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John Lucas

The Uses of Parody

Sometime in 1943 Dylan Thomas was invited to give a reading to the literary society at Oxford University. The Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive arrived with several pints under his belt and startled his large audience by announcing he had discovered a new poet, Rupert Brooke, who seemed to have been much influenced by Stephen Spender. Puzzlement and some uncertain titters, which turned into full laughter as Thomas launched into what those present recalled as a perfect parody of a Spender poem. The poem, which hasn't survived, was in all likelihood an impromptu. At all events, rather more than twenty years later, l was told by Dan Davin, a novelist who had left his native New Zealand for Albion some time in the 1930s, and who would go on to write some fine stories and at least one important novel about his wartime experiences, that he recalled an evening in the Wheatsheaf, one of the Fitzrovians' watering holes, where Thomas, leaning on the bar, beer at his elbow, cigarette stuck to his lower lip, came up with a series of instant parodies of all the poets then present, including Louis MacNeice. “Louis enjoyed Dylan's taking off the others”, Davin said, “but you could see that he was knocked back when it came to his turn.” Was the parody any good?” I asked. “Bloody good. That was what upset him.”

The question of how good Dylan Thomas himself was no longer dominates literary discussions, though in the mid-1950s, when poetry first entered my life, writers sometimes came to blows in defence of or attack on his reputation. But then in order to settle a literary dispute even the most physically challenged weren’t slow to raise their lists, or, in Roy Campbell's case, the knobkerrie, the stick with which he tried to batter Stephen Spender at an I.C.A. meeting. (He managed to do no more bloody Spender's nose.) A couple of years ago, when the Australian poet John Tranter and his wife were staying with us, John read with growing incredulity Paddy Fraser's unpublished memoir, a copy of which she'd given me, about literary London in the years after the second World War, when she and her husband, the poet-critic, G.S. Fraser, organised regular evenings at their Chelsea flat where invited (and some uninvited) poets brought their poems to read and have discussed. These invariably ended in acrimony and sometimes worse. On one occasion, Fraser, the mildest of men, smacked the head of Burns Singer. (Singer had suggested that Fraser should stick to prose.) On another, Edward Lucie Smith was thrown downstairs. Uproar was most effectively quelled by Ian Fletcher, who had the loudest voice of anyone I've ever known, and who was also far and away the best reader of poetry. Someone, it may have been Ian himself, once said that he could read from the London Telephone Directory and convince you it must be Milton. Philip Hobsbawm remembers being at a meeting at the Frasers' flat when, a violent argument having broken out, Ian restored order by reading the Earl of Cherbury's great poem,
On A Question Put. Peter Porter, who was conceivably present on that occasion, later wrote a poem What A Lying Lot the Writers Are which appeared in his first, dazzling collection, Once Bitten Twice Bitten (1961). You feel that had he written it ten years earlier he'd have called it what a What A Battling Lot the Poets Are.

Thomas was never at these meetings, but in a sense his boozy, raffish reputation licensed their excesses. It was this reputation, as well as a growing reaction against the Romantic afflatus that it seemingly vindicated (a poet drunk on words and divine sanction) that caused the succeeding generation of poets to turn away from his kind of poetry, to that he himself became the object of their parodic attentions, perhaps most notably in Kingsley Amis's second novel,
That Uncertain Feeling (1955), which includes a character called Gareth Probert, a self-styled poet and dramatist and author of a verse drama in two acts, called The Martyr. At that time, such plays infested the stage, perhaps because T.S. Eliot's verse dramas seemed the height of literary accomplishment. The main offenders were Christopher Fry (The Lady 's Not For Burning, A Sleep of Prisoner), and Ronald Duncan (The Way to the Tomb), but from the few lines of Probert's play we're given there's no doubt that Amis has Thomas in his sights:

When in time's double morning, meaning death,
Denial's four-eyed bird, that Petrine cock,
Crow junction down the sleepers of the breath,
Iron bled that dry tree at the place of rock…

