Peter Daniels reviews
by Bernard Spencer (ed. Peter Robinson)
The first thought on encountering neglected poets is why the neglect – were they overshadowed, in the wrong place at the wrong time, misunderstood, good but middling, lacking a reason to get noticed? Bernard Spencer did get noticed in his time, especially by Geoffrey Grigson in his New Verse magazine, and the 1939 anthology from it where Spencer was nearly as well-represented as MacNeice and Auden. He was definitely part of the poetry scene, although he was out of Britain most of the time: in the 1940s so inevitably were many others, and in Egypt he participated in the significant British literary expatriate community (Keith Douglas, Lawrence Durrell, Olivia Manning). Egypt as a place was less influential upon Spencer than Greece and Spain. He put his enthusiasm for Greece to good use with translations of Seferis (collaborating with Durrell and others), and Elytis; he also translated four poems from the Italian of Montale. None of his translations are from Spanish, but there is a sense of Lorca’s influence in the poems of his time in Spain.
But while he was seriously a poet, perhaps there was a lack of singlemindedness which led to him make less of a mark as a poet than he might have done. In June 1963 he referred to how Seferis thought of poems as ‘sometimes waiting around to be written, perhaps in certain parts of town, until a poet comes along. But then he must be alert to recognise them. And what freaks of accident – or is it more than that – take him to the place where the poem is?’ – and then ‘how contrary to what might have been anticipated, and to the writer’s current preoccupations or views, the final result may be!’ This view of a poem as an accident may need a more determined poet than Spencer to bring off a successful result.
Some of his diction and authorial voice now seem dated, e.g. in ‘A Cold Night’ – ‘And one needs time too to sit in peace / Opposite one’s girl, with food, fire, light’, or in ‘The Clock’ the bad noun-as-adjective manoeuvre of ‘and my rooms are bell’. Much of this comes down to a tendency to telegraphic phrasing, turning phrases in an unEnglish way as if they were Latin, as in ‘Poem’ – ‘Who sees the rain fall into the Spring land’ (not a question) which after two more Whos continues ‘Young, may he have his wish, have from the start / A credit of pride to overtide first doubt’. Dylan Thomas can get away with such things where Spencer seems not to – which is maybe because we are now used to those Dylan Thomas poems with their ringing phrases that are not quite English syntax, although there are also Thomas poems that are remembered less well and now look near gibberish. Spencer is unsurprisingly at his best when he opens out from this, but some strangeness of phrasing from this habit remains as part of his distinctive style.
He admitted to being unmusical, and he does lack the singing tone of MacNeice: yet the sound texture of words is not neglected, and songlike patterns are created especially by refrains, perhaps influenced by Hardy as much as Auden, like ‘Evasions’ with its ‘– Oh, but that’s been going on since the world began’. There can be a stateliness of movement perhaps enabled by his Latin feel for verse, and an ability to write in hexameters (shared with MacNeice, also a classicist) – e.g. ‘Waiting’:
To sit in the heavily curtained, old ladyish, waiting room
While upstairs the gloved surgeon operates on a loved one,
Imagined as candle-still and unlike life, in the brilliant
Gas-sweet theatre. To listen to the clock’s ‘Doubt, doubt’, and to hear
The metal of the knives made ready; and not to know any news;
That helpless fear.
Spencer often steers his poems’ movement in lines of differing length reminiscent of George Herbert, although with no significance to the visual shaping on the page (he had chosen Herbert as a school prize book). ‘In Memoriam’ creates a pattern with a short and a long line starting each otherwise irregular stanza, again somewhat Hardyish in tone:
The earth slumped in
and through successive empires those two stayed
The ciné-camera pointed
and the tall hatted Frenchman stands through Time
By the cold church wall
stern on their knees the Tudor couple pray
His rhyming is also often irregular and may be distantly placed, which can achieve some subtle effects.
The uncollected and unpublished poems are not necessarily less good than the ones published in his lifetime. I especially like some later uncollected ones, like ‘Written on a Cigarette Packet’, with an informally anecdotal style, full of feeling –
Bloody lonely without you.
your light voice locked in the tape recorder,
batteries run down.
His work was published in two collections, one quite early, one late (he died in his fifties in 1963, like MacNeice), and a collected poems appeared two years after his death, but this book contains others not included there. It has a large format and a hefty 350 pages, about 150 of collected and uncollected poems, and another 40 of translations. There is also selected prose, which is good for meeting the man a little more directly, as well as an informative introduction by Peter Robinson, extensive notes mostly about manuscript variations or where the originals are held, and an index.
And what of when neglected poets are rediscovered? Have they suddenly become relevant, filling some gap we hadn’t noticed? Are they simply a subject suitable for a PhD, or satisfying the academic hunger for publication? It would be unfair in Spencer’s case to say that is all he is good for: however, this book is essentially an academic project rather than a poetry-reader’s one. A smaller selected poems would suit most people, but here you can see what his best poems come out of. That may be a luxury in a world more full of poems than it has ever been, although reading somebody’s unsuccessful poems can help poets throw light on their own failures. Here at least is the whole of Spencer’s poetry: he does need to be read, and deserves to be.
Peter Daniels has won first prizes in the 2008 Arvon poetry competition, and the 2010 TLS poetry competition; he has published a number of pamphlets, most recently Mr Luczinski Makes a Move from HappenStance in 2011, and Mulfran Press will be publishing a full collection in 2012. On a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2009 he began translating from Russian the poems of Vladislav Khodasevich, which will be published by Angel Books.