I must have been thirteen or fourteen, when I first came across “Jodrell Bank” by Patric Dickinson (1914-1994). It was in an anthology for schools, called The Albermarle Book of Modern Verse, and was one of the poems there (another was Dylan Thomas’s very different “Poem in October”) that made me decide I wanted to write poetry myself. In that sense, it did change my life, even though the change may have taken some time to be fully realised.
I was attracted by the poem’s very modern subject. Manchester University’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire had hit the headlines less than a decade earlier, in 1957, when the newly-constructed telescope was used to track the rocket carrying Sputnik 1. It was the beginning of the Space Age. Being in the same county as the Manchester suburb where we lived made it seem local and the poem’s bleak ending must have chimed with my teenage angst.
It’s one of the few poems that have ‘got into my head seemingly of their own volition’, as Clive James put it in the Introduction to The Fire of Joy, his collection of “Roughly Eighty Poems to Get by Heart and Say Aloud”. I don’t have the capacious memory that James had, so my number is far fewer. I also suffered from the ‘anxiety of influence’ and worried that learning poems by heart would make it more difficult to write poems of my own. “Jodrell Bank” may be the reason why my poetic default is the trimeter rather than the more usual pentameter, but since I couldn’t help the poem’s hold on my memory, the answer might have been to try and learn more poems in other metres.
Dickinson was a radio producer at the BBC in the 1940’s, working on poetry broadcasts—with Dylan Thomas among others. He was also a translator and, in the Sixth Form, our Latin master distributed copies of his excellent version of The Aeneid to help us put Book VIII, our ‘A’-level set text, into context. I don’t suppose many people now remember Patric Dickinson and these days “Jodrell Bank” might not even be regarded as a very good poem. It ‘tells’ rather than ‘shows’ and doesn’t leave much for the reader to do except admire the elegance with which its three sentences deftly weave their way through the formal structure of the poem, with half rhymes muting the short lines and echoing the idea that things don’t fit together in the way they were once thought to. The poem pivots on the enjambment between the two stanzas, which contrast the imagined zodiac of ancient astrologers with the observed universe of modern astronomers. Men are lonelier now, because the stars are indifferent to their fate.
It comes from Dickinson’s collection, The World I See (1960). In using strict form to set out an argument, it’s typical of his poetry, which was influenced by Auden’s, though it’s perhaps less typical in its simplicity and directness. Dickinson often strikes an elegiac note. Transience and mutability were his big theme, as—more specifically—was The Bomb. Compared with those who had grown up with nuclear weapons, he thought that people of his own generation, alive at the time of Hiroshima, were particularly badly affected by it, as they could remember a time before the Atomic Age.
You won’t find “Jodrell Bank” in The Fire of Joy, but you will find a poem that looms behind it. “Dover Beach”, Matthew Arnold’s great poem about the loss of religious faith in the nineteenth century, describes a world as ‘a darkling plain’, ‘Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ In Dickinson’s poem these are replaced by the ‘blind codes’ received by the radio telescope. There is an even closer parallel with “Dover Beach” in the title poem of his next collection, This Cold Universe, which ends, ‘Nothing must be but the sheer truth / Of love between us two: / O hand and planet eye and star / So near to me so far from me’, which echoes Arnold’s ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!’. In “Jodrell Bank”, there is no such consolation and the poem ends bleakly: ‘There are no loves nor gods / Men can invent to explain / How lonely all men are.’
Although Dickinson wrote several poems on the same theme, “Jodrell Bank” is the most powerful and succinct, as highly focused as the giant reflecting dish itself. Given its bleakness, it may seem an odd poem to have kept in my head and retrieved in times of stress, as if it had talismanic properties, but—ironically in this context—doesn’t poetry help us maintain order in an uncertain world, while the universe, through entropy, gradually winds down towards ultimate chaos?
Jodrell Bank Who were they, what lonely men Imposed on the fact of night The fiction of constellations And made commensurable The distances between Themselves, their loves, and their doubt Of governments and nations? Who made the dark stable When the light was not? Now We receive the blind codes Of spaces beyond the span Of our myths, and a long dead star May only echo how There are no loves nor gods Men can invent to explain How lonely all men are. Patric Dickinson
(Published in the Winter 2021 issue of the Ver Poets members’ newsletter, Ver Poets Poetry World, as part of their series: “The Poem That Changed My Life”. To join Ver Poets and receive a free copy of the newsletter together with many other benefits visit their website here.)