n The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) Ben Lerner wrote that ‘poetry isn’t hard. It's impossible’ and this, he argued, is because the ‘abstract potential’ of a poem is compromised when it becomes part of the world, that the creation of poetry is in itself a betrayal of the original impulse to write. So, he continues, all poets are destined to fail and to fail as a poet is to fail not only artistically but also existentially.
It's fair to say that although he was not by any means a failure Kenneth Allott (1912–1973) did not fulfil his early promise as a poet and is today best known, if at all, for the much-anthologised ‘Lament for a Cricket Eleven’, first published when he was 26. One of the finest poems of the Thirties, this is an existential score card recording the various fates of a group of young cricketers photographed in 1905.
LAMENT FOR A CRICKET ELEVEN by Kenneth Allott
Beyond the edge of the sepia
Rises the weak photographer
With the moist moustaches and the made-up tie.
He looked with his mechanical eye,
And the upshot was that they had to die.
Portrait of the Eleven nineteen-o-five
To show when these missing persons were last alive.
Two sit in Threadneedle Street like gnomes.
One is a careless schoolmaster
Busy with carved desks, honour and lines.
He is eaten by a wicked cancer.
They have detectives to watch their homes.
From the camera hood he looks at the faces
Like the spectral pose of the praying mantis.
Watch for the dicky-bird. But, oh my dear,
That bird will not migrate this year.
Oh for a parasol, oh for a fan
To hide my weak chin from the little man.
One climbs mountains in a storm of fear,
Begs to be unroped and left alone.
One went mad by a tape-machine.
One laughed for a fortnight and went to sea.
Like a sun one follows the jeunesse dorée.
With his hand on the bulb he looks at them.
The smiles on their faces are upside down.
‘I’ll turn my head and spoil the plate.’
‘Thank you, gentlemen.’ Too late. Too late.
One greyhead was beaten in a prison riot.
He needs injections to keep him quiet.
Another was a handsome clergyman,
But mortification has long set in.
One keeps six dogs in an unlit cellar.
The last is a randy bachelor.
The photographer in the norfolk jacket
Sits upstairs in his darkroom attic.
His hand is expert at scissors and pin.
The shadows lengthen, the days draw in,
And the mice come out round the iron stove.
‘What I am doing, I am doing for love.
When shall I burn this negative
And hang the receiver up on grief?’
© the Estate of Kenneth Allott and Salt Publishing, with permission.
The Great War is never explicitly mentioned, although that ‘storm of fear’ is certainly suggestive. The troubled ex-cricketers (and future ex-servicemen) will all become social outcasts, misfits prone to ennui, illness, criminality and insanity, while the photographer himself becomes an avatar of the Grim Reaper: ‘He looked with his mechanical eye, And the upshot was that they had to die.’
The poem came to mind recently when I acquired a copy of New Oxford Poetry 1936, one of fifty deluxe editions published by Basil Blackwell. A slim octavo in decorated boards, it features one of Allott’s earliest appearances in print. My copy (number 20) has been signed by all twenty-seven contributors—one pictures a crowded room more than eighty years ago, filled with chattering laughter as each young poet waits in line to sign the book that bears his or her name. There’s a light haze of cigarette smoke, the clink of glasses.
‘Oxford Poetry is dead’ is the disarming claim of the editor Alastair Sandford in his introduction, but it turns out he is referring to the title of the original series of annual collections first published in 1910. Oxford Poetry had an illustrious succession of editors and an even more illustrious roster of contributors, but the publication had been subject to a four-year hiatus prior to this relaunch which is, the editor continues, ‘a resurrection, perhaps even a renascence’. The break in publication coincided with the emergence of a new generation of poets and Sandford confirms that submissions to this volume reflected two opposing schools: ‘there were sufficient “perfumes of yestereen” and “darkling cloisters” in the rejected MSS, to say nothing of “armpit fogs” and “public-lavatory smells”, to make one believe it is a fairly representative selection.’ It certainly is, and offers a fascinating snapshot of poetic and cultural allegiances in Oxford between the wars.
