get by ‘Araucaria’, a compiler who fittingly chose the pseudonym of a tree that is impossible to climb. His speciality was to set a puzzle in which the majority of clues were linked to one particularly difficult clue; crack that key clue and all would make sense, fail to crack it and all you could achieve would be a pathetic scattering of small clues around the edge of the puzzle leaving a large hole of shame in the middle.[6]

Momma Travels Light

Jan’s love of ‘Araucarian’ complexities is especially relevant when reading the title poem of the pamphlet Momma Travels Light. On one level it presents itself as a breezy, self-assertive career woman addressing her children who are to meet her at the station – in the manner of the return of a conquering hero, or a perhaps a pop idol from Jan’s youth in the 1950s[7]. But Momma has, by her own admission, made decisions on her work/life balance, and when put in the balance of a life, in which money-making is a priority (‘a sharp operator, she’s keen at earning money -’) the children are outweighed:

But let’s face it kids, gelt’s heavy and so are you:

Surcharge, surplus baggage, extra weight.

The ‘Jan’ character in the poem could be viewed in some readings as heroic; a mother with the courage or chutzpah to follow what is obviously a highly paid career, and one from which her children will benefit materially:

Money to keep you, money to keep you going,

Growing and good[…]warm and well-shod

and emotionally:

Better to leave[…]you to germinate surely.

Rooted in one dear perpetual place

To flourish and prosper while Momma is on the loose.

But there are strong but subtle hints to the contrary, for example the assonance of ‘rooted’ and ‘loose’ highlights ‘Jan’s duplicity in that last quotation. There is also ‘one dear perpetual place/To flourish and prosper’ which sounds suspiciously contrived, sentimental and over-written from such a hard-nosed speaker. And note the rather overwrought alliteration of perpetual/place/prosper and the tautologous ‘flourish and prosper’. The overreaching rhetoric should certainly alert any reader familiar with Aquarius that Jan – the writer not the character – is perhaps creating another ‘Viner’; teasing the reader with a character who appears to be heroic but given the opportunity will behave self-interestedly and even ruthlessly[8].

And there is a further, very ‘Araucarian’ clue in the line ‘Look at her footwork; my, but she’s fast on her feet.’ The rhythm of the poem has a familiar and appropriate spring to it; the long lines with their frequent caesurae strongly exude authority and confidence by echoing the heroic verse of the Iliad and Odyssey. But the echo is hollow; there’s something awry with the scansion. The first part of the line – ‘Look at her footwork;’ – appears to adhere closely to the heroic hexameters of Homer with a dactyl and trochee before the caesura. But the line continues: ‘my, but she’s fast on her feet’. Two dactyls but then a single stressed syllable. The line falls short; just as ‘Jan’ perhaps feels she does, despite her protestations to the contrary. There is a strong clue in the crossword-like pun ‘Look at her footwork’ meaning, I think, the prosody of the poem, ‘foot’ being the basic unit of poetic meter. And the clue is repeated: ‘she’s fast on her feet’. There is also the derogatory meaning of ‘fast’ as in promiscuous, or deceitful – playing ‘fast and loose’, suggesting the speaker is fast and loose with the meter as she is with the truth, perhaps? And we already know from the last line of stanza three that while the children (she hopes) ‘flourish and prosper[…] Momma is on the loose.’

Unfair, unfair

This poem may strike a familiar note with admirers of Jan’s only adult novel Zeno Was Here. The final four lines appear as a fragment in the (damaged) copy of From an Unexposed Film which the poet Ruth Prochak inscribes to English teacher (and soon to be lover) John McEvoy when they meet by chance on a northbound train. Once again a reader of this poem shouldn’t assume similarity between the writer and the speaking voice of the poem. Admittedly, the subject of the poem – the failure of fate/destiny/God to reward people equitably – does coincide with something Jan would sometimes mention informally at adult writing courses or talks: the embarrassing existence of talent to someone with strong egalitarian views. As Jan would point out: not everyone has a book in them, and not every child is a poet; some people, for no apparent reason, have the ability to write superbly and others, strive and strain as they might, simply do not. However, everyone may have a story to tell – maybe just a joke or an anecdote, but something uniquely their own; equally almost everyone may have it in them to create, verbally or on the page, a single startling, beautiful and moving line. And every aspiring writer can certainly improve with practice, especially from reading as omnivorously and voraciously as possible, and enjoy their writing and reading more and more as a result.

