D. J. Enright Essay - Enright, D(ennis) J(oseph) (Vol. 8)

Enright, D(ennis) J(oseph) (Vol. 8)

Enright, D(ennis) J(oseph) 1920–

Enright is an English novelist, poet, critic, and editor. His poetry is characterized by its humanism and intelligibility. Enright has written four novels set abroad, which he disparagingly calls travel books. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

["The Terrible Shears" is] grimly entertaining…. Enright is really a writer of light verse, and he tells the quite horrible events of his childhood in a jaunty tone not devoid of its own brisk gruesomeness. Odd, but distinctive, owing a good deal to Lawrence, but with an enabling, and also disabling, common sense, Enright's verse admits that by the standards of world suffering, his "wasn't a bad life":

        No one was dragged out of bed by
        Armed men. Children weren't speared
        Or their brains dashed out. I don't
        Remember seeing a man starve to death.

True, but at the same time, to the truest poetry, which must be the poetry of the single soul, irrelevant. Enright's baby sister was seen to "quietly disgorge a lot of blood" and disappear, his father's death certificate remarked that "a Contributory Cause of Death was Septic Teeth," and his grandmother, after being "pushed into" a car, shouted "with a dreadful new voice:/'I know where you're sending me,/You're sending me to the Workhouse!'" Enright's tone of the worst-below-the-worst polishes off the poem ("Geriatrics") about his grandmother:

      She was found to be deranged on arrival,
      And they sent her on to another place.
      So she didn't go to the Workhouse after all.
      She died soon after.

The banality of suffering suggests that none of us can write any longer about our own versions of it without irony. If the only alternatives to irony are bathos or false heroics, as Enright's poems imply, we have lost a great deal. (pp. 4-5)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975.

D. J. Enright, like Philip Larkin, is very English: they have the most recognisably English tones of any poets writing today…. [One] would distrust anything a foreigner said was 'very English,' and it is probably either complacent or vulgar or both to claim a different sort of inside knowledge. But it would not seem apposite to call Auden English, or Frost American: they write in Audenian and Frostian—lordly dialects of the international vernacular. Larkin and Enright have their own idiom, of course, quite individual to themselves, if at times mutually comparable; but poetically speaking they are also distinctively English as well—their idiom appearing to distil in poetic and linguistic form the contemporary state of the nation. These assertions lack precision, but are about as near to the question as I can come.

In many poems, as in prose works like The World of Dew, Enright has explored the nature of foreignness, our reactions to it and its reactions to us. That helps to achieve negative definition, as in 'Reflections on Foreign Literature' from … Addictions…. The exactness there could only be put in poetry, indeed only in Enright's poetry; but, for that reason, its virtues seem splendidly contemptuous of the ingrown solipsism we are accustomed to in so much contemporary poetry. Its intelligence, that is, does not seem there for the sake of the poem, but for the sake of the point it makes, which is the great virtue of Enright's poetry…. He writes reports and messages in poetic form on real situations; indeed, it would not be unduly fanciful to see many of the best poems as despatches from the guardians of an ideal diplomacy, the sort of despatches that the Duke of Wellington (that very English hero) might have written if—as he put it when apologising for the length of one—he had had the time to make them shorter.

Enright is an extrovert in the refreshing sense that when he writes about himself he does so with a mild curiosity, as if he were writing about something else. This non-attachment in an odd way parallels the sharp little point made in 'Reflections on Foreign Literature': for many poets, to write about themselves is a kind of journey into the permanently exotic, a holiday from the corruptions and discriminations exacted by what is familiarly and grindingly quotidian…. That is the foreign country in which Enright toils with unseduced clarity and genial amusement, but he never allows himself to go native in it: the self must not be used like a foreign country, though it is the greatest indulgence of contemporary poetry so to use it. (pp. 681-82)

[He] has never, it seems, taken himself seriously to the point of manufacturing a style for himself; and knocking about the world generally and the mysterious East in particular, though it has given his verses something of the accomplishment, in movement and metre, of the oriental and demotic, has in no way affected its native and marrowy pith. The dimension of Sad Ires, in which urban humours and spectres of Earl's Court replace, for the most part, the experiences of an old China hand, contains poems on an even higher level of achievement than those in previous collections. (p. 682)

John Bayley, "Word of an Englishman," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Bayley), November 20, 1975, pp. 681-82.

