Self-Positioning

Stefan Collini

  • The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and Their Contemporaries edited by Zachary Leader
    Oxford, 336 pp, £18.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 955825 4

Craig Raine recalls that when the former chairman of Faber, Charles Monteith, encountered the suggestion that one of Philip Larkin’s poems was indebted to Théophile Gautier, he was ‘incredulous’. To Monteith, the idea that Larkin might have been influenced by a foreign poet was ‘ludicrous’. ‘He had fallen,’ Raine comments, ‘for the propaganda – Larkin’s bluff, insular, faux-xenophobic self-caricature.’

Compound terms using ‘self-’ often raise questions about agency and responsibility. When we speak of ‘self-criticism’ or ‘self-restraint’, we are calling on ideas of dividedness, where the ‘self’ that is doing the criticising or restraining is in some sense more sophisticated or more knowing, as well as more in command, than the ‘self’ that is being criticised or restrained. But when we talk about being ‘self-revealing’ or ‘self-destructive’, the ‘self’ in question is precisely not in control of the process. More victim than agent, the ‘self’ in these cases is unknowing, unwitting; the behaviour involved is something that people, as we say, end up doing ‘despite themselves’.

Raine obviously intends ‘self-caricature’ to be understood as an example of the first of these categories. Larkin, he is suggesting, knew what he was doing: ‘propaganda’ is something deliberately put about in order to persuade or mislead. The poet, we are invited to conclude, may have chosen to appear bluff, insular and faux-xenophobic (or just xenophobic), but he wasn’t really like that, or at least there was a lot more to him than that, and the ‘more’ included the subtler, knowing self who was responsible for designing the propaganda in the first place.

There is, however, an ambiguity lurking in the phrase ‘self-caricature’ which threatens to destabilise this comfortable conclusion. When we say of someone ‘he’s becoming a caricature of himself,’ we are, pointedly, not crediting him with masterminding a cunning disguise or raising a smokescreen; we are regarding his behaviour as out of control. In addition, we are suggesting that the characteristics causing our distaste or disapproval are not arbitrary or unprecedented: they are intensifications of qualities that have long been part of that individual’s personality and social identity. (This is the sense in which it is said that as we become older we all become caricatures of ourselves.) So ‘self-caricature’ can be doubly threatening to our idea of conscious agency, both because it may be partly involuntary and because the direction it takes is already in some sense laid down. The most that can be said, and it is Larkin who said it, is that

    in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear.

Much of our response not just to Larkin but to Movement writers more generally turns on the question of how we construe the process of ‘self-caricature’. There is much about their writing and behaviour, that of Larkin and his close friend Kingsley Amis in particular, which contemporary sensibility finds parochial, conservative and sometimes offensive. For some years now, condemning these writers has been a means of affirming one’s credentials as progressive and internationalist, as pro or post but definitely not anti-modernist, of being right-on in one way or another. But there is always the suspicion that to respond this way is to fall into a cunningly designed heffalump trap, a spectacle witnessed with rowdy delight by the shades of Larkin and Amis, drinks in hand. For it could be said that their critics had, like Monteith, ‘fallen for the propaganda’ and failed to recognise the elements of ‘self-caricature’. Or – the question swings back – is this to credit Larkin and company with too much self-awareness and too much choice? Should we not emphasise, rather, the blind impress that, despite their knowingness, all their behavings bear?

Labels may be necessary in literary history, but they are also a great source of bother. From the outset, there has been incessant dispute over whether such a group as ‘the Movement’ ever existed, what its members were supposed to have in common, who belonged and who didn’t, and so on. Many commentators have been tempted to concur with Thom Gunn’s later weariness: ‘The whole business looks now like a lot of categorising foolishness.’ Yet it is a label that has stuck, at once serviceable and misleading, much as we still speak of ‘the Metaphysicals’ or ‘the Georgians’ before immediately moving on to deny any strong notion of group identity. In the case of the Movement, the success and longevity of the term probably have as much to do with the social history of postwar Britain as with poetic practice more narrowly conceived.

