Read Six Poets Online

Authors: Alan Bennett

Six Poets

Six Poets

also by Alan Bennett

PLAYS ONE

(
Forty Years On, Getting On, Habeas Corpus, Enjoy
)

PLAYS TWO

(
Kafka's Dick, The Insurance Man, The Old Country, An Englishman Abroad, A Question of Attribution
)

THE LADY IN THE VAN

OFFICE SUITE

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS

THE HISTORY BOYS

THE HABIT OF ART

PEOPLE

HYMN
and
COCKTAIL STICKS

television plays

ME, I'M AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

(
A Day Out, Sunset Across the Bay, A Visit from Miss Prothero, Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Green Forms, The Old Crowd, Afternoon Off
)

ROLLING HOME

(
One Fine Day, All Day on the Sands, Our Winnie, Rolling Home, Marks, Say Something Happened, Intensive Care
)

TALKING HEADS

screenplays

A PRIVATE FUNCTION

(
The Old Crowd, A Private Function, Prick Up Your Ears, 102 Boulevard Haussmann, The Madness of King George
)

THE HISTORY BOYS: THE FILM

autobiography

THE LADY IN THE VAN

WRITING HOME

UNTOLD STORIES

A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE'S

fiction

THREE STORIES

(
The Laying on of Hands, The Clothes They Stood Up In, Father! Father! Burning Bright
)

THE UNCOMMON READER

SMUT: TWO UNSEEMLY STORIES

Six Poets

Hardy to Larkin

An anthology by
ALAN BENNETT

First published in 1990 as
Poetry in Motion
by Channel 4 Television, 60 Charlotte Street, London, WIP 2AX. This edition first published in Great Britain in 2014 by Faber & Faber Ltd and Profile Books Ltd. First published in the United States in 2015 by Yale University Press.

Editorial material © Alan Bennett, 1990, 2014. Poems © the Estates of the individual authors. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers.

Yale University Press books may be purchased in quantity for educational, business, or promotional use. For information, please e-mail
[email protected]
(U.S. office) or
[email protected]
(U.K. office).

Typeset by Country Setting, Kingsdown, Kent.
Printed in the United States of America.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015936741
ISBN
978-0-300-21505-2 (hardcover: alk. paper)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This paper meets the requirements of
ANSI/NISO Z
39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Contents

Introduction

Thomas Hardy

A. E. Housman

John Betjeman

W. H. Auden

Louis MacNeice

Philip Larkin

Index of Titles and First Lines

Acknowledgements

Introduction

When I was young, I used to feel that literature was a club of which I would never be a proper member as a reader, let alone a writer. It wasn't that I didn't read books, or even the ‘right' books, but I always felt that the ones I read couldn't be literature if only because I had read them. It was the books I couldn't get into (and these included most poetry) that constituted literature – or, rather, Literature.

After a lifetime, these feelings of impotence and exclusion are still fresh in my mind. I have only to hear someone extolling the charms of Byron, say, or Coleridge, neither of whom I've ever managed to read, to be reminded of how baffled one can feel in the face of books.

Mindful of this, when I put together
Poetry in Motion
, the Channel 4 series from which this book derives, I didn't make any bones about admitting what I didn't understand or sympathise with. I'm all at sea with much of Auden, for instance, but feel less of a fool saying so because that kind of plain speaking is a refreshing feature of Auden's own literary criticism. Auden is an exception, though, because the poets and poems I chose are all in differing degrees accessible. This seemed to me essential. Obviously, any poem repays study, but if it is only to be heard once and
without detailed exposition, then a poem should be understandable at first hearing.

‘Accessible' is another way of saying ‘popular', and at least three of these poets – Housman, Betjeman and Larkin – are popular poets, much read and often quoted. The more a poet is read, the less he is written about. Criticism prefers an enigma, so Auden's opaque and highly allusive verse has received much more critical attention than that of Betjeman or Housman, though since the enigma of Housman lies more in his life than in his art, he has had more than his share of biography.

That clarity should be penalised by critical neglect is perhaps unfair, though it's not every writer who welcomes critical attention. ‘I am more or less happy when being praised,' wrote the politician Arthur Balfour, ‘not very comfortable when being abused, but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained.' While Balfour was not a poet, few writers enjoy being grilled about their text, hoping that they've made themselves clear, and if they haven't, that's a way of saying something, too. Posthumous commentary they can't do much about, but famished for subjects, some critics don't wait for death before hacking a chunk off their chosen prey and retiring to the academic undergrowth to chew it over. Auden suffered this fate, though airily. Larkin escaped it, perhaps because he had made his distaste so plain. In his poem ‘Posterity', for instance, he imagines Jake Balokowsky, his fictional biographer, musing over the character of his subject: ‘“What's he like? … One of those old-type
natural
fouled-up guys.”' But if, while he lived, Larkin kept the commentators at bay, his death in 1985 gave criticism the green light, and the hearse was followed
by a volume of critical essays, many of them couched in terms that would have made the poet groan.

It was Larkin, though, who said that a crude difference between novels and poetry is that novels are about other people and poetry is about yourself. This isn't beyond dispute – Hardy, for instance, discouraged the reading of his poems as personal documents – but there is enough truth in it to justify an approach to these six poets through their lives. Justify it in Britain, that is – the current taste for biography (and gossip) about literary figures being a peculiarity of the English-speaking. It mystifies the Germans and the French, and it irritates authors, too. Hardy put together an official version of his life, which he fathered on the second Mrs Hardy, hoping that it would put paid to further revelations. Auden insisted (while enjoying biography himself) that his own biography should not be written – a useless embargo as since his death there have been any number – and while Larkin did not expressly forbid a biography, the bonfires burned in his garden just as they had in Hardy's.

A writer's motives in wanting an authorised version (or no version at all) of his or her life vary. Everybody has something to hide (even if it's only that they have nothing to hide), but writers in particular feel that, since they have erected a monument in the shape of their work, a second (or a third or a fourth) tombstone is neither necessary nor desirable. They could point to Kafka, who has practically got a cemetery to himself.

Readers for their part tend to imagine that the poem is just what the poet has seen fit to put in the shop window and that there's something tastier under the counter, which
it is the job of the biographer to sniff out. Whether this turns out to be the case or not, writers ought to realise that any attempt to supervise their posthumous reputation is futile (though a surviving spouse tethered to the grave works wonders in scaring off trespassers). And some knowledge of a poet's life must add to the pleasure and understanding of his or her poetry. What the poet is afraid of is that the life will somehow invalidate the art (cries of ‘He's insincere!', ‘She's inconsistent!'). But you can enjoy literary biography while at the same time recognising that the literary works, once written, have an independent existence, regardless of the circumstances in which they were produced. Hardy's poems lyrically recalling Emma, his first wife, are not diminished as poems because of the truth (or the other truth) that the poet had treated Emma pretty shabbily. Though one could excuse the estate agent who, having read Auden's ‘In Praise of Limestone', sends the poet a prospectus of desirable residences set amid the chuckling springs of rural Westmorland, only to be told that what the perfidious bastard really prefers is a shack on the parched island of Ischia.

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