Handlist, part 3: Mid century poets
pre-release version, contains mistakes.
Note. This is an offshoot from a research project which covered poetry 1960-97. It proved necessary to undertake operations into slightly earlier terrain in order to make the history clear. However, this does not apply to the most famous poets of mid-century, where everyone already has an opinion so I didn't need to get involved. See also
http://angelexhaust.blogspot.com/2009/08/metakaluptical-notes-on-1940s.html for notes specifically on poets of the 1940s, and 'Mid century women poets' at http://angelexhaust.blogspot.com/2010/08/edwin-morgan-and-george-mackay-brown-dm.html .
A project to recover the 'lost 1930s' is going on, after a possibly completed project to recover the lost 1940s. James Keery is a leading name in this. The mid-century is not my specialist period, but there is an abiding question of why young poets turning up in 1960 thought that British poetry was ‘dead’ and so that a revival was indeed the next step. It was more that the effective poets were totally pushed off-stage (and even this can be rephrased as ‘readers concerned with poetry didn’t want that kind of poetry’). So this information doesn’t really answer that question.
Wilfrid Gibson, (1878-1962) from Hexham, began around 1905 with a whole wave of innovations which rotated around taking the lower class as the suitable subject for poetry. Related to this were realism, stress on economic determinism, use of dialect, use of narrative and of poetic drama. He represents the bad conscience of English poetry insofar as everyone taking on this array of devices since 1905 has always claimed that they were the very first and no one could even have thought of doing this before us. He was a prolific writer. Some bits are worth recovering. To be accurate, the move into realism and lower-class subject matter even pre-dated 1905. He was the most serious 20th C poet to use dialect in an extended way.
Andrew Young (1885-1971) wrote during the 1950s two extraordinary long poems (published 1952 and 1958, together Out of the World and Back), both starting with the death of the narrator, who then flies through a mythical narrative as a mere spirit. This does sound a bit like an acid trip. It does also show the stirrings of something new in Christian poetry as the orthodox set-up had lost its power to inspire art, it does show the immediate involvement of the individual in the timeless, the significant moments of cosmic history. Perhaps it is not great poetry because Young actually was orthodox in theology and had no wish to create personal myth. He had previously had a long career as Georgian nature poet. Young's late-life artistic crisis is peculiarly interesting. By 1952 the main quality of a priest was how they dealt with doubt. His loss of faith, several times in life, in poetic styles, seems to track in an individual what was happening to the poetic collective.
I had seen a tree-trunk,
That hurt the ground with its dead weight, sprout leaves
Not knowing it was dead; I had caught fish,
Flounders that flapped, eels tying and untying
Slippery knots, slow to drown in our air;
Was I too living out my life’s last remnant,
Not living, only lasting? Was Death a monster,
A cat that toyed with a mouse, caught but not killed?
(from ‘Into Hades’)
Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) was the public face of modernism from 1917 on and through mid-century Britain. Her poetry can only be understood through the Russian Ballet of Diaghilev which is itself usually a sophisticated variation in various Court styles of an older Europe. Ballet needs ingenuous leads and Sitwell’s work combines extreme stylisation with a line of vigour and naivety. In fact if we look for naive art in poetry we find Sitwell’s hyper-cultured costume scenes and parties. As in dance, the visual dominates the abstract realm. Sitwell re-invented herself in the 1940s with the grandiose and religious poetry which yet went back to Symboliste poetry of the 19th century. This developed with the New Romantics but was not very successful. In the 1950s, a version of modernism was set up which excluded Sitwell and with her the whole world of the ballets russes - an odd manoeuvre only possible in the dimly lit world of 50s academics. The difficulty academics have had with Edith Sitwell is partly due to a lack of visual sensibility and partly to do with her nature as a woman writer - unconcerned with the literary repertoire of the average educated poet.
Edwin Muir (1887-1959), from Orkney, was probably the first British poet to undergo a Jungian analysis (in 1919), and was the first of the long series of ‘archetypal’ Jungian poets - although Yeats was the key artistic influence here. His belief in folklore, ballads, etc. precedes the Folk Boom and represents a vote for the naive and against ‘the modern part of the brain‘ which could have fatal consequences. He was the major influence on George Mackay Brown and a significant influence on Kathleen Raine. His poetry is hampered by a kind of impersonality, lack of contact with living speech - something he gave a sociological explanation of in the difference between Scottish speech and English writing. His influence on Ted Hughes was very redirect and Hughes did better with the ideas. His best work is ‘Variations on a Time Theme’ (1934), a strange mythographical poem which is indeed a theory of Time and a theory of folklore as well. This solution, of rejecting the English of articulate and educated people while simultaneously envying it, continues to exercise minority ethnic groups. The regression to oral modes and the imitation of speech are still a fatal retreat. Muir's theoretical writings are still of great interest.
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)
See Alan Bold’s classic biography for a great deal of information about his career which is almost too much to assimilate. The greatest Scottish poet since Burns, famous for combining nationalism with Communism. We have to start with the utter neglect of the Scots language in 19th C literature, so that it had retreated into humorous effects and conservative folklore by the time MacDiarmid was making his debut as a journalist. In his first style, from about 1920 on, Scots is rediscovered as a language for poetry, and restored to greatness. Poetry and daily speech come together in a magical evocation of daily reality. In his second style, from about 1938 on, this harmony is no longer possible, he writes in English and retreats into specialised knowledge and abstraction. The disintegration of language under the burden of knowledge into a more systematic and complex whole. Thus the breakdown of the sympathy which poets normally want goes hand in hand with an explosion of language. The search for authenticity has ended up by finding the opposite. His megalomania was typical of a certain generation of European writers, affected by Positivism and the theory of the Superman. It makes him peculiarly irritating, and yet the ambition frees inchoate energies, for good or ill. Although a ‘rationalist’ he had an affinity for crackpot and near-occultist ideas.
He wrote magniloquently of the ‘Lallans Renaissance’, but on examination it seems only to have consisted of him. After he stopped writing in Scots, other poets took up the idea.
Influential? everyone admires him but every Scottish poet has six or eight reasons for not writing like him.
Richard Aldington (1892-1962), It is difficult to evoke his qualities, although anyone who looks at the 'Modernist' poets of around 1920 and tries to recover their story so as to get at the big story of why modernism dried up in Britain is going to come across him. I think there is a great deal more there than critics have wanted to recover. Life Quest (1935) in particular is of great interest. He was, I think, one of many poets who had to be bundled off-stage to allow full narcissistic unfolding of the Auden clique and its chorus-line.
Grimaldi bones smeared with red ochre
That apes bright blood the life-giver
Conjured in vain as age by age
Rubble and drift and ashes built a tomb
A stiff and rocky shroud
but saved no soul
More splendid fantasy robed Osiris dead
In gold and natron under pyramids,
Furnished the palace-grave for an eternity
The Ka has never entered.
(from ‘Life Quest')
Admittedly some of his experiments came off very badly, but the lack of caution is precisely what made him ahead of his time. Even his failures were prophetic of what would happen forty years later. At some level, the revolutionary condition of the 1920s anticipated the situation of the 1960s and 1970s: the collapse of conventional wisdom.