The story has no single starting point, but it is, as usual, easier to identify the date of the christening than the conception. In the early 1950s, there had been several attempts, by participants and observers alike, to identify a new tendency in contemporary writing, before, on 1 October 1954, J.D. Scott, the literary editor of the Spectator, published (anonymously) a leading article entitled ‘In the Movement’. Modern Britain, Scott argued, was emancipating itself from the old social hierarchies of the prewar years, and this new spirit was finding expression in a literature that deliberately distanced itself from the hitherto dominant styles of modernism and Bloomsbury, as well as from the more recent New Romanticism of 1940s poetry. Younger writers, taking their tone from Orwell as well as from Leavis and Empson, were adopting tougher attitudes and plainer idioms. ‘The Movement,’ Scott wrote, launching the capitalised noun on its successful career, ‘as well as being anti-phoney, is anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic, prepared to be as comfortable as possible.’

Although literary journalism was the medium through which this new literary tendency was identified and brought to wider public attention, its defining genre was the anthology. Poets of the 1950s, edited by D.J. Enright, appeared in 1955, followed a year later by New Lines, edited by Robert Conquest. Enright’s volume contained work by eight poets: Robert Conquest, D.J. Enright, Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, John Holloway, Elizabeth Jennings, Philip Larkin and John Wain, to which list Conquest’s volume added the name of Thom Gunn. Insofar as there has ever been agreement on the matter, the Movement has been taken to consist of these nine writers. They appeared in these anthologies as poets, but some of them, in particular Amis and Wain, were already becoming better known as novelists, while others, such as Davie, Enright and Holloway, went on to make a greater mark as critics.

Since it was challenging the old metropolitan literary elite and repudiating the authority of (European) high culture and (international) high modernism, the new generation of writers was taken to represent not just an emphatically English identity but, within that, a ‘provincial’ perspective. In terms of geographical family origins, this was not wholly inaccurate, but it rather underplayed these writers’ links with the institutions of established cultural power. All of them were Oxbridge-educated, and enjoyed significant patronage from the BBC and the smart London weeklies. In the early 1950s, before they were at all well known, most of them had work published in the Listener and the New Statesman, and Blake Morrison calculated (in his 1980 study of the group, The Movement) that between June 1953 and July 1956 ‘there were over 240 Movement contributions to the Spectator.’

Almost immediately after the putative group identity was established, the denials and defections began. Although ties of friendship and some shared literary tastes remained, scarcely any of these writers thought of themselves as members of such a group by the early 1960s, and with the benefit of several decades’ worth of hindsight, it is easier to see how their increasingly divergent later trajectories involved the working-out of dissimilarities that were present from the start. Gunn, for example, was always a little awkwardly placed in this company, even in the early 1950s when some genuine poetic affinities were discernible. His emigration to California in the mid-1950s and his later poetry’s experiments with syllabics (as well as its celebratory explorations of gay sex) increased this sense of distance. Something similar might be said, on a smaller scale, of Jennings, whose Catholicism and metaphysical yearnings quickly came to seem at odds with the supposed style of Movement writers. Holloway, never a central figure, soon drifted away and became better known as an academic. Enright, already marked out by his Scrutineering past, also pursued a university teaching career, in his case largely abroad. Conquest was a hybrid: somewhat older than the others, he didn’t fit any of the social stereotypes – he was from a wealthier, part-American background, and a Wykehamist to boot – and after working in the diplomatic service moved to the United States and wrote a series of books denouncing the Soviet Union. Wain corresponded to the identikit picture of a Movement writer better than any of these, and, having enjoyed early success with his 1953 novel, Hurry On Down, continued to publish fiction and criticism and to polemicise vigorously on behalf of traditional forms and plain sense, casting himself as a latter-day Dr Johnson. But time has not been kind to Wain’s reputation: he still has his admirers, but in scholarly circles his role as a minor cultural broker in the 1950s now seems to be regarded as his apogee.