[D. J. Enright's] earlier poems can be seen as attacks on large gestures of almost any kind. His characteristic assertions have been for the rights and individualities of the common man; mishaps perpetrated on ordinary citizens are seen as the consequences of those who "thought big." He has never paid much attention to the possibility they "thought wrong."

For all their avowed certainties, Enright's points of view now begin to look a shade more controversial than they were in the 1950s and early 1960s. Wisdom, which Enright has—or it is an attractive ploy for him to pretend he has it—can, when showing itself as satisfied with its "own reward", act as little more than a warning that it is dangerous to be anything other than cunning, reserved and cynical. His stoic, shifty fortitude might be nothing more than a consistent overstating of the negative side of his mind's conclusions. He writes as a Machiavellian soliloquiser speaks; except, of course, that this soliloquiser also wears motley, a partnership which is responsible for the marvellous readability of his poems. (p. 77)

Enright's tone of voice, which is important in his poems, is usually called "laconic" or "mordant." It could be said to be much more than these so-called "anti-poetic" terms generally mean. In an epoch when those who maintain liberal, humane values have been constantly on the defensive, his tone sounds representative of that defence, bemused and indignant but careful not to overdo either. Elsewhere I've said Enright's tone is like Brecht's in his poems. A coincidence of that sort leads me to believe Enright is as political a poet as we've got, a poet of suspicions, of sly counter-jabs, a poet who points out exceptions the political rules are unprepared to include.

Technically, Enright is adroit. On the other hand he can be mistaken by some as a poet devoid of technical interest; he seldom turns in a sustained metrical performance, or indulges in pan-American experiment. His technique is guided by and supports tones of voice needed for his slyly offensive and defensive patterns of thought. Sad Ires marks no new stage in his writing, which is a disappointment after The Terrible Shears seemed to promise a more bruisingly local treatment of his themes. The book is good enough, and two poems ("R-and-R" and "Meeting a Person") are among his best. (pp. 77-8)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1976.

While varied in subject, Enright's poems usually concern chance episodes and characters on the fringes of society who are observed with a keen but sympathetic eye as they hopelessly live or helplessly meet their fate…. Enright's chronicle of ineptitude and inevitability usually avoids sentimentality by virtue of his discriminating intellect and his sense of humor; to maintain one's poise while recording scenes likely to evoke ineffectual sympathy is no small achievement….

[The] transposition of attention to the particular from its native habitat to alien cultures affects more than subject matter. In their diffident criticisms of English life, poets of the Movement could assume the values of the liberal tradition within the context of Western civilization. Enright, as [William Walsh] points out [in D. J. Enright: Poet of Humanism], is engaged in the implicit affirmation of a liberal humanism that others have been able to assume. Enright forces us to recognize that this tradition has not taken root elsewhere in the world and that we must face up to a massive amount of human suffering without being able to palliate it. These considerations may help explain his "uneasiness as to some of the things poetry can do, together with misgiving at how skilfully it avoids doing other things" …, as well as the ascetic spareness of the later poems (it is almost as if Enright denies himself indulgence in his own talent). The moral concerns of [F. R.] Leavis' criticism have left their mark on Enright. (p. 568)

The problems facing Enright and his generation are not exclusively literary in nature, as Leavis himself has argued. Enright is in some respects a test case for contemporary British poetry because he allows us to see what happens to the best part of the British tradition when it is sympathetically engaged with other literatures and cultures. Sympathy, based on [contemporary Anglo-American] liberal humanism, shows us not only the intolerable political practices of other nations but the fundamental faults of entire civilizations as well…. From this point of view, we are helpless to change the world, certain of what is wrong with it, and sorrowful or ironic as a result. Enright's admiration of Goethe and Thomas Mann suggests that it might be possible to escape these melancholy alternatives; an attempt to understand other civilizations on their own grounds, rather than judging them in the belief that ours are in fact "human grounds," might provide an even more liberating escape. (p. 569)

Wallace Martin, in Contemporary Literature (© 1976 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 17, No. 4, Autumn, 1976.