Omdamniverous

Ian Sansom

  • Injury Time: A Memoir by D.J. Enright
    Pimlico, 183 pp, £12.50, May 2003, ISBN 1 84413 315 X

This is the end of something – although of what exactly it’s not quite clear. The death of D.J. Enright, in December 2002, makes one ask some serious questions about poets and about critics. To put it bluntly: there will be no more books from Dennis Enright. Does it matter? Should we be sad? Should we be bothered?

Writing in the LRB just over twenty years ago, the near-omniscient Donald Davie pre-empted these questions and delivered a cruel judgment. Davie was reviewing Enright’s Collected Poems, and was both pertinent and impertinent in his comments, a combination characteristic both of petty gods and of literary critics trained in the Leavis and the Eliot manner, in whom the insistence on apparently high standards and high seriousness often produces outbursts of scorn that detract from anything serious they might want to say. As soon as you’ve raised your voice, one sometimes wishes to remind these great undead vorpal sword-wielders, you’ve lost the argument. Utmost power knows when to stay its hand.

Davie began his review with a typically vicious thrust. In 1957, ‘reviewing Enright’s Bread Rather than Blossoms . . . I exhorted him to remember “the deeper reaches (and so the deeper humanity) of the art he practises”. I wish I saw clearer evidence, now his Collected Poems is before us, that he noticed this exhortation, or thought it worth attending to.’ Anyone who has ever listened to the pettish loons who inhabit Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, or who has read Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), will be familiar with this sort of self-regarding fury. ‘I should like to think,’ Davie ominously begins a sentence in Purity of Diction, ‘that this study might help some practising poet to a poetry of urbane and momentous statement.’ Like most practising poets, Enright did not take Davie’s advice, and so inevitably he remained in the shadows, and in the shallows, and all of the patriarchal Davie’s dismal expectations were gloriously met: Enright was not momentous. In fact, according to Davie, he wasn’t even minor. He was a weakling. He was a lightweight. He had retreated into humour – a sure sign of the second-rater. He had swallowed his bile, and had neither given offence, nor taken offence. Indeed, Davie frowned, Enright was afflicted with that worst of all possible vices, the determination to be ‘always entertaining’: not a determination shared by Davie. Enright’s sense of ‘civic and moral responsibility’, furthermore, according to Davie, was ‘excessive’. Pausing in his review only to wipe blood from his sword, Davie admits that Enright is ‘deeply humane, indeed humanitarian’ – but ‘too much so, if not for his own good, for the good of his art’. The poor fella had it coming to him. (Enright was a pretty savage reviewer in his youth himself – who isn’t? – so he probably wasn’t too bothered.)

Davie’s is an assault rather than an argument, but his brutal dismissal of Enright and his oeuvre does make one wonder not just ‘What on earth was wrong with Donald Davie?’ but, to be honest: ‘Doesn’t his victim perhaps deserve it?’ A victim, any victim, of gods or states or reviewers, can bring out the worst in us, because no matter how hard we try we just can’t believe in cold, brute, unfeeling nature, and we can’t get over our need for explanation, and for cause and effect: I mean, don’t they somehow deserve it, all those destitute, and the homeless, and the lightweights? Aren’t they asking for it? Didn’t Davie have a point? Shouldn’t we be grateful to him? Wasn’t D.J. Enright really just another failure, someone else to knock down and write off, and forget about in the long march to righteousness? There’s a long answer to this last and simple question, but for those who are so pressed for time, like Donald Davie, that they can only be bothered with the momentous, I’ll let Enright himself summarise, in words from ‘Saying No’, a poem which appeared in the appropriately titled collection Some Men Are Brothers (1960):

Some virtue here, in this speech-stupefied inane,
To keep it short.
However cumbrous, puffed and stretched the pain –
To say no more than, No.
Virtue (or only decency) it would have been, But – no.
I dress that death’s-head, all too plain, too clean,
With lots of pretty lengths of saying, No.

