Gavin Ewart

Start Free Trial

Peter Porter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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              believes            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 proscriptions              are being posted now and then,            Dr Johnson, Dr Leavis and the other              Grand Old Men—            For, although they've often told us              that they try to do their best,            Are they up to the Full Fruit              Standard, would they pass the              Spelling Test?

Pleasures of the Flesh lives up to the Full Fruit Standard all the way.

Ewart's originality lies in his use of sex, still the prime attention getter although we're saturated with it, as paradigm. (pp. 87-8)

Despite the raucous sexual imagery of ['After the Sex Bomb'], it is really about irrational fear. Ewart has performed the unlikely feat of reburying the Freudian bones in daylight. While anybody who once read a Reader's Digest article on psychoanalysis knows that hills remind us of women's breasts, Ewart is quietly turning the tables and pointing out that women's breasts may remind us of hills. Sex is ever present in his poems, because it is ever present in our minds. If we censor it or shut it out, we may lose touch with a lot of dependent things we're interested in. Not all the minds that write only about pure objects are themselves pure. Starting off from sex, often in one of its unhappier forms, Ewart comments on ambition, middle age, life in the suburbs, the boredom of wives, office politics, children, history etc. His scope is very wide, his world, London in the Sixties; his pleasures of the flesh include listening to music and watching the grotesques of our over-fed civilization. He is very good at the minatory, the unexpected, unexplained fear…. (p. 88)

[A] cryptic power makes 'Manifesto' one of the finest poems in the book. Here, though, there is no menace but an uncharacteristic note of prophecy….

Pleasures of the Flesh is in two parts. Part 1, though inventive and audacious, is serious. Part 2 consists chiefly of...

(This entire section contains 815 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

lighter poems including the famous 'Eight Awful Animals'. I'm less fond of these than of most of the book's good unclean jokes. Not because they're too dirty or too undignified, but because the Ogden Nash long lines and facetious rhymes betray the poet into a more careless use of language than he would allow in any other kind of poem. Though he uses most of the plain words for sex, Ewart is usually an extremely fastidious writer. The Awful Animals are an exception. Nevertheless, they're full of good things…. (p. 89)

Part 1 has the main matter of the book. Through it moves the fore-suffering poet, a Tiresias with acute awareness of the pleasures, humiliations and, above all, the bafflements of life in the consumer's city…. Gavin Ewart's poems are heartening to anybody who believes, as I do, that New Verse is the best poetry magazine Britain has had and that Thirties' poetry, faults and all, had a liveliness and involvement (not commitment) we do not have today. Pleasures of the Flesh establishes Ewart as an important poet in the Sixties, one with something to say to us directly. The gestation which followed that early promise was a long one, but the results have been worth waiting for. (p. 90)

Peter Porter, in London Magazine © London Magazine 1966), May, 1966.




David Howarth