Not bad. The baffling opacity, vague religiosity, Eliotian sense of life as a wasteland, above all, the “pulpit tone” are all traceable to bad Thomas. That this doesn't account for what is most valuable in his work is, perhaps, clearer now than it was when Amis et al set out to skewer him. And it wasn't just the poets known collectively as “The Movement'', for whom Thomas was a Thoroughly Bad Thing. Charles Tomlinson's Seeing is Believing (1960) dresses Thomas “in the skin of a Welsh lion'' and, echoing parodically some famous lines, mentions “the force that through the green dark, drove them/Muffled dissatisfaction's,” presumably by way of suggesting that Thomas’s art is typically shrouded in non-meaning and therefore lacks clarity of vision. Or the lack of clarity - an inability to think - means that he cloaks his anti-intellectualism in an appeal to that higher force which has at various times in history been called, among other things, inspiration, divine frenzy, or the subconscious (cue Norman MacCaig's derisive laugh). Given the amount of unwitting parody of Thomas's manner that afflicts many poets of the 1940s, including George Barker, David Gascoyne, Nicholas Moore and the ineffable Wrey Gardiner, all of whom were under his spell, the hostility of those who come later is understandable. There's only so much of Ohing and Ahing, of appeals to thorny crosses, to risen and fallen suns/sons, to Woman and Man (and God) and all the rest of the verbal trappings - seemingly bought from Woolworth's poetry counter - that any one can take. But then the dominant poet of the previous decade, Auden, had been endlessly and unconsciously imitated by lesser poets – think Day Lewis, Rex Warner, the young Roy Fuller among them, (not Spender, he was too incompetent, and not MacNeice or Empson, both of whom followed their own routes, as did the very fine E.J. Scovell), just as later Larkin, Hughes, Raine and Muldoon would be echoed by those who had, usually haplessly, been influenced (for which all too often read infected and afflicted) by their work.

But there feels to be something unique in the dislike of Thomas's work by those who resented his influence. And this is, I suspect, traceable to dislike of Thomas the man, or at all events the man he was supposed to be. I know this always happens. Auden? For Orwell, a “nancy” poet who didn't believe anything he said. Auden compounded this offence by, it's claimed, leaving his country in the lurch in the hour of its greatest need. Larkin? A morose misanthrope with (whisper it) a compulsive masturbation disorder. Hughes? Women died under him like horses. Muldoon? Ah, well, there the jury is out, but expect an unfavourable verdict any day soon. Thomas outdoes all these put together. Drunk, vainglorious, workshy, a stealer of other men's women, and always on the cadge. The very stories that made him an anti-bourgeois hero for some - a kind of home-grown, pocket-size combination of decadent bohemian and Hemingway - made him for others a villain. No wonder the man wrote so badly: he rarely stood his round and don't even think about when he last changed his socks. Thomas, you see, was no gentleman. Tomlinson even calls him the “Welsh gentleman'' to show he's nothing of the sort. If this be parody then it's as mean-minded as it is venomous (The O.E.D. defines parody as exaggeration “for the purposes of ridicule”.) It's also wrong. Admittedly, Thomas was often on the cadge but he seems always to have re-paid his debts. He drank more than his fair share but also seems to have worked hard to fulfil commissions as well as to make his own poetry as good as he could get it. (I notice that those who tut-tut that he got behind-hand with his poems and therefore upset his publishers' plans don't similarly complain at, say, Elizabeth Bishop's similar derelictions of duty to
her publishers. It took her years to complete The Moose, but who would dare to say the wait wasn't worth it? Anyone who writes seriously knows that the wind bloweth where it listeth.) As to the charge that he went to bed with other men's women, well, yes, he did. But after all, they could always have said no. Perhaps they liked the fact that he liked them. And when all is said and done, he wrote some wonderful poems and - this last point seems to me to outweigh most that can be set against him - when he gave readings, at which he was spellbindingly good, he invariably read more from other poets than he did from his own work. And if anyone doubts his genuine love of and understanding of the poets he read, they should listen to the Argo LP on which he reads Hardy's To Lizbie Brown. (He said that he thought Yeats the greatest English-speaking poet of the 20th century but that Hardy was his favourite. I'll buy that).

