They were good lines, whatever they meant

A tribute to two poets: Kingsley Amis, who undervalued his verse, and Gavin Ewart, a talent reborn
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The Independent Online
Two of our leading poets died last week: Kingsley Amis and Gavin Ewart. Amis was one-half of an artistic personality which had once been joined at the hip to Philip Larkin. The two careers complemented each other. Amis felt, and knew that he felt, that however much fame and success you had as a novelist, it would be better to be writing poems. And that was that.

Larkin was a disappointed novelist. He wrote two excellent novels, so he shouldn't have been disappointed. Jill, his Oxford novel, is - despite the fact that Oxford doesn't have a campus - the first campus novel. But Larkin stalled on his third novel, while Amis the novelist never stalled.

For Larkin, to come to be known as the finest poet of his day was a consolation prize. He tormented himself with a vision of a novelist rival:

Who does his five hundred words

Then parts out the rest of the day

Between bathing and booze and birds

These lines have always suggested to me - perhaps I am wrong - that Larkin envied Graham Greene (who was known for a regular output of 300 words a day, lived in the South of France, etcetera), but they apply in a way to Amis as well: regular output, amorous escapades, drink.

Amis could be a great disparager of other poets, but he was constant in deferring (at least when I knew him) to Larkin's gifts. And that perhaps made him undervalue his own achievements in verse.

The disparagement, by the way, was not aimed at the individuals, but rather at the age itself: Amis would ask, not Where are the War Poets? but Where are the Poets? What has happened to our age? Once there were giants - now there is only the second-rate. And he didn't want to be told the opposite. Like Larkin, he had gone into mourning for what had once been good - literature, jazz, the language, grammar. They've taken something excellent, and they've ruined it - that was the Larkin feeling, and the Amis feeling. But friends would shake their heads at the apparent glee with which Kingsley would check up on some author he had once admired, only to find - aha! - that he wasn't any good after all. The more he made this discovery, the less there was left to enjoy.

The Damascus conversion to the Right had occurred some time in the late Sixties - the time of the Black Papers and the notorious right-wing lunch club. But Amis did not, in fact, find right-wingers such particularly congenial company. When I met him regularly, in the Seventies, it was in the context of a group of friends associated with the New Statesman and his son Martin. Nobody shared his political opinions - and that, I think, suited him nicely.

He was glad of company. If I try to recall him at his very best, it is at the Hampstead home he shared with Elizabeth Jane Howard. He opens the door and his face lights up, not because we are necessarily his favourite people, but because there is something he is bursting to say, and here we are, his audience. So there's an expression that says something like: "Oh good, the band's arrived."

Gavin Ewart, whose poetry was admired both by Amis and by Larkin, was blessed with an extraordinary disposition. He had been a precocious poet in the Thirties, then the war blotted all that out for a while. But much later on, he became a precocious poet again. He seems, having found the trick of turning on the tap, to have made the decision never to turn it off again. He would write poems, and it didn't matter whether they were trivial or profound so long as they got written.

And so he made the writing of poetry not the exceptional, privileged moment it was for Larkin, but the normal everyday activity. Anything he saw or read or talked about might be a proper subject for a poem. He had the precocious child's certainty that he would be loved for whatever he did. He once wrote a poem expressing delight at the thought that he would live to an old age and be extremely well known for his poetry - he chose the year 2001 for his target. He almost made it. And his reputation was always growing. But you had to be prepared to take him on his own terms - take the footling with the solemn. Otherwise you would simply miss the point.

He took delight in other poets' successes. For instance, he clearly adored Larkin's poetry, and, when he saw something he adored he would imitate it, parody it, take it to pieces to see how it worked, dress it up in a surprising new way. Larkin's "Whitsun Weddings" turned, in Ewart's hands, into a poem about an automatic car-wash, a sustained performance that must have begun on a mere whim.

Just as the baffling poem "Or Where a Young Penguin Lies Screaming", which gave the title to one of his collections, transparently arose from the feeling "that's a good line, whatever it means", Ewart wrote several poems that were simply collections of what he considered good lines, whatever they meant. One of these is called "The Great Lines".

His first volume, called Poems and Songs, was published in 1939; his second, called Londoners, is dated 1964. So he is the patron saint of people who think they have writer's block, or who suddenly notice that a quarter of a century has passed without anything being achieved.

Ewart in his first incarnation was the last, the youngest poet of the Thirties. In his second, he was a part of the swinging Sixties - rather a different sort of world, but there is a connection. It was around the time that Ewart resumed writing that the reaction against Auden began to abate, and the attacks on him to lose their force or necessity. Ewart was able to include a line in a poem to the effect that Auden was the greatest English poet since Pope. There was a sense in which, around that time, Auden acquired a second school of admirers. Ewart belonged to both the first and the second school.

I never heard Gavin Ewart spoken of, by other poets, without deep affection. He was an encouragement to us all.