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 mostly quickly forgotten. The difference is that they never did write poetry. Kipling does write poetry, but that is not what he is setting out to do…. We expect to have to defend a poet against the charge of obscurity; we have to defend Kipling against the charge of excessive lucidity…. In short, people are exasperated by poetry which they do not understand, and contemptuous of poetry which they understand without effort; just as an audience is offended by a speaker who talks over its head, and by a speaker whom it suspects of talking down to it.
Thus states T.S. Eliot, in his superb 1941 reclamation of Kipling as a primary literary master. Its painfully cautious distinctions make it the most apposite introduction to the kind of writing that occupies Gavin Ewart. As, for example:
ONLY A FEW THOUSAND CAN PLAY
Poetry is a very ancient indoor game
like chess and draughts and knucklebones;
it can arouse emotion, it can be fun,
but you must always remember the galaxies
where the writ of T.S. Eliot does not run,
and the streets that are full of don’t- knows
with other ways of using spare time;
verse-writing is a hobby, or a craft,
pursued by the uncommitted singleton
who into a great sea launches his raft,
not knowing quite where he will land or how,
if the rough rhymes will hold the logs in place
or the dovetailing stand the tall waves.
It’s only then that the artificer
sees how, in rough weather, it behaves.
In both the exposure of a very broad personal sensitivity and the exploitation of language by rhetoric, imagery, meter, and rhyme, Ewart pushes all the old familiar, (and very unfamiliar) possibilities. He is unafraid of the positive declarations of sentiment (or affection) for wife, son, daughter; cats, experimental animals, inequities of Northern Ireland and the City of London; and sex. Philip Larkin, another volunteer and much lamented laureate, was prompted to write that “the most remarkable phenomenon of the English poetic scene during the last ten years has been the advent, or perhaps I should say the irruption of Gavin Ewart.” One of the more important functions of art, as Cocteau knew, was “a rehabilitation of the commonplace.”
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too:
My mother had it at home, framed on a wall.
Now, much less seriously, it’s in the loo
(Kipling’s Commandments) but still advice that you,
if you’re wise, wouldn’t deride at all.
The first two lines seem made for family rows
(it has a sort of floral, mistletoe, border);
“It’s asking a lot!” my daughter says. Tall order
most certainly, fuller of whats than hows!
What feminist would want to be “a man”?
Protestant work-ethic, stern and stoic;
might make a prig—but not a political cat—
yet it’s consoling for the also-ran,
though we can mock, more humble than heroic,
we still can see what he was getting at.
Ewart has written in depth about large subjects of which he has had considerable firsthand data; for example on “The Bofors A A Gun”:
O, that man’s ingenuity, in this so subtle,
In such harmonious synchronization of parts,
Should against man be turned and he complaisant,
The pheasant shooter be himself the pheasant!
He’s written delightful, extended summations of London by evoking its monuments; Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors becomes a chart of historical myth via the daily sensationalist press. The museums of South Kensington, the Natural Science Museum, (What Man Is); the Victoria and Albert, (What Man Creates); the Brompton Oratory, (What Man Believes); the Science Museum, (What Man Knows); ending with “Excavation Road,” (Man Is a Political Animal):
In Excavation Road the traffic crawls.
Progress is slow. The street is full of words
Like HALT and MEN AT WORK. On the long hauls
The diesels fume and fret. Above, the birds
Show no regard for what goes on below.
The family cars, the lovers’ scooters come
All to one common stop. The fast, the slow.
There might well be an answer in the sum
Of small progressions to infinity
(Some praise the closed captivity of trains)—
Meanwhile, in holes, the men work carefully
Avoiding the sky-high-blowing, dan- gerous mains.
A particularly horrendous catalog details “Eight Awful Animals”—Dildo, Masturbon, Panteebra, Fux, Stuffalo, Word Bird, Insex, Spirokeet:
The Dildo wears tweed skirts and Twenties elastic-thighed knickers,
And smokes black cheroots and still calls films “the flickers”
It wears pork-pie hats and is really one of the boys,
It has initiated many pretty girls into forbidden joys….
It has an eye-glass in one eye, and its bad-taste jokes are myriad,
Such as the one about Emily Brontë’s Last Period,
And a good many others that are best left unsaid,
Buried in the old laughter, as the dead bury the dead….
The Masturbon, I must tell you, is a perfect hermaphrodite.
It sleeps during the day and comes into its own at night.
It loves dirty photographs and paws them all over
And it reads whole Police-Stations full of dirty books. It’s really in clover
At a big swinging striptease. The music and the tits
Send it into ecstasies and mild epileptic fits….
(The Fux) wears no clothes except a big hairy false tail,
And the female wears only founda- tion garments such as excite the male.
In country districts it is quite well distributed
And thick woods and high places to it are very suited.
The Fux can never be hunted. It’s too far ahead of its time.
Some day we may catch up with it, when we drag ourselves and the censors out of our primeval slime.