This isn't to quarrel with Amis's parody of the Thomas manner. Writers often feel the need to clear the ground in order to find space for their own work. In particular, because realism is always degenerating into “realism'', parody alerts you to how manner has taken over from matter. Dickens began by parodying both the fashionable “Newgate'' novels that romanticised crime and the equally fashionable “Silver-Fork'' novels that romanticised high society. Hence Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Hemingway did for poor Sherwood Anderson with
The Torrents of Spring. Parody is also criticism. By highlighting questionable features of the work it parodies, it invites the reader similarly to question them. Shelley's Peter Bell the Third takes on Wordsworth's “simple'' ballad tale. (Though my own view of the matter is that Wordsworth comes out of this better than Shelley.) And in The Vision Judgement Byron wipes the floor with Southey's absurd hexameters (“not one of whose gouty feet would stir'' as Byron has it) composed in unctuous praise of the recently-departed George III, of whom Byron more fairly said, “A better farmer ne’er brushed dew from lawn,/A worse king never left a realm undone''.

Parody can be affectionate, but is more usually powered by hostility. In the case of Thomas and his epigoni, known collectively as the Apocalyptics, the hostility of younger poets was, I'm pretty sure, whetted by plain old snobbishness. They might like to think of themselves as lower-middle class provincials, a pint and a pie men, but by heavens they were university educated. And not just any old university, either. They were all Oxbridge. But Thomas? Left school when he was 16. And as for the rest, Donald Davie's dismissive remark about W.S. Graham says it all. “A Clydeside proletarian'', he called him, “half-educated and bloody-minded”. Never mind that after his early, undeniably Thomas-influenced poems, Graham made himself into a major poet, whose work ought not so much to be on the shelves of anyone at all interested in poetry as always on the desk, open and within easy reach. Quite clearly, he couldn't cut the mustard any better than could Thomas, that half-educated Welsh oik.

And yet John Wain, the first poet I come to know at all well, didn't take this view. By the time I arrived at Reading University in 1956 John was no longer on the staff, though he still kept a small flat just off the Bath Road and within what he called “stepping distance'' of a pub, The Brunswick Arms. By 1958 I was meeting him there on a fairly regular basis and on one occasion he quite rightly rebuked the twenty-one year old Lucas for pontificating about the Movement poets - all of them - and their dismissal of Thomas. I was directed to a piece John had written for Mandrake, an Oxford-based poetry magazine of which he had been the sometime editor. There, he spoke perceptively and with warmth about Thomas's achievement, while taking leave to doubt his credentials as a religious poet. But John was always more open-minded than Amis or Davie (who tended to have the kinds of conversions which rendered white immediately black and vice versa). This may have been because he was on friendly terms with a number of American poets, including Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Kizer and Theodore Roethke, all of whom saw Thomas as a truly original poet and were unfazed by his lack of Oxbridge credentials.

On the other hand, John must also have given the impression that he was dead set against the kind of poetry associated with Thomas. Because in her memoirs, Clearances, published in the USA in 2002, that marvellously good poet, Mairi Macinnes recalls that as a student at Oxford in the 1940s and then and for years later a friend of John's, she was puzzled by his poems. “They were poems in tight form, tightly controlled, the resonance kept within bounds. He wasn't describing emotion, like me, nor the events that produced emotion. Wain the critic cast his shadow, over Wain the poet, the clarity of the first overlying the formality of the second”.