And yet. In one fundamental regard, Davie was perfectly correct. During the course of his review, he accuses Enright of not really writing poetry at all, and he’s right, Enright did not write poetry and was not a poet in the sense that Davie or Eliot or Leavis might have demanded. What one values in Enright’s work is not the rich, thick cadence, or the finely wrought phrase, Davie’s ‘chaste’ diction, or Leavis’s ‘stress of cerebral muscle’, the mise-en-page or the rhyme scheme, not the seven types of ambiguity, or the polysemy, the difficulty, the profound wrenchings of syntax and grammar, and the resulting one or two or half-dozen outstanding poems so brilliant and dense that they take their place alongside the vast, canonical works hung like standards in ivory towers and properly appreciated only by the deeply serious and morally sensitive, whose happy task it then is to offer long unsmiling guided tours of the silken masterworks to us lesser mortals, and to 18-year-old undergraduates. No. Enright was not a poet like that. He was more interested in communicating clearly with people than in showing off his ingenuity, although of course all communication, even when base and ungenerous, is ingenious: reviewers can be ingenious. Perhaps the problem is simply a matter of names and titles, which are always necessary, for salaries and the Waterstone’s store directory. G.M. Trevelyan once claimed that he was a man of letters disguised as a don. D.J. Enright was a poet who was really an enthusiast. And enthusiasm is inter-departmental.

If this is granted, I think it’s possible to begin properly to value and to make sense of Enright’s poems, which do admittedly sometimes sound like recordings of background noise, the mere thrummings of an intelligent mind. They rarely rise to memorable solo, except perhaps in the poem sequence The Terrible Shears (1973), Enright’s record of his 1920s working-class childhood, a loving portrait of a lost world, done in mezzotint:

We had to keep our coal out at the back;
They wouldn’t give us a bath.
I wondered why the Lotus Position seemed familiar –
It was how we crouched in the copper on bath night.

(‘Little Buddhas’)

This contrast of nostalgia and absurdity, of pathos and bathos, of self-indulgence and astringency, a pretty accurate depiction of what we might, for want of a better word, call ‘life’, is what makes Enright a poet worth reading. There’s another short poem from The Terrible Shears called ‘Happiness’:

Yes, of course there were happy times,
It was not a succession of disasters.
(Once we went to Weston-super-Mare: the sea
Had apparently retreated to Leamington.)
The happiness you must take as read,
The writing of it is so difficult.

This is typical Enright; it’s folk wisdom, really. It’s Enright explaining and apologising for the absence in his work of great heights and vistas, of the sublime and the extraordinary, and thereby making a bid for the reader’s indulgence and appreciation. It is intimate and generous almost to the point of being solicitous, exactly the kind of gesture and play that Davie despised. We all admire work which mounts its high horse, or takes the high road, or seizes the moral high ground, and which takes itself utterly seriously and announces its own seriousness. If as a writer you decide to take the low road, if you understand writing as an aspect of wise living, and poems not as some vanguard or pinnacle, but as a part of some larger and more important story, you’re obviously going to disappoint the high priests of high culture. You are probably going to appear cosy and comfortable. But then again, people might like what you do and want to read your books. It’s a tough call.

In Injury Time: A Memoir, Enright overcomes this dilemma, the temptation to become either the oppugnant outsider or the down-home populist, via the traditional method, by becoming the fond curmudgeon. He managed the same in two previous books, Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995) and Play Resumed: A Journal (1999) – both of them quite unclassifiable and, like Injury Time, note, not books of poems. For someone nearing the end of his life – Enright was born in 1920 – there were probably other things to worry about than metre and lineation. When you’re about to be end-stopped yourself you’re probably not going to be too concerned about enjambment; you’re probably going to have questions of eternal enjambment on your mind. In this final trilogy of books, then, Enright relinquished the pretensions of the poet and spoke clearly in his own voice. These last musings are his most achieved work, in which he gives himself over fully to his preoccupations and faces up to what was always his abiding theme: death.

Enright seems to have lived a good and truly lively life, writing poetry and novels, children’s books and criticism, living and working in Japan, Germany, Singapore, Thailand, Egypt and England even, but he was always most alive to death. His first proper book of verse, The Laughing Hyena and Other Poems (1953), contained the poems ‘First Death’, ‘The Afterlife’, ‘Death in the South’ and ‘On the Death of a Child’. And there were plenty more where they came from – elegies, misgivings, in memoriams, remembrances. Then he had his A Faust Book (1979), and Paradise Illustrated (1978), and he edited the Oxford Book of Death (1983), that ultimate anthology. One might therefore perhaps describe his last books as a summing-up of a lifetime’s summing-ups. They are, to borrow a wry phrase of Enright’s own from Injury Time, ‘Important Papers’:

Once again I pull out a large old envelope marked ‘Important Papers’, containing my will, birth certificate, marriage certificate, national insurance and health service numbers, share certificates relating to a small bankrupt publishing house (kept as a souvenir), an Equitable Life policy, a testimonial from F.R. Leavis dated 1946, and a letter from L.C. Knights regretting that he couldn’t act as a referee since my published work mostly concerned German literature, a subject with which he was less than intimate – and place it conspicuously in the centre of my desk.

