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Marcus Cumberlege, poet whose work was suffused with his spirituality – obituary

Marcus Cumberlege
Marcus Cumberlege Credit: The Guardian

Marcus Cumberlege, who has died aged 80, was a poet whose work was both sophisticated and spiritual. The spirituality became especially clear after 2000, when he was formally initiated into Buddhism: he received the name of “Ji-Shin” – Expresser of Truth – at a ceremony in Düsseldorf.

That imperative to express the truth was central to his work, which could be frank and angry as well as intimate. There was a note of prophecy in his poetry and at times it could have the clarity of Bob Dylan: “A plague on you, bachelors of arts, / Public speakers, all you who raise your voice. / In the kingdom of silence you shall be our clowns.”

Simplicity was a consistent principle. In responding to the master of the haiku, Basho, he wrote: “Hard but simple is the life of the man / Whose two concerns are Love and Art.”

Cumberlege's 1972 collection featured his work from throughout the 1960s

It was in Bruges that Cumberlege’s poetry found its most faithful audience. He moved there in 1972 and was soon translating tourist literature and producing bilingual editions of his work in collaboration with Dutch poets. He later became the translator for the English Poetry Festival at Louvain. He also gained the title of “Poet Laureate of Bruges”, awarded annually by two book shops and the Lappersfort Poetry Society.

Throughout this time, he was drawn to esoteric studies such as astrology while he overcame alcoholism and managed his depression.

Marcus Crossley Cumberlege was born in Antibes on December 23 1938. His mother, Nancy (née Wooley) was Canadian; his father, Mike, was a seaman who escaped from Antibes to London as the Nazis attacked France. Once in England he joined the British Special Services and worked with the Resistance in Greece. He was captured, interned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and, two days before the camp was liberated, shot dead.

Young Marcus received his father’s two DSOs from George VI, and attended a naval boarding school, but was ill at ease with institutions. He was a scholar at Sherborne, and won prizes for both poetry and boxing. He edited The Shirburnian and entered into serious correspondence with T S Eliot.

He won a scholarship to read English and French at St John’s, Oxford, but was reluctant to take the place up, especially after travel to Peru and Argentina; when he arrived at Oxford he did little work (attending one lecture) but boxed and shot for the university. He left, he said, “with a third class degree … and an emotional hangover”.

During that time, he wrote almost no poetry except for translations, for which he had a gift: his versions of poets such as Lorca and Vallejo are exemplary. Ill-health cut short his work with the British Council in Peru, and he worked for three years at the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather in London.

"The Poet Laureate of Bruges" Credit: The Guardian

In 1967 he won the Eric Gregory Award for promising poets under 30; Ted Hughes chaired the panel that selected him. His first collection, Oases, appeared in 1968.

In 1965 he married Ava Paranjoti, whom he had met at an advertising conference; they had a daughter, Eunice, but separated in 1969. Cumberlege then went to live in the Latin Quarter of Paris. His life was marked by poetry, by travel around Europe, and by varied jobs including language teaching, moving furniture in an auction house and working in a metal window factory.     

In 1969 he met Maria Lefever. The couple moved to her native Belgium in 1972, where they struggled financially: for the year of their marriage (1973) Cumberlege calculated that the couple earned the equivalent today of 500 euros. Still, his daughter, who had been living with her mother, was educated in Bruges, and in 1983 Cumberlege was successfully treated for his alcohol problem.

He became ever more prolific, writing formal but straightforward poems that were by turns fun and confessional, and even both at once: “Mister Booze went on a cruise / With his skull-and-crossboned flask / To the sunny Andalooze, / But a lift I did not ask.”

Cumberlege did continue to travel, however – to Japan, Canada, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Dorset – while at the same time delighting in his settled sense of home. His poetry was received with growing recognition and affection; it is perhaps best represented in his Selected Poems 1963-2009, published in Bruges. He is survived by his wife, Maria, and by his daughter.

Marcus Cumberlege, born December 23 1938, died December 31 2018