Once it would be a letter that failed to get an answer, or a Christmas card that didn't arrive. These days, it's an email that isn't answered. And a follow-up email that goes nowhere.
If the person's on FaceBook, you check to see if there's anything there about an illness, a problem, a death. If they're not, you wait a little. Maybe you google the name, just in case there's a headline somewhere. You ransack your brain to think who else you know who also knows your non-answering friend.
It was the Scottish (but living in Ireland) poet and novelist David Cameron who was able to confirm for me that Warren Hope had left the building. By which I mean, of course, he was gone forever (I'm resisting that nasty adjective 'dead'). Warren was a poet, and he was the biographer of Norman Cameron (not related to David). He was also a close friend of the late Robert Nye, who first introduced me to him.
I knew Warren Hope as a friend for well over two decades. I knew his health was at risk. I knew the heart of this good-hearted man was a problem. I had emailed to ask him something. The question will never be answered, could never have been answered. I wrote some days after he had taken his last breath. My message disappeared into the ether, a perpetual question mark.
For a good while, I had—without realising it—come to rely on Warren's wisdom, his kindness, his insights into (and knowledge of) English poetry. Although American, and living near Philadelphia, he was published both as a poet and a critic/biographer by Jim Hodgson of Greenwich Exchange. He and Hodgson were long-term friends—part of a network of connections stretching back through Martin Seymour-Smith, Robert Nye, C. H. Sisson, James Reeves, Norman Cameron, Robert Graves—stretching back, stretching back….
Warren's own poetic work is not extensive, a handful of slim publications. His mode is characteristically quiet. If you read him aloud, you note the careful pacing, the gentle melodic variation. The poems seem to be about not much, and yet…
When you ask me about my travel plans
I tell you that, if I could have my druthers,
I'd fly by British Air to London's Heathrow,
Then take the special train to Paddington
And go by rail from there to Penzance, Cornwall.
After a single night spent at the Abbey
for luck, perhaps, or else for old times' sake,
I'd fly by chopper to the Scilly Isles,
There to admire for, say, eternity,
The way rock in old age resists the sea.
When a writer friend dies, I collect all the books and papers I have of theirs and pile them up, flick through them, touch them. They're magical relics. They call the person into the room. Warren's here right now in his Student Guide to Seamus Heaney. He's busily considering the 'conflict between the Heaney of uncertainty and the Heaney with authority'. Warren liked poems 'that grew from an inner necessity'. He found them in Heaney's sonnet sequence Clearances: 'Heaney has never again written anything to compare with these rapidly composed sonnets.' He wasn't afraid to speak straight, even about the good and (popularly regarded as) great. (He wouldn't have used the word 'great'.)
He wrote confidently about poetry—fearlessly—and he wrote well. I find myself smiling at his Student Guide to Philip Larkin when he remarks, 'There is a good deal of talk among critics about a poet's need to 'find his own voice' as if it were something that existed but had temporarily been mislaid.' And I recall that comment about the poet's 'inner necessity' when he says of Larkin: 'The dignified, useful, but painful silence of his last years is the real evidence of his integrity as a poet.'
Earlier this year, my friend had completed a revised edition of his biography of Norman Cameron. As a biographer, Hope fully deserves the term 'definitive': it is a fine volume, an essential reference book, and a pleasure to read. His subject, Norman Cameron, also believed poems should only be written when driven by inner necessity. Warren was the perfect biographer for him. So much so, that the biographer's comment on Cameron's oeuvre could apply to his own: 'His work will perhaps become better known when we realise the question to be asked of a poem is not how big it is, but whether it is alive.' Hope follows this by quoting Cameron's wonderful poem The Compassionate Fool.
But Warren's poems are also very different from Cameron's. Often, they're like a man musing softly. A conversation overheard, easy to miss. He loves an iambic pentameter line, and it loves him. I'll close with a poem from Adam's Thoughts in Winter (Greenwich Exchange, 2002).
The Master's Routine
You know the story anyway. Can see
It all. The long and empty platform where
The stationmaster in a peaked red cap
Rehearses how he would rush out to greet
The august persons he might someday welcome.
He paces briskly down the platform's length,
Comes to attention, clicks his heels and bows.
A village girl, hiding and watching, laughs.
Arrival of the Emperor himself
Could never please him half so much as does
The sound of laughter that girl daily makes.
Both poems quoted here can be found in Selected and New Poems, Warren Hope, Greenwich Exchange, 2020