The Gavin Ewart Show: Selected Poems 19391985
by Gavin Ewart
Bits Press, 140 pp., $8.95 (paper)
The Young Pobble’s Guide to his Toes
by Gavin Ewart
Hutchinson/David & Charles, 142 pp., $13.95 (paper)
The very notion of poet laureate summons up a figure of fun. This in no way denigrates our present national incumbent, certainly a most appropriate choice. But if one admits the faint risibility of certain verses by past laurel-crowned Britons, the chief of current comedians in the observance of public occasions is Gavin Ewart, now finally well introduced to the American audience. Recently, he was runner-up for the butt of Canary wine traditionally awarded by the Sovereign to his or her most loyal bard. This time Ted Hughes won, but it was the victory of a poet of lyric sensibility over a virtuoso ironist, not of nature raw in tooth and claw, but of soldiering, board rooms, urban discontent, family joy and horror, and sex, sex, sex. Gavin Ewart, by virtue of profligate prolificity, as well as response to every noteworthy incident of immediate history except its official reaction, is England’s most legitimate successor to John Betjeman. We recall that neither William Morris nor Swinburne was appointed poet laureate, nor was Auden, owing in part to his shift in citizenship. But it is doubtful whether he might have served or satisfied.
Before Wordsworth accepted, he made the condition that he need not note those stuffy events which Tennyson did not disdain to honor. There is a long tradition of the throne’s patronage of poets from Chaucer to Ben Jonson. Versifiers were acknowledged by Richard Lionheart to Elizabeth I. After centuries of “volunteer” laureates including Gower, Spenser, and Samuel Daniel, in 1668, by letters patent, John Dryden was deemed worthy of three hundred pounds per annum and the wine. Tennyson got twenty-seven pounds in lieu of the barrel of sack.
Ever since the Hitler war, Gavin Ewart has been volunteer laureate. Although almost annual publication now claims for him a national readership, there are difficulties in making his work available to an American following. It is by no means that his idiom is parochial, although his language, like Kipling’s and Betjeman’s, takes advantage of every shifting rage and fad of common taste and parlance. His imagery derives from the music hall, the corner pub, literary luncheons, boardroom military slang, the argot of cities Anglican and Mediterranean. And the subject is life as it’s lived in and out of newspapers, plus sex, sex, sex.
Ewart was born in London, 1916, son of a surgeon and a surgeon’s daughter. He was educated at Wellington, a semi-military school, and at Christ’s College, Cambridge. From 1941, for seven years, he was attached to the Royal Artillery, with active service in Italy. Then, until 1971, he worked for a number of eminent advertising agencies. More recently he has given readings in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. In hard-and soft-cover some twenty volumes are edited in The Collected Ewart: 1933–1980.
There have been many writers of verse who have not aimed at writing poetry: with the exception of the few writers of humorous verse, they are …