Conspicuously at the centre of Enright’s desk, and at the centre of Injury Time, are other people’s writings, which are what seem always to have amused him and stimulated him, and made him want to write in the first place. Charles Olson once wrote of Melville that ‘he read to write,’ which is a profound tribute: it’s certainly better than writing to be read. One of the reasons we enjoy reading Enright is because we want to know what he’s been reading – Pascal and Robert Musil mostly, it seems, towards the end of his life. But then again he read everything. He was omdamniverous. To read Enright reading is to read about history, and literature, and newspaper headlines, and pamphlets from Indian takeaways. Within a couple of paragraphs in Injury Time, he moves from Yeats to David Beckham to Dame Gillian Beer – consummations devoutly to be desired. He is consistently pleasantly unpredictable, in the way that, say, E.B. White was consistently pleasantly unpredictable, or perhaps Alastair Cooke delivering his weekly Letter from America. Picking up a copy of the New Yorker some time in the mid-parts of the last century, you could never have been sure whether White was going to be writing about the birds outside his window or Soviet show-trials. Tuning in to Radio 4 on a Friday night you never know whether you’re going to be hearing about golf, or rap, or Nixon, or Lincoln. And with Injury Time you can never predict from one page to the next whether Enright’s going to be writing about Proust or the state of the NHS. In Injury Time, as in injury time, the game’s almost up, but still anything can happen. It’s all to play for.

Enright was preoccupied in his writing with one central question, a question all the more remarkable because it doesn’t seem centrally to preoccupy everyone, not even all writers, who one might have expected to have had a vested interest. What, Enright seems always to be asking, does it mean to be human? Well, what it means most obviously is that we’re all going to die. But what else? Money? Sex? Power? Enright, of course, in his last things, touches on them all. ‘To have gone through a lifetime believing that money wasn’t everything – and then finding it is. A bit much.’ ‘“I am worn out with dreams”: W.B. Yeats. A ridiculous idea! As for sex – you must be dreaming!’ Questions of power and powerlessness are translated, as often in Enright, into questions about religion: ‘People had a strange feeling that they were more than they seemed, or could be better than they were. And so religion came into the world. Now religion is going out of the world, our world. We understand that we are less than we seem, and can easily be worse than we possibly are.’

There is an improvisatory nature to such comments and remarks, a lightness of touch and a lightness of tone, which is what Davie disliked and distrusted in Enright, and which is exactly what others might like and admire. It is surely a talent and a skill worth celebrating, to seem so relaxed and natural and so much oneself, but Enright was rightly sceptical of even this modest claim to fame: parts of Injury Time are taken up with expressions of bemusement at people getting his name wrong; B.J. Enfield, for example. One wonders what D. Davie would have made of being mistaken for Dickie Davies, or Leavis for Beavis.

Enright enjoyed his irks. He simply could not be solemn, although he could be serious, which is probably what made him such a good critic. His first published work of criticism was a commentary on Goethe’s Faust, published in Scrutiny in 1945, but he was never a professional Germanist and most of the rest of his great mass of wide-ranging essays and criticism, collected in The Apothecary’s Shop (1957), Conspirators and Poets (1966), Man Is an Onion (1972), A Mania for Sentences (1983), The Alluring Problem (1986) and Fields of Vision (1988), took the form of reviews, and could easily be dismissed as impressionistic. We have come so much to identify solemnity with seriousness and seriousness with specialisation that we can hardly accept or recognise that good humour, modesty, generosity and enthusiasm – all things that we value in human beings – can have any high value in art. And yet when we think we’re being most clever is often when we’re being most hideously petty. Enright rose above it all with extraordinary sense.

In Injury Time Enright says that he hates reviewers who sound like ‘inferior blurb-writers’, so I’ll try not to demean myself or him by saying that the book is wonderful or any of that other twaddle, and anyway his reputation is now secure, because in death, inevitably, he becomes a national treasure. ‘Only the mad and the dying,’ as he put it, ‘have the run of the establishment.’ He certainly wouldn’t have thanked us for getting maudlin or over-excited. ‘Death,’ he writes in Injury Time, ‘is undoubtedly the most noteworthy action of a person’s life. But don’t kid yourself that the whole universe is taking note, or that the gods above are working themselves up over it.’ So save your tears and learn the lesson. Prepare to die.