‘Good Voices Are Rare’

Most of the poetry of William Empson was written and published by 1940, but Empson had an interesting career and influence as a poet. While he was well known and liked in the Thirties, it was in the Fifties that he became a cult figure among writers, and it is in the Fifties that we can really feel his influence extending to other poets on both sides of the Atlantic. In England we find it among the poets and novelists known loosely as the Movement, especially in the work of John Wain. In America no doubt the criticism for which Empson was also famous became a vector for his poetic influence: Marianne Moore recommended Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity to Elizabeth Bishop in the Thirties; Richard Eberhart, who had studied at Cambridge with I.A. Richards and Empson, taught Robert Lowell at boarding school; Randall Jarrell was an admirer of Empson; and so the list could continue.

The way Empson saw it, he and Auden had been rivals. So he wrote to his mother in 1938 from Hong Kong that “the great Auden was here, who used to be a kind of rival poet to me and is now a prominent figure.” Whether Auden saw things that way I do not know, but perhaps we can detect a perceived rivalry (to put it no higher than that) in a review written by Louis MacNeice in 1935, in Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse. The reviewer concedes that “there is no reason why poetry (some poetry) should not be clever, frigid, frivolous—even in the serious way that Cambridge intellectuals are frivolous.” But while acknowledging Empson’s ingenuity, MacNeice wrote that he

would not say that Mr. Empson is either a good poet or the kind of poet who is required at the moment…. There is not enough blood and sweat in him. Inhuman poetry has its place but today is not its day…. In poetry we want a spareness and clarity (whether Wordsworthian, Drydenic, or Freudian). The clever fellows must wait to show off some other day.1

Certainly Empson thought that his being a Cambridge poet would be held against him by Auden’s circle, that he would not be allowed into that circle. In a television tribute to Auden in 1975 he made the following observation:

It is very hard, you see, to write what years later people called pylon poetry—to write about how you ought to have the socialist state and how you’d like it—without sounding phoney. And Auden somehow made it sound perfectly sincere by making it sound as if he was jeering at you for not being more sensible, but you didn’t quite know what he was laughing at, but you could hear this, this mysterious tone of fun going on. It seemed to be immensely impressive. That was what was so striking about him. And he has moved away from it and so have all the pylon poets, who by the way were all Oxford when I…

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