- The Collected Ewart 1933-1980 by Gavin Ewart
Hutchinson, 412 pp, £10.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 09 141000 2
- Selected Poems and Prose by Michael Roberts, edited by Frederick Grubb
Carcanet, 205 pp, £7.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 85635 263 2
Towards the end of Gavin Ewart’s delightful and comfortable volume there is a poem called ‘It’s hard to dislike Ewart’. Too true, as Clive James or Peter Porter might say, possibly with a certain wry exasperation. Generally speaking, our fondness and admiration for poets does go with a potential of patronage or dislike, a pleasure in our sense of the absurdities and vulnerabilities of their worlds – Keats blushing to the ears as he writes raptly about womens’ waists; Eliot going on about his delicate apprehension of time and God, not hoping to turn again, and so forth. Their greatness is intimate with a wholly personal existence, as touching and exposed as romance. Needless to say, Ewart is not like that.
Vol. 2 No. 19 · 2 October 1980
SIR: I was very pleased to be so favourably commented on by John Bayley in his review of The Collected Ewart 1933-1980 (LRB, 4 September). If I now write to correct one or two misconceptions, this is because I honour his piece as criticism and not just off-the-cuff reviewing. First, in the poem ‘It’s hard to dislike Ewart’ the speaker is the reviewer, not myself. He acts and speaks like a prep-school master (some reviewers do). ‘The Larkin Automatic Car Wash’ is a para-poem, not a parody. It uses the Larkin language and the Larkin style and the Larkin metre; it is about a journey, it has exactly the same number of stanzas, it ends with what might be called a ‘spiritual experience’. A parody always sets out to exaggerate the qualities or eccentricities of an original, with a humorous intention. There is no humorous intention here; this is a perfectly serious poem. The poem ‘Variation on a Theme of K. Amis’ is not a parody, or intended to be in Kingsley Amis’s style; it is exactly what it says it is, a variation on his poem now called ‘A Bookshop Idyll’, the theme being women’s verse. It comments on the domesticity of a lot of this in the early Sixties, when the poem was written, and on its religious tendencies (Elizabeth Jennings, Kathleen Raine being not far from my mind). Things have changed, and such a poem could not now, truthfully, be written.
Vol. 2 No. 21 · 6 November 1980
SIR: It would be a pity if your readers concluded from John Bayley’s somewhat perfunctory review of the Selected Poems and Prose of Michael Roberts (LRB, 4 September) that the prose was merely ancillary to the poetry. Even if we accept Professor Bayley’s assessment of the latter at its face value (which may be risky since he seems not even to know the title of the best-known anthology of modern verse), the prose selections, which in fact comprise four-fifths of the whole book, stand on their own feet. Nor do they by any means consist mainly of poetry reviews, as Professor Bayley seems to imply. In particular, they include several complete chapters from three of Michael Roberts’s main works – The Modern Mind, The Recovery of the West and The Estate of Man. Admittedly, single chapters taken out of context cannot hope to convey the scope or force of a whole book. And some books – including T.E. Hulme, which is in many ways Michael Roberts’s best – simply cannot, because of their subject or structure, be sampled in this way. But the great merit of all these books is precisely that they do measure up to Professor Bayley’s criterion – they ‘stand the test of time’. After a lapse of more than thirty years they remain both readable and very relevant to a wide range of our current concerns, social, moral and political. This is a lot more than can be said for other, and better-known, publicists of the period. I am sorry that Professor Bayley has not observed this for himself: perhaps he disapproves of chapters torn from books of which they are an integral part, and I would agree with him on this. But if so, the remedy is in his own hands. I recommend him, and readers of his review, to try in particular The Modern Mind and T.E. Hulme, if they can find them. No doubt he at least can get them from the Bodleian, but if not I would even, in so good a cause, be prepared to lend him mine. Messrs Faber and Faber could do everyone a service by putting all four of Michael Roberts’s books back into print, but meanwhile the volume under review is a welcome selection, which deserves more careful reading, and more space, than Professor Bayley was able to give it.
John Bayley writes: Michael Roberts is not an easy person for a reviewer to come to grips with, in the form in which Selected Poems and Prose presents him. Lawrence Airey allows that, but at the same time I think I do admit to having been unable to do the book justice, and I am glad he took the opportunity to argue the case for The Modern Mind and T.E. Hulme. I have myself in the past got something out of these books, but I incline to think that Roberts is the kind of writer (often a particularly interesting kind) who has a loyal following but who makes no special impact on other readers. I admit to belonging to the second class, and I was probably not the right person to review the selection. On this account I express my regrets to Lawrence Airey, and I hope he will continue to champion successfully the cause of a writer he believes in.