Herbert Read (1893-1968) Read wrote, in the 1950s, some poems based on Abstract Expressionist painting. Read submitted these to Eliot who turned them down because he couldn’t understand them. A magic moment. I think there are only four or five of these poems. The story of Read is that he published his first important book at the time that ‘The Waste Land’ came out and there wasn’t much glory left to fall on the ‘other’ English modernist, and this relationship persisted for the next forty years. He wasn’t talented enough and he overworked lamentably as an administrator and presenter of culture, at which he had greatness. Culture is for people who don’t work hard. Is this what made the Sixties happen? Read was someone weak-headed who understood every current of modern art and wrote a little in all kinds of styles. Without resolving himself. The fact that he was in the right place doesn’t mean his poetry is any good. It needs re-evaluation though. He had too much sense of responsibility. He didn’t escape into the creative irresponsibility of pure form. A mixture of extreme sensibility and overwork.
He seemed more important in the period 1936-50 (roughly) because of his seriousness about politics and about war. This poetry has now lost its contemporary and urgent quality - his good judgement does not solve problems for us. An aesthete who wrote poems for civil society? A strange contradiction, also a proof of integrity. In the 1950s, he made the ICA (founded 1946) happen by compromising with arrogant and angry artists and conservative authority figures. This meant he never had tantrums himself. An equation - if I have a tantrum it forces other people to behave rationally, seizing their space. The public presence of art depends on people who are calm like civil servants. Read was a civil servant early in his career.
He titled something ‘Poem without rhetoric’. The history of this idea, not altogether a good one, is also interesting. It was productive in some ways in terms of writing poetry about modern military and political problems. The long, flat, solemn social political poems are very similar to Spender, who presumably got this whole style from Read. In fact the whole Auden clique wrote in this manner part of the time. Read’s stylised, minimal, odd modernist poems are much better. Startling and inconsistent and disconnected, but effective. His critical line that ‘modernism is better’ seems to work for his own poetry, most of which is not modernist. ‘To a Conscript of 1940’ is full of knowledge, the knowledge a First World War veteran had, but it’s not modernist. ‘Without rhetoric’ seems to mean ‘without beauty’.
I recall buying Read’s ‘European art since 1945’ (Thames and Hudson) around 1973. There were medallion-sized colour reproductions of hundreds of paintings. He had a cast-iron view of what Modernism was, and for him it was the only thing that mattered. People used to joke about Read for picking up every new trend in European art. This wasn’t accurate - his version of European culture is only about 1% of what there was. This moment of legitimation is of great interest. Mostly, posterity has agreed with Read’s selectivity. It is hard to be sure what transmitter Read was tuned in to. His book was a revelation to me. In retrospect, everything vital was there. This information was hard to come by in Loughborough, and I am grateful.
The whole word ‘Modernism’ falls apart under pressure -not the art but the category linking 1000 diverse artists. Once it falls, the fixture holding it up seems to be Herbert Read. (The resemblance to Eric Mottram, 20 years later, is apparent.) That blessed belief that THIS ONE is modernism, THIS ONE is unimportant. Which became the turnstile for the gatekeepers to sit by: X is genuinely upper middle class and Y isn’t. If you don’t have the dividing lines, you don’t have a map. Important shifts happened in the social definition of modernism. In the early Sixties, it was something for academics, for waves of newly minted experts who took it that Eliot and Pound had redefined poetry and that anything else was retrogressive. Conversely, the idea that you could draw a line between ‘modernist’ and ‘nonmodernist’ was maintained in being by the opinion of a few thousand experts that it really existed. Its sociology is more important than its contribution to art history.
Robert Graves (1895-1985). Wrote lots of love poetry which is either classical or numbingly conventional, according to your point of view. Was in some of the Georgian Books during the First World War, a Georgian poet. His prose lives on the Dan Brown side of town. Influenced Tony Conran and Norman MacCaig.
David Jones (1895-1974), the greatest English poet of the mid-century. I just don’t feel able to sum up his work because I feel overwhelmed by it.
Sacheverell Sitwell, (1897-1988) began writing poetry in 1917. His collected poems were published in 1936 and he seems largely to have given up publishing after that because of the malice of reviewers, which had reached a peak at that point. (He published 'a half-dozen' poems between 1936 and 1967.) Diaghilev produced one ballet based on a libretto by Sitwell, 23 at the time, and he remained faithful to the ideals of the ballets russes ever after. In fact, he was in the first wave of English modernism. There has been some sort of conspiracy to ignore this. Tracing his poetry after 1936 is difficult, but it was printed, mainly in some 40 pamphlets, published from the village in Northamptonshire where he lived. Some 48 poems were published in a special issue of Poetry Review (summer 1967) and another full-length volume was Tropicalia (1973). His poetry is characterised by its aestheticism, the wish to dissolve into art; and by the vast appetite which restlessly accumulates examples of visual art, of beautiful flowers and birds. So Canons of Giant Art, perhaps his most impressive work, reads like a work of art history as well as like a poem. He wrote ‘A place or a person, seen only once, and that for no more than a few moments, may affect our whole lives and be the constant subject for our thoughts. The extent to which this is true in poetry and in music can never be determined, but it must be very great. We would prefer to think of it, in symbol, as the black and white halves of the mask, both entirely different; and yet both the same. One, or both persons, from the house of the dovecote and apple tree; or even the mistaking of the red apples for red-gold oranges in the misty morning.’ His work is a complex mixture of coded autobiography and descriptions of works of art, as this passage tells. It is a mixture of flamboyance and obliquity. He sees life not as a code of moral truths, but as an endless array of forms not repeating each other, without a centre; this may have been quite unacceptable in the 1920s, but fits quite well with a modern understanding of how the species fits into the cosmos and how sensation connects to the mind.
Basil Bunting, (1900-85) Wrote two really important poems, 'Briggflatts' (1966) and 'The Spoils' (1951). Was seen around 1965 as a buried master of modernism, and as a link to Pound, but in fact he had written very little by that time. He was influenced by Objectivism. Because he was interested in stone, objects, sensuous details, and because he claimed to be interested in the sound of words (another sensuous tier) he could be assimilated to a taste which liked Georgian poetry. In fact his mature work does resemble Wilfred Gibson or Lascelles Abercrombie and an earlier version of northernness. His belief in dialect also resembles the Georgians, although it was a way of pronouncing poems he wrote in Standard English.
Joseph Gordon Macleod (1903-84), Uncontrollably fertile poet whose debut was The Ecliptic (1930). An early example of the left-wing intellectual in poetry, he produced a major modernist work at the moment when Modernism was about to go into hibernation, as economic crisis distracted everyone from the artistic sublime. During the 1980s, was widely regarded by the Underground scene as the ’good past’, as the first example of something unique and brilliant which the cultural managers wrote out of history. See my introduction to his Selected Poems, Cyclical Serial Zeniths from the Flux. His career thus resembles Sacheverell Sitwell’s in several important respects. The Depression made him shift from modernism to documentary. Raised in England, he had a strong identification with Scotland. Was also a producer at Cambridge’s avant garde theatre, the Festival, until Keynes’ conservatism and powerful connections brought it to an end in around 1933. His complete poetry is in the holdings of the National Library of Scotland. Other published works include Script from Norway, a sort of verse drama about a documentary film crew, where the politics of representation take over from what is being represented. This, in 1953.
