D. J. Enright Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Enright, D(ennis) J(oseph) (Vol. 4)

Enright, D(ennis) J(oseph) 1920–

An English novelist, poet, and essayist of great range and learning, Enright is highly regarded for his intelligent, witty, and compassionate fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Enright's sympathies, humor and talent are best suited to writing little vignettes, such as his "University Examinations in Egypt" and "The Tourist and the Geisha." But too frequently his impulse to write poems appears to have been vitiated by his fear of pretentiousness, and his unwillingness to recognize that the poet who respects poetry as an art has sufficient reasons for creating it.

William Van O'Connor, in his The New University Wits and the End of Modernism (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, p. 113.

A series of books by D. J. Enright shows one kind of partial solution to the characteristic problem of mere articulateness. Enright's form is usually very flat and conversational, approaching in a way the 'minimal' style of Robert Creeley, and though actually the poetry is intellectually oriented the statement is kept as simple as possible. He sometimes sounds a more rational Lawrence, or a plainer Empson. A tremendous identification with the betrayed innocents of the earth marks his writing and, together with his tart self-knowledge, accounts for the basically sympathetic speaking character he presents. Enright's subject matter gives him a great advantage, for he has lived and taught literature in various foreign parts, particularly in Asia, and the hard-bitten realism of what he reports is intrinsically of the greatest interest. In his most telling collection, Addictions (1962), the bitterness of his encounters with official repression in a 'new' nation explicitly enters a number of the poems. His disillusionment—that of the Western radical with the developing, altered world which he himself has helped create—is all the more convincing because Enright, despite his own unfortunate experience, does not allow himself to condemn humanitarianism or social progress. It is, rather, the impersonality, the inevitable philistine indifference of political process to the ordinary person, and at the same time certain doubts about his own motives, that disturb him. An unusual sequence of poems (for Enright) in this same volume concerns a love-affair that has gone wrong in very much the same sense as modern history has gone wrong. Somehow, things went awry; the dreamt-of came to pass and yet was not what it should have been. In his highly candid and precise speech and his amateurish free-verse, he involves us, wearies us, stamps his personality on our sympathies.

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (copyright © 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 222-23.

One can see that the humanist poet, with his particularly strong sense of the real, objective existence of human problems—and his feeling that, while as a poet he may be called upon only to describe them, as a man he is partially responsible for helping in their solution—would begin to have misgivings about his art qua art. Certainly Enright's Japan poems show that his occasional hankerings for poetic purity are outweighed by his doubts about poetry itself: for him, literature is subordinate to life….

Despite, however, Enright's scruples about the possible pitfalls of humanist poetry, one's final judgment is decidedly not that he falls into them. Rather one admires the unending effort to balance the respective claims of life and art, realizing that the emphasis placed on the former demands of the poet considerable artistic self-denial without bringing the man the compensating sense of having solved the problems of the world in which he lives.

Philip Gardner, "D. J. Enright Under the Cherry Tree," in Contemporary Literature (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 100-11.

[Enright's] poems themselves disclose the little faith that [he] seems to have in them. When he attempts a technical device, he makes it obvious, as though the skillful use of his craft were an embarrassment. He is a verse-writer treating subjects that call for serious poetry. He is unwilling to abide in his poems. It is this unwillingness, I think, that makes it impossible for him to condense and sharpen his poems to the point of conviction and which prevents him, except occasionally, from surprising us with the vitality of language….

Behind these poems [in The Typewriter Revolution & Other Poems] selected from an entire career, there is a refusal—an unwillingness to engage language at any but a most obvious or trivial level; perhaps from a fear of failure, perhaps from a belief that poetry no longer can bear the excitement of a real commotion. Whatever the case, Mr. Enright resembles altogether too much those people he so acutely described as thinking "of a piece of poetry as if it were some kind of pussy cat which will sit and purr on their knees while they stroke it lazily."…

John R. Reed, "Magicians and Others," in Poetry (© 1973 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1973, pp. 48-9.

D. J. Enright writes of his childhood with beguiling ease. The poems [in The Terrible Shears] seem cut-up prose, until you pick at them. Then you find they're sharp as glass. As undistorting, too….

He seems to me the wittiest poet writing, and the wit constantly suggests well-springs of pity and anger beneath it.

John Carey, in London Magazine, August-September, 1973, pp. 125-26.

For many years D. J. Enright's verse has drawn its subject-matter chiefly from his experiences as 'a mendicant professor' in places as distant from one another, and from England, as Berlin, Cairo, and Singapore. In this … collection [The Terrible Shears] the poet comes home: not, however, to the England of today, but to that of his childhood in Leamington during the Twenties….