Fifteen of the contributors were out-and-out modernists, five more submitted verses in the approved Georgian manner with ‘darkling cloisters’ a-plenty while the rest wavered between the two, their modernist sensibilities and subject matter expressed within long-established prosodic forms. Fifteen years after the appearance of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Eliot was still an overwhelming influence on the first group and J. E. Banbury (Magdalen College) falls somewhere between homage and plagiarism in his ‘Record’:
The lilt of some suburban gramophone
Trickles along the street
Measuring with half-heard rhythm and tone
The unrelated tread of daily feet.
Other young modernists offer similar Eliotian passages about, well, passages, and wet streets, fog, urban dinginess, neurological malaise and moral squalor are all deployed and explored with relish. In stark contrast those poets loyal to the Georgian movement turn out well-crafted lyrics about nature, abstract love, virtue and loyalty.
Technically competent, decidedly dull, these reflect the way poetry was taught by schoolmasters born in the previous century who had grown up on a diet of Tennyson, Browning and other eminent Victorians. Let David Graham (another Magdalen man) stand for them all with ‘Men as Trees Walking’:
Silent and stiff and green,
The trees against the sky
Seemed but a painted screen
And still the men went by,
The men were marching still
And still it seemed but a play
That surely would end. Until
A tired evening breeze
Woke in the summer sky
Spoke to the canvas trees
And moved them to a sigh.
This kind of poetry would find no place in The Faber Book of Modern Verse, also published in 1936. The editor Michael Roberts conceded in his introduction that many of the ‘difficult or irritating’ poems he included would prompt feelings of animosity in some readers; Auden and Eliot were praised but Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy omitted.
Allott opens New Oxford Poetry 1936 with ‘The Albatross’, an exercise in surrealist whimsy which appears never to have been republished and concludes thus:
Waiter a kind word and a double whiskey
waiter an ostrich feather for the lady
but now I remember the waiters have all gone home
and now the Duchess’ hair is coming down.
He would next appear in The Year's Poetry 1937 alongside the four MacSpaundays and other major poets British and European, living and dead. His stylish debut collection Poems was published by the Hogarth Press the following year and includes ‘Exodus’, which features these very Audenesque lines:
From this wet island of birds and chimneys
Who can watch suffering Europe and not be angry?
For death can hardly be ridiculous,
And the busking hysteria of our rulers,
Which seemed so funny to our fathers,
Dirties the newsreels for us.
He was by now, according to Richard Hoggart (employing a cricketing term) a member of the ‘First Eleven’ of poets surrounding Auden, but also among the handful of 1930s poets who were able to absorb Auden’s influence without becoming mere imitators.
From Autumn 1941 he was co-editor of Kingdom Come: the magazine of war-time Oxford which, partly financed by the family planning campaigner Marie Stopes, was known to wags as ‘Condom King’. During the War Allott was increasingly recognised as a rising young poet—Francis Scarfe dedicated a chapter to him in Auden and After (1942), one of the first books to engage critically with the Auden generation of poets. A second collection, The Ventriloquist’s Doll, was published by Cresset Press in 1943 but that, poetically speaking, was that. Allott all but abandoned poetry and during the next three decades wrote just sixteen poems and published even fewer.
Was this a principled renunciation, or something less considered, less momentous? Was it a commitment to failure? After the war Allott worked as a teacher and, from 1948 until his death from lung cancer in 1973, as a lecturer in English literature at the University of Liverpool. He became an authority on Matthew Arnold, wrote a biography of Jules Verne, adapted E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View for the stage and edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1950), which became a college staple. His Collected Poems appeared posthumously in 1975, and a revised edition, published by Salt in 2008, gathered a further 34 uncollected poems.
It was a distinguished literary career, but his current poetic status is uncertain. The reasons behind Allott’s almost complete break with poetry prompt our speculation. Was he, as the poet Bernard Gutteridge claimed in the 1940s, ‘too modish, too bright . . . cynical and over clever’ to attract a general audience after the war? Did he succumb to a sense of personal poetic irrelevance and redundancy? There were personal travails (divorce, a loss of faith) and it seems likely that, faced with momentous social, political and personal upheavals, Allott found it difficult—or impossible—to move away from his established surrealist style to something plainer, more direct and socially engagé. He seems to anticipate the dilemma in the opening of ‘Steering Line’ from his second collection:
The war mismanages time,
Out of the windows goes love.
We shall never be even now.
