Magazine article The Spectator

Anyway, It Isn't True

Magazine article The Spectator

Anyway, It Isn't True

Article excerpt

WHERE DID IT ALL GO RIGHT?

by A. Alvarez

Richard Cohen Books, L20, pp. 344

An infuriated William Blake wrote in the margin of Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses, 'This Man is Hired to Depress Art.'

There were times, in the late 1950s, early 1960s, when some of us young poets were tempted to write the same in the margins of Observer poetry articles by A. Alvarez. It was a period when all the world was trying to come to terms with the still fresh revelations of the Nazi death-camps - which attacked the notion of our common humanity; also, with the significance of the atomic bomb - which gave humanity the power of self-destruction. We thought and felt some human reconstruction was needed, as T. S. Eliot did in 'Ash Wednesday', 'having to construct something/Upon which to rejoice', because we thought and felt - and somehow knew - that there did remain some reason to do so.

Alvarez would have none of this. He was influential, it was the time when Sunday papers like the Observer could be taken seriously, and in its pages -- difficult, these days, to imagine - he acted as what might be called now 'a poetry Czar'. He favoured a poetry that contained and reflected the intellectual and emotional disarray of the world, which did not seek to ameliorate it. Any such attempt was dismissed as deriving from 'the gentility principle'; a brilliant tactic, because nothing in England sticks so fast as opprobrium vaguely connected with class feeling. Alvarez's preference was for the evidently disturbed. (He even favoured John Donne because, he decided, Donne 'was a martyr to depression'.)

The maddening thing, for us, was that the contemporary poets Alvarez tirelessly promoted were all, in different ways, good: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes. What they had in common was that they all wrote 'at the edge', of control, of sanity. Two eventually killed themselves, one suffered periodic bouts of madness, and the relentless anthropomorphic violence of Ted Hughes's Crow told its own story. Alvarez later wrote The Savage God, about suicide and his own failed attempt. Despair, self-destruction were the badge of authenticity.

This was not just fatuous -- anyway, it isn't true (enough) - it is also dangerous. Because whatever Auden had said, poetry can (eventually) make things happen. It is therefore heartening to learn from this autobiography that Auden was watching Alvarez, from across the Atlantic, and with anger. …

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