It is with deep sadness that I write of the death of lifelong poet, mental health activist, and dear friend, David Kessel, who passed away on 8th March, aged 74.
I feel privileged to have known David, a deeply compassionate man, and greatly gifted poet, whose sheer humility was an example to us all in the poetry community. David was much loved, as was evidenced in a 2012 anthology of poems, Ravaged Wonderful Earth – A Collection for David Kessel, produced by Outsider Poets and Friends of East End Loonies (F.E.E.L.), two groups of which David was a prominent and—up until this time—active member. Indeed, he had penned a number of radical and thought-provoking pocket polemics on mental health and psychiatry which he used to distribute as small leaflets, often inserted in the folds of his spidery handwritten letters. These often read like speculative manifestoes.
The paranoid schizophrenia from which David suffered all his adult life, and for which he was heavily medicated (his speech became increasingly slurred as a result), never dimmed his empathic humanitarianism nor his ruminative mind which often expressed itself in aphorism. One that springs to mind is ‘Schizophrenia could be a diabetes of the mind’. David also strongly identified with the poets of both world wars, because he was a poet pitted in his own psychical war; for these reasons, and in terms of his poetic style, David most closely recalled Ivor Gurney. For example, David’s ‘Listening to the soft rain on the leaves/ I hear the decency and realism/ of friends’ humour’ has a similar cadence and comradely sentiment as Gurney’s ‘Who for his hours of life had chattered through/ Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent’.
But David also had similarities with Isaac Rosenberg: while Rosenberg was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant who settled in London’s East End, David was the grandson of a tailor of German-Jewish ancestry (‘kessel’ is German for ‘kettle’) who emigrated from South Africa to North London. By bizarre contrast his distaff grandfather had been a ‘Blackshirt’ and poet. Indeed, David was open to the possibility that such a stark clash of ancestral qualities could have played some part in his schizophrenia. This poses an intriguing genetic theory on the illness, and David was ever the self-analyst (as in his essay The Utopianism of the Schizophrenic). His mother, an Irish Catholic and Communist, presumably had some influence on David’s politics and poetics.
I first met David when I was at Survivors’ Poetry in 2004 working as mentoring coordinator and editor of the Survivors’ imprint and magazine. He was sat outside the Diorama Arts Centre rolling a cigarette with liquorice papers, his gentle brown eyes gazing from under a beanie hat atop a stooped frame in crumpled wax jacket, immediately disarming. While sifting through books sent in for review, I’d come upon his hefty chapbook, The Ivy – Collected Poems 1970-1994 (Aldgate Press, 1989), with its inside quotes from Edith Södergran and Christopher Caudwell and introduction by Arthur Clegg with its emphasis on David as a ‘poet of compassion’. That he certainly was. I was immediately taken by his work—lyrical, elegiac, visionary, but also gritty, angry, visceral and sometimes shocking—and strongly identified with its themes of poverty, socialism and mental suffering, as well as its literary references (Lilburne, Winstanley, Emily Brontë, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert ‘Tressel’ (sic), Keith Douglas, Drummond Allison) often cropping up in poem titles, and quotes (Wilfred Owen: ‘Poetry is a savage war’ – as well as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim: ‘In the destructive element immerse’), so much of which chimed with my own sympathies. I felt I’d not only found a poet more than deserving of being published through the Survivors’ Press imprint, but also, on a personal level, a poet-soulmate. Suffice it to say, David’s poetry has had more influence on my own than any other poet I have known personally. Whenever, over the years, I’ve visited London to do poetry readings, I always invited David to read alongside me; I regarded him as a spiritual fixture to any events I was involved with. He’d also invited me to read on occasions, once, memorably, at Toynbee Hall for a celebration of the legacy of the International Brigades. But when I last launched a book in London, at Housmans Bookshop, Kings Cross, in 2017, David had sadly been too ill to get to it.