All emotions are blurred,
Gas-jets seen through a fog,
Ecstasy tapped like a tree,
Ecstasy dripping away
And life swims out of the slide.
Donald Davie, lecturing in 1980, argued persuasively for Allott’s continuing poetic commitment after 1943 but his case was based on, and therefore weakened by, that meagre output. In the uncollected poem ‘Barking’ (c. 1933) Allott pre-empts any such claim and is ironically self-effacing about his poetic range and cultural presence:
I have a few hundred words and a half-dozen themes
and pleasure of them whether you will or no.
Among coughing howitzers and grunting tractors
I tinkle a modest teaspoon in a cup.
Other poetical careers were disrupted by the War—Gavin Ewart graduated from Cambridge in 1936 and published his first collection Poems and Songs in 1939 after which nothing followed until Londoners in 1964; Laura Riding gave up writing poetry soon after the publication of her Collected Poems in 1938 but felt unable to explain her reasons for several decades, eventually claiming that there was an ‘absolute incompatibility’ between what she terms the ‘craft’ and the ‘creed’ of poetry. According to Tom Fisher ‘her departure from poetry was precipitated by a reading of modernism as both the fulfilment and undoing of what she considered poetry’s promise and possibility.’ This, one might think, was and is a feeling shared by many writers, a version of Harold Bloom’s ‘Anxiety of Influence’. But is renunciation a strategy or an abdication?
The only other New Oxford contributor with a substantial literary career was the American Paul Engle (1908–1991), a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College. His ‘POEM I’ and ‘POEM II’ were lucid exercises in rhymed dimeter, the former of which opens:
Let no longer
In time’s curved run
The living linger
When is only
Glitter of gun
And cruel life lonely
For the rib sheath.
In 1941 Engle became director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (a position he held for twenty-five years) and founder of the International Writing Programme, both at the University of Iowa. These became the model for hundreds of later writing programmes around the world. Engle would influence generations of writers from Flannery O’Connor to Raymond Carver, and have parallel careers as a poet, editor, teacher, literary critic, novelist, and playwright. He never became a celebrated poet because (according to Lewis Turco’s entry in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry) ‘he attempted generally to be popular rather than literary’. Kurt Vonnegut described him in a letter to friends as ‘a hayseed clown, a foxy grandpa, a terrific promoter, who, if you listen closely, talks like a man with a paper asshole’.
Allott and Engle both have their place in literary history, but what of the other contributors to Oxford Poetry 1936? I assumed that some would continue to write and perhaps even to publish poetry, so I chose nine of them at random, adding them to Allott and Engle to form a cricketing eleven. Then I began to dig.
The anthology’s editor Alastair Wallace Sandford (1916–1971), the son of a wealthy Australian businessman and politician, became a barrister in Adelaide after graduating from Balliol and enlisted in the Australian army in 1941, working as a member of the intelligence corps in the Middle East. The war came as a disruption though not, for him, a catastrophic one. He rose to the rank of colonel and after the war worked for British Petroleum, spending the rest of his life in Italy. He was appointed CBE in 1968, and appears to have made no further mark on poetry.
His co-editor Alan Rook (1909–1990) was a member of St. Catherine’s Society, a non-residential college with buildings in St Aldate’s, precursor to St. Catherine’s College, founded in 1962. Rook served with the Royal Artillery, was stationed in Egypt during the war and became part of a loose-knit community of Cairo poets. Along with John Gawsworth and John Waller he formed the ‘Salamander’ group and was a prolific wartime poet, publishing three collections: Soldiers, This Solitude (1942), These Are My Comrades (1943) and We Who Are Fortunate (1945). In peace time he became a wine merchant and in 1964 planted the world’s most northerly vineyard at Stragglethorpe Hall in Lincolnshire, producing 2,000 bottles of dry white Lincoln Imperial annually.
