John Horder: A Sense Of Being

I discovered a gem of a short poetry book while roaming through Syracuse University’s Bird Library in search of a Nick Hornby novel (which I was unable to find).

The book, A Sense of Being by John Horder, was published in 1968 as part of the Phoenix Living Poet Series. The book runs 40 pages and I was able to read the entire work during my lunch hour.

A Sense of Being by John Horder.

A Sense of Being by John Horder.

I couldn’t find any biographical information about Horder online, but I consider his spare, philosophical poems very moving. They made me stop and reflect on my own life and ponder the points Horder raised in his text. And that to me seems like the purpose of good poetry—to remind the reader that time is passing and our existence is fleeting.

Here are a few of my favorite selections from the book.

A Sense of Being

There is nothing in me to assure me of my being.
That is why I so often think
About my heart beating.
Nothing to do with the fear of it stopping.
It’s just it’s so hard to imagine it – beating –
Just as it’s so hard to imagine that I derive from something
That actually works. Something that lives and breathes.
Something that has a sense of its own being.
Oh, it’s so very hard to imagine these things,
And I’ve always been told I was imaginative by nature.

Imagine: a tree has roots: it knows where it springs from.
We have parents. But the orphan and the murderer have one
thing in common.
Something vital in each of them has been wiped out.
It’s hard to explain exactly what. It’s something
A word or a glance from a parent may have set in motion
Or not. It’s not that this gives a child a sense of itself
Just like that. Nothing as simple as that.
But it can be the basis. Something to start from, something
that grows
And will eventually determine who and what he’s to be
Or not to be, as the case may be. Whether he is, or is not.

##

In A Time When I Was Nothing

In a time when I was nothing
I was strangely surprised to see
My name in The Times Literary Supplement.

In a time when I was nothing
There was an emptiness both inside and outside of me
And I felt no thing substantially.

In a time when I was nothing
It was most difficult to separate past from present
And the present moment held no sway.

In a time when I was nothing
There seemed no end to this state of non-being
The bottom had been kicked away from everything.

After a long time being nothing
There came at long last a dim realization
That one day I might eventually become something.

In the time when I was no one
There was simply nothing left to give anyone
And I found myself cut off from everyone.

In the time when I was no one
I knew no man, no woman
And that was when my sense of self began.

##

Everyman’s Vietnam

Our whole lives are designed as a means of escape
From the psychic forces that are deep down within.
We do anything rather than reckon with them.

Rather naively, we make call after call
Upon the telephone, in order to try exorcise them.
These forces which if submerged, first malinger, spit out
then wear our selves thin.

We cram our lives full to the brim with work.
We come home late, too tired even to speak to our wives.
We get drunk, which only makes our ulcers more peptic,

And still these forces won’t leave us alone.
Still they will never allow us a moment of rest.
Still we give them no real means of expression.

We don’t reckon with these forces.
They are demons.
They will run us to the grave

Unless we turn them to the good.
We underestimate their power.
Most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that
they’re there.

More fool us.

##

Not Far Of

Eternity is not far off:
On a clear day
I feel it to be
Just out of sight.

The folly of men
Is there purposefully ignoring
What is so painfully obvious
On a clear day.

Horder, John. A Sense of Being. Phoenix Living Poet Series. London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1968. Print.

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8 thoughts on “John Horder: A Sense Of Being

  1. Hello Francis,

    I enjoyed a brief friendship with John Horder that spanned the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. We first met on Hampstead Heath in North London. At the time I was in my early-mid 20s. He would have been in his mid-late 60s.

    I was attempting to navigate from one side of the Heath to the other (picture an uphill stretch of rugged common land, roughly half the size of Central Park but less linear). To this end I was using a map in a guidebook of London walks. The book had an olive green back cover. John had been reading a novel (I think it was by Ian McEwan) which also had an olive green back cover. He called me over to the bench where he was sitting, thinking that we were reading the same novel and wanting to discuss it with me.

    In his youth John had interviewed many famous English poets – Hughes, Auden etc. He asked me what writers I enjoyed and I reeled off a list. One of the names was a fellow called Jeremy Reed. John said: “Oh, I know him, he lives nearby.’

    That evening I visited John at his flat, which was in West Hampstead, above a dry cleaners. We chatted some more and struck up a friendship.

    John was a complicated man. Very intelligent, incredibly well-read, but also deeply sensitive and somewhat demanding. He was a proponent of non-sexual hugging, and the most damning insult he could level at a person was to describe them as ‘hugless’, meaning that they were emotionally shut down.

    I gather that he had a traumatic childhood that was dominated by the early loss of his mother and compounded by his emotionally distant father. He suffered from depression and I feel that this probably hobbled what could have been a promising career as a writer or a journalist. When he was able to motivate himself he certainly wasn’t short of talent.

