BOOK REVIEW / Process of being a poet: 'Dolphins' - Stephen Spender: Faber, 12.99/ 5.99

Click to follow
WHEN, at the age of 20, Stephen Spender met T S Eliot for the first time and was asked what he wanted to do, he said 'Be a poet' - to which Eliot replied spikily: 'I can understand you wanting to write poems but I don't quite know what you mean by 'being a poet'.' But Spender knew, and has stuck at it for 65 years since then, producing dozens of volumes, not one but two Collected Poems, and three major autobiographical works. Lecturing, reading, occupying chairs; Spender has not only been one of the most prolific, respected and honoured poets of the 20th century, but the most doggedly professional of them all.

Most respected, but least quoted, perhaps. Spender's only really quotable line, 'I think continually of those who are truly great', is memorable for all the wrong reasons. 'The Pylons', 'The Landscape near an Aerodrome' and 'An Elementary School Class Room' are the stock Spender anthology canon: one remembers the occasions they describe almost photographically, but never the words used. Spender is simply not very interested in language, and this seems peculiar, even offensive, in a poet. What does interest him intensely, and what he strives to celebrate throughout his new collection, are moments of human sympathy; not nature, nor even human nature, but people. This applies even to the poems of the Thirties, for all their yearning after metalwork, but especially to his post-war collections, and these recent quiet poems about friends. He is a true society poet.

This is poetry by identification, and Spender's fluidity, his ability to re-shape himself - even his habit of revising and tinkering with previously 'completed' work - can be seen to be totally appropriate. The identification doesn't always come off, of course; the longest and most overtly ambitious poem in this new collection, 'Poetes Maudits', and another biographical poem about Simone Weil, called 'History and Reality', are notable earnest flops. Hesitancy is Spender's forte; his most effective poems emerge from it and his wordiness is not just at home there, but a gauge of sincerity. In Dolphins there are several poems, including the title-poem, which turn on being tongue-tied, and others, such as 'Letter from an Ornithologist in Antarctica' and 'The Palatine Anthology', which deflect Spender's own voice through quotation, reported speech or translation.

This is a sort of deference to the occasion, and particularly effective in the elegaic poems. It is as if Spender sees himself as a conduit set between the past and the future, desperately trying to latch on to the present tense. The dolphins he watches can make a sign that means 'I am]', but Spender himself is complicated by continuity, a theme which pervades the love-poem 'Grandparents':

We ourselves

Though ancient, not yet ghosts, feel two-dimensional

Cardboard cut-outs of grandparents

With one soul, like some flower plucked at a picnic

A century ago - pressed between pages

Of an ancient tome - absorbing ink each side -

One chapter's ending and the next's beginning.

Dolphins is a slim volume, yet contains two poems of which Spender should be proud, 'Laughter' and 'Farewell to My Student'. It is reassuring to see that in the process of being a poet, he also manages to write such poems.