That leaves three very considerable literary talents as the core of the group: Larkin, Amis and Davie. Davie may be a rather neglected figure these days – essays that combine close reading with a somewhat stiff-backed Nonconformist Protestantism don’t commend themselves to either academic or lay readers now – but for a while his critical prose constituted a kind of scholarly manifesto for Movement writing. He was a more intellectually restless figure than the others, indeed a more intellectual figure tout court, and by the early 1960s he was writing trenchant critiques of the literary manner he and his erstwhile associates were alleged to have cultivated (trenchant was Davie’s natural mode). For this and other reasons, the later reputation of the Movement came to rest almost entirely on the standing of Larkin and Amis. They were not innocents in these matters, of course. Reflecting in the mid-1970s on the recent anthologies edited by his friend and himself, Larkin could not resist self-satisfaction: ‘We shall have stamped our taste on the age between us in the end.’

But the age had ideas of its own about that, and the literary and cultural tides were already running against what was increasingly identified as a distinctively 1950s sensibility. The new generation of poets, dominated by the Big H brands (Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney), were prosodically and thematically more ambitious. And the cultural mood of the later decades of the 20th century was not indulgent to the perceived misogyny and Little Englandism of Larkin and Amis when biographies and editions of their correspondence began to appear in the 1990s. Their double act as ‘old misery-guts and Jack-the-lad’ didn’t encourage appreciative and discriminating reading of their work. Even the cooler idiom of literary history now registered that work’s diminished standing. In his volume of the Oxford English Literary History covering the period 1960-2000 (published in 2004), Randall Stevenson complained of what he saw as the Movement’s parochialism and unadventurousness, and lamented ‘the extent and longevity of its influence over English poetry in the decades that followed’.

As all this indicates, the ground which Zachary Leader and his platoon of contributors are attempting to occupy in The Movement Reconsidered has been much fought over. One of the chief strengths of the many good essays in this collection lies in their cutting through these adventitious polemics to read the poetry with fresh attention, and the result is to make the writing, especially Larkin’s, Gunn’s and, in parts, Davie’s, seem more interesting than its now stereotyped reputation allows.

The contributors fall into three main groups: the poet-critics (Blake Morrison, Craig Raine, James Fenton, Alan Jenkins, Clive Wilmer), the academics (Nicholas Jenkins, Terry Castle, Colin McGinn, Deborah Cameron, Deborah Bowman, William Pritchard, Eric Homberger, Michael O’Neill, Rachel Buxton) and the memoirists (Karl Miller, Anthony Thwaite, Robert Conquest), though several of them can lay claim to more than one of these identities. Varied though the essays are in both approach and theme, certain emphases recur. Perhaps the most interesting, urged by several of the poet-critics in particular, involves acknowledging what is half-buried under the world-weary or tough-guy personae. Morrison, for example, brooding on the difference between Amis and Larkin as poets, observes parenthetically: ‘Whereas Amis the poet writes what he knows, with confidence, and that’s what makes him a light verse poet, Larkin yearns for what he doesn’t know, and that’s what makes him a Romantic.’ Similarly, Raine remarks: ‘We think Larkin is the unromantic, l’homme moyen sensuel, undeceived. But he is romantic. This yearning always gets under the wire, under the wary radar.’ A generation or more ago, calling Larkin a Romantic might have seemed perverse, but the attentiveness with which Morrison, Raine and their fellow poets listen to the yearning underlying Larkin’s stagey bleakness earns them the right to apply the label.

This theme emerges in a different way in Fenton’s reading of Amis’s poetry, a bravura performance which asks why so much prohibition and denial are so truculently thrust at the reader: is it that urges to which Amis fears he may himself be prey are being outlawed here? Fenton reminds us of the strikingly uncynical conclusion to one of Amis’s best-known poems, ‘A Bookshop Idyll’, about trying to

       forget those times
  We sat up half the night
Chockful of love, crammed with bright
      thoughts, names, rhymes,
  And couldn’t write.