What I most admired about David’s poetry was its aphorismic quality, its eye and ear for the striking line or phrase, too many to quote (though one of my favourites is: ‘I fear this mountain I must climb/ More than I fear fascism in a loved-one’s eyes’), and that’s from a fairly modest output of around 70 or so poems—but in these senses David’s oeuvre is an archetypal testament to quality over quantity: he wrote what he felt had to be written, no more, no less, though inescapably his illness and heavy medicating took their toll on his productivity (as they did on his physical health), as it had other schizophrenic poets before him, such as Nicholas Lafitte, and David’s friend Howard Mingham (1952-84), whom he’d first met at Ken Worpole’s Centreprise Hackney Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970s, and whose poems, devotedly kept for years by David, we published through my small imprint Caparison, which included Forewords from both David and Ken.
David was an indefatigable champion of Howard’s work, to an almost apostolic extent. (Howard had died at just 32 apparently after having fallen from the top of a tower block in the Cambridge Heath Road area of East London). David believed implicitly that Howard was one of the most important poets of the twentieth century and would often rank his name alongside the likes of Charles Sorley, Drummond Allison, Sidney Keyes and Keith Douglas. Regarding Douglas, I’ll never forget when David showed me a spine-cracked edition of his Collected Poems, replete with brittle mauve-and-nicotined dust-jacket, intricately inscribed with cramped notes framing each poem, when I visited him at his sheltered accommodation in Whitechapel. I also have enduring memories of David ruminating over vegetable curry in one of the many loud and bustling Bengali restaurants he habitually frequented. In his later years he was re-sheltered at Sue Starkey House in Stepney.
I wrote at length on David’s poetry in a critical piece, ‘Storming Heaven in a Book’, which served as Foreword to his Collected Poems – O the Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken, which I selected, edited and designed, and which became a Survivors’ Poetry bestseller; I can remember at its launch at The Poetry Café in 2006, following David’s recitations—which he howled from his soul and whole being—how almost everyone present queued up to buy their signed copies of the book. That striking title was my choice from a phrase in one of David’s poems but I recall it took me some time to convince him to go with it as he felt it sounded incendiary, though the concept was peaceful enough: to free the books and let them spill into the streets. A selection from this volume was later published in a bilingual German-English volume, Außenseitergedichte (Verlag Edition AV, 2007).
Most of the poems he wrote since publication of his Collected I have over the years published on The Recusant. I have kept all the correspondence he sent me over eighteen years. One of my most treasured possessions is a tattered white and teal first edition of George Thomson’s pamphlet Marxism and Poetry that David gave me some years ago (hugely generous in spirit, he had a tendency to give away books to friends). David’s bibliography stretches back to the late Seventies, some of his poems having previously appeared in some ground breaking anthologies of radical socialist poetry: Bricklight – Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (Pluto Press, 1980),Where There's Smoke (Hackney Writers’ Workshop, 1983), Outsider Poems, Under the Asylum Tree and Orphans of Albion (both Survivors’ Press). Some of David’s poems were also put to music by the EMFEB Symphony Orchestra in Owen Bourne’s score Hackney Chambers.
I have known very few people in my life who have truly deserved the epithets ‘poet’ and ‘socialist’: David was the embodiment, in all the best senses, of both those noble things.
Some poems by David Kessel
David lived in the East End of London his entire adult life, and many of his poems reference places in that district, such as the following:
For John Van
We build our own slums. The wind
through the slums blows on the highest
hills. We are all slowly dying
of cold and loneliness, no fags,
no fruit juice, and neighbours with veg stew
and cups of tea. We live with uncertainty,
our giros and our dreams. Yet our aggression
is our frustrated love. In a billion painful
ways we make the little things of love;
a dustman’s sweat, a cleaner’s arthritis,
a streetlight’s mined electricity,
a carpet-layer’s emphysema,
a desperate clerk’s angina,
a mate’s slow moaned caresses.
Some of David’s poems, as with his short essays or leaflets, read a little like a series of slightly dislocated thoughts or images, or they can be a series of declamatory statements, or a manifesto:
Poetry and Poverty
Poetry as witness.
All poetry is a poetry of hunger for the particular rather than the general.
