Obituary - Sam Gardiner



Samuel Trevor Gardiner, poet, born 15 September 1936, died 22 May 2016.

Sam Gardiner, who has died aged 79, was a distinguished member of the generation of Northern Irish poets that also included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon.

While Mahon traded Protestant Ulster for visions of exotic elsewheres, Gardiner was adept at uncovering his sceptical humanist visions closer to home. In his poem Protestant Windows, winner of the 1993 National Poetry Competition, he transplants the violence of the Reformation to a quiet suburban close. Arguing with some PVC window salesmen, a defender of the sash-cord window (introduced by King Billy, he claims) is martyred when the window descends unexpectedly on his head, leaving him “reel[ing] towards eternity”.

Gardiner’s wit was detached and quizzical, but hard-hitting too, especially when trained on the province of his birth: the Protestant dogs of his “gnomeland”, “Ire Land”, he wrote, are “loyal, too loyal”, and “enjoy a direct line to God (they ring on Sundays, cheap rate)”. Gardiner’s freelance work in the 1970s included the editorship of the Poet’s Yearbook, but early retirement in 1993 provided the fillip required to launch his poetic career in earnest.

The collection Protestant Windows appeared in 2000, followed by The Picture Never Taken (2004), The Night Ships (2007) and The Morning After (2010), attracting favourable reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian and elsewhere. Anthologies of emerging poets tend to favour the young, but Gardiner bucked this trend by appearing in Selina Guinness’s The New Irish Poets (2004) and John Brown’s Magnetic North: The Emerging Poets (2006); a selection of his work also appeared in Dutch translation. 

Born in Portadown, Co Armagh in September 1936, Samuel Trevor Gardiner, known to his family as Trevor, attended Portadown College where he was encouraged in his writing by his French teacher Ron Spathaky, although at that stage his first love was music - he was a fine violinist. After schoool he trained with an architectural practice in Lurgan and worked as an architect until retiring in the early 1990s when he devoted his time to his poetry. He moved to England in 1969, living in London before settling in Grimsby.

Gardiner’s inclusion in anthologies of both Hull and Lincolnshire poets (Old City, New Rumours, 2010, and Something Happens, Sometimes Here, 2015) confirmed his status as a poet of strong adoptive attachments. While Philip Larkin cultivated a public love-hate relationship with Hull, there was no irony in Gardiner’s telling the Grimsby Telegraph that, after Belfast and Birmingham, Grimsby (where he was a member of the Nunsthorpe poetry group) was “like heaven”.

In later life Gardiner, who had asthma, developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Death is the “trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”, according to William Empson, and certainly brought out the best in Gardiner’s poems, as in his elegy Water Content, which compares the human body (71% water) to a dead friend’s last glass of brandy (ditto), before describing the world that survives him or her as “71 per cent tears, water, rain-clouds, tears again”.

His is a poetry of what Ezra Pound termed “logopoeia”, “the dance of the intellect among words”, delighting in complex word games and cosmic visions in the garden centre or the charity shop. Happiness is a capacity for being well-deceived, wrote one of Gardiner’s satirical precursors, Jonathan Swift, and in The Unavoidable, he holds forth with Swiftian panache:

Happiness is a chemical imbalance in the
brain triggered by these tranquillity pills, tested
to destruction on laboratory rats, whose happiness
is quite depressing.

Gardiner’s wittily disabused cosmic perspective also has much in common with James Henry, the Irish Victorian poet rescued from neglect by Christopher Ricks. Addressing himself as “you who believe in everything but God /(or nothing but)”, he carefully distinguishes himself from more dogmatic atheism à la Dawkins, ever-ready with a saving self-deflationary twist. In Aubade, the last poem in his last book, Gardiner is visited in hospital by a friend who tries to cheer him up: “Don’t worry, he said, all the best poets are dead.”

While his avoidance of poetry readings may have hindered his reputation, Gardiner was an inveterate correspondent, his letters invariably bearing a clutch of new poems. His archive will be deposited at the University of Lincoln. Much unpublished work survives him, and can only enhance his reputation as it makes it way into print.