Cylinders of sunshine
Upon the asphodel between the pylon pillars of Elysium
Cerberus smiles tricephalically
While Thammuz and Astarte complete
Their matutinal, and by now habitual, love-rites.
All is still and rain-swept in Balham,
But below there
Persephone sucks burnt-umber pomegranates,
Spitting the blood-red pips to the acanthus-bed.
(from 'Sun-Drenched Noontide')
Euros Bowen (1904-88) Welsh language poet who wrote in a very unusual and intense style, perhaps influenced by Dylan Thomas (as claimed by critic and poet Alan Llwyd). A Protestant pastor, he was involved in pacifist politics and began writing poetry, in the late 1940s, in connection with that. Developed a radically new way of writing cynghanedd, which he explained in various introductions (and in a radio lecture). Radical Christian and anti-government poetry was not, of course, much of an irritant to eisteddfod judges circa 1951. His later poetry evolved away from the intensely dylanesque-symboliste style of the 1950s and became much more relaxed and transparent.
Waldo Williams (1904-71) great Welsh-language poet. Published only one volume in his lifetime (Dail Pren, 1956). Very hard to describe and also very hard to translate into English. Like few other people, he wrote in the formal metres but had a completely 20th century sensibility. A Quaker, he was very anti-war and his nationalism depended also, in a way typical of his generation, on a view of England as a ‘war machine’ from which a withdrawal was possible into a refuge authenticity, which included both the language and the Christian religion. His poetry represents that authenticity in a remarkable way. Where English people might see Prussia or Russia as a war machine where militarism had absorbed all other qualities, many people in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland saw England as the war machine and English culture as saturated with nationalism. Waldo had visible goodness, and this quality at least briefly makes other qualities seem unnecessary.
Idris Davies (1905-53) was a miner who retired after an injury, acquired an education, and became a teacher. His work The Angry Summer is looking back slightly, to the miners’ strike of 1926. This is great poetry which is also realistic, rooted in a community, and reproducing political conflict. He was one of the first Anglo-Welsh writers, that is writing in the English which was the daily speech of the community they came from, but conscious of their Welshness. The verse form is close to popular verse but it builds up into a complex narrative. His style is unthinkable without the speech of people in the coal valleys of south-east Wales. During the depression of the 1930s, some people were writing great literature about the economic problems of the time, and Davies was one of them.
Auden, WH , everyone has a view so I will not express one.
Stephen Spender (1909-95) What I feel about Spender is that his poems are so clear and complete that they leave the issues resolved and so there is little to say about them. This suits well with a theory of Time which says that everything must happen in the present moment.
Tomorrow and yesterday are pictures
Remembered and foreseen, painted within
Man’s two profiles facing Past and Future, pivoted
On the irreducible secret diamond
His Now. Past and Future, pictures only,
And all events and places distant from
The instant of perception in the brain,
Are memories and prophecies.
All distant times and places, all events
In other minds, all knowledge folded
In books, Pasts petrified in statues,
Spatial distance witnessed by telescopes,
Prehuman histories embossed on fossils,
Silent messages from star to star,
Exist only in the flash within the single flesh.
(‘Time in our Time’)
He was writing better poetry than anyone else in the mid-century. He also wrote the best Apocalyptic poems. I have muttered elsewhere on this site about how weirdly selective his ‘collected’ poems are and how important it is to get the original books and see what the great man actually wrote. The wish to edit the past can be seen as a attempt to preserve intensity. His abandonment of communism was admirable, a sign that he was taking in current events and that he was honest and responsive, but made it, again, difficult to write poetry in favour of lyric political intuition. It is obvious that a gay person who got married could no longer write great poems about commitment, having compromised up to the hilt. The belief in civic action led to a long career as art bureaucrat, which has tended to disguise from succeeding generations that he had ever been a poet.
Given how few people, by 1950, wanted to live in a Soviet-style dictatorship, communist poetry had to come to an end. So you have hundreds of anti-communist poets. But it seems impossible to write great anti-communist poetry. I don't see why this is so, but it is part of the mid-century crisis.
Kathleen Raine, (1908-2003) The work brought together in the collected poems of 1956 is remarkable, as is the later book The Hollow Hill. The source is hymns, which combine theology with song and simple rhythms. She writes in a hymnic style and presents her distinctive theological ideas through natural symbolism, with beauty as the key. The key to the poetry is the human impact of spiritual intensity as the capacity to love, almost in an erotic way; the intensity of the sensitive person presents a response to another person which destabilises ordinary life. The theology is almost only some music to accompany this; as a formula for poetry, it can hardly be improved on. She represents the New Romantic poetry of the 1940s, and continued to represent it; but was not influenced by Dylan Thomas, so that her poetry is wonderfully clear, in line with hymns by such writers as George Herbert.
As a student (doing Natural Science) she was involved with the group around experiment magazine circa 1930, interested in bringing science and poetry together; along with William Empson, Richard Eberhart and Hugh Sykes Davies. She was married (serially) to poets Hugh Sykes Davies and Charles Madge. Her work can be considered as a reaction against the Cambridge intellectuals of around 1930. In the 1950s, she and some other Cambridge academics set out to recover the ‘lost’ intellectual background of Romantic poets, with Raine setting out to read ‘everything that Blake had read’. (cf. also Wilson’s book ‘W.B. Yeats and Tradition’.) This recovery of Western irrationalism followed up the New Romantic love of Blake and was one of the sources of the New Age movement. She founded the magazine Temenos (in 1981) to recover the spiritual aspect of art and the survivors of 1940s poetry.
Her late work is less good; lyric poetry does not flow forever.
Lynette Roberts (1909-95), published two volumes with Faber (1944 and 1951) Trained at art school; married Keidrych Rhys, a weak poet but editor of the magazine Wales which founded Anglo-Welsh literature. Gave up poetry around 1952, in connection with theological instructions. The publication of her collected poems in 2005 allowed the history of Anglo-Welsh poetry to be changed. Her poetry, which is not very similar to the stable of poets in Wales magazine or to the New Romantic poets of the 1940s, has not been well understood. Roberts described her own poetry in these terms: ‘A cleansing purity and rebirth of sound, recreation refolding of the world such as we had the refolding of the various strata, Icelandic stone and bronze age etc. And ... hitting against that view which is one of isolation, severe pruning. The whole discordant universe, the cutting of teeth, one rhythm grating against another, the metallic convergence of words, heavy colourful rich and unexplored.’ The interest in visual organisation is obvious. There is a particular effect in poetry which comes from making visual arrangements of objects and colours, so that the form of words has to be hammered into place, exactingly, to fit the pre-existing (and unique) knowledge. Poems are one of the visual art forms, and Roberts had a strong visual sensibility. Light battered by the surface of things washes back with a vastly detailed flow of information from which more and more can be recovered as the brain pauses over it. The key to her poetry is to study the objects it records, since she made a ‘documentary’ study of solid objects, their three-dimensional grain, mechanical properties, history.