Reading those words called back memories of my initial encounter with John's first collection,
A Word Carved on a Sill, which appeared in 1956. I'd been intrigued by its formal skills but found something numbing about the poems themselves: it was as if they were shot through with Novocaine. He'd lent me his pioneering essay on Empson's poetry Ambiguous Gifts (it appeared in the very last issue of Penguin New Writing in 1950), a result of which I was aware of his deep admiration for Empson's technical panache, and he often expressed an equal admiration for Robert Graves, whom he'd indeed visited on Majorca. It's difficult to realise now how exemplary a figure Graves then seemed to younger writers: Alan Sillitoe spent time on the island, so did Amis. And that underrated poet and critic Martin Seymour Smith had at one time virtually taken root there. The title of John's collection, a quotation from a Graves poem, “Yet love survives, a word carved on a headsman's axe'' ought to remind us of Graves's excellence as a love poet. But though both Empson and Graves were formalists who took delight in making highly-wrought poems, their work seemed at its best filled, whereas John's merely fluttered its empty sleeves, or so it seemed to me.

By now I was beginning to send out my own work, which usually came back pronto, although to my amazement as well as delight some poems found their way into the pages of small magazines, most of them long since defunct. Then, cheekily, and on the assumption that they'd never take it, I sent one to the TLS. I'd almost forgotten I'd done so when, weeks later, I opened an envelope enclosing a proof of the poem with a cover note asking for corrections to be returned as soon as possible as the journal would be publishing it in a future issue. Whatever thrill acceptance by the TLS gave me was almost immediately swallowed up by a wave of black foreboding. To explain this, l need to reproduce the poem.

The Movement Poet Deserts His Muse

He guessed their love was done for from the start,
So he growled much later to a friend.
She’d clung too tight, he couldn’t play his part.

He chucked her. Someone had to make an end.
She cried. He used the old words, “Time will heal”,
And jazz he wouldn't bother to defend.

She battled on. “If that's the way you feel'',
Her dull phrase running out on sharper pains.
He fixed his wry grin, “sorry girl, no deal.”

He mooched some hours away, though not through rain
The night was fine. Still, he was on his own,
And midnight found him in his digs again.

He loosed his tie, thought of the downstairs phone,
Played with the doubtful joys of one more date,
Found he was out of coins and faked his groan:

For anyway, it was too bloody late.

You see the problem. I'd written what l thought and still think was a pretty good parody of John, and clearly the poetry editor of the TLS, whoever he or she was (I later found out it was G.S. Fraser but that's another story) liked it well enough to want to carry the poem in the journal's august pages. “The Movement Poet Deserts His Muse'' had started as an attempt to find out how to write the kind of poem that fills the pages of A Word Carved on a Sill. I'd kept to the rules of tight rhyming, in this case terza rima, I'd ensured that each iambic line carried exactly ten syllables made up of mostly monosyllabic words, (I didn't then know Pope's “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line''), I'd produced the kind of narrative which acted as allegory (a favourite Graves device); and I'd been careful to put in the occasional word and phrase that smacked of the atmosphere of provincial life: digs, rain, payphones, jazz, “mooching” through lonely back streets. All very Wain. All too much Wain, in fact. He'd be bound to read the poem, and as, like all writers, he had a healthy supply of paranoia on tap, of which he'd already given me instances aplenty, l didn't fancy the chances of our friendship surviving the poem's appearance. What to do? In the end I wrote back saying that for a variety of reasons too numerous and complicated to itemise I wanted to withdraw the poem. And until this present occasion I've never in fact published it. But I'm not sorry I wrote it. Working on it taught me something about the craft of poetry, and I'd recommend parody, even a course on parody, to any aspiring writer. At the very least it makes you think hard about what you need for the mechanics of writing. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, then parody is the tribute tyros pay to an achieved style. Of course, once a style is achieved it may be time to move on. John’s next collection, Weep Before God, was very different from A Word Carved on a Sill. The movement poet had deserted his muse.

Copyright © John Lucas, 2005