Ewart, Gavin 1916–
Ewart is a British poet who first gained recognition in the thirties with his collection Poems and Songs. Encouraged to begin writing again by London Magazine editor Alan Ross, Ewart published in 1966 what he considers some of his best poetry in Pleasures of the Flesh. Ewart acknowledges the influence of Auden evident in the light, witty, satirical quality of his verse.
[Ewart is] chiefly known to a wider audience as a light verse writer. Generations of students from Sydney to St Andrews have sung 'Miss Twye' to the National Anthem. But Ewart isn't just a light poet any more than Auden is. In fact, it could be argued that he is so obviously serious he sometimes spoils poems with liberal messages. While we can be glad that he is on the side of the angels, we may feel that he is often at his best when describing the works of the other side. Pleasures of the Flesh is echt Ewart, a remarkable flowering of a lyrical and satirical talent first revealed in 'Phallus in Wonderland', written when he was seventeen….
In almost every respect these new poems are an advance on the brilliant early Ewart…. (p. 87)
[In] what is perhaps the most impressive poem in the book—'A Christmas Message'—he concludes:
England is a Peloponnese
and Father Christmas a poor old sod
like any other, autochthonous. Who
in the beard and the benevolence?
Even in Greece
or Rome there is only a bogus God
for children under five. Those he
loves, he deceives.
Behind the kinky inventions and sexy observations of these poems, there is a reformer's zeal which hasn't turned to any closed system or religious orthodoxy. Ewart's emancipations are near-Groddeckian—if we let the sex in us grow straight we shall be saved. But he rarely lets his verse say this in any naïve way: he chooses instead to show it growing crooked or solacing itself with the fake achievements of status, money or kicks. One of the star turns of Poems and Songs was 'Audenesque for an Inititiation' in which he warns us:
Don't forget that new...
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[Ewart] is a joker, taking the piss out of everyone and himself and doing it better than competently. In Pleasures of the Flesh, with a poem called 'Short Time', he manages to deflate even "… the gentle hypocrite reader." He also analyses, very comically, certain sexual "types". The series 'Eight Awful Animals', describing fauna with names like "Panteebra" and "Stuffalo", is a wonderful classification of stereotypes, from the butch lesbian to the exclusive masturbator. In The Deceptive Grin … it is the advertising industry, the rat-racers and the slogan-mongers who come in for it. The Gavin Ewart Show is catholic. (p. 64)
[He] claims to be the inventor of the "ewart" (sic!) or count-down poem, where the unrhymed stanzas have a line length of 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (following John Cage into silence?) he is not so exclusive that he will not take a trick or two from O. Nash, W. Stevens and Wm. McGonagall. He is also the perpetrator of a very ugly-looking poem of three, eight-line stanzas in which every line, bar those at the ends of stanzas, ends with a split word….
[This] is poetry for the masses and excellent too: a proof that the élite and the popular may be reconciled. I showed the book to a friend who "… loves no plays … hears no music." and he enjoyed all that he was able to read in half-an-hour. (p. 66)
The book is in three parts (This being a show, why not "acts"?) and the first division looks arbitrary. I see no unity of theme...
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Gavin Ewart's verse has sometimes been thought too close to doggerel for comfort, or too facile. These opinions ignore Ewart's poetic temperament. His varieties of comic verse are, like Enright's tones of voice, technical expressions of a seriously presented mischief. Given half a chance—a pension, say—Ewart could be a trouble-maker of the first water. The air of carelessness about his poems is nothing other than cheek, and, indeed, an "air of" rather than "carelessness." In … Be My Guest!, "The Larkin Automatic Car Wash", for instance, imitates the stanza of "The Whitsun Weddings" with as tight a control of colloquial idiom as the original. Ewart, then, can be as metrically tight as he likes; that he doesn't always like is more to the point. He is fond of variety and the inane perspectives created by out-of-place metres like the limerick….
Peculiarly English to the point of rating "charm" as an important poetic effect, Ewart is courageous in his reliance on verse. He is closer to Thomas Hood than any other poet I can think of, and in "The Afterflu Afterlife" he rhymes in the virtuoso manner of the Hood beloved by Auden. Each verse has the same five rhymes. The poem includes the deathless
We heard the dead word "troth" once in Arbroath
which may well be intended as the most blatant line-for-the-sake-of-a-rhyme in English. But Ewart is that sort of poet—gamey, exploiting what...
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[Gavin Ewart] is a man who achieved a precocious fame in the '30s, and then went "silent." For the last decade or so he has been immensely productive in a way which very much goes against the contemporary grain. Here he is with his anthology, a pamphlet (The First Eleven), and a collection (Or Where a Young Penguin Lies Screaming). The anthology is good—far more varied and unusual than the Arts Council effort. The pamphlet is really nicely produced. The collection is excellent.
A particularly attractive quality of Mr. Ewart is his inventiveness, his genuine experimentalism. Much of the time he is out to amuse—with crackpot inventions like the "Semantic Limerick According to Doctor Johnson's Dictionary (Edition of 1765)."… (pp. 66-7)
At other times he can write at the opposite extreme, as in "The Gentle Sex", a cold and convincing exploration of the brutality of Ulster life. There are faults—in almost every poem there are faults, such as rich rhymes or whole lines which seem to have been put in for the sake of the form—but I have to say that I like Mr. Ewart's faults as much as his virtues. There is no sense that the stuff is being churned out. Rather, there is a hyperactive talent that must write. An enviable gift. (p. 67)
James Fenton, in Encounter (© 1978 by Encounter Ltd.), April, 1978.