OBITUARY : Gavin Ewart

Tuesday 24 October 1995 00:02 GMT

Gavin Ewart was one of the oddest poetic phenomena of our time.

He came from a conventional upper-class Anglo- Scottish background (his father was a surgeon), and went to Wellington College. There, at the age of 17, he began to contribute poems to the most highly regarded poetry periodical of the day, Geoffrey Grigson's New Verse. These poems were very accomplished and (for the period) rather shocking pieces in the Auden tradition. His first book, Poems and Songs, was published just before his 23rd birthday, in February 1939. It ends with "Days of Contempt", of which this is the first stanza:

Bring me light verse to liquidate my


And make it really light - not dull or


My life may be much happier to-


Hunger and love that press against

the body,

The two eternal needs we recognise,


Desires that so relentlessly pursue

one, -

May get me down or raise me to the


And make me a Don Bradman or

Don Juan.

But this early blaze was short-lived. Having taken his Cambridge degree in 1937, Ewart had briefly become a picture salesman, still contributing to the magazines. But he was caught up in the Second World War and between 1940 and 1946 served in the Royal Artillery, fighting through both North Africa and Italy, and ending up as a Captain. During these years, and thereafter until the early 1960s (in other words for over 20 years) he published hardly any poetry. On demobilisation, he served as a functionary for Editions Poetry London and for the British Council, before becoming an advertising copywriter in 1952.

It was partly through the inspiration of meeting some younger fellow poets during his time as a copywriter that Ewart began to write again, and with new vigour. He always acknowledged that Peter Porter was a prime force in this, and indeed the poems that Ewart began to publish in the 1960s were cunning amalgams of Porter and his always admired Auden.

The moment when Ewart rejoined the literary circuit was in 1964, with the publication of his book Londoners. But this was the merest indication of what was to follow. Within the next quarter-century, Ewart published well over a dozen substantial new books of poetry, along with many small pamphlets, and was editor of half a dozen anthologies. He was invited to read his work all over Britain and in many countries abroad: his new- found reputation in the United States particularly pleased him.

His admirers were not only many, they were of many different literary persuasions: Philip Larkin ("well-shaped pieces, freaked with pain and absurdity"); Stephen Spender ("He is compulsively readable, and from a rather bitter isolation makes devastatingly funny comments on contemporary matters"); Julian Symons (". . . these poems often manage to say something serious within the framework of an elaborate comic conceit"); Clive James (". . . his fertile abundance of technical and thematic invention is no less weighty for being so entertaining").

Ewart played his part in literary life, being sociable, appearing at parties, acting as Chairman of the Poetry Society in 1978-79, contributing to the reviews in the press and on the BBC, and so on. But in all this he had an odd, innocent detachment: he spoke slowly and deliberately, he never appeared to say anything simply for effect, and he was certainly not "witty" in his sociability. The full force of his destabilising wit seemed to be reserved for his poems.

Ewart was almost obsessively drawn to the virtuoso effects of formal devices. Sometimes this was devastating in its newness, as when he wrote "The Gentle Sex", a terrifying picture of an incident of atrocious brutality in Northern Ireland, which he chose to write in the precise stanza form of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "The Wreck of the Deutschland". He played with Japanese haiku and senryu, invented limericks and clerihews of an unprecedented kind, and wrote some prose poems (variations on dictionary definitions) which cannot be read aloud without the reader dissolving into hysterical laughter.

His themes could, I suppose, be narrowed down to sex and death, as so often. But that would not really be accurate. Ewart's vaguely roving eye was drawn to headlines, advertisements, linguistic nonsenses, even versions of literary history (as in his magnificent "2001: The Tennyson/Hardy Poem", in which he laughs at the pretensions of the poet, including himself, while actually achieving a consummate pastiche of both Tennyson and Hardy). His long wartime dryness appeared to give him a long and fruitful life in his more advanced years - years which he himself acknowledged in such titles as Late Pickings (1987) and Penultimate Poems (1989).

The Collected Ewart in 1980, a Further Collected Poems 10 years later and 85 Poems in 1993 show how immensely prolific, skilful and entertaining Gavin Ewart was. His playful seriousness and his dogged cheerfulness, besides, made him a welcome figure on any literary scene.

Anthony Thwaite

Gavin Buchanan Ewart, poet: born London 4 February 1916; Cholmondeley Award for Poetry 1971; FRSL 1981; married 1956 Margo Bennett (one son, one daughter); died London 23 October 1995.

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