The Talented, Trapped Spenders

Stephen Spender, New York Review editor Robert Silvers, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Natasha Spender, New York City, 1980s
Dominique Nabokov
Stephen Spender, New York Review editor Robert Silvers, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Natasha Spender, New York City, 1980s

In the mid-1980s an Irish radio program asked me to go to Sligo in the west of Ireland, to the W.B. Yeats Summer School, to interview the poet Stephen Spender, who was a guest at the school. Since the radio program centered on current affairs more than literary matters, I was asked to concentrate on Berlin in the 1920s, the Spanish civil war, and then include, if I wanted, the writers of the 1930s who had been friends of Spender’s, such as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

Spender was tall, gentle in his manners, oddly imposing, and also polite and distant. It was not lost on him, it struck me, that all of the matters under discussion had occurred fifty years earlier. I felt slightly sheepish that I had nothing to ask him about an entire half-century of his life. But he kept whatever resentment he might have harbored about this to himself. He spoke well. When the interview was done, however, he seemed weary.

It was only later that I discovered I had pressed the “play” button on the machine rather than “record” and thus the interview had not been taped. When I found Spender and told him this, he agreed in a matter-of-fact way to redo the interview. His replies to my questions the second time—his account of Berlin and Spain and his life as a young poet—were word-for-word the same as the interview I had failed to record. He knew this story by heart.

Before he turned and left the room, Spender gave me a look that remains with me to this day. His weariness appeared even greater than before, almost unearthly; the expression on his face exuded a sense of a deep, hard inner pain. A wave both shivering and darkly wounded crossed his countenance.

That evening he gave a reading of his poems to a large audience. Some of the poems seemed slack, almost lazy, lacking the ironic, or self-protective, tone we had become used to in contemporary poetry. His “Almond Tree by a Bombed Church,” dedicated to Henry Moore, for example, could have been from a greeting card. It began:

Jewel-winged almond tree,
Alighting here on bended knee—

To the shattered street you bring
Annunciation of Spring—

But there were a few times that evening when another Spender emerged—grave, serious, haunted, closer to the vulnerable figure I had seen at the end of the interview, as in the opening stanzas of the poem “If It Were Not”:

If it were not for that
Lean executioner, who stands
Ever beyond a door
With axe raised in both hands—

All my days here would be

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