Norman MacCaig (1910-96), one of the dramatic processes of the 1950s was MacCaig’s move away from a New Romantic style of improvisation and unreason towards something Augustan, controlled, and in the manner of English poetry of the time. His poetry is philosophical but its philosophy seems very very old in comparison with twentieth century interests. The curiosity which drives it is limited. His work is urbane, intelligent in its way, and is an acquired taste. It can seem dry or can be very enjoyable. The poems do not record key experiences and seem to have both feet on the ground all the time. His early work synthesizes form and mood and has that romantic flight, but he suppressed it. He started again when he was middle-aged and the Cold War was on. MacCaig ‘is widely regarded as Scotland’s finest contemporary poet, whose later poetry is both accessible and popular‘; (according to the jacket of a book published 15 years after his death). Much of his reputation is due less to his poems than to his access to admired experiences: he reached a great age, he was a friend of MacDiarmid in the 50s, he had a Gaelic background. Most Scots respect these experiences and realise that they cannot share them. The suppressed work involved improvisation, loss of control, letting emotions flow. (His mother had to learn English as an adult, and possibly this ‘inchoate’ zone is what he was tapping into.) He declined to fight in the world war, and was imprisoned for this decision. On release he worked as a gardener, which counted towards the war effort. It is not known whether his refusal was due to dislike of England and its empire, or to simpler ethical grounds. Most of the New Romantics were pacifist, and the style reflects an anti-state ideology. His mature work makes no reference to this political stand, presumably because the Fifties consensus relied on shared silence about pacifism (and about the New Romantics). The return of nationalism in the mid Sixties was the end of this consensus. (Dislike of the American nuclear installations on Scottish soil was not the least source of support for the new politics.)
Sorley MacLean (1911-1996) probably the greatest Scottish Gaelic poet since the 18th century, and one of the great modern poets. One of the monumental and heroic figures of his culture. “MacLean's poetry is the answer to a riddle, namely, ‘what happens to aristocratic poetry when the aristocracy change their language and absent themselves from the scene?’ The English thought everything could be bought and sold, because the institution of the nuclear family had created a market in land, unhindered by the belief in family continuity expressed in land tenure. If the answer was 'private property', the question was the destruction of kinship. It was the English preoccupation with other people's land which made modern history turn out the way it did. The Celtic societies neighbouring the English really didn't get possessive individualism, it was like a sound they couldn't pronounce. The old 'object poems' were really about status; their occasions were the death of a lord (with a major shift of status for the heirs) and the rewarding (or purchase) of fealty, bringing an individual into a definite relationship with the gift-giver.” (AD) I looked at a website for MacLean which explained how he was ‘steeped’ in Gaelic culture. Saturated ground is called ‘bog’ and so the word for ‘steeped in’ is ‘bogaidh an’, and MacLean is ‘soaked’ in his culture. His major work was the 1943 volume Dain do Eimhir. He published little between 1945 and 1975, but significant new poems were added after that. His poetry is available in his own translations.
There was a Gaelic revival in mid-century and the poets are known as the Famous Five. The others are Derick Thomson, Iain Crichton Smith, George Campbell Hay, and Donald MacAulay. Crichton Smith is certainly an important poet.
FT Prince, (1912-2003) one of the significant debuts of the Thirties (Poems, 1938), a dedicated and spiritual poet who had many striking achievements in his long career.
Roy Fuller (1912-91) perhaps the most significant poet of the 1950s. In order to find out whether you like the 1950s, you have to get to terms with Fuller's poetry of the time. Naturally he is against what is happening, as a committed leftist; his quality as a poet is to be saturated in the corrupt medium, and so to reveal its nature. His poetry is thus deeply unstable, always taking back what it has said. It seems that he lost belief in political change, and so in his own poetry, during the 1960s; even this loss of faith seemed typical of what led hundreds of English academics to write 'domestic anecdotes' of no interest at all. His best poetry is not beautiful and ideal, because of its critical nature; its sense of what is possible and what is being taken away is where it is profound. He wrote extensively in favour of conservative technique and so was ignored by the British Poetry Revival; he has not been recognised by later versions of the Left as a major left-wing poet. His artistic decline during the 1960s had something appalling about it.
Charles Madge (1912-96) published two volumes in 1936 and 1941. Wrote some important poetry around 1950 which was not published until the 1990s. Of Love, Time and Places (1994) is a selected poems. Madge was the other half, with Macleod, of the Good Past of the Underground, because everyone knew that a lot of his poetry hadn't been published and he was part of the radical wing of the 1930s. Has been seen as anticipating the Cambridge School because his poetry is so intellectually demanding and philosophically grounded. Co-founded the Mass Observation movement in 1937 and became a professor of sociology. MO was interested in surrealism and Madge can be seen as moving towards the subject of dreams and the irrational. He was married to Kathleen Raine and his second wave of poetry is moving into the territory of myth and religion, somewhat like hers. He once planned to write a book on dreams.
Lawrence Durrell (1912-90). He was a cultivated man who had rejected cultural convention and it seems unfair that his poetry is not better than it is. The poems in his collected which really take off are prose poems about (imaginary) modern Greek painters. These are genuinely evocative and suggestive, but also clearly lead the way out of poetry and into his fiction. He was influenced by Pater and by D H Lawrence. The burden of owning a critique of civilisation made it hard for him to write interestingly. It's not clear what it was, but presumably it was a continuation of Lawrence and Aldington. Although he took on the vitalism, his versification is much more old-fashioned than Lawrence's, which suggests a relapse and compromise. The move into prose and 'superimposed time frames' was an advance out of this problem.
JF Hendry, (1912-86) from Glasgow, was one of the theorists of the Apocalyptic school which began around 1937 and which was a radical move away from documentary and towards releasing the irrational levels of the mind into poetry. This was related to ‘biomorphic abstraction’ in painting but also to pacifism and resistance to the state as war machine.
His poetry is influenced by surrealism and has as subject the crisis of the late Thirties and the War. His wartime poetry seems hasty and confused, too stressed by the crisis, and his work whether good or bad is hard to obtain. From being a writer trying to explain everything in 1937 and following years, Hendry was little heard of between the late 1940s and the late 1970s. Marimarusa, published 1978, was written in the 1940s. (Should actually be 'Morimarusa'.)
