Sunday 22 September 2013

British poetry of the 1940s

Listed below are fourteen volumes of poetry published by thirteen British poets during or just after the Second World War. According to A. T. Tolley in The Poetry of the Forties in Britain (Manchester University Press, 1985), these are the outstanding poetry books of a decade culminating in the Festival of Britain in 1951. Do you recognise many? Or any?

George Barker Eros in Dogma (1944)

Charles Causley Farewell Aggie Weston (1951)

Jack Clemo The Clay Verge (1951)

Keith Douglas Collected Poems (1951)

Lawrence Durrell A Private Country (1943) and Cities, Plains and People (1946)

Roy Fuller A Lost Season  (1944)

David Gascoyne Poems 1937-1942 (1943)

W. S. Graham The White Threshold (1949)

Patrick Kavanagh The Great Hunger (1942)

John Heath-Stubbs Beauty and the Beast (1943)

Dylan Thomas Deaths and Entrances (1946)

R. S. Thomas The Stones of the Field (1946)

Vernon Watkins The Ballad of the Mari Llwd (1941)

Tolley doesn't include Eliot's Four Quartets (and has his reasons, but it's like omitting Citizen Kane from any list of great films), and there are other surprising omissions - but on the whole his choice reflects two aspects of 1940s poetry in Britain that have long fascinated me:

a) that during the war there was a tremendous growth of interest in poetry for reasons that should not surprise us - paper shortages, a sellers' market, a readership temporarily aware of higher things and a lack of alternative distraction, apart from reading and listening to the wireless.

b) that most of the poetry published during and after the war (and, to be sure, most poetry at other times) is not very good. This applies especially to the dire Apocalyptic poets who managed to be not very good in many ways - obscure, pretentious, unmemorable, highly conventional.

David Gascoyne - Poems 1937-1942

Yet this poetry represents, in a way, precisely What We Were Fighting For and its cultural value is hard to over-estimate. Despite Tolley's brilliant spade-work I think comprehensive study of the poetry written and published in Britain during the Second World War has yet to be written.

I'm not the one to do it. Looking at my bookshelves I see I have a copy of the Gascoyne (published by Poetry London with dust jacket and illustrations by Graham Sutherland) as well as a tatty paperback of Deaths and Entrances and the complete poems of W. S. Graham (my favourite of all the poets in Tolley's list, although The White Threshold is a weak collection compared with what came later). I've also got a Keith Douglas Collected (not 1951 though) - but, apart from a bound set of Poetry London in five volumes, the lavish wartime magazine edited by Tambimuttu - that's it. I've never read Eros in Dogma (Barker is not a favourite poet), Farewell Aggie Weston or either of the Durrells; I know and admire a lot of Roy Fuller's later poetry but not this debut volume. I once chatted to John Heath-Stubbs over a drink at some Poetry Society shindig (we exchanged limericks) and can get by happily without too much R. S. Thomas (you've read one, you've read 'em all - and I know that's one reason why he's so admired). Have just ordered a copy of the Vernon Watkins but feel I may have left it too late to catch up. 

Tolley points out that if we exclude Watkins (who left Cambridge after a year following a nervous breakdown), Keith Douglas (who died aged 24) and John Heath-Stubbs are the only products of 'the ancient universities'. Few of the others went to university and Kavanagh, Clemo and Graham had very little formal education of any kind. This is in striking contrast with the previous generation of so-called McSpaundays - Auden and his gang - who were all middle- and upper-middle-class Oxbridge types. What, if anything, does this tell us about British poetry and British society at the time?

Tolley's chosen poets are also distinctly regionalist or non-metropolitan writers - the Welsh Watkins and the two Thomases, the expatriate Durrell, the Scottish Graham and the Irish Kavanagh. Jack Clemo (who before reading Tolley I'd never even heard of) was from Cornwall. Have you even heard of Clemo?

He's extraordinary - a real discovery. I'll blog about him tomorrow. 

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