Something Jan absolutely deplored was exclusivity; the patronising elitism she saw in too many editors and directors in children’s publishing who posed as ‘anti-elitists’:

[T]here certainly is a prevalent idea – shared I think by a lot of publishers – that  anything half-way literate is ‘elitist’. There argument is that a reader, and particularly a young reader, is going to feel condescended to, excluded, if you show too much technical or verbal accomplishment[….] This whole idea – that children who can’t read very well need books that aren’t written very well or tat because they can’t draw very well they need pictures by someone who can’t draw very well either – is insulting. In my opinion, that’s the real elitism.[9]

The repetition of ‘unfair’ in the title, seems to indicate a childish or childlike objection to perceived injustice to which the poem offers an oddly dry and rhetorical response to such an emotional objection. There’s a spiteful glee in how the speaker snatches away hope, like the sadistic bursting of a child’s balloon, which does not represent at all how Jan – despite her occasional gaucheness – would approach or address children. I strongly detect a parody, specifically a satire on the imperiousness of the self-appointed truth teller; the smug self-confidence of the Auden of the thirties and his admirers and acolytes about which the later Auden became so critical. And there is a tone of unquestioned superiority from the speaker in ‘Unfair, unfair’ that is more than a little reminiscent of the worst of the many-headed 1930s chimera Macspaunday; of young Auden’s schoolmasterly, know-it-all manner, especially in the didactic tone and the technical ease with which the opening rhymes create a short acrostic from the end words of the first stanza:




which exactly summarises the ‘message’ of the speaker in the poem: ‘I may be blessed, but you are almost certainly not.’ This is emphatically hammered home by the rhymed couplets which follow. Mock Audenesque too is the condescending and self-aggrandising use of the scientific ‘blastoderm’ (how many of the children being addressed would know what a ‘blastoderm’ was?) combined with the colloquial and oddly unscientific ‘set ticking’. I also think the final line is revealing, particularly in the choice of the last word ‘equity’. It sounds pompous certainly – why not the more generally used ‘equality’, or ‘fairness’? But ‘equity’ has the additional resonance of being the name of the actors’ union, suggesting once more that perhaps the whole poem is an example of role playing, of insincerity. It’s surely also significant that although, as I mentioned earlier, the title indicates a childish objection it doesn’t mimic it. There are no speech marks around ‘Unfair, unfair’; what’s left open is the question of what or who is being unfair; doesn’t the title also suggest that the speech is itself an example of unfairness and the ‘Unfair, unfair’ of the title may be the voice of the poet heckling her own creation?


It seems odd, at first glance, to find ‘Geraniums’ – a poem ostensibly about gardening and, perhaps, recalling the experience of what is now called ‘mansplaining’ – in-between two poems about children who are experiencing adult behaviour that is self-deceiving and duplicitous. Someone with a ruthlessly practical (archetypally masculine?) view of gardening has given forthright advice on autumnal pruning. The speaker, apparently grateful (‘And thank you also for the good advice /About my geraniums’) nevertheless demurs. The grounds for the speaker’s dismay and reluctance to take the ‘good advice’ is revealed to be both aesthetic and humane:

it wouldn’t please me to take a knife

And cut back anything with such life in it

With so much vigour.

But with every apparent repetition of their objections, the speaker extends their argument, and in doing so reveals by implication the all too evident flaws in their advisor’s character:

Do they affront you being

So flushed with success […]

Don’t you admire their lushness

Or envy their rank prowess?

Gradually it becomes clear that the poem is an exercise (in the best sense) in the traditional conceit of the garden representing a life, or a view of life in general, which in this case is profoundly troubling:

Wherever I look there is someone.

Practical, reasonable,

Waiting with a knife

To prune and punish the unseasonable.

This is surely a chilling reminder of the once widespread belief in eugenics – on both the political left and right – and Social Darwinism, which provided a justification for Nazi programmes such as the Kinder-Euthanasie which was proudly announced by Hitler as early as the Nuremberg rally of 1929: ‘an average annual removal of 700,000-800,000 of the weakest of a million babies means an increase in the power of the nation and not a weakening.’[10]This mass murder of disabled children was, of course, the beginning of the Holocaust. The poem ends with a defiant declaration of solidarity, with the speaker standing shoulder to shoulder with her plants against all who would:

Cut back me and my geraniums

While we are still in flower.



To misquote the great Paul Simon:

[S]he’s just a one-trick pony, that’s all [s]he is

But [s]he turn that trick with pride.

I’m thinking of Rachel Whiteread and her cast sculptures, in particular the pieces in which she casts the insides of objects like a wardrobe – one of her first pieces in which she poured plaster into a wardrobe – through the Turner Prize-winning House in which she cast the inside of a condemned London terraced house, to the recent Cabin (2016), the reverse cast of a wooden shed which is situated on Governor’s Island, New York Harbour.