George Barker (1913-91) had a long complicated career. He represented single-handedly the lyric and passionate pole of poetry in opposition to the theologically inclined academics who made up most of the literary world. Although poorly educated, he had access to the Baroque through the devotional trappings of Catholicism, his religion. He was a necessary poet and everyone else regrets not having his powers. 'The thesis put forward in Robert Fraser’s biography of George Barker is about sexuality, randiness, logic, education. He suggests that GB is superior to rival poets because they were educated and he left school at 14; because he was highly sexed and they weren’t. Fraser also suggests that Barker represents a breakthrough, and the future. The implication is that Objectivity is the product of years of servitude, and involves submission to male authority figures – it disables you for writing poetry, which requires vigorous subjectivity. Study and office work seem to have much the same effect – Barker said no to secondary education, and resisted having a job because he thought it would cripple his poetic gifts. This thesis looks good if we compare poets with rock singers, but unimpressive if we compare modern poets with poets from past centuries.' (AD)
Dylan Thomas (1914-53) Too great for comparison, dominated the landscape around him. Became immensely popular through broadcasts of his poetry read by himself. Much of his posthumous reputation has been due to the disinformation spread by Oxford elitists who couldn't bear the fact that he was a better poet than Auden and wanted to 'garden' the landscape to make Auden the sole lord and master. Thomas made a breakthrough around 1933 through serious study, principally of Blake and Donne but also of Auden. That is, he replaced Auden. This is one of the ideas which the people in charge would not tolerate, even sixty years later. Poetry evolved nonetheless.
Francis Berry, (1915-2006) Dominated by his imagination and scattered over an immense world of the imagination. He staged his intensely dramatic poems in several different continents, two of his best poems being set in Greenland and Jamaica. He belonged with the Romantic era in his extravagance and energy, in his vast vocabulary of exotic and elaborate images. If he felt like writing a poem about Zarathustra, he wrote a poem about Zarathustra. Debuted in 1933. His early work is too psychologically scattered, and his late work is much better. Always deeply unfashionable, he never had proper recognition; I am only aware of two anthologies which include him: Glyn Jones' in 1949 and Lucie-Smith's in 1971. Books include Fall of a Tower (1943), Murdock (1947), Morant Bay (1961), Ghosts of Greenland (1966). The Galloping Centaur is poems 1933-51.
G Campbell Hay (1915-84), an English-speaker who learnt Gaelic as a teenager. A student at Oxford, he wrote in Gaelic as an aspect of nationalism and resistance to the English political order in Scotland. He was faced with the problem of a complete lack of modern Gaelic culture, and a language which faced away from the 20th century. In my view his poetry does not work at all, in its attempt to recreate the past. His early volume in Scots and English, The Wind on Loch Fyne (1948), is an exception, being strange without being destroyed by its own contradictions. He did not resolve his inner problems. Of course the social vacuum could be suggestive for poetry, allowing experiment to take place.
Roland Mathias (1915-2007) Published two volumes of very high quality in the 1940s. One of the few poets from the founding era of Anglo-Welsh literature around the magazine Wales (1937-45) who survived into the new era of the ‘Second Flowering’ in the 1960s. The nature of the atmosphere which made most of the others give up has been insufficiently defined. A great editor of Anglo-Welsh Review, in the 1960s and 1970s, where he studied almost every aspect of Welsh history and so was too intellectually sophisticated to be a nationalist in the accepted fashion. His poetry is shown in Burning Brambles: poems 1942-77. He was the last significant poet of the 1940s still writing (Kathleen Raine being the other candidate).
Sidney Goodsir Smith (1915-75), wrote in cultivated Scots, although brought up in New Zealand. Wrote in a picturesque and artificial style. Had a job as theatre critic which he lost when he got so drunk that he fell out of his box. This led to a long difficult period, at least if we can trust Edinburgh literary gossip, which I doubt. Under the Eildon Tree (1948) is regarded as his classic volume, simultaneously passionately authentic and elaborately fake. His later work is more distinctive if still not authentic. On the page he sounds theatrical and like an affable drunk. An Oxford graduate, according to Wikipedia.
David Gascoyne, (1916-2001) not very gifted as a poet but his biography exercises a fascination especially because of his recovered diaries from the 1940s. Was famous in his teens as an interpreter of Surrealism. His significant poems should not be underrated and do stand out from the English manner around them. His work of the 1940s is very much influenced by Eliot and aims to revive religious language and Romantic afflatus, but is not properly worked out. Kathleen Raine probably achieved the poetic ideals which Gascoyne was thinking about. His career from about 1938 has to be interpreted in terms of the theological ideas which he picked up in Paris, and which directed him. Obviously he was gay, but this may not be a key to who he was - as follower of Eliot and Shestov. Unrestrained use of benzedrine led to states of spiritual exaltation but in the long run robbed him of his mental stability. He spent a long time fighting with illness and his ‘resurrection‘ was a remarkable event. ‘Night Thoughts’ (1956) is a documentary poem written for radio broadcast, reliant on documentary film. This works better than his religious poems. His intuitive grasp of the greatness of the figures he admired was perhaps his real gift, and would have been interrupted if his own creative powers had been of a higher order. Translated much from French. He influenced Peter Levi, a better poet.
Kathleen Raine reviewed Gascoyne's Collected Poems 1988 in 1989: 'It is as though some angelic being were, with gravity and love, translating for us from the language of angels in which the record of this world is kept[.] David Gascoyne is at this time England's one great poet, perhaps Europe's greatest poet. At eighty I make such a judgement with the full weight of my own lifetime's experience. A great poet, as I use the word, is one who encompasses the enduring themes of man's spiritual destiny, and therefore also of history. [...] He is, I suppose, the last English poet working in the European mainstream - as were Eliot and Yeats, Edwin Muir and Humphrey Jennings, Malcolm Lowry and others of their generation. England has become provincial - not to say marginal to the point of insignificance - in terms of those values David Gascoyne is the last in this country to embody and represent.' This is possibly Raine's view of herself, rather than Gascoyne.
Terence Tiller (1916-87) one of the most significant poets of the 1940s, well known for hating New Romantic poetry. Was teaching in Egypt at the time. He wrote less poetry after becoming a producer for BBC radio but produced many programmes, including the texts. Striking for delicacy and sensitivity, for trying to deal with the complex problems of modern relationships (as Spender remarked at the time). Spender said of Tiller and GS Fraser, “They are clear, transparent, intellectual poets writing from their heads rather than from their hearts or their bodies, analysing their passions and conscious of many difficulties in problems of sex and life. Their obscurity, unlike that of the poets who are followers of Dylan Thomas, comes from a too great intellectualisation, a too minute pursuit of their own sensitive reactions, their own inner complication and subtle ideas." Poems (1941); The Inward Animal (1943); Unarm, Eros (1947); Reading a Medal (1957); Notes for a Myth (1968); The Singing Mesh (1979)
Philip Toynbee (1916-81) was a communist in the late 1930s. Wikipedia says some volumes of his Pantaloon series, a verse novel, are unpublished, which I didn’t know. Four volumes were published in the 1960s (1961-68). It is an interesting series and unlike anything else in poetry, although it connects to avant garde fiction. It is interesting because it doesn’t fit in. See brief comment at http://pinko.org/106.html It is about the cultural and political crisis of the Oxford generation of the 1930s, something which explains the whole of mid-century poetry and why poetry was dead and had to be "revived" in 1960. He published Prothalamium: A Cycle Of The Holy Graal (1947), which I haven’t seen. This is a novel. Peter Vansittart: 'Toynbee, swashbuckling, ramshackle, hands seldom far from a bottle, with an 'ugly beauty', a rich, indeed compelling, voice, and, through unsatisfactory teeth, a chuckle resembling the last gasp of a soda-water bottle...' (In the Fifties, 1995)
Thomas Blackburn (1916-77)
Blackburn seemed able, during the 1950s, to represent the pole of lyric, personal, emotive, inspired poetry, a sort of anti-1950s party. He seemed about to invent the genre of English confessional poetry. 'I would hazard a guess that the most significant post-war poetry is concerned with such an explanation of the human being. [...] A psychological standpoint implies that although it may be conditioned by economic and material factors, in the last resort it can only be understood through the inner dynamics of man himself.' (from an introduction, 1960) When that sort of poetry became more central, his name seemed to be heard less and less. I was amazed to discover that he had published twelve volumes of poetry. The key seems to lie in biographical data, only available since his death, notably a memoir by his daughter, Julia Blackburn. (see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3672757/Julia-Blackburn-an-infernal-triangle.html for an excerpt) Thomas had problems with alcohol already as a student, related to the domineering influence of his father, resolved only by dropping the subject his father had chosen and starting afresh. The continuing story is complicated, but poor understanding of pharmacology seems to be a big part of it; he was addicted to the barbiturates which were supposed to keep him off the drink, and their effects when combined with alcohol were very damaging. They were first prescribed to him in 1943, before much was known about barbiturates.
