Keith Howden: The Rector of Stiffkey

Keith Howden was born near Burnley in 1932. He is married, with three children. After National Service and work as a laboratory assistant, he taught English and modern European fiction with a major interest in ‘the text as event’ at Nottingham Trent University. Among his many poetry pamphlets are Joe Anderson, Daft Jack’s Ideal Republics, Pauper Grave, Hanging Alice Nutter and Barlow Agonistes. He has published three full-length collections, Marches of Familiar Landscape (Peterloo 1978), Onkonkay (Peterloo (1984) and Jolly Roger (Smokestack 2012). Recently, with his son, the composer Matthew Howden, he has completed two poetry music collaborations, with accompanying discs: The Matter of Britain (PRE Rome 2009) and Barley Top (Redroom 2013). With Penniless Press he has also written  the novels Self Dissolve, Naylor, Godsman, New Found Lands, Hornyhorse, and the poetry collections The Gospels of St Belgrano, Ship of Fools, Barlow Agonistes and Landscapes with Handless Man. His most recent publications are Selected Poems and Mapping the Moor. All are available here





‘Most of my poems come from the collision of something in the present with something a good way back. The Rector of Stiffkey himself was part of my life. His story – his unfrocking for immorality, his subsequent appearance in a barrel on Blackpool promenade (I dealt with these in the first two poems of the group) and his death in a lion’s cage in a fun-fair in Skegness – were not only his story, but part of a family mythology. This was because my mother had taken me, aged about two, by train to Blackpool to be touched by him. His touch was popularly supposed to confer fertility. That incident and the general story of the Rector’s affairs were the deep root of the poem. But at the time of writing the poem, I’d been much taken up by thinking about the mood of Britain, vividly impressed on my mind, as Europe tumbled towards the second world war, and somehow, without conscious manipulation, the two ideas became aspects of each other. It’s not a conscious process, but it is often what happens in the kind of poetry I’m fond of, this sense of an inexorable mingling of ideas, so that they become, while remaining different, parts of a whole matrix.


The gravestone of Harold Davison aka ‘The Rector of Stiffkey’


And when this happens, the major question of all poetry happens, though again, it’s not a wholly conscious process. Can I find a language which, while sustaining each area separately, will also make them aspects of the same thing, compact them into aspects of the same experience, hold them as working units of the poem’s construction? A poem isn’t usually its ostensible subject. It operates on a deeper level, somewhere just a bit behind consciousness and the job of incorporating other levels of awareness falls on language itself. Language has to find and bring in those other levels and cause them to operate simultaneously with the surface of the poem – language working harder than surface and applying itself in a number of ways, while containing both the possibilities of different surfaces and the different possibilities of their interactions. That’s what seems to me to be the real function of metaphor – not vivid images; not surprising or new ways of seeing, but something happening as an energy source and a binding agent within the language itself.’ KH


Keith Howden: Three Poems


Unfrocked for immorality in 1932: later evangelised from a barrel on Blackpool Promenade: killed by a lion while preaching from its cage in a funfair in Skegness.

1. To His Bishop, suggesting a truer Eucharist

Where mouths purse, your host is cash.
Your serpent rears to spit the oldest sin.
Mine makes a sacrament of flesh.
I damn the state’s grocery of bread and wine.

My bread is dough of flesh to knead
in women’s thighs. My wine is white.
My God, your bourgeois agape has unmade
God: my God, fervour and feast have quit

your celluloid ceremonies:
my God, you have table-mannered Christ.
But laying on of flesh outweighs
Baptism’s mumble, the suburbs’ Eucharist.

The subtlest mystery is flesh.
Metaphors don’t transcend the physical
and mystics float concrete avenues. My splash
of truth incarnates the ineffable,

symbol and stuff of what we are.
I psalm the electric spasm,
Eden’s blanc-mange, that blob metaphor
of immortality, the bones’ ectoplasm.

I scorn your Altar’s laundered, civil lie,
your Pulpit’s social suavity.
My Eden anthems flesh. My apple
plumps for a subtler chalice’s cavity.

2. Letters from Blackpool

Queen of my heart, my barrel,
as you might guess, grows harder, but suits me
fitter than faith. There is much to do here:
you would enjoy it. Glass Winter Gardens,
as relevant to winter as my former
Ministry to truth, spawn girls, and a wheel
high as Ezekiel’s now spinning on cash
tows poor souls Heavenward but always,
like Mother Church, drops them to earth.
The plump, skirted fruit of the Gardens
swells ripe for horticulture and the Tower’s
varicose thrust reminds me of something…

Queen of my heart, my barrel
grows hard more often. Only my tongue
pierces the multitude. There is plenty
to see here: you would enjoy it. I play
between a fasting girl now spent and thin
as a Bishop’s promise and a flea-circus
more instructive than religion.
Trams fixed and conceited as lawyers
pass the Public Lavatories where the sea wind
gropes among skirts. Fleas at their jumping
and the thin girl lying pale and exhausted
in the next booth remind me of something….

Queen of my heart, my barrel
torments me. The sea beats heavily here:
you would enjoy it. It does not thrust
slowly tumescent into creeks but heaves
frustratedly in and out upon
a beach where girls splay thighs on donkeys.
Only faces here are flint. Women,
poor foolish souls, jostle to touch me,
hoping I might confer fertility.
This mad sea threshing its buttocks of waves
into breached groynes and thighs apart nudging
the pommel’s plunge remind me of something….