The purpose of poetry is to create hope in desperate circumstances.
The poetry of the common people has been driven underground since 1660.
Poetry and otherness; the otherness of the common people.
When we cease to share, our language becomes a cipher,
the language of the despatch box and the popular press.
Towards a new lyricism we need to rediscover a deciduous
language, that of Gerrard Winstanley and Emily Brontë.
Cockney poetry is underground poetry expressed in Rock music;
downbeat, dissonant, demotic; e.g. The Clash, The Jam, The Free.
Celebration of the ordinary.
Nature of the city.
Metaphysics of poverty.
There can be no cockney power without cockney poetry.
Living his life in the East End of London, the ‘cockney’ identity was something David often referenced in his work. As a leitmotif (recurring phrase or theme), ‘cockney’ has other associations: the great Romantic poet John Keats was from a cockney background and, indeed, the term had been used as a snub of his largely self-taught poetry by a notoriously snooty critic in a Tory-supporting literary journal of his time.
In Memory of Jude
You could still marvel at the blackbird singing
above the dusk college square with sombre bells
ringing beneath May sycamores.
At bookshops bleeding with mankind and the firmament.
Fancy youths with death in their hearts
pass up and down the seductive streets
and behind thick walls make words deadly
with expectation and fear, drunk with themselves.
Only in the cold churches they struggle
to win some divine life.
The desperate vagrant is more solid:
he remembers, as yourself, the rich flinty earth,
cuckoo calling, smell of wheat in rain on a down.
Your death’s carved in stone in library windows.
Your tears angry, soulful music in a pub
by the bus-station. Beneath a bus
your sweetheart wrestles with uncertainty,
spanner in hand, her poems in her pocket.
You are the busman, bright-eyed, eager to know
your mother’s dark land. Your children’s children
may enter this city with nothing but strong
boots, good bread and hope to destroy
and create a strange people’s history.
This poem addresses the eponymous working-class stonemason and amateur scholar of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Jude moves to Oxford (called Christminster in the novel) in an attempt to get accepted at its university to study the Classics but is rejected purely because of his social station.
There is a conspiracy against the social democracy of the British common people
Grey, calloused, forgotten at fifty,
he has given his all; his wiry heart,
his skilled locked fingers, his
chipped backbone, his broken welding
language, for this choking fag,
this dark blinding pint,
this scouring Irish lament.
Scorned, down for a bundle in bird,
forsaken by wives and the DHSS,
shy of nothing ’cept himself,
to this bare room, phlegm and loneliness
between stubborn slums and useless sirens.
Driven by fury to this back ward,
wasted, ulcered, unforgiving.
I start from here to make anew
the happiness of children playing
beneath heeding enduring gulls
in a wooded tempered land.
It’s not clear who Mike Mosley is but I assume it was someone David knew. Whoever he is, or was, this is a sharply descriptive poem-portrait, a detailed sketch in words, which renders its subject not simply visible but almost tangible.
O The Windows of the Bookshop Must Be Broken
David Kessel – Collected Poems 1970-2006
Survivors’ Press, 2006
Edited and introduced by Alan Morrison
Cover design by Alan Morrison
David Kessel was born at Central Middlesex Hospital, Harlesden, London, on 10th April 1947. He suffered a breakdown at 17 prior to medical school where he spent the next six years untreated. With diplomas from the Royal Colleges of Surgeons and Physicians, he went on to practise as a GP in East London until his second breakdown put a halt to his medical career with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. David subsequently spent his entire adult life battling his debilitating and harrowing condition whilst simultaneously writing and publishing beautiful and sublime poetry, and intermittent essays. He became a much-loved and admired stalwart and active member of many London-based radical arts community organisations including Hackney Writers, Outsider Poets, the Jewish Socialist Group, News from Nowhere, F.E.E.L., and Survivors’ Poetry. He will be sorely missed and never forgotten by all who knew and loved him. David is survived by a son, a grandson, brother and nephew.
A shorter version of this obituary previously appeared in the Morning Star.