Rosemary Tonks was born in London and educated at Wentworth School, London. Expelled in 1948, she published a children's story in the same year. She married aged 19, and the couple moved to Karachi, where she began to write poetry. Attacks of typhoid and polio forced a return to England. She later lived briefly in Paris.
She worked for the BBC, writing stories and reviewing poetry for the BBC European Service. She published poems in collections and The Observer, the New Statesman, Encounter and Poetry Review; she read them on the BBC's "Third Programme". She also wrote "poetic novels".
Her work appears in many anthologies, including Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (ed. Keith Tuma), Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, British Poetry since 1945 and The Firebox: Poetry in Britain and Ireland after 1945 (ed. Sean O'Brien).
Tonks stopped publishing poetry in the early 1970s, at about the same time as her conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. Nothing is known publicly about her subsequent life. As Andrew Motion wrote in 2004, she "Disappeared! What happened? Because I admire her poems, I've been trying to find out for years... no trace of her seems to survive - apart from the writing she left behind." The Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, which published three of Tonks' poems in 2001, states that permission to use her poems was obtained from a literary agency, Sheil Land Associates, Ltd.
Character of her work
Tonks' poems offer a stylised view of an urban literary sub-culture around 1960 full of hedonism and decadence. The poet seems to veer from the ennui of Charles Baudelaire to exuberant disbelief of modern civilisation. There are illicit love affairs in seedy hotels and scenes of café life across Europe and the Middle East; there are sage reflections on men who are shy with women. She often targets the pathetic pretensions of writers and intellectuals. Yet she is often buoyant and chatty, bemused rather than critical, even self-deprecating.
She believed that poetry should look good on a printed page as well as sound good when read: "There is an excitement for the eye in a poem on the page which is completely different from the ear’s reaction". Of her style, she said "I have developed a visionary modern lyric, and, for it, an idiom in which I can write lyrically, colloquially, and dramatically. My subject is city life—with its sofas, hotel corridors, cinemas, underworlds, cardboard suitcases, self-willed buses, banknotes, soapy bathrooms, newspaper-filled parks; and its anguish, its enraged excitement, its great lonely joys."
Her poem, "The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas" ends:
- — All this sitting about in cafés to calm down
- Simply wears me out. And their idea of literature!
- The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.
- I have lived it, and I know too much.
- My café nerves are breaking me
- With black, exhausting information.
Assessment of her work
She was praised by critics as a cosmopolitan poet of considerable innovation and originality. She has been described as one of the very few modern English poets who has genuinely tried to learn something from modern French poets such as Paul Eluard about symbolism and surrealism. Al Alvarez said of Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms that it showed "an original sensibility in motion". Edward Lucie-Smith said that "the movements of an individual awareness - often rather self-conscious in its singularity - supply the themes of most of her work." Daisy Goodwin commented on her poem, "Story of a Hotel Room", about infidelity, "This poem should be read by anyone about to embark on an affair thinking that it's just a fling. It is much harder than you know to separate sex from love."
- Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (1963)
- Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967)
- Opium Fogs (1963)
- The Bloater (1968)
- Businessmen as Lovers (1969)
- The Halt during the Chase (1972)
- Tuma, Keith (ed), Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry contains a biography of Tonks credited to "Tuma"
- Lucie-Smith, Edward (1970), British Poetry since 1945
- Motion, Andrew (2004). The Times (London); Oct 30, 2004 p.8
- Astley, Neil (2004), Being Alive, Bloodaxe Books. Quoted in The Indexer, April 2005. Accessed 12 January 2007
- Wynne-Davies, Marian (1997). "Rosemary Tonks", in Dictionary of English Literature, (Bloomsbury).
- O'Driscoll, Dennis (2003)"The outnumbered poet" Poetry Daily. Accessed 12 January 2007
- Lucie-Smith p.247
- Lucie-Smith p.245
- Goodwin, Daisy (2004), Poems to Last a Lifetime. Quoted in "Selling poems to the people" by Andrew O'Hagan, Daily Telegraph 9 November 2004. Accessed 12 January 2007