Professing Poetry

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Since the early 1950’s, John Wain has established himself as one of the most prolific men of letters on the British scene. He has published over a half dozen novels, two books of stories, collections of poetry and critical essays, as well as a prize-winning biography of Samuel Johnson. In addition, he has made his living as a journalist and has done considerable work for BBC.

At the start of his career, after graduation from Oxford, Wain was labeled an “Angry Young Man,” along with Kingsley Amis and John Braine, though he goes to some lengths to repudiate the label in his autobiography Sprightly Running—written, incidentally, when he was only thirty-five. He was more obviously connected with the young poets and critics grouped as “The Movement”: among others, Philip Larkin, G. S. Fraser, A. Alverez, and Kingsley Amis. In fact, when Penguin Books gave up New Writing and it was transformed to First Reading at BBC, Wain was the editor for a number of years. As a result of his position, he was the first to introduce the members of The Movement to a large audience.

His latest book, Professing Poetry, consists of a lengthy introduction plus nine lectures delivered at Oxford when he held the Poetry Chair for five years, as well as a small sampling of the poems he wrote there between 1973 and 1976. In a chatty introduction in which he traces the history of the Poetry Chair (he is in the company of such diverse talents as Joseph Spence, Matthew Arnold, A. C. Bradley, C. Day Lewis, and Robert Graves), he states his aim:This book gathers the first nine [lectures of the statutory fifteen]. It will be seen that they fall into a certain rhythm. Each autumn I lecture on a general topic connected with poetry; each spring on a living poet. In the summer I give way to impulse and lecture on anything that attracts me.

Among the living poets were W. H. Auden (who died before the lecture was delivered), Philip Larkin, and William Empson; among the dead were John Milton, Emily Dickinson, and Edward Thomas. The three lectures on general topics are entitled “Alternative Poetry,” “On the Breaking of Forms,” and “Poetry and Social Criticism.” One need not comment on each lecture in detail to suggest the flavor and essence of Wain’s book.

First, perhaps the reader needs to be reminded of the imposed limitations of Wain’s lectures. For the most part, he is addressing himself to an undergraduate audience; therefore the specialist in modern literature is likely to be disappointed. Moreover, as one would assume from his role as one of the leaders of The Movement, his critical position is frequently narrowly conservative. As he made clear in Sprightly Running, Wain sees the last twenty years as a period of unprecedented decadence in poetry, one marked by a flight from form and artistic discipline. He finds little more than a Niagara of idiocy flowing from the presses today. Almost anything written, if it is trendy, finds its way into print; whether it finds an audience or not makes little difference. Wain asserts that genuine poets have had to give way to opportunistic advertising men and charlatans. As one would expect, he sweeps the whole Beat Movement aside (he has lectured widely in America and knows the American scene as intimately as the British), as well as the Liverpool Poets. Though he attacks only Ginsberg by name, one assumes that he would be just as unimpressed by our militant blacks and feminists, since he is opposed to poetry of social commitment. No doubt one who maintains that T. S. Eliot was the greatest modern poet is doomed to disenchantment when reading the output of the 1970’s. However, there is much more good work being produced today than Wain will acknowledge—witness, for example, Calvin Bedient’s recent Eight Contemporary Poets.

Obviously, not everyone will share Wain’s jaundiced view of an alternative poetry or those poets who break with tradition, and occasionally his narrow stance betrays him into egregious error or overkill. For instance, he places Ezra Pound’s Chinese translations among such fraudulent works as Robert Surtees’ so-called traditional ballads or the “forgeries” of MacPherson....

(The entire section is 1735 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Book World. October 8, 1978, p. E3.

New Leader. LXI, July 3, 1978, p. 19.