William Plomer Plomer, William (Vol. 8) - Essay

Plomer, William (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Plomer, William 1903–1973

Plomer was a South African poet, novelist, short story writer, biographer, and editor whose diversity of interest made him something of a contemporary man of letters while he was living. Esteemed as much for his poetry as for his novels, Plomer mastered just about every literary genre and even wrote the libretti for a number of works by the distinguished British composer Benjamin Britten. As a poet, Plomer had both a serious side and a lighthearted, comic side, and the latter was just about unmatched in modern English literature. His anti-apartheid novel, Turbott Woolfe, is still the most authentic depiction of the South African black's situation. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[When] one stands back now and looks at the whole body of Plomer's poetry in the light of [the] revised and enlarged edition of his Collected Poems, it is difficult not to feel something very like a sense of disappointment, at a talent which much too often seems to take refuge in obliqueness, sidesteps away from confrontation into blandness, too readily takes on a colouring of snobbishness or superciliousness, and even when it leans towards sensuous descriptiveness loses itself in fussy detail. Above all, it seems a poetry of surprisingly icy reserve….

He was fond of quoting … a dictum of the early Chinese poet, Wei T'ai, to the effect that poety presents the thing in order to convey the feeling, and should be exact about the thing and reticent about the feeling. Sound doctrine, when assaulted with the confessions and protestations of some damp contemporary souls; but Plomer's interpretation of it was inconsistent, for in his comic and satirical poems he tends tiresomely to underline and exhaust the macabre jollity, gesturing with a wink and a nod where, say, Auden in "Miss Gee" (which John Betjeman, surely wrongly, sees as a poem influenced by Plomer) gets his effect by being totally straight-faced; while in many of the serious poems—whether specifically grouped by Plomer as "of the affections" or not—a screen (or mask) stands between the experience and the expression, or between the experience and its "meaning".

What, for example, is such a poem as "The Umbrella" aiming to say? Or, later on, "A Casual Encounter" (a poem "In memory of Cavafy")? They seem to be bemused memories of, or meditations on, former passions; in a way, they are full of circumstance; yet they give absolutely nothing away. Their reticence inclines towards character-lessness, or even moral evasiveness…. [The] fault is not simply one of tone but of withdrawal into a position which chose to ignore, or at any rate ignored, his own low-pressured emotional drives, except insofar as they could be attached to unexceptionable objects: an old widow, wild orchids, the dead John F. Kennedy—sincere, dutiful, rather ponderous poems of lament and regret….

[Plomer], for all his well-testified human warmth and generosity, was a distinctly chill poet.

"A Thing without the Feeling," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 11, 1974, p. 28.

William Plomer's Collected Poems show a consistency over the years…. Plomer has Davie's well-heeled civility, but it's the civility of a poet more comfortably sociable than Davie ever was, and this isn't really a gain. Whereas Davie makes poetry out of the tensions involved in fending off disruptive experience, some of Plomer's work seems to fend it off unknowingly, and the result is a certain literariness about even the most 'socially conscious' of his pieces. His poems haven't a hair out of place, but not many of them seem to have fought hard to preserve their elegance intact…. Not much authentic feeling can filter past [his] alliterative and assonantal tics, reducing the world as they do to a literary mis-en-scéne for contemplative consumption. Indeed Plomer's poetry seems to me remarkable for the way it consistently deflects complex or disturbing feeling, modulating into social wit or minor verse at the first opportunity. Like Andrew Young, although in a quite different mode, he seems to have achieved his consistency by moving in a world partly sealed from the most significant history of his period. (pp. 73-4)

Terry Eagleton, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 15, No. 4 (1974).