Technically many of the poems have the appearance of being as casual as they can be without lapsing into prose; they are given to unrhymed, conjunctional line-endings, broken rhythms, and a deliberate avoidance of sonority. Yet one does not feel for a moment that they have been easy to write. Candour is never easily come by. Nor is the capacity steadfastly to deny that the pains inflicted upon us by the world have in some way been good for us, or have become emblematic of a truth larger and more important to us than life itself. For all its humour, delicacy, and gentleness of tone, perhaps the highest praise one can give to The Terrible Shears is to say that the book is unforgiving. It isn't a sense of present injury on the part of the author that the poems express: far from it. If time and subsequent experience have not allayed these griefs, it is because there was no experience subsequent to them, then, and no time existed other than that in which they occurred. That is precisely the condition which the poems evoke.

Dan Jacobson, "Life and Hard Times," in New Statesman, September 28, 1973, p. 432.

D. J. Enright's reviews and essays [Man is an Onion] are generally first-rate pieces of literary journalism. Having accomplished their original purposes, however, they do not deserve to be enshrined in the pages of a book. Witty, urbane and knowledgeable, his comments on subjects ranging from British, American and European fiction and poetry to oriental literature and philosophy undoubtedly entertained and instructed readers of [various] journals…. As a collection, though, his judgments of a biography of Samuel Richardson, Doris Lessing's series of novels in Children of Violence, Mann's letters, and books of minor poems and critical essays simply do not add up to any meaningful particular perspective on literature or any profound esthetic statement.

To be sure, Enright can be devastatingly clever (although grammatically careless), as when he says, "It only took God six days to create the whole world. It really shouldn't require six hundred pages for Miss Lessing to destroy a part of it." He can be most sensible, as in his response to the tone of Anthony Burgess's book on Shakespeare: "It is unwise for an author to tyrannise—and rashest of all, perhaps, to tyrannise over our more than national poet." In dealing with devotees of Nabokov, he can be tellingly shrewd: "The Nabokovites find nothing so shockingly immoral as morality."

His assessments of Hermann Hesse's artistic limitations, Chairman Mao's appeal to the Chinese past and national character, and Yukio Mishima's tragic death reveal a sensitive, cosmopolitan critic. In its parts, then, the volume is unobjectionable; unfortunately, in this instance, the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

Robert D. Spector, in Books Abroad, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring, 1974, p. 423.

Although reviewers and critics have been kind to D. J. Enright and his poems, he has, for the most part, been the butt of ossified opinion, treated to the same review, sometimes by the same reviewer. Minds have been made up. Enright is to be thought of as a poet of manner. Descriptions like 'mordant', 'sardonic', 'laconic', and 'mischievous' crop up with embittering regularity as the sum of what he has been about for the 20 years or more of his publishing life, as if he has been, and is, little more than a tone of voice. Unsurprising then that he was once forced to say how he wished a little attention might be paid to what he said….

One of the difficulties with Enright is assessing his affiliation with The Movement. Reading his poems, I find myself thinking he was a non-member, a subversive associate from the very beginning. And bother his inclusion in New Lines. On the other hand, in a few poems he writes as if he had been the only poet to take what The Movement allegedly stood for with any seriousness….

But Enright's poetic antagonisms do appear to have arisen more from urgent social necessity than concern for the health or otherwise of poetry-writing. Lucidity is humane, obscurantist symbol-making and verbosity little more than dandified avoidance of important realities. While Enright believed something on these lines, The Movement as a whole approved of 'purity of diction', an altogether more literary concern, urgent enough in their eyes, but an animating impulse which, if not drastically opposed to Enright's more thematic concerns, was at least strikingly different.

Enright claims to be unpolitical, or anti-political….

Many of his Eastern poems conjure situations of the underdog beset by politicians. He sees the goodness of life riddled with doctrinaire racketeering after power and sway. Again and again, despite the liberalism of his stance, he shows his toughest poetic allegiance to be with Brecht, the Brecht of Buckow Elegies, suspicious of authority, of governments, fearful for people, unsure of where he is going, of whether there can be any worthwhile direction. His human tactic is imitated from the Chinese whom he admires. Survival at all costs is his maxim. Cunning, connivance, resistance, patience, silence, and anything else which helps the skin grow thick, are all permissible.

In his … book of poems, The Terrible Shears, about his working-class childhood and adolescence in Leamington Spa in the 1920s and 1930s, Enright's un- or anti-political gestures collapse. Some, if not all, of his attitudes approach closely on the positions of Amis, Conquest and Larkin. This opens up an enormously interesting area for speculation on the political implications that might always have been inherent in The Movement. In Enright's case, the interest is redoubled. His origins are markedly different. His literary life bears the scars of struggle. Yet, and with what ease, his humanity, his detestation of the 'vituperative humming' of politics, converts in the context of Britain's class-ridden society to what seems suspiciously like complacency. In Britain, there is no such approach as the 'unpolitical', while the 'anti-political' is, as it must be, in the context of practising institutions and vituperatively humming politicians, the most political approach of all, negative only in the sense of being inactive…. Enright's poems offer, and with admirable fullness, many of the problems which concern contemporary poetry.

Douglas Dunn, "Underwriter," in New Statesman, June 28, 1974, p. 927.