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.
It isn’t possible to dislike him, just because on those terms of art there is nothing there to dislike. Beside Ewart, Byron, and Kingsley Amis, look like shy dreamers, confiding in the reader their sense of themselves as essentially regular fellows, but doing it in such a way that he can look down on them for it, or at least patronise. Keats sighed to write what he thought Byron wrote: ‘poems that cannot be laughed at in any way’. Touching, but how wrong he was. Ewart knows just how wrong. ‘It’s hard to dislike Ewart’ was the comment of a reviewer in the New Review, and the poem shows, with the kind of grim undemonstrative intelligence the novels of Anthony Powell know well how to reveal in horsey men, military men or men in bars (one of his characters called Odo Stevens writes Ewart-type poems), just how much Ewart as a poet owes to his attitude to other poets.
I always try to dislike my poets,
it’s good for them, they get so uppity otherwise,
going around thinking they’re little geniuses –
but sometimes I find it hard. They’re so pathetic
in their efforts to be liked.
He compares them to schoolchildren wheedling: ‘Sir! Oh sir! May I walk with you, Sir?’
There’s too much sucking up and trying to be clever.
They must all learn they’ll never get round me.
Other poets are there to be made use of, especially their metres. Kipling is handy –
The Gods of the Copybook Headings treat even Good Writers with scorn,
They don’t reckon much with our weddings and how many children were born
– and so are Horace, Charles Kingsley, Dryden, Tennyson – Locksley Hall bursts into new ebullience, together with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And then, per contra, we have some ingenious and penetrating little lyric about the oddities of life, in a style that Gay or Prior would recognise. The chancellor’s nightmare song out of Iolanthe is pressed into service at least twice, and a version of McGonagall’s mighty line comes in handy for most run-of-the-mill purposes. But this toughness of use is misleading, like much in Ewart; really he worships other poets, especially Auden, and his poem ‘On the Tercentenary of Milton’s Death’ is a celebration of two poets, Milton’s splendours hymned in Auden’s best manner. Auden’s assumption that all great verse is light verse, though true, is not true quite in the manner that Ewart would wish it to be. However light, it must have an inside, the inside of the poet. Ewart prefers to show his affection for, and understanding of, the insides of other poets.
On this basis, masterpieces crop up at all periods – my favourite is an early one, ‘The English Wife’ – but the most singular and most effective poem in the whole collection is a parody of Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ called ‘The Larkin Automatic Car Wash’. Like all good parodies, it is not only an act of homage but a precision instrument revealing the full capabilities and depth of its subject. For one thing, it shows how inseparable the magic of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is from the art of its metre, the short line after the first in each stanza, suited equally to emphasis or afterthought, the cunningly conscientious, almost invisible rhymes.
The hard-on handbrake, thought of switchback rides
And how the effect in childhood was the same –
Momentary fear that gathered to collect
In joy of safety. The tall half-children screamed –
The girls at least –
Delighted to be frightened, as it seemed
By this mechanical, otherworldly beast.
The boys made usual, window-opening, jokes.
But soon, tide-turning, the brushes travelled back.
Put our imaginations in reverse,
Though we were still. Like cigarettes and cokes
This was their slight excitement, took up slack
In time that wound by, idle. Nothing worse
And nothing better. To me it seemed so short,
I wanted more,
I wanted hours, I wanted to be caught
In that dense undergrowth by that wet shore.
This was an exit from our boring life,
A changed environment, another place,
A hideout from the searchers. Otherness
Was that world’s commonplace, a kitchen knife,
Something so usual that it had no face –
As the car dripped unnatural cleanliness.
Ewart is onto the inner flavour of Larkin’s otherness, but, more than that, the poem reveals – by tacitly acknowledging an absence of the personality in its seriousness – the wry joke at the heart of ‘Whitsun Weddings’:
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side ...
The inside of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ in fact reverses Larkinian otherness: the joke is moving because it sees otherness just where it cannot exist – in the domestic. Marriage for Larkin is taken here as an instant and magical passport to otherness, a spell with a danger of death which, like all spells, sets you apart, privileged inhabitant of an enchanted landscape from which other landscapes can be watched. Larkin’s train-fellows achieve otherness for him by having entered into the most commonplace of human arrangements.
‘Variation on a theme of K. Amis’ brings out a similar, though more obvious point about that novelist’s poems, and his deft misogyny:
Perhaps words come to women too easily,
Pouring out regardless like coffee or tea
Or like the uncritical fountains in Renaissance palaces?
Nobody values what is given away free.
Ewart’s normality, his lack of an inside, goes not only with the ability to turn his hand to anything, poetry-wise, but with his continual casual references to wife and children, objects in his life which his poetry can rightly make nothing of, although Lowell and Berryman, in their obsessive way, made so much of them. So at least one would think. Dryden also would never bother us, we suppose, with his personal affections, however continuously witty he is on the subject of sex: but then he suddenly produces a most moving little poem about his feelings for a friend. So Ewart surprises us, in a ‘sonnet’ called ‘How life too is Sentimental’, by relating how his small son picked up a cross-infection in hospital, and was maybe at the point of death.
Most poets make use of their feelings automatically by turning them into poetry. Here the observation is not turned into poetry and does not move us as poetry does. His perfectly ordinary undetached statement about his feelings comes, somewhat as it does in Dryden, as an enlightening surprise, and just as the series of witty poems about sex – the purple penises and panties round the ankles – was beginning to pall.
Michael Roberts, editor of the original Faber Book of Modern Poetry, was also a poet, but it seems unlikely that his own poems will be remembered, Time, as Auden pointed out, worships language and forgives everyone by whom it lives, but is apt to be indifferent to uprightness, good sense and decency, qualities which Roberts obviously possessed in large measure. Eliot, a friend who clearly valued these qualities much in Roberts, put the matter with characteristic diplomacy by writing, when Roberts died in 1948, that he had ‘an aptitude for wisdom’, and that ‘the recognition of wisdom is often more delayed than the recognition of striking original genius.’ We can recognise it in this volume, but I doubt whether that will be enough to preserve it for posterity, though the compilation of the volume itself is an act of piety and devotion that does credit to the editor, Frederick Grubb, and to the Carcanet Press. Roberts was clearly an admirable man, a fine teacher and influence for good, and his contemporary reviews, particularly of Eliot and Empson, were sensible and perceptive. But good reviews are no more likely to stand the test of time than is worthy poetry.