Collected Poems, 1948-1998
by D.J. Enright
Oxford University Press, 508 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Dennis Joseph Enright, a British poet born in 1920 and still writing, spent his active life as a professor of English literature, mostly abroad. Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor is his witty and often appalling account of that life, its title derived from the official reproof he received in 1960 from the minis-ter for labor in Singapore. Enright, during his inaugural university lecture on Robert Graves, had called for freedom of cultural expression, and criticized confected displays of governmentally acceptable “culture.” The ministerial document reads in part:
Your duties were to supervise the teaching of English at the University….
You have arrogated to yourself functions and duties which are reserved only for citizens of this country and not visitors, including mendicant professors….
We have no time for asinine sneers by passing aliens about the futility of “sarong culture complete with pantun competitions” particularly when it comes from beatnik professors….
You will be packing your bags and seeking green pastures elsewhere if your gratuitous advice on these matters should land us in a mess.
The controversy made the front page of the Singapore newspaper, and became known as “The Enright Affair,” but it was by no means the only such run-in that Enright had had. Earlier, when he was teaching in Egypt, the university registrar had called him in and objected to his answer, on a personnel form, to the question “Religion”:
I had declared myself a Wesleyan Methodist. Not entirely facetiously, for such had been my last religious affiliation. Wesleyan Methodism, I contended, was an eminently respectable sort of religion. “Yes, yes,” he said sorrowfully, “But you see, They thought it might be something…something Jewish…. Please Mr. Enright, if you don’t mind, would you cross it out and write in something else?” “What?” I asked, “Church of England?” “Oh yes,” he replied, “that would be very good!” Feeling like an apostate I made the change, and the Secret Police at once lost all interest in me.
Interrogations, nights in jail, interpolations by soldiers—these incidents make Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor uneasy, if amusing, reading. Some of these sinister (if in retrospect comic) moments appear as well in Enright’s novels such as Academic Year (1955) and Figures of Speech (1965), which turn on the misunderstandings possible between East and West. Moments of culture shock also turn up in his poetry, as I shall have occasion to say below.
In spite of professorial duties in Egypt, Japan, Germany, Thailand, and Singapore, and in spite of giving lectures, writing books (novels, reviews, literary criticism), and editing various anthologies (among them, The Oxford Book of Death and The Faber Book of Fevers and Frets), Enright continued to pour forth the poems now collected in this Oxford volume. His wit remains undimmed, his bleakness uncompromised, his self-irony ever-present, down to the last page of this book, where one finds the poet—in a 1997 group of poems called “A Hospital Journal”—lying in a postoperative ward among his fellow patients. One …