A quieter but wonderfully sure-footed appreciation of Gunn by Alan Jenkins extends this argument. Jenkins is alert to the formal resemblances to other Movement writers in Gunn’s early work, but he reminds us that Gunn never really shared the ‘reasonable, pubbable register’ of early Amis and Larkin (‘not so much a man speaking to men as a chap speaking to chaps’), and he is responsive to Gunn’s responsiveness to a wider world, both sexually and geographically. Among other illustrations, he turns to Gunn’s ‘Tamer and Hawk’ from his 1954 collection Fighting Terms, a poem which ends:

You but half-civilise,
Taming me in this way.
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.

Jenkins adduces the Yeatsian and Shakespearian presences in the poem, but concludes convincingly: ‘it is Donne who sponsors the conceit, and the poem’s relish for the paradoxes of falling in love: the willing submission to another, the loss of freedom that is experienced as freedom, the relinquishing of self-possession in the greater cause of possessing and being possessed.’ On Jenkins’s showing, the complex delights of love and desire are captured even in early, not always explicitly homosexual, poems by Gunn in tones that are more winning than either the sweaty frustration associated with Larkin or the coarse instrumentalism paraded by Amis.

It might have been helpful to have a separate essay on the rewriting of literary history entailed in the Movement’s reaction against both modernism and New Romanticism, and this would have been the place to do justice to two influential books by Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952) and Articulate Energy (1955), with their positive revaluing of, in particular, hitherto minor 18th-century poets (though there are some astute remarks in Clive Wilmer’s sympathetic discussion of Davie). Several of the essays contain sharp thinking about literary forebears, especially Yeats, Auden and Empson. Some of the most illuminating juxtapositions involve the work of the poet whom both Davie and Larkin explicitly evoked as the father of a vernacular tradition that had been temporarily displaced or driven underground by the cosmopolitan experimentalism of the modernists: Thomas Hardy. It is interesting to find Gunn invoking a writer with whom he might not, at first blush, seem to have much in common. Although Hardy’s ‘mastering obsession’ is loss and ‘regret for the past’, Gunn reflected, his apparently confessional poetry is in a sense ‘impersonal’: Hardy’s first person speaks, Gunn wrote, as a ‘sample human being’. Alan Jenkins finds this ‘misleading both about Hardy and confessional verse’, but the fact that this belief informed Gunn’s verse was part of what made him a Movement poet in the early years, insofar as he was one. It goes with Wain’s evocation of ‘the common stock’, and Davie’s later characterisation (in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry) of the ‘social democratic’ character of the tradition of English writing descended from Hardy. And this is surely what we respond to in some of Larkin’s most powerful poems, which conjure solidarity not in any political, welfare-statish way but by tapping into the common ground of human existence.

Several of the contributors prompt us to reconsider the question of the alleged ‘narrowness’ or ‘limitation’ of Movement writing, and the extent to which it may have been a matter of choice. No one, presumably, would want to say that Movement poetry is distinguished by its terribilità, but that still leaves a wide range of possibilities. A lot turns, perhaps inevitably, on how one assesses Larkin’s tonal bleakness. Clive Wilmer takes it one way: ‘There is something narrow about his sensibility: not just the provincialism, but the ready defeatism and the resistance to all forms of literary adventure.’ (‘All’ forms of literary adventure seems less than fair.) Barbara Everett is quoted taking a different view: ‘Larkin’s great art is to appear to achieve the literal while in fact doing something other.’ ‘Achieving the literal’ may sound a little unidiomatic, but it properly places the emphasis on the craft; ‘appearing to achieve the literal’ goes further still, suggesting, once again, a more deliberate and knowing strategy beyond merely local poetic effects. But what kind of ‘something other’ might he be doing?