3. A Lion in Skegness

Now he hears his home sea. Only history
seems caged where the salt wastes of Lincolnshire
contend the sea’s frontiers. Wind blusters,
a demagogue on the flats. All day the grass
shakes hand-grenades at the mud and panzer
cumulus manoeuvres the vault’s corridors.
A storm sea roars habitual fascism.
This is a far cry from Stiffkey’s Parsonage.
On its glittering estuary Boston’s Stump
awaits the drone of Dorniers and Heinkels
in slow formation. Now, in pea-field and
long ploughland, Lincolnshire’s Churches, steepled
magnificent as rockets, wait to obey
the Air-Marshal’s ultimate command.

For a showman, not much of a pitch, but not
a cage. Skegness’s windy sentry paddles
a spindle pier into the sombre levels
where time and sea running out deform
the losing light to a bleak propaganda
of coloured bulbs slung in a civil landscape.
It is a far cry from Stiffkey’s Parsonage.
A newspaper with Spain for headline splutters
the bowling green’s uneasy netherland
and recent rain has failed to wash away
the Blackshirts’ lightning insignia striking
the seized garden clock. A sharp ear might detect
the radio’s crackle and the dull drumbeat
of Europe on the horizon’s other side.

More threatening and sinister than a cage,
these fun-fair girders in the declining light,
no place for a showman where the inmates
gape at the sideshows’ glowing ovens and hear
the screaming clientele of mad machines.
Swastika spars and gantries of the rides
plume tracers in a darkening air. The dodgems
contend and crash not far from the staccato
snipers and oiled weaponry of the booths.
It is a far cry from Stiffkey’s Parsonage.
The zebra light and shade provide sufficient
uniform for the dispossessed. Another
train load will come to fill their vacant places,
to lose their shoes and win bewilderment.

Now he hears his home sea and here history
provides a cage and a sawdust continent,
a lion and a man. A few stuka gulls
are shrieking outside. Some in the audience
sense the sandfly time’s momentousness. Here comes
sortilege in a skin. Stiffkey presages
Europe’s slow tumble in this lecherous
and tiny actor. And here at the end of it
is the body’s cage broken as France, the chest’s
cavities exploded as Dresden, the ribs
ripped to Coventries and a belly butchered
as Dachau. It seems a far cry from Stiffkey’s
Parsonage, this breath’s broken economy,
the poor clown filleted by a mad lion.



Rituals deny surprise. What to expect
is on display. The ivory stalactites
of legs descend a drift of fur uplifted,
just concealing the bits that bulging butchers
will grope with eyes, debauch behind cold counters,
palp and possess in dreamland’s orgies, rattling
their predatory tills. Giaconda Eve
smiles her long knowledge of the likely event.

Her monochrome portrait teases where Burnley’s
tulips are squirting erect in April drizzle.
One breast, smooth and circular as a dartboard
poises its bull and inner on a froth of fur.
Tomorrow, the gallery’s randy Goerings
weighing topside will coax its nipple taut.
She stands, Marilyn luminous, where the skin’s
fascists are raising flesh’s Nazi salute.

Rituals rarely surprise. The storm-troopers
of fumble fantasies are rallying to
their Nuremburg of tits. Stranded, she
seems a lost liner among the sweating tugs
of stale sensuality. Coy concealments
of chiffon flutter her Aphrodite’s loins.
Butchers are howling their myth of a magic
and incorporeal meat. She lives outside.

She stands now almost naked, vulnerable
before them, in the daft trappings of half undress
but stays unreachably a dick’s dance outside
their grubbing dream. Front-row Himmlers
rave her rituals. Black stockings process the aisles
of her thighs. Her suspenders glint crucifixes.
The Norman arches of her belt are colonnades
enclosing an altar. She is Mary serene.

Now the lecheries of grocers assault
the peeling dog-ear of pink sticking-plaster
legalising her crotch. On the mind’s screen, she stands
dew-limbed as Venus on her shell. Gross lust
batters her tableau’s bogus gentility
but something in the sumptuous flesh escapes
the air’s bacterial and miasmic taint.
She seems innocent within innuendo.

Rituals mock surprise. She is different.
Something elusive populates the space
her thighs’ parting allows. The ridiculous
is banished. She is now the sacrosanct truth
of slits and mounds. Even in prurient frills.
she sustains her myth. A cool morality
breathes her crevices. The Goebbels balcony
howls catcall propaganda. She eludes them.

Her breasts are sacraments, her nipples devout
as catechisms that the crap soldiery
of seats will never mumble. She is Mary,
Marilyn. Comes on the mind’s screen, in Burnley,
in the drab fifties, this Eve before knowledge.
And not long afterwards, the insidious
religion of cancer groped her, invaded her,
tumbled her with the lust of a butcher’s dream.

Note: Phyllis Dixey (10 February 1914 — 2 June 1964) was an English singer, actress, dancer and impresario. Her earlier career was as a singer in variety shows in Britain. During World War II, she joined ENSA and entertained the British forces. She sang, recited and posed in naked tableaux which were very popular.



Eleven in one hole.
The slab’s team-sheet texture
hides in deep grass.
Among the solvent graves
workmen are firing
the Corporation’s leaves.
xxxGeorge Musgrove,
xxxDayman Derrick,
xxxHarry Dexter
were here selected
for an away fixture.

Some scratch and losing team.
professionals at the game
gave them no quarter.
Now smoke’s applause
lifts from the leaves’ smoulder.
xx  John Bridger,
xxx Wilfrid Widdowson,
xxxJohn Salkeld
are holding on
to positions in midfield.

The names tell one
of the crap and beaten gangs
of second-raters.
The proletarian, grey
syllables rune defeat.
The score is history.
xxxSam Thompson,
xxxAlbert Atkins,
xxxJoshua Hemmings,
out of the match,
trundle on different wings.

Workmen who piss
the steaming leaves contend
the game’s improved since then.
Jack Blades and Harold Knott
make up a rotten side
whose cup luck brought
xxxNothing here
xxxshows they found
supporters in
the crowd filling the ground.

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