Potts the Unknown BC Poet

Posted by Howard on Jul 20, 2017
Paul Hugh Howard Potts, poet.

Paul Howard Potts (19 July 1911 – 26 August 1990), scion of a notable BC family, has been called “the people’s poet” and one of the most shamefully neglected poets of the 20th century. That is certainly true in BC, where he is unknown today.

A Canadian citizen born abroad in Datcet, Berskshire, UK, Potts was the son of Howard Potts (1869-1918), who had emigrated to Victoria, where he was a partner in a bakery and confectionery business and his Irish wife Julia Helen Kavanagh (also recorded as Cavanagh). Arthur Potts's father, Dr Walter Jeffery Potts (1837-1898), had married Julia, daughter of Sir Thomas Braithwaite Beevor, 3rd Baronet of Blatherworth, and many descendants with the surname 'Beevor-Potts' once lived on Vancouver Island. One of the more prominent was Lionel Beevor-Potts, a police magistrate in Nanaimo 1945-64 known for his harsh rulings and salty language. His most famous trial was that of the cultist Brother 12.

Paul Potts was educated in BC, England and Italy (at a Jesuit college in Florence) but from the early 1930s he lived in London. Considered a rare English example of the continental species of outcast writer known as poete maudit, he frequented the seedy Soho district where he would sell penny-each broadsheet copies of his leftist poetry in the streets and pubs, an act he con­sid­ered a “sacra­ment,” anticipating the practice of later BC poets such as bill bissett and Peter Trower. Potts was also appreciated for eulogies written for his friends, which included George Orwell, Dylan Thomas, and Patrick Kavanagh. He was especially close to Orwell, and stayed with him and his family at Barnhill on the island of Jura, Scotland, in June-July 1946. Potts was also known for his book reviews in the London Sunday Telegraph, starting in 1964. Potts was described by his editor Ronald Caplan as “a man of rare atten­tions, brave and ten­der, who wrote unfash­ion­ably in his time: a kind of straight­for­ward poet­ry and prose about love, human kind­ness, decen­cy, hope for the species, and peace.” His later poems include “Instead of a Sonnet” (1944), and “A Ballad for Britain on May Day” (1945), and his best known prose work is the autobiographical Dante Called You Beatrice (1960). Potts' work regularly appeared in leading poetry magazines of the day, but despite this, Potts rapidly became disillusioned with poetry and eventually gave up publishing it at all. In one poem he wrote, "My dreams / Watching me said / One to the other / This life has let us down." In his book Portraits of Poets, critic Christopher Barker's Called Potts “perhaps the best example [of those writers] who have known the full weight of neglect."

Among Potts's literary friends was the English poet George Barker, who had BC connections through his mistress Elizabeth Smart, whom he visited while she was living in Pender Harbour writing her famous cri de couer By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Potts's1948 essay “The World of George Barker” appeared in Poetry Quarterly. His 10-page reminiscence of Orwell, "Don Quixote on a Bicycle", appeared in The London Magazine in 1957 and became a chapter in his memoir Dante Called You Beatrice. A selection of his writings, edited by the Canadian folklorist Ronald Caplan, was published in 2006 by Breton Books of Nova Scotia.

In late middle-age, Potts was '...balding' with 'a stutter that he mixed with rapid blinking and an amused chuckle as he started a sentence', eventually becoming a dissolute figure 'barred from Soho pubs'. Potts died in 1990 of smoke inhalation from a fire in his bedroom; he had been house-bound for some years by this time.

Bibliography

  • (1940) A Poet's Testament, with drawings by Cliff Bayliss and Scott MacGregor, foreword by Hugh McDiarmid.
  • (1944) Instead of a Sonnet (enlarged 1978)
  • (1960) Dante Called You Beatrice
  • (1970) To Keep A Promise
  • (1973) Invitation to a Sacrament
  • (2006) Ronald Caplan (ed.), George Orwell's Friend: Selected Writings by Paul Potts