Book Review

Penguin Modern Poets 25

Photo on 12-01-2015 at 20.53 #4

Other than having an excellent cover, this 1975 collection of poems by Gavin Ewart, Zulfikar Ghose and B. S. Johnson is a rather disappointing read. I bought it, of course, for the Johnson, but it turned out that all his poems contained here I’d previously read. One of the two other poets, Ghose, was a close friend of Johnson’s, so I was somewhat interested to read some of his poetry. Ghose wrote a very moving eulogy-essay for Johnson called ‘Bryan’, but other than that I have not encountered him. I believe he now works as an academic in Texas.

The collection contains about sixty pages per poet, with the very underwhelming Ewart opening the book. Ewart’s poems are often sing-songy, there is  lot of rhyme and a lot of discussion of sex in what is clearly meant to be a “liberated” way, but instead comes across as dated. What really turned me off Ewart was the inclusion of pieces lampooning far better poets – there is one affecting to be Larkin, one a “parody” of Auden. Ewart wasn’t witty enough to pull these off, and the idea of mocking his colleagues and superiors shows (to me) a lack of self-awareness. All his poems feel very first half of the 20th century, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the man is now out of print. There were a handful of arresting images or ideas, but all of them were located in the middle of mediocre poems. Not a poet worth reading.

Ghose, however, was better. As someone who lived within several different cultures (born in Pakistan, moved to the UK at 17, later moved to the US), his poetry reflects this idea of placelessness, or of its opposite. There is a lot in Ghose’s work about location and geography, and being at a cultural remove from ones surroundings. There is an odd strain of nature poetry to it, too, which I often hate, but can deal with in small doses. Ghose was interesting, yes, I suppose, though there were no stand-out poems, his standard consistent.

The Johnson poems are a strange selection. There are far too many poems that Johnson wrote about an old girlfriend, bitter, misogynistic, laddish cries of hatred and regret that don’t have the poetic merit to justify inclusion. Sometimes, too, when he tries to write more formal, more traditional poems, he wavers. Where he is strong – and I’d say he’s pretty fucking strong where he is strong – is when he writes about bodily decay, about ageing and about death. This is what Johnson does best in his novels, too, so it’s sad that the editors of this compendium chose to include so many (and this is the best way to describe some of them) frankly teenage efforts describing heartbreak. These let Johnson down, and though the man was so proud and self-important he probably wouldn’t have openly criticised himself, the standard of his best poems (ones about becoming a father, ones about grief, ones about his body) is so high, it seems odd that he’d put out so much bad poetry. I believe it comes down to the fact that Johnson didn’t write many. Or he wrote a lot of poems he never published and these are “the best”. That seems unlikely, and this small selection of his small output of poetry shows his weakness when it comes to writing in verse.

Not a particularly inspiring collection, to be honest. Ewart was awful, Ghose was fine and Johnson was typically inconsistent. Time to read another novel!

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