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John Hartley Williams obituary

Prolific poet whose work combined technical panache with extraordinary linguistic range

Hidden Identities, the first full collection from the poet John Hartley Williams, who has died aged 72 from cancer, made ripples when it was published by Chatto & Windus in 1982. The next, Bright River Yonder (1987), this time from Bloodaxe, became a Poetry Book Society recommendation. After that, collections seemed to follow each other faster than the eye could blink. As well as full-length books, there were pamphlets and works of translation, including a powerful version of Marin Sorescu's Censored Poems (2001), and Scar on the Stone: Contemporary Poetry from Bosnia (1998), of which Williams was a contributing translator.

Son of David, a headteacher, and Sylvia, John was born in Cheadle, Cheshire, and grew up in London with two brothers, Hugh and Nigel. (The latter would become a well-known novelist.) From 1962, John studied English literature at Nottingham University, where, as a scabrous account in his 1995 prose work Ignoble Sentiments makes evident, he viewed his tutors with at best genial contempt. Nevertheless, at the end of three years of mildly dissolute behaviour and occasional flirtations with amateur dramatics, he emerged with a good degree, although not the first which his father, himself the author of a number of critical studies for the general reader, had requested of him. John went to teach English in France, before, in 1968, becoming an English lecturer at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, where he met his future wife, Gizella.

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