Presumably because he yearned for salvation, his later poetry is often religious and about visions. Yet he had seemed closest to great artistic achievement when deploying realism and connecting emotional states back to the everyday.
He edited the best anthology of the 1950s and there is no doubt about his gifts.
Charles Causley (1917-2003)
Essential for me is that Causley's poetry becomes unreadable when taken in quantity, because of its rigidity. His rhythms are not truly personal - they go back to a time before poetry expressed personality, before the Renaissance and its new verse. I have to look now in the other direction, at its flash and impact when taken in small doses. Causley stands, at one level, for a genuine tradition of song (in long periods of inactivity, or of festive drinking) in the Royal Navy; at another, for a sort of versification which preceded the Tudor revolution and the pentameter, and which was incapable of taking in modern ideas.
On the high harbour lie six shifty daughters
Their bodies are staring, their eyes are wide
Here is the key of their burly bedchamber
I have unlocked it, I replied.
(The ‘daughters’ must be ships; the ambiguity is fundamental and genuinely archaic. The harbour can‘t be high because it would be dry land if it were not low, I think. The ‘eyes‘ may be gunports, if the ships are pre-1900, it is perhaps these which 'stare' but that could also be gaping holes in the timbers. The sailor is lured by the whores of the harbour but is also lured by the ships, which may also sink beneath him. The bedchamber is the sea.) If he got to publish four books in the 1950s, this is because he fitted in with a current of sentiment expressed in the Festival of Britain, which admired the folk art of painted merry-go-round horses and painted barges. His poems appealed to people who read The Unsophisticated Arts, by Barbara Jones. This is an archaic populism untouched by left-wing thought. I think his poem on 'Prinz Eugen' shows where the folk idiom blocked attempts to extend it. It is exciting but impossible to follow:
Look said the prince at my lip and my loin.
Look at the silver that springs from my thumb,
Look for the brown blood that never will come.
Teach my beached heart the soft speech of the drum,
Feather with words the straw birds as they hum.
On my cold castle the strict sea knocks,
Butters his blade on the rim of the rocks.
Do you not hear how his ticking tongue mocks,
Slits every second and keel-hauls the clocks?
Eugen is apparently dead, yet involved in time; he is a symbol of death, as a war leader. (There was a German warship called the Prinz Eugen, a commerce raider, but none of the poem fits that.) The poem reminds us of surrealist poems of a slightly earlier period, but the symbols are conventional but closed. They make it hard for the poet to explain what is going on. We note that the pentameter is not natural but cultivated; popular verse in English always uses shorter lines. The Penguin Modern Poets volume (3) was inspired in putting him together with George Barker: these two and Christopher Logue all had the same idea, in the 50s, of taking on folk song and its gaudy and primal decoration as well as its heavy rules. This preceded the Folk Boom and already had its energy. The Folk Boom vindicated Causley but eventually made the public tired of the effects locked up in simplicity and antiquity. Causley went on writing in the 60s but his moment had passed. On reflection, I think Causley should not have been omitted by Allott (in 1960) and Tuma (2001) from their standard anthologies. The simple effects work perfectly against a naive, tuppence coloured - penny plain background. When he wrote
I have seen the white tiger,
In the Douanier Rousseau forest:
Isosceles leaves and a waterfall of compasses
- he is writing intelligently, but to say that he writes naive poetry on a daily basis. This differs from a later wave of populist poetry because it is not dumbed-down.
There is a Causley Society website which attacks 'academics' for not writing about him, as if this was some kind of guilt. But why write an essay if there is nothing to say? People also don’t have conversations about him - it is the poetry of ideas which fuels conversations. On the other hand, most children see at least one Causley poem in their time at school.
George Mackay Brown committed himself equally to folk material but gave up the prosody altogether.
WS Graham (1918-1986)
In the conformist scene of the 1950s, three volumes by Jones, MacDiarmid and Graham tower over everything else, being at the same time completely atypical and finding few readers. Graham was a dedicated avant garde writer who prepared his course with consistent hard work and so realised his ambitions. Although he began with the 40s New Romantics, he persisted when they fell away around 1950, and charted new waters. At the present time few mid-century poets are admired as much by such a range of people. Published volumes in 1942, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1949, 1955, 1970, and 1977.
The question is how he came to evolve from the New Romantic style, and the huge influence of Dylan Thomas, towards his later style. One approach is to this is to deny that his New Romantic poetry is in fact New Romantic, or to deny that there is any continuity between early and late Graham. These are methods of despair.
A simple view is that he wrote about the tumult of the sea in a New Romantic way and then came to write about the frozen Polar North, more philosophically. The link is perhaps that in the 40s he was writing about the mystery of the world just outside the reach of intuition and the senses, and that in his late poetry he is still writing about this, but in a way which is dominated by doubt rather than emotional tumult. He was not a studious man and presumably quarried his later work out of the mass of his early work, in organic evolution.
Malcolm Mooney's Land was published in 1970, and the title poem is about Polar exploration. JF Hendry published Marimarusa in 1978, also about Polar exploration; in interviews he described it as being written in the middle 1940s, when he was an interpreter in Vienna. The relationship between the two poems is unknown, but has a great bearing on how we interpret the New Romantic impulse and its later developments.
Graham can be described as an egocentric sublime. At that, his work is not egoistic, it lacks vanity. He did write about friends, namely the painters around St Ives who were on an artistic path that he could respect. But mostly he was not interested in personal relations and in social events - nor in close observation of nature. His friends were abstract painters. His role in the whole period 1950-70 was that reviewers acknowledged the stature of his work, but it was ignored in between publications (only two books in that period), and that it seemed outside the visible scene. Perhaps readers wanted warmth and personal relations and someone who enhanced social affability and mood. More, reading his work did not create an affective relationship with the artist - he was withdrawn too far behind a sheer or tortuous surface. See his Collected Poems and The Nightfisherman, selected letters (1999).
