Peter Batten writes about poetry . . .
When World War 2 began I was just six years old. When it finished I was twelve. I spent those years living in, or very close to London. So I was part of a generation whose earliest memories were of a nightmare of bombing and destruction. That experience has left me with a firm conviction that the world is a cruel, spiteful place and that to live in it is to take part in a meaningless lottery of suffering or happiness. Shortly after the end of the war our local vicar called on my mother to make arrangements for my confirmation. “I’m sorry”, she told him, “He doesn’t believe a word of it.”
Where is this leading me? Surprisingly to some comments about English Poetry. In my late teens I discovered a growing interest in poetry. At that time our poetry was dominated by the work of WB Yeats, who died in 1938, and TS Eliot, who had recently published his “Four Quartets” which were widely admired. The reputation of these two poets has been maintained or even grown since those years. When we look back to the 1930s, only one poet stands out: WH Auden. Although many poets were published, often with Socialist or even Communist sympathies, today their work seems, at best, mediocre. The 1940s are even more disappointing. The war years produced two or three minor war poets, but nothing to match the remarkably powerful verse written by several poets during World War 1.
Most of the poetry of the 1940s has been given the title ‘Neo-Romantic’, while the writers and artists were often dreadful poseurs and pseudo-bohemians. It is amazing that this coterie did foster two of our very greatest painters: Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. One poet of any quality stood out: Dylan Thomas. Even his place as a major poet is still hotly debated.
So, for a new poetry enthusiast, the 1950s were anticipated with some anxiety. Was English Poetry dead? What was about to happen? If you have read my article to this point, let me re-assure you. I am not about to lead you into an examination of several obscure poems. The happy conclusion that I wish to reach is that WW2 had a very healthy influence on our poetry. Most of the young people who endured the nightmare did not emerge as committed Communists or pseudo-bohemians. They brought a very serious devotion to their poetry.
This devotion declared itself in two ways. The first was by a very close attention to the craft of poetry. Much of the poetry written since 1930 had been very careless about language and displayed a lack of thought about verse forms. The important poets who began to write in the 1950s paid scrupulous attention to the meaning of words and thought very carefully about the verse forms which they used. They found valuable examples in the poetry of Thomas Hardy. Robert Conquest, though not an important poet, acted as a valuable spokesman for his contemporaries.
The second major declaration was a strong shift of attention. The poets of the 1950s, major or minor, were interested in the lives of their fellow human beings. For example, the Welsh poet RS Thomas devoted many of his poems to expressions of sympathy and admiration for the lives of his parishioners, the hill farmers of North Wales. Other people were not seen as “The Proletariat” or lovable eccentrics, but fellow travellers on the journey to try to make sense of life.
Three outstanding poets began to be recognised. The first to be published was Thom Gunn, who would go on to spend most of his life in the United States. His first volume, ‘On the Move’, explored the surprising choices people make to give meaning to their lives. He brought to this work a willingness to employ a variety of verse forms, which he used with great skill. He was soon followed by Ted Hughes, who would become one of our most prolific poets and, eventually, Poet Laureate. Hughes immediately made a strong impression with his appreciation of the power and strangeness of the natural world. Like Gunn’s, his poems showed a scrupulous attention to language and a careful search for the appropriate form.
Above all, there was the work of Philip Larkin. He began to impress by his subtle use of the nuances of language. Like Gunn, he would set these carefully polished expressions of meaning within poetic forms that would strengthen their effect. His major subject was other people and how they make sense of their lives. Or, of course, how they fail to find any meaning for their lives. His poem, ‘Mr Bleaney’ captures the loneliness and isolation which many felt in the 1950s. Today the problem remains.
So, what is my point? Although World War 2 was so horrific for those of us who had to spend our childhood in a nightmare, it did have an important effect in renewing our poetry. Poets like Gunn, Hughes and Larkin were more deeply serious about their work than almost anyone since 1930, Auden excepted. They worked hard on their poems. And they had the strongest motivation: they were writing about the struggle to make sense of life when you have witnessed the depths of human cruelty and stupidity.