A Poet in Politics

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People 1933-1970

by Stephen Spender
Random House, 236 pp., $10.00

Terrorism and Trade Unionism, the most obvious forces at work in the politics of the free countries of Europe today, have almost nothing to offer to the literary imagination. This is in part because they are parodies or degenerate mutants of old-fashioned capitalism and its robber barons, exercising by force and fraud a degraded form of private enterprise at the expense of liberal institutions. Neither offers any real idea of an alternative society in the romantic sense in which anarchism and socialism once did. This fact alone makes the political climate of the Thirties, as it appeared to poets and intellectuals, seem infinitely far away, a fairy tale age of “new styles of architecture, a change of heart,” an age in which it was possible, even on the verge of a frightful abyss, to believe in human nature being born again.

The special flavor of Stephen Spender’s writing is, above all, a political flavor; its true originality that of a poet who swims in political and social speculation like a fish in water. Almost alone among authors who reflect upon the times (and they are not in short supply) he has a style of great directness and simplicity which, whether in poetry or in prose, seems to dissolve the hard gritty concepts and abstractions, the self-importance and self-protectiveness which the most sensitive intellectuals clutch about themselves and weave into their syntax and grammar. In a critical essay Spender once made a distinction between opaque and transparent styles. His own is extremely transparent: it seems artless, but without wishing to seem to conceal art.

The question of style is important, because it is by the formation of what may be called a style that most poets, novelists, and intellectuals who are associated with attitudes to events of the Thirties and after responded to those events. The most obvious style would be the jargon of the Party, with its comforting stress on the correct line, the historically inevitable solution. Malraux, Sartre, Koestler, Graham Greene—even, in their almost comically different fashion, Auden and Isherwood—exhibit subtler versions of this protective extrusion of style, a verbal version of the need to escape from the imbecile irrelevance of a society falling apart, to create a world elsewhere. The great strength of Spender, which gives a curious authority to his recollections, his narrative of his own and others’ feelings and responses, is that he never seems to have needed such a world or made any attempt to create one. His curiosity, his creative energy seem alike much more literal, more simplistic in a way, and all the more effective for that in presenting a medium in which other worlds may appear like the weeds and stones a fish encounters, in which the Thirties and the Seventies both seem present and alive, unhistorical and all around us. He regards the phenomena past and present in his life with an imagination of his own, which does not seem to be a literary imagination.

Spender has often been lumped…

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