    While there were days when he could be high maintenance, he was, on other occasions, a very entertaining and mischievous man. He used to fast talk himself into social gatherings and events that we hadn’t really been invited to. Once inside he would introduce me to strangers as an undertaker, or as a worker in some other quirky profession. I would play along with him and we would see how far we could take it.

    I interviewed him one evening and recorded our conversation. I haven’t listened to it in years. My recollection is that I was rather drunk and John, who was an inveterate name-dropper, spent most of it talking about other vaguely famous people that he had associated with. I keep meaning to transfer it from tape to digital format.

    The last time i saw John was in September 2002. It was at a celebration of the life of the poet Stevie Smith on the occasion of the centenary of her birth. There was an evening of readings at a church in Piccadilly, London. John, who was greatly enamored by Smith’s work, got up and waxed lyrical about her.

    Our friendship had been on a rather turbulent path but we parted that night on good terms. After that we drifted apart. There was no animosity; rather a mutual and unvoiced agreement that things had come to a natural end.

    I do not know whether John is still alive. He is a hard person to search online, on account of him sharing the name of a famous English doctor. He would be in his 80s now.

  2. John Horder published a small volume of poetry, Meher Baba and the Nothingness, Menard Press, 1980. I spoke with John once on the phone while passing through London. His poems speak for him, here are three that I have enjoyed. You can only imagine what sort of character he was, or should I say is.

    Professor Pott’s Strange Views
    for Margaret Drabble

    I was informed recently on ’24 Hours’ (on BBC 1)
    By one of our leading psychiatrists
    Professor Potts, author of ‘Hugging for Novices’ —
    He’s also written for the T.E.S. on tribes in Melanesia
    As well as for ‘New Society’ on the same subject —
    That hugging should be made compulsory
    Without delay, in all our schools and universities,
    For boys and girls, throughout and after adolescence.

    The Professor pointed out to me before the rehearsal,
    Going up in the lift in the Television Centre,
    That warmth and sexuality were two distinct commodities,
    And that unless a teenager were actively encouraged to hug
    Both sexes, he or she would be unable to sustain warm friendships,
    Let alone achieve a lasting sexual relationship later on in life.
    The Professor hugged Meher Baba, who appeared in the same
    program,
    And had been in India at the same time as him,

    For over two minutes. ‘Bloody perverts’, muttered an envious
    cameraman.

    Hugging

    If I cannot hug you through what I write
    I best write nothing.
    It just can’t/won’t achieve anything.

    But if I can take you into my arms
    In what I write
    (Or in the flesh

    It matters not which)
    And if you can hug me back
    Through what I write

    Or in the flesh
    Then we may yet achieve something.

    A Moment in Time
    for the John Milburns

    The moment
    Is a spinning top
    In time

    The divine impetus
    Somehow
    Urges it on

    We cannot question
    How and why
    You and I were born

    Let the moment of scorn (for each)
    Wither within
    In its own time

    The spinning top will only
    If we let it freely
    Spin

    from John Horder’s small book of poetry, Meher Baba and the Nothingness,
    published 1980, Menard Press

  3. I met John Horder at a poetry evening in the upstairs room at The Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden. I was about seventeen, he in his late thirties, I’d guess. It was a chaotic night, presided over by the gentle, erudite Peter Porter, but there was also Sebastian Barker, Bertie Lomas, Tambimuttu and – I think – Carol Rumens. Eddie Linden also, of course.
    He invited me back to his flat in West Hampstead, ostensibly to smoke some dope, which neither of us really liked and also to fumble about with each other, which neither of us really liked. Following this, he wrote to my mum and dad, asking if I could be permitted to accompany him to Berlin as an amanuensis. They replied with my dictated information that I had been accepted as a youth player for Brentford Football Club, which was more of a tantalising fantasy to me than John’s unfee’d position.
    A complex man, certainly, but honourable and serious: his poems were raw and confessional to a fault and I don’t think he ever quite sorted out the dance of carnality. He devised some sort of ‘touch therapy’ happening and brought it to Northern Ireland, where I studied for my first degree. No takers, not even me this time.
    Having had several volumes of my own poetry published, I’d love to share crazy enthtoousiasms with him, if he’s alive.
    A hug, too, but let’s leave it at that.

  4. I first met John in 1963, when he was on the door at a poetry reading in a pub in Hampstead. A man with quite a few emotional hang-ups, primarily centred around sexuality and, an uneasy relationship with both Catholicism and his mother.

    He was a good friend to me during my few years living in London and, he arranged for me to give my first poetry reading at the London Contemporary Poetry & Music Society where my co-reader (obviously top-billed) was Charles Causley. Some time around 1965 / 66 Giles Gordon published a small pamphlet of John’s poems called “A Child Walks Around His Own Grave”.

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