Of exile and oral sex

Lachlan Mackinnon celebrates an underrated poetic original; Selected Poems 1933-1993 by Gavin Ewart, Hutchinson, pounds 9.99
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Gavin Ewart died last year at the age of 79. His first collection, Poems and Songs, appeared in 1938, when he was 22, but there was a long hiatus before Londoners (1964). From then on, he became one of the most copious poets of his time: his Collected Poems, now shamefully out of print, filled two thick volumes.

Ewart was famously and splendidly ribald, as he showed in making this Selected Poems before he died. "The Tart of the Lower Sixth", for instance, has the memorable line, "The whole of the choir /Sings of me and of my oral sex!" However, too much was made of this aspect in his lifetime, to the disadvantage of his serious work.

In "The Hut", Ewart remembers a sister who died. At night, he sees the shed where she used to paint, remembers details of her life, and then the last stanza reads:

The friends and sisters go; and all who

had in that past smiled

(and some had beauty, some were

bright with wit)

must forfeit health and come to this

one room

as dark with memory as a Victorian


and we must wrestle with under-

standing it

until from life and hope we are exiled.

The kick is in the last word, where the mellifluous rhyming suddenly breaks down because our voices naturally emphasise the first rather than the second syllable. The open vowels set against each other make a catch in the throat which picks the word "exiled" out so that its full finality becomes clear.

This kind of detailed technical analysis is particularly worth doing with Ewart because it is so easy to be misled by the sheer boisterousness of his gift. There are poems in Lallans and Latin here, parodies, rewritings of famous poems into modern idioms, squibs, epigrams and elegies. Only Ewart would think of describing his own Scottishness as "Like Robert Louis Stevenson living in Samoa, /like George MacBeth living in Sheffield, /like Ian Brady living in Greater Manchester". Only Ewart could have written "A Pindaric Ode on the Occasion of the Third Test Match Between England and Australia, Played at Headingley, - 16-21 July, 1981", a "dithyrambic doggerel".

"He's very popular among his mates", Ewart wrote in "Seamus Heaney". "I think I'm Auden. He thinks he's Yeats." Auden's influence is transparent in Ewart's concern with formal variety and his disregard for the distinction between light and serious verse. Ewart acknowledged the debt frequently. However, the inclusion here of "I.M. Anthony Blunt" makes something else clear. "It's sad /you were shaken by a maverick clever buccaneer like Guy".

The chatty reference to Burgess and the sense of "time past" remind us how much Ewart remained a Thirties humanist, deeply sceptical about the world of business and advertising (in which he worked), deeply concerned with social injustice. The light-hearted scurrility for which he was renowned was motivated by a desire to liberate. It did not deflect him from writing a terrifying masterpiece like "The Gentle Sex" (1974).

This poem deals with violence between women in Northern Ireland. Too long to quote, it cries out to be read, an account of horror written by a man of unrelenting human decency. Like much in this selection, it goes to show how much more Gavin Ewart had to offer than the comic writing for which he was acclaimed.