Jan Mark trained as a sculptor and stone carver at Canterbury School of Art and was highly sensitive to shape and space. In the poem ‘Orifices’ Jan explores the ‘paradox’ of orifices (‘the outside situate inside’) and how through a kind of mental reversal of the kind that Whiteread has cast physically, the strangeness of the innermost areas can be reached through ‘the outside inside’ of orifices.

The speaker of the poem explains they have always preferred gaps: crevices, interstices and the archaically obscene ‘plackets’[11]. And in a delightful and deliberate malapropism declares: ‘I have never liked the platitude of surfaces’, – i.e. the bland and reachable areas. What the speaker craves, and blesses God for, are the opportunities to literally penetrate beyond the reachable to the innermost.


‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in trains.’

Like her character Ruth Prochak in Zeno Was Here, Jan was an experienced and expert train traveller, and from studying the full BR timetable (like Ruth Prochak) and continually consulting rail maps of that was more aware than most British people of the points of the compass: where was north of where else, and (of great relevance to this poem), where was east and where was west and on which station platform the twain might meet. She was also well versed in geographical terms – both current and arcane – and read maps with skill and pleasure.

So I must confess to being initially baffled by the final poem ‘Easting’. Easting essentially means taking or measuring a journey due east; a subsidiary meaning is the x (vertical) coordinates on a map. That’s what confused me. After the opening rhetorical question (implying which idiot planted a garden on such singularly inappropriate geology) comes a list of place names – some current, some archaic – and my first assumption was that the list described an easterly journey: an easting. It doesn’t. I’ve done my best to follow the route suggested by the list and to get from Blean to Bekesbourne you need to travel south-east; Bladbean is almost due south of Bekesbourne, Bridge is north of Bladbean, and Patrixbourne is north-east of Bridge. So it makes no sense as an ‘easting’ because the direction of the journey is south-easterly, apart from a northerly leg from Bladbean to Bridge. There is further confusion caused by the names: Snowdon (Kent, due south of Chislet) on modern maps is spelt Snowdown, Silbertswold is now better known as Sheperdswell.

It makes no sense as a route or a journey, however, it does make sense as a careful selection of places whose names suggest through sound – specifically assonance and alliteration – bleakness: Blean, Bekesbourne, Bladbean; or sharpness like Chislet; or extreme cold: Snowdon, Coldred, Wantsun. The poem describes them as ‘chill villages’ sharing either the black seams of coal, or the winds white with sleet that ‘bite Coldred and flay Hadres’. The rivers are ‘grudging’ trenches or ‘wizened’ and ‘underfed’. (These place names remind me of the fictional village of Howling and the family name of Starkadders in Cold Comfort Farm.) One of the most extreme observations in the poem is the ‘the sea in winter sets, a frozen floe’ – which is remarkably rare[12].

The only explanation I have for the title goes back to Jan’s love of crosswords and the enormous amount of arcane knowledge about words, and especially their component parts, such as prefixes and suffixes, that Jan acquired over many years of wrestling with Araucaria and others. This is the part of Kent in which Jan grew up and attended art college, and the suffix ‘ing’ is a patronymic in Anglo-Saxon indicating family or tribe – for example the Wuffings of East Anglia, or the Inklings of mid-twentieth century Oxford. ‘Ing’ also means a field or meadow, especially one near a river, something that Jan knew well, having lived for many years in Ingham, Norfolk. So the bleak picture of coldness, harshness and barrenness is in contradiction to its reputation as the ‘Garden of England’ – referred to ironically in the opening line of the poem – whose landscape of ‘gentle hills, fertile farmland and cultivated country estates with fruit filled orchards’[13] is praised in guide books and websites. My conclusion is that speaker’s view of the bleakness and inhospitality of Kent is expressing the coldness, bleakness and barrenness of a childhood and adolescence in what should have been and Eden – as the first line implies – but turned out instead to be the reverse. Easting, by the way, also means to travel Widdershins, which in ancient times was considered bad luck. In the same way, perhaps, the speaker of the poem has an understandable dread of returning to somewhere associated with, as the last word of the poem emphasises, ‘woe’.

To briefly think about this little book as a coherent collection, one theme that clearly underlies all the poems is childhood and in particular those childhood experiences which bring disillusion, disappointment and distress. In the title poem ‘Momma Travels Light’ the children are encumbrances, ‘millstones’ and presumably know it (and as the more ruthless of mothers know, there is nothing so bad that it can’t be made worse with the injection of a little guilt). In ‘Geraniums’ the vigorous, boisterous blooms are threatened by the implacable force of someone

practical, reasonable,Waiting with a knife

To prune and punish the unreasonable.

