Diary

Stephen Spender

One day of early winter my friend D, arriving unexpectedly in London, telephoned to ask me to attend the funeral of someone I had never met or heard of – B, the 17-year-old son of a friend of his. He had flown from America for the funeral and to do all he could for the mother and stepfather of B, whom he regarded as a promising young artist and the most lively and intelligent boy he knew.

I gathered that some of B’s school friends, when they were ‘high’ on ‘mushrooms’ (fungi which schoolchildren find growing all over the place in large quantities), had gone into the Tube at four o’clock one morning, intending, for some reason, to board the first train that appeared. While they stood waiting on the platform, B’s companions suddenly realised that he had vanished. He had wandered off, down the line into the tunnel. He was run over and killed by an approaching train.

The funeral was at Kensal Green cemetery off the Harrow Road, a vast city of the dead which, like so many graveyards nowadays, seems itself to have died. It occurred to me, looking at it, that people used to keep the surroundings of their dead alive for them, but nowadays they let the cemetery die also. A road with footpaths leading from it runs through this macabre city, where, overgrown with weeds, there are the remains of quarters inhabited by the wealthy dead: monumental marble tombs looking all the grander for their dereliction, as do the crumbling rich quarters of bombed cities. Here are statues in marble or bronze, seated or standing, entrances through iron gratings into family vaults, with the names of the occupants chiselled above on stone panels. In another part of the cemetery are the slum quarters – crosses of rough stone, some of them leaning sideways, or upright stone slabs, or just oblongs of gravel enclosed by granite frames with name and epitaph inscribed at one end. Elsewhere there are new graves, with stones pushing up like teeth from under the grimy soil, on some of which there are jars with plastic flowers stuck in them, and a good deal of activity – hearses arriving, graves being dug and coffins being interred, as though to remind us that death, though closed down in most of the cemetery, is not an altogether dead industry. There is a superficial tidiness and brightness here, as though some superannuated caretaker still totters around tidying things up, to make some show of decency for fresh burials. Above the tops of gravestones and monuments, at the edge of the cemetery, there is an old-style gasometer, looking like some antique Cathedral of Early Industry with its dome surrounded by a coronet of wrought iron, and its vertical struts like narrow buttresses. Seen through a tangle of weeds and stones, it dominates its surroundings.

I had gone to the funeral because I thought I was asked in case there might be very few people present. I could not have been more wrong. There were hundreds of mourners: B’s school fellows, boys and girls in their late teens, and slightly older youths who looked as if they were members of pop groups.

We crowded into a small chapel with a Greek temple façade and an interior of dirty gray stone. At the far end – which was not very far – there was a hideous cough-lozenge-amber-coloured stained-glass window. The chapel seemed to have its own special cold clamminess, intenser than that of the cemetery. Some of the congregation were carrying instruments on which they occasionally played tunes (presumably B’s favourites) during the service. There were extraordinary-looking people: blacks with plaited and reefed hair; four girls, as like one another as quadruplets, all of them wearing bowler hats; a young man wearing what seemed to be a Chinese peasant’s hat, looking theatrical, as if a member of the chorus in Chu Chin Chow who had wandered in here. Several of the girls were crying. There was a feeling of astonished youthful heartbreak. B’s contemporaries seemed to be suffering from shock, as though lightning had fallen from the sky and struck him down. ‘This might have happened to any of us’ seemed to be written on their faces.

The officiating clergyman (whom I took to be a member of the staff of the school that B had attended) made an address in which he quoted Rupert Brooke: ‘in that rich earth a richer dust concealed’. In the circumstances I thought this rather inappropriate both to the company assembled and to the earth of the cemetery in which B was to be buried. But in fact the young seemed to be in a mood for receiving sermons, as if half-expecting some final revelation. After the service I walked away, while they trooped off to the house of an art dealer and – quite sensibly – got drunk.

Many years ago, when I first read Eliot’s book The Idea of a Christian Society I thought it a bit absurd of him to write (this was in 1939) that we were faced with the choice between living in a Christian and a pagan society. But today I feel convinced that we are moving – if we are not there already – towards a kind of neo-paganism. Eliot identified paganism with fascism (from which he was perhaps anxious to dissociate himself). I don’t think that today we can identify it with nationalist politics or totalitarianism as such, or with the organisation of societies. It is anti-organisational. Paganism today is a matter of individuals, a very great number of them – millions even – who are pagans. They indulge in hallucinatory drugs. (What food did the satyrs eat? Answer – mushrooms.) They belong to exotic cults or form communes under the guidance of some hypnotic leader. They work themselves up into states of dithyrambic frenzy. They go in for cults dividing their members from the rest of humanity (Women’s Lib, Gay Lib, Black Liberation etc, etc).