The Word Bird knows that every- body in Britain is frightened to death of words,
So it flies up to a great height and drops them on people like turds….
To the Puritan ears they strike with a loud thud—
And among the genteel (for this reason) its name has always been mud….
The Word Bird eats dictionaries and any printed matter
Sufficiently scarifying to make the crowds scatter—
But it also has several medical terms up its sleeve
And their effect on those who under- stand them you would scarcely believe,
Words that excite with a wild music, like ‘penilingism’ and ‘cunnilingus’,
That pierce the brain like the dis- turbing notes of Charlie Parker or Charlie Mingus….
The Insex is like a large black beetle, it is a professional voyeur
And a consummate actor and a most terrible liar.
It is coloured a very dark clerical grey, with a white collar.
It is a prize creep and worships the Almighty Dollar….
The Insex has a frightening call like an air-raid siren,
It hates all good poetry, but especially Byron.
It loves probing teenagers and telling them about their lives
And explaining to husbands why they don’t get on with their wives….
Many of Ewart’s most thoughtful, depressing, yet impressive verses concern sex. He could be hailed as the most persuasive celebrator of heterosexual lovehate since D.H. Lawrence. Praising the female in her every form—infant, girlfriend; mother, mistress, wife; bitch, goddess, witch, muse, friend—this preoccupation is a hopeless yet happy obsession. He denies it and adores it in something akin to the itch and agony of Rochester, Herrick, and Swift. It’s the flesh that arouses and repels, tantalizes and mesmerizes, in all of its odors, wetness, fur, balefulness, and bliss. In “Memory Man,”
Each man that loves a woman
must be prepared for this
for a sexual love is human
and betrayal by a kiss
is a commonplace and not just in the holy book
and it all begins when your eyes take that first long look.
You must have the boldness
to overcome the moods,
the sulking and the coldness,
your love must live on foods
which wouldn’t keep alive a common tabby cat;
no one can have this without an awful lot of that.
So it’s sadly time to drink up
and let them stack the chairs—
he’s a wise man who can think up
a remedy that bears
much resemblance to an answer (Venus is a jerk?)
for that holiday is over—from now on it’s back to work.
It is not possible to demonstrate the acrobatics of his versifying spectrum with every advantage and complexity of form from Horace through the troubadours to Lallan Scots and today’s Liverpudlian. He does not disdain doggerel where it wags well, and he has rifled every anthology from hymnbook to the Spectator’s weekly competitions. Here is a very astute critic and appreciator who praises and complains in the identical measure of his heroes and victims.
DOUBLE DACTYL: EMILY DICKINSON
Wrote- in a kind of Un-
Dashes- a Cart before
Such a Dark Horse!
It is hardly efficient to attempt to introduce a new talent by an inert mosaic of quotations, the despair both of author and critic. Each sliver chosen might be replaced by many more attractive. The case of Ewart is provocation. There are few poets today who regard their craft as sport rather than confessional. Verse streams out of him like a tidy fountain, the pressure almost at an energetic constant. Mandarin sensibility, the iteration of a self-projected persona owns the success of easier marketing. Give us the fingerprints and we’ve got the goods. An individual voice comes to be recognized as a staple; what is often available is a self-reflective invention, a response to its mirror imagery. When a poet declines to posit his self against the awesome specifics of time’s passage as history, payment is in the charge of pretentiousness. The attraction of Ewart is in a depersonalized persona, a ruddy Englishman, aging slowly, with the light weight of his full and active years, and their correspondence to a lively tradition of verse as urbane action.
This is not to propose Gavin Ewart as something to take the role of Eliot’s Kipling. He is not, as Kipling was, dominantly a balladeer, although his “Gentle Sex,” 1971, is one of the most devastating eyewitness accounts of insensate violence, here set in Northern Ireland, to depict endemic terrorism. An empire that Kipling hymned in its glory, guilt, and cost was of another time which could still draw on King James’s gospel without parody, and something near epic dimensions without apology. Ewart speaks for his particular confraternity in his “Poets”:
We think there’s something wrong
with poets that readers read,
disdaining our soulful song
for some pretentious screed
or poems pure and simple
as beauty’s deluding dimple.
We can’t imagine how
portentous nonsense by A
is loved like a sacred cow,
while dons are carried away
by B’s more rustic stanzas
and C’s banal bonanzas.
We have our minority view
and a sort of trust in Time;
meanwhile in this human zoo
we wander free, or rhyme,
our admirers not very many—
lucky, perhaps, to have any.
Ewart’s map is a secular mosaic, its tiny tesserae, deftly cut, brightly colored, precisely placed. When we are curious about the administration of the British raj in India, ambiguities in the Boer War, craft in civil engineering and the spark in military matters in the first third of this century, we go to Kipling for true tales. For a funny, vivid, and centered conspectus of the years and their raw action since World War II, Gavin Ewart offers something not unlike, in style, wit, and warmth uniquely wondrous.
January 29, 1987