Sydney Carter (1915–2004) later became a songwriter and part of the post-war folk music revival. A conscientious pacifist, he had served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in Egypt, Palestine and Greece alongside Donald Swann (of Flanders & Swann fame) with whom he collaborated. As a performer he appeared alongside Martin Carthy, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger and Judy Collins. As a prolific songwriter he is best known for providing words to the Shaker tune ‘Simple Gifts’ (‘Dance, then,wherever you may be / I am the Lord of the Dance, said he’), a song so deeply embedded in our culture that it is surprising to learn it was written only fifty years ago. He was also involved in the satire boom of the 1960s, contributing to the BBC’s That Was the Week That Was. His ‘Friday Morning’ included the lines ‘It’s God they ought to crucify / Instead of you and me. . .’ which prompted Enoch Powell to call for it to be banned. ‘My Last Cigarette’, an ode to lung cancer performed by Sheila Hancock, featured on a 1962 album and was a minor hit. Carter’s only poetry collection Love More or Less (1971) was described by Michael Grosvenor Myer in English Dance and Song as the work of ‘an impressive spokesman for the believer in an age of general unbelief’.
After graduating from Keble Peter Dwyer (1911–1972) worked for 20th Century Fox films and Movietone News until 1939, when he was recruited by MI6 and began a career that could have been plotted by Graham Greene. He was based in Paris until the fall of France when he was transferred first to Panama and then to the Washington embassy, as South American expert for British Security Co-ordination (BSC). In this capacity he preceded the Cambridge double agent Kim Philby who took over the role of station chief in September 1949. It was Dwyer who identified the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs in what Philby (in My Silent War, 1968) called ‘a brilliant piece of analysis’. On retiring as a spy, Dwyer crossed the Atlantic to join Canada‘s National Research Council and, in 1969, was appointed director of the Arts section of the Canada Council, the government funding body for the arts and humanities, a post he held for two years. His name lives on in the Peter Dwyer scholarship for the most promising student at the National Ballet School in Ottawa, but it is a minor mystery why someone who received the Order of Canada (two months before he died) does not appear to have attracted any official obituary.
Henry Gifford (1913–2003) studied Classics at Christ Church and from 1936 worked for two years in a camp for Spanish Civil War refugees in North London. He taught for a term at Eton and in 1940 was commissioned in the Royal Armoured Corps, serving in the Middle East and Germany. He learned Russian while on active service and after the war became a distinguished scholar as Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Bristol, pioneering Russian Studies as a discipline in British universities.
In a very long life—he died age 99 in 2006—Patrick Howarth (St. John’s) was variously a soldier, journalist, diplomat, biographer, historian, and traveller. His colourful career also involved banana-growing in Fiji and parachute expeditions to the North Pole. Piers PlowrightÆs engaging Independent obituary includes the following, about Howarth’s time in Poland in the late 1930s:
He also managed to play tennis for Britain, since the British Davis Cup team was prevented from attending the Polish national championships by the possibility of war. When it came, Howarth got out by the skin of his teeth and joined the Army in time to defend Bognor beach from invasion, moving on to Gibraltar and his only stab at pantomime. Howarth wrote 17 biographies and travel books before returning to poetry in the 1960s with Playback of a Lifetime, a verse memoir broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1974 after which a flood of poems followed, often at the rate of one a day. Diagnosed with terminal cancer he surprised and delighted his friends by living for a further three years.
‘It was’, said Plowright, ‘as if the poems were keeping him alive and a broadcast on Radio 3 of some of them [. . .] brought him immense pride and peace of mind’.
Rufus Noel-Buxton (1917–1980) served as an officer in the Artists Rifles and was invalided out of the army in 1940. He later worked in Oxford at the Agricultural Economics Institute, lectured with HM Forces, became a BBC producer and in 1948 succeeded to the title of 2nd Baron Noel-Buxton, of Aylsham in Norfolk. There followed a stint on the staff of Farmer’s Weekly, after which he wrote a book (Westminster Wader, being an Estimate of Westminster in All Ages, by one who longs for Muddy Water, and the return of the bittern to London Fen, 1957) and later, as a Labour peer, seems to have risen without trace.
Margaret Stanley-Wrench (1916–1974) was one of only two women in the anthology (the other was her fellow Somerville College undergraduate Margaret E. Rhodes). She won the Newdigate Prize in 1937 for ‘The Man in the Moon’ which was widely re-printed and anthologised although, according to Jane Dowson in Women’s Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology, the poem ‘may raise questions about the criteria for prizewinning, but it was nevertheless an achievement.’ She befriended the poet Keith Douglas in the 1930s and in 1938 published a first collection News Reel and Other Poems (Macmillan), described by one reviewer as ‘vivid and arresting’. She wrote biographies of Thomas More, Edward the Confessor and Chaucer, a play for mannequins and, in the early 1950s, published two popular books for children: The Rival Riding Schools and How Much for a Pony?. A second poetry collection A Tale for the Fall of the Year appeared in 1959 and a modern English version of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde in 1965.
