The Collected Ewart 1933-1980 
by Gavin Ewart.
Hutchinson, 412 pp., £10, June 1980, 0 09 141000 2
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Selected Poems and Prose 
by Michael Roberts, edited by Frederick Grubb.
Carcanet, 205 pp., £7.95, June 1980, 0 85635 263 2
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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.

                                                    I checked
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.

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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.

Gavin Ewart
London SW15

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.

Lawrence Airey
Coulsdon, Surrey

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.

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