I have recently attended the funeral service of Jay Ramsay. His long thin body, dressed in his favourite blue trousers, blue woollen pullover and writing cap, was in a simple willow coffin in Littlehempston church near Totnes. He was cremated afterwards.
He died aged 60 at the end of 2018, having had over 40 works of poetry, non-fiction and translation to his name. He is primarily known as a spiritual and ecological poet but he was also a very compassionate, political and brave man, well attested by many of his patients who undertook psychotherapy with him. He became the classic example of the wounded healer.
The poet Kathleen Raine once called him: ‘You are an unlocker of imprisoned souls, and true healer… a great gift to our world and the generation who are seeking for spiritual consciousness… your poems spring spontaneously from a pure well of life’.
I had known him ever since he came to North Wales and wrote Trwyn Mediations staying in a friend’s bothy at the edge of the Tremadog estuary by the cob, an artificial dam built partly with Shelley’s expected inheritance, at the beginning of the 19th century. It was typical of him to be in such a liminal space between land and sea with a fine view of the mountains of Snowdonia. With Shelley, he felt that poets were ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. I subsequently found out that he had been in the 1980s an instigator of the ‘Angels of Fire’ which advocated poetry as an inclusive and community-based series of festivals. In his introduction of 1986 at the height if Thatcherism, he claimed: ‘We live in a time when the future cannot be trusted and we are separated from the promise of the future. There is no hope for us if we let the spirit die. But the essence of this poetry is that the spirit cannot die’.
An experienced reader and performer, he often worked with musicians and dancers. He held a summer school in North Wales called ‘Chrysalis’ about the poet in you for a series of workshops which I organised under the name of my small publishing company Zena.
I next came across him when I invited him to contribute to a series and exhibition on Alchemy held at the Peninsular Arts held at Plymouth University. He came down from Stroud where he lived at the time and stayed with his then partner for the weekend at our house in the country near the River Tamar, both sporting green top hats like elves. The talk was based upon his book The Crucible of Love, the transformation of human relationships through love and the ‘greater Love’.
I got to know him well in the last few years of his life since we shared a passion for poetry, Greece, particularly the light and the sea, and ancient wisdom, especially Taoism (he put into verse the Tao Te Ching, translated by Martin Palmer, alchemy, anarchism (he admired the anarchist poets William Blake and Heathcote Williams and the Anarchist Christ), and ecology (as a member of Compassion in Farming, he felt deep concern for the planet and how many of our species were truly messing it up). He published recently one of my poems ‘Simple Joy’ in the magazine Caduceus for which he was poetry editor and for which I reviewed the Diamond Cutters: Visionary poets of America, Britain and Oceania, edited by Jay and Andrew Harvey. He offered to be an editor for my own edition of poems written over a lifetime just before he died.
During the period when he was being treated for cancer, we corresponded regularly by email, mainly about matters of poetry. My companion Liz and I saw him twice at Dartington Hall on the other side of Dartmoor from us. We had even been invited for Sunday lunch at his new dwelling with his warm and delightful companion Angela Warren and her daughter Ruby a couple of weeks after his death. He said: ‘You know, I feel I have come home for the first time since I was about five.’ I knew he was suffering from pain, kept at bay by cannabis oil and morphine, but did not realise he was so close to death
The last time I saw this unique soul was at a musical event in Ashburton, appropriately called ‘Light in the Dark’ before the winter solstice. He gave me in a noisy pub a copy of his latest work The Dangerous Book, one of his best, based on Bible stories and words and written in verse with the collaboration of Martin Palmer. He wrote the dedication ‘for dear Peter and Liz, ride the wind of the spirit – always! All love, Jay’, alluding to the title of one of my books about liberation ecology. In the past he had given me at least a dozen of his works. He also apparently had my early autobiography called Bognor Boy: How I Became an Anarchist, which had just come out and which he had warmly recommended as a ‘beautifully written memoir’, in hospital where he gently faded away on the 30th of December 2018.
He died far too young, a deep and generous poet at the height of his powers. He will be more than missed.
For me, his last words come from his 1993 version of the Celtic prayer attributed to Patrick:
I breathe in strength as I stand today:
With the clear blue of Heaven –
The great light of the sun
And the mystery of the moon;
In the blaze of fire –
The flashing of lightning –
In the speed of the wind,
In the depth of the Ocean
In the rootedness of earth
And the reality of rock.
That is how we should remember him.