John Short (1911–1991) was born in the Lake District town of Ambleside to working-class parents. A bright child, he was awarded a scholarship to Keswick Grammar School but left early owing to financial difficulties, finding employment as a grocer, commercial traveller and landscape gardener and eventually working with the Church Army until his health broke down. He later obtained an Extra-mural Scholarship to Balliol College. He contributed two poems to New Oxford Poetry, the first and better of which the incantatory ‘Six Ladder-steps for Lent’:
From a furnace rake out ash
In those clinkers set thy feet
For whips of scorn thy breast to slash
Tear up a pauper's winding-sheet
Next beside a pin-shaft tread
Rise by crawling down a seam
Spin thy hopes from common thread
And stretch prayer’s weft upon that beam
Macerations feed the soul
Vow a means-test rule and see
Seven Easter jonquils snow-bright and tall
Dance in passion’s cemetery.
Short would appear with Allott in The Year's Poetry 1937 and his poems were broadcast by the BBC and published in The Listener and English Poems of Tomorrow. After the war (in which he fought, though details are scant) he returned to his home town where he settled in a wooden workmen's cottage near Lake Windermere. According to a local resident ‘he lived a simple life. He was poorly dressed, jobless, often drunk, but with a cultured voice which commanded respect from local people‘. He would sometimes earn a few pounds by washing dishes at a local hotel. The poet Vernon Scannell (1922–2007) admired Short's only collection The Oak and the Ash, (published by Dent in 1947) and made a point of seeking him out during a visit to Ambleside in 1978. It was, according to the younger poet (as reported in James Andrew Taylor’s Scannell biography Walking Wounded), an awkward encounter:
I could just see the pale blur of the old face, the watchful, timid eyes peering from the shadows. For what seemed a long time he didn't speak and I was beginning to think our visit was futile when he muttered something I couldn’t catch and then opened the door just wide enough for him to slip through and close it behind him. Clearly he didn’t want me to see inside his hovel.
All Short wanted to talk about, and obsessively, was a complicated legal affair in which he claimed to have been cheated out of a substantial inheritance. He flatly refused to discuss his poetry and Scannell left, disappointed by this ‘trampish little hermit’ but with his admiration for the work undimmed. Short’s fate is too close to Allott’s doomed cricketers for comfort.
Scannell has an entry in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, as do Allott and Engle. Short and Rook and Stanley-Wrench do not. Who can say what prompted their desire to write poetry, and the decision—if it was a decision—to stop? Some gave up poetry, others were given up by it, although the idea of a capricious muse withholding her inspiration seems rather old hat. If by failure we mean a lack of public acclaim then most writers are, or in time become, failures.
We all of us achieve failure sooner or later, in one way or another, our innings ending with a long walk back to the pavilion as the shadows lengthen. Let us optimistically suppose that all of the contributors to New Oxford Poetry 1936, among the brightest and best of their generation, led fulfilling lives and made their mark without being poets, or writing poetry, and that some continued to find in poetry a source of purpose, satisfaction and consolation. To fail as a poet is not, pace Lerner, to fail as a human being. More than that, it’s not even to fail as a poet because if, as Lerner sees it, all poetry is a failure then failure is a necessary prerequisite of poetry. That there are degrees of failure, that it’s possible to fail better, is what keeps us reading, and poets writing. It is, one might even say, what poetry is for.
David Collard writes for print and online publications including the Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, 3:AM Magazine, gorse, Exacting Clam, White Review and others. He is the author of Multiple Joyce: 100 Short Essays About James Joyce's Cultural Legacy (Sagging Meniscus, 2022) and About a Girl: a Reader’s Guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing (CB Editions, 2016) and he contributed to the recent anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater, 2019) and Love Bites (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019).
He lives in London, where he organises cultish online literary gatherings. He has a website.