So often Larkin captures our puzzlement, our ‘wondering what to look for’ (as ‘Church Going’ has it). As Fenton nicely observes, Larkin can never approach this portentous theme head-on: ‘it seems as if in order to get to the beautiful moment, like the beautiful moment in the last stanza of “High Windows”, you have to pass through the very ugly first stanza, you have to pay a little ugliness tax.’ ‘High Windows’ opens with these lines:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm

and it ends:

       And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of
           high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Only 12 lines separate these stanzas, yet the vocabulary and register seem worlds apart. Perhaps Raine is pointing in a similar direction when he speaks, improbably but in the end persuasively, about ‘Larkin the secular mystic – what you might call the Marriage of Heaven and Hull’. The existential or even metaphysical kick in the tail of so many of Larkin’s poems suggests something not quite allowed for in Gunn’s rather diminishing description of him as a poet ‘of minute ambitions who carried them out exquisitely’.

To my mind, the narrowness of experience, or even absence of strong emotion, that is allegedly characteristic of Movement writing is not the main charge that needs to be answered. It is rather (and this would need to be supported by citation from their journalism as much as from the main literary genres) that in their horror of pretentiousness and insistence on ‘writing to be understood’ they encouraged a kind of anti-intellectualism. This insistence on the perspective of ‘the plain man’ by writers who are, almost by definition, rarely plain themselves must always be suspect. This is one of the places where the influence of Orwell was damaging as well as inspiring for the postwar generation. (Deborah Cameron’s essay on ‘Verbal Hygiene and the Movement’ has some acute comments on the bad faith involved in using Orwell’s claims about the debilitating effect of ‘corrupt’ language only to apply to other people.) The blokeish, knocking negativity, exploited most insistently in Amis’s criticism and journalism, was not just culturally destructive in itself, but at odds with the delicacy and, in its way, intellectually rigorous character of the best Movement writing. In this respect, Empson provided a better model than Orwell, one that encouraged a more authentic, because not wilfully plain-mannish, solidarity with the ordinary human lot.

One of the things that is so heartening about the (mildly revisionist) arguments of the best of these essays is that they are sustained by literary criticism that gets away both from cod cultural history (‘Rationing encouraged rationalism’) and from reductive biography (‘What will survive of us is love-letters’). Not that their criticism necessarily issues in a wholly positive estimation. Wilmer, among others, endorses Davie’s later complaint that too much Movement poetry was preoccupied with the self-positioning of the poet and his relation to an audience, which brings us back to knowingness by another route. Demonstrating that they weren’t naive, and certainly that they weren’t gushing in the manner of the New Apocalyptics, such as Dylan Thomas and George Barker, was an important element in the cultural identity of these writers in the early and mid-1950s. The bony intellectualism of Empson’s poetry, in particular, encouraged a terse, argumentative idiom housed in tightly wrought formal structures (Deborah Bowman’s essay deftly discriminates between his actual practice and the Movement’s notion of Empsonianism). But Empson’s example, especially when accompanied by familiarity with his criticism, may also have encouraged an intrusive self-consciousness about the rhetoric of poetic effects, and being explicit about rhetoric always leads to a focus on the relations between writer and readers.

Self-confident, self-conscious, self-caricature: there is a grammar to be parsed here, a progression (or degeneration) that is simultaneously logical and chronological. Movement writing encourages our comfortable sense that we know how its tunes go, and hence that we’ve got its number. But good criticism makes us wary of underestimating writing with which we thought ourselves familiar. The palette of Movement writing may seem restricted, but the deliberate choice of monochrome can, as with photography, allow for subtle effects that full colour squanders. Questions about how far we are, any of us, authors of our own identities may come back to haunt us, and we should not be so confident that we have got the measure of Larkin – the pre-eminent talent in this group – and can ascertain how far he is the prisoner of a particular poetic voice rather than its knowing creator. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to back my own puzzled musings against the poet who could write the lines (partly quoted above) which conclude ‘Continuing to Live’:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
  To exist.
And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
  But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
  And that one dying.