Similarly in ‘Unfair, unfair’ a self-opinionated, self-congratulatory and brutal adult has assumed the duty of crushing not only childish optimism but also hope under the pretext of introducing the children addressed in the poem to the (much overrated) ‘real world’ of hard facts and hard knocks. Although some redress is indicated in ‘Orifices’ which proposes that through the ‘crevices, plackets and interstices’ depths can be reached and maybe something positive might penetrate if God is indeed good; in the dark and cold of ‘Easting’ there appears to be an indication of the results of all the adult deceit and cynicism, of perhaps in the background a real life Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong in her iron hat who made the flowers shrivel when she walked by.[14] But we should perhaps remember what the great Leonard Cohen wrote, resonating with Jan’s poem ‘Orifices’:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

I should close by explaining the title to this piece ‘Ingres’s Violin’, or as the French would say Le Violin d’Ingres, is a French idiom describing the second major artistic talent or aptitude of someone already celebrated primarily for their excellence in another creative field. It originated from the fact that the presently highly unfashionable French Neoclassical painter Auguste Dominique Ingres (see The Turkish Bath, The Valpincon Bather and Grande Odalisque) also played the violin to a professional standard. Other examples of those who also possessed their own violins d’Ingres would include the film star Hedy Lamarr’s secret second life as an inventor of spread spectrum technology which helped not only to prevent secret allied communications being intercepted by the enemy and protected shipping from attack by radio-guided torpedoes, but was also crucial in the development of modern digital communications. Or, at perhaps a less exalted level, the comedian Steve Martin’s virtuoso banjo playing.

I would argue that this tiny collection reveals a subtle, skilful and above all genuine gift for poetry: Jan Mark’s Ingres’s violin. Jan was surely one of those who are gifted with the attributes that make a true poet, and although we should be grateful that she published this small pamphlet of fine poems, we must also regret that she didn’t write and publish many more.

[1] Many more readers will soon be able to appreciate Jan’s outstanding skill at short fiction thanks to the major collection, The One That Got Away, which Jon Appleton is presently compiling and will be published in February 2020.

[2] The first three of the five poems in this collections are apostrophes – poems of address – a type of poem which has perhaps become more widely appreciated since the publication of Ted Hughes’s prize-winning collection Birthday Letters, but was the form of some of his greatest poems, in the illustrated collections Elmet and River. It was also the chosen form of many of Seamus Heaney’s finest poems, such as a number of the ‘bog’ poems in Wintering Out, North and District and Circle and moving elegies like ‘The Strand At Lough Beg’.

[3] One need look no further than the envoi and coda that frame King Herlas Ride, the cadences in Carrot Tops and CottonTails, or the story in Enough Is Too Much, Already in which the everyday speech of three Norfolk teenagers is revealed to be in iambic pentameter, to see how poetics informed and enriched her prose writing.

[4] See Nancy Chambers (2009) Poetry for Children: The Signal Poetry Award 1979-2001, Thimble Press.

[5] See Interview With Jan Mark from Mick Gowar and Dennis Hamley (eds) Living Writers: Novelists.

[6] ‘Araucaria’ was the late Rev. John Galbraith Graham. He is also credited as the inventor of the ‘alphabetical jigsaw’ a crossword of almost impossible difficulty in which the puzzle grid is un-numbered, and took delight in setting sixty letter anagrams. From all accounts, the Rev. Graham was a mild-mannered and much-loved priest – except among poor-to-middling puzzlers who imagined him to be some sort of sadistic demon.

[7] See Feb. 02, 1957 – ”Rock N’ Roll” Fans Mob Bill Haley: Bill Haley and his Comets’ were mobbed by crowds of fans-when he arrived – Image ID: E0MXD3 Keystone/Press Alamy Stock photo of Bill Haley touring Britain by train.

[8] See Interview With Jan Mark from Mick Gowar and Dennis Hamley (eds) Living Writers: Novelists.

[9] See Interview With Jan Mark from Mick Gowar and Dennis Hamley (eds) Living Writers: Novelists.

[10] Quoted in Völkischer Beobachter, Bavarian edition, 7 August, 1929.

[11] Originally an opening in a petticoat or undergarment, ‘placket’ soon came to stand for the orifice beneath, hence Edgar’s ‘advice’ to Lear to ‘Keep thy foot out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets.’ (Act 3, scene 4).

[12] Ice has formed on the surface of the channel, but in unusually harsh winters such as 1963, 1709, 1684 and 1485.

[13] From Travel About Britain

[14] See: Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake (2007) How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen. David R Godine.