TS Law (1918-97) from Fife. Scots-writing figure in the working-class Marxist culture of the 1940s. Was little heard from after that until the 1970s, when the revival of Scottish Nationalism gave him new inspiration. A strongly anti-bourgeois writer with a gift for polemic and invective. As with other very anti-English writers, this tended to produce a sixteenth-century manner of writing. Anything later was English-influenced.
Dunstan Thompson (1918-75), American, wrote two classic volumes in the 1940s which summed up the New Romantic style. see my articles on this website: http://angelexhaust.blogspot.com/2010/03/dunstan-thompson-revisited.html . Disappeared from the scene and lived in Norfolk. Imitated George Barker quite closely but improved on the model.
It is difficult to rehabilitate John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006) – “a coming man who never came”, according to Martin Seymour-Smith. Working out why someone didn't write well involves too many unknown quantities – but Heath-Stubbs was gay and unable to write frankly about his feelings – and too culturally conservative to put real energy into a revolt against social and stylistic norms. What we seem to have with Heath-Stubbs is someone who in his first phase was struggling to combine Christianity with homosexuality and wrote mythical poems evoking strong emotions but unresolved because they were part of an unresolved struggle. They were obviously difficult to write. He wrote:
As when before-dawn darkness
Lolls on the Earth, the impossible season
Of flesh subsided or nerves drawn tighter,
The fire-hackled, blood-wattled, needle-spurred cock
Stretches his wings through the blackness, proclaims,
The iron hand is on your shoulder
The iron hand is on your head
When pickpocket water strips the flesh
Green-fingered, lurching the drowned limbs, choking
The pale throat, drums on the bursting eyes;
And rolls and rolls where monstrous things go by.
All selfhood murdered, twitched beneath that tide
(from ‘Two Men in Armour’, 1942)
Myth, specifically Christian myth, was the most likely path for him to write about his deepest concerns in a linguistic pattern distanced and ornate enough to disguise the personal origins. He did write about myths and saints, quite a lot. His natural bent was to regress to the 19th century, not to take on the 20th with its alarming demands for frankness, sincerity, and individuality. If he had written poetry about the validity of being a Christian homosexual, it could have been great poetry, but of course he never did that. I can't really write about him as a gay poet because he had walled it off too successfully.
The poem in Apocalypse. Anthology is 'The Hill', published 1946:
All night long in the garden under the cypresses
I heard the song of the childish dead, chirping
With black dried lips, like crickets in the beams,
And the silence of the stream whose watery tongue is gone.
But now with a sound of trumpets
The sun, of golden feathers, beating his wings
Through the granular ether, out of his eastern cave
Of darkness comes – a bird, whose iron beak
Is pointed at my dry and singing brain.
And so early in the morning I climb to this hill
Islanded in blue intense of the circling air,
Hearing only the long melancholy line of the shepherd’s piping
Or calling to his dog down there in the valley.
–This may be the moment when his Forties poetry is rehabilitated. Those early poems are apparently based on known myths but are also unparaphrasable – the plots go wrong. The obscurity provides a vague area in which original events can emerge. It is as if we had a collection of Classical paintings of saints being martyred and Greek gods doing various extreme things, in exotic landscapes, and they were being subtly repainted, not to get rid of the naked bodies and the extreme experiences, but to change the story and make it even less natural. Anxiety and obscurity fight their way to centre stage and the rest is hidden behind them. At some point in the 1950s, he gave this up and began to write poems which were accessible and designed to please, but which were noticeably insignificant. In this later phase, which lasted for forty years in the end, he was a poster example for how weak poetry can be when the source has compromised emotionally, and how basic urges can be replaced by mere decoration, in the escape from feelings. In a late poem he writes
the red-beaked chough,
enclosing Arthur’s soul, is seen no more
wheeling and calling over the Cornish cliffs.
Old Tod has vacated his deep-dug earth
He has gone to rummage in the city dustbins
Tiggy is squashed flat on the M1.
(from ‘The Green Man’s Last Will and Testament’, c. 1988)
This is just terrible and shows a complete lack of engagement with his own poem. The 1973 long poem Artorius is a disaster, negligible. I believe his first four volumes contain the good poems.
The Church Times obituary records that he was “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”, and that he had spent much time carrying out ecumenical work linking the Anglican Church with the Coptic Christians.
Emyr Humphreys, (1919-) mainly a novelist but has also written poetry of great importance. belonged to the 1930s generation of Welsh intellectuals, Christian, nationalist, and radical. Main poetic work is Ancestor Worship (1970). His method is related to TV techniques, as he was a TV producer.
John Holloway (1920-1999) haven’t read all his books. I do know about The Landfallers (1962), a sort of Eric Ambler novel in verse, some of which is really good. He was in New Lines but did not fit into the stereotypes of the Movement poet. He was of course a highly educated man, an academic, classically trained, and not opposed to the order of things. His poetry reflects all this, but he kept developing new ideas without ever writing great poetry. Wood and Windfall (1965) is travel poetry about the Mediterranean, not exactly the first occurrence of this in English history. He lived in Athens for two years in the early sixties.
Planet of Winds (1977) is a radical exit into folk and oral forms, light in tone of course, but by no means conventional.
Pebble. A steel inwardness.
The fire's flintbed capped in
This snowy flarepath edge
And the heavy hide: the rough rounded outside
My hand cups, warming.
Testimony of old waters: torrents
In gout, rainspout, icepack,
Ice crack, crash of the hill-haunting thunder.
Deriving dumbly by opposites, it accreted
My hand endears it, eroding
A little of its detachment.
(from 'Weathering: near Thebes' from Wood and Windfall)
Derick Thomson (1921-2012), from the isle of Lewis. writes in Gaelic but translations into English are available. represents a new confidence in Gaelic poetry but it is not clear that he is much of a poet. Edited for many years (fifty, according to Wikipedia) the magazine Gairm, remarkable for being all in Gaelic but not known for high cultural standards. When he began it, there was not much in (Scots) Gaelic that was not religious or oral. Had a university career as a Gaelic scholar.
George Mackay Brown (1921-96), Catholic, archaic and conservative writer stuck in a remote rural island community (Orkney). attached to folk forms, such as repetition of units according to a preset count, and to a cyclic theory of time derived from Edwin Muir. The integration of Jung and Catholicism is striking. Selected Poems 1954-83 (1991). Following a Lark; Wreck of the Archangel. Writes as a communal poet, with the central ego notably absent - or, perhaps, hidden in a cunning way. see http://www.pinko.org/30.html for more comments
Alan Ross (1922-2001) debuted in the 1940s but realised himself in the 1950s. A childhood in India and service in the Royal Navy gave the basis of knowledge needed for a travel writer, when combined with exceptional skills of observation. Equally, Ross as a naval officer (who had served on destroyers in the Arctic convoy escorts) was unable to write except concisely and directly, but the poetic core survives and works each time. His ability to evoke places is uncanny. These are travel poems, I suppose. A view of Heligoland after being bombarded into innocuousness by the Royal Navy is off the scale of most travel writers. Edited the London Magazine for some forty years, from 1961. Unfashionable in the 1950s and never taken up by the critics. Wrote retrospectively some of the best poems of the war at sea and of garrison duty in a ruined post-war Germany. Poems (2005) is a very large selected. There is one technical comment, that Ross belonged to the group whose poetry gets missed out because he was a literary insider.