Probably all this is inevitable in a world threatened at every moment by inhuman powers of destruction invented by human beings. Millions of individuals wish to withdraw from the society in which they live. Most, of course, do still belong to organisations set up by that society – the high proportion of American soldiers in Vietnam who were drug addicts, the many Russians who are alcoholics. Just as a neurosis may be not merely the symptom of an illness but also, in itself, an attempt to cure that illness, so the drop-outs from our society, whose symptoms are covered by what I call paganism, may, consciously or unconsciously, be both symptom and attempted cure of a society organised for total destruction.

In early March I spent a festive weekend in Devon staying near Tiverton at Ted Hughes’s rambling farmhouse. The house was full of poets, for the purpose of the weekend was to judge Sotheby’s International Poetry Competition held in support of the Arvon Foundation, and we were the judges: Basil Bunting, Gwendoline Brooks, Adrian Mitchell, George Barker and myself.

I feel vaguely paranoid about any poets but those of my own generation (all dead except for Empson and myself) and was delighted at how well we all got on together. ‘King of the Cats’ (to use Yeats’s phrase about himself), to whom we all paid homage, was Basil Bunting, now in his eighties, who wrote his masterpiece, Briggflatts, at the age of 65 on returning to the North of England, after many years of adventurous Middle Eastern wanderings. He told stories that held us spellbound. With his domed head, beard, glittering eyes under Mephistophelean eyebrows, Basil Bunting has the buccaneering look of one who has sailed a bâteau ivre through oceans of poetry and arrived in port. I envy him.

Of the 33,000 poems submitted there were only about five lines that Basil Bunting – harking back to the crystalline standards of Pound and Eliot’s generation – approved. We spent two days making a final selection of 100 poems and then selecting the 30 prize-winners from these. In London I had spent a week reading 3,000 semi-finalist poems. One thing that struck me was the large number – many of them, I guessed, emanating from writing schools in North America – which had a high level of mechanical efficiency and nothing to distinguish one from another. Railroad rhythm, photographic imagery evoking log cabins, haversacked love affairs and blazing twigs: if huskies could type, this is what they might produce. Someone once described the poems of the late Oscar (not to be confused with William Carlos) Williams as ‘poems written by a typewriter on a typewriter’ – Oscar Williams must be one of the great influences in contemporary poetry.

In England and America there are, I suppose, at most five to ten thousand readers of poetry, but there are at least six times that number who write it. Most poetry apprentices in creative-writing courses in America would never dream of reading any poetry except their own and their fellow students’. They write. To ask them to read is as much an insult as it would be for the host, in the middle of a dinner-party, to ask the guests to go into the kitchen and wash up the dishes. I remember saying to my pupil Miss Schloss: ‘Miss Schloss, I suggest you might read the poems of Robert Frost.’ Miss Schloss drew herself up and said in a piercingly reproachful voice: ‘I don’t read, I write, Mr Spender.’

I nearly ruined the afternoon of one of my poet colleagues by mentioning the name of one of his contemporaries (a charming fellow, I thought) who, as well as being a poet, reviews volumes of poetry. Reviewing and being reviewed is the sad commedia of poets. We pinpoint other poets in their respective places in Inferno, or Purgatorio, like Dante committing his contemporaries to the appropriate circles. And we ourselves get pinpointed. In every generation there are a few who seem secure in Paradiso: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Auden – all pins seemed to fly past them pointlessly. Just before my own generation – so it seemed to me when I was an undergraduate – there was a generation – of writers for whom a bad review qualified as undiluted praise. The writers were Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf. The reviewers were J.C. Squire, Gerald Gould, Desmond McCarthy: critics of such iron-plated opaque insensibility to modern literature that praise from them could only harm, attack only promote. In the early Thirties there arose a new generation of reviewers whose critical standards were derived from those writers attacked by the previous generation. The realm of poetry reviewing was divided between two great arbiters of taste – opponents, it is true, but each supreme in his own sphere of respected judgment – F.R. Leavis on Mount Scrutiny, Geoffrey Grigson on Mount New Verse. From that time until today, the poets (all excepting Auden in his Heaven) have been in the position of soldiers wandering across a plain between fortresses, liable to be shot down in the cross-fire. In the Leavis/Grigson and post-Leavis/Grigson era there is always the possibility that the reviewer may be right, no guarantee that his blame is praise. All the same, there is no guarantee that he is right either, as one may confirm by looking up old numbers of Scrutiny or New Verse. The truth is that critics – even good ones – deal, as lawyers do, in precedents. They may be quite right about the past yet unreliable about the present.