Elizabeth Bartlett (1924-2008), Two Women Dancing (1995) is a selected-collected. combination of social realism and feminism, very solid and convincing. Published a few poems around 1940 and then nothing until the end of the 70s, presumably floated by the tide of feminism. Probably represents the acceptable end of social resentment, in poems about other people being more interesting than she is.
Alastair Mackie. (1925-95) His poetry is about the contrast between ideal and reality. This had something to do with depression, something to do with the contrast between Scots and English; he was committed to the Lallans ideal but several times had a 'conversion' and gave it up. It represented the unattainable for him. His best poems are less realistic and more to do with technological optimism.
Christopher Logue (1926-2011). Legendary satirist and radical, who is a major poet because of his Homer project, which to date includes Patrocleia (1962), Pax (1967), War Music (1981), Kings (1991), The Husbands (1994), All Day Permanent Red (2003), Cold Calls (2005). Ode to the Dodo: Poems 1953 to 1978 (1981) collects other work, too selectively. (War Music collects Patrocleia and Pax.) His debut was in 1953, in a New Romantic style. Songs (1958) was a vital work, opening the era of intelligent popular song, using the song form to reveal a remarkable political intelligence. It more or less ended the 1950s with one blow. Virtually unique in his grasp of politics and ability to write narratives in verse. His work supports a thesis that the 1950s produced people with real moral commitment who could therefore write about politics and human relations, in a way which hedonistic generations could not do. Something changed.
Christopher Middleton (1926-), made debut in 40s but made main impact after torse 3: Poems 1949-62 (1962). intimate chronicles; Selected Writings (1989). Poems 2006-2009. His Collected Poems came out in 2008. A poet of modernist inclinations and wide culture. Taught German studies, as a profession. Stan Smith says ‘The dysfunctions, dislocations and unexpected collocations of his language, the experimental diversity of structure and theme, and a movement between extremes of abstrusity and explicitness, using the very opacity of his language to concentrate our gaze as if for the first time...” Made standard translations of many modern German-language poets, and writes as a European.
T Glynne Davies (1926-1988): His eisteddfod winner of 1951, 'Adfeilion' (Ruins), (a free-form pryddest) identifies a lost female love with the ruin of Wales. It’s like a Bruce Springsteen song, full of hometown sentimentality, with violent mood swings, between wild optimism and sombre disillusion. The emotional identification with his country, which is described as a sentient thing, capable of exaltation and degradation, is irrational but completely convincing. His poems have an astonishing emotional power. His only volumes were in 1961 and 1969. In his career, he largely gave up poetry to be a radio and TV journalist, and novelist. Cerddi (1987) collects all his poems. A note says ‘This is one of two poems I wrote for the old Fflam when it was so promising and avant garde in the hands of Euros Bowen. The date is February 1949.’
Charles Tomlinson (1927-2015), represented, in about 1958, an interest in modernism rare in English life, but did not also write modernist poetry. His early pamphlet, The Necklace, is the best. He did have aesthetic intensity but his subject matter vanished as he scrutinised it. He had no dealings with the radically new poetry of the 1960s. His intense aesthetic focus is impressive as a gesture but the object of scrutiny seems to wither up under the rigour of the gaze. Arguments have been made for The Way of the World (1969). Kenneth Allott said in 1960 “Pater, who made these comments, spoke of his own artistic approach as involving ‘the sacrifice of a thousand sympathies’. [...] Mr Tomlinson’s poet world is a lonely place - human beings and their awkwardnesses have been squeezed out. With his ‘calligraphy of present pleasure’ he is a serious artist; but he is also a seriously limited artist, an aristocratic ‘mutile’ of the aesthetic war."
Iain Crichton Smith, (1928-98) wrote both in Gaelic and in English. When you take children off the island to a boarding school so that they can get secondary education, the question is not just ‘will I ever get home again’ but also ‘will I ever arrive’. It can be argued that to be ‘bicultural’ is typical for a 20th century Hebridean, but the differences between Gaelic culture and an urban culture, Anglo-Scottish in nature, are so extreme that the cultural split is arguably very hard to survive. (What he disliked was effectively urban Scottish culture, although you can also argue that it was anglicised and further that it was Americanised.) Smith simultaneously embodied a very complex subject matter, the ‘cultural interface’, and had difficulty writing anything because of the split. I think some of his poetry is very important but it needs to be read in a careful selection. He was capable of lapsing both ways, into unthinking and sentimental nationalist positions and conventional Movement style poetry in English. A long poem like ‘An Canan’ thinks through the problems of Hebridean culture, even in a traumatised way, but with compelling honesty. He was not a heroic figure like MacLean. He had misgivings about his audience. Why? his poetry is essentially about being split and in doubt and we long for just the opposite. Like Roy Fuller, his greatness is that incompleteness.
Anthony Thwaite (1930-) one of a group of Christian, Oxford poets emerging in the 1950s with a conservative poetic and an attachment to history and scholarship - cf. Levi and Hill. Developed very notably after losing Fifties inhibitions. He was part of the revival of Christian creativity in the face of the loss of political and social authority of the Church, apparently ‘challenge and response’ in a Toynbeean way. His ‘double narrative’ in 'Letters of Synesius', with a 4th C theologian in parallel with the modern poet, has been compared with Geoffrey Hill but also realises the double nature of any Christian, living in sacred time and in secular time. Mercian Hymns was four years later. (The 'Letters' are in the 1967 volume Stones of Emptiness and were followed by New Confessions, a ‘double narrative’ about St Augustine, 1974.) Thwaite is drawn to immense structures of objective knowledge, typically pots and coins; he has an abiding affinity with Robert Browning’s marshalling of facts. Victorian Voices (1980) is a direct expression of this. Collected Poems, (2007). It is interesting to compare Thwaite, not just with Levi and Hill as 'life companions' but with Pauline Stainer, another Christian poet breaking away from the forms of hymn, sermon, and psalm.
Arden, John (1930), wrote a small number of poems but also a poetic drama, Armstrong‘s Last Goodnight. One of few mid century dramatists to write plays in major language as opposed to thin realistic language. All his drama is close to poetry. Very important for poets looking at how to write public language again. There is a tape of him reading his poems but I am not sure if they are in print anywhere.
Peter Levi (1931-2000) Jesuit priest, classicist, and archaeologist. Stopped being a priest in 1977 and got married. Writes in a remarkably elegant, Augustan, style, mainly about the pleasures of a cultured life, but also writing stridently anti-capitalist and avant-garde poetry (based on Greek surrealism) when necessary. Represents the "suave" quality of poetry from which everything less than perfectly gratifying and smooth has been removed, a sound which only seems possible in Oxford. Why write in any other way? Everything he says is wonderfully clear as he says it. Is awkwardness such a virtue? This might seem obvious, but he was better at theology than his competitors. Collected Poems 1955-75 (1976); Shadow and Bone (1989).