Sam Leith

Exit the hero

The Movement Reconsidered: Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and their Contemporaries, edited by Zachary Leader

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The Movement Reconsidered: Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and their Contemporaries

Zachary Leader (editor)

OUP, pp. 319, £

It was in The Spectator, in 1954, that the Movement was christened, and its members’ stereotyped image was soon set: white, male (except for Elizabeth Jennings), non-posh poets who rhymed and scanned, hated Abroad, thought T. S. Eliot was arse, Didn’t Come From London, and disconcerted the students at the redbrick universities where they taught by wearing flat caps and scarves in lectures.

Kingsley Amis cast them as a jazz ensemble:

Jack Wain and the Provincial All-Stars

Wain (tpt, voc) directing Phil Larkin (clt), ‘King’ Amis (tmb), Don Davie (alto), Al Alvarez (pno), Tommy Gunn (gtr), George (‘Pops’) Fraser (bs), Wally Robson (ds)

It was at the time a highly effective publicity stunt, but for years afterwards most members of the Movement sensibly denied having anything to do with it in the first place. As one of the fiercest deniers, Thom Gunn, put it in a poem about something else: ‘Their relationship consisted/ In discussing if it existed.’ But that’s no reason, by my lights, not to gather a retrospective anthology of essays about them.

So: was the Movement a movement? That’s the four-pound-fifty question. The two essays that bookend this collection address that point. Blake Morrison’s fine opening piece concedes that the whole notion was ‘dreamt up one day in 1954 by the editor of The Spectator to get his magazine talked about’, but argues that it was a useful term for talking about that group of writers at that time, and it did, in however loose a way, identify something: ostensibly anti-Modernist and anti-Romantic, but mostly just the debunking, pragmatic and unsentimental spirit that its best practitioners shared.

James Fenton’s essay ‘Kingsley Amis: Against Fakery’ looks at that spirit with droll good sense: ‘Most of us agree with Marianne Moore that there ought to be, in poetry, a place for the genuine; it’s galling to have to admit that there’s a place for the phoney as well.’ His argument is that if Movement poets seem to miss that point, doing so was a necessary corrective to the ‘windy poetry of the 1940s’.

He quotes, for instance, Walter De la Mare’s death-is-the-mother-of-beauty poem, ‘Look thy last on all things lovely’. Then, Kingsley Amis’s riposte, which ends:

The best time to see things lovely
Is in youth’s primordial bliss,
Which is also when you rather
Go for old shags talking piss.
Splendid. Mean-spirited, but splendid.
Zachary Leader’s anthology, I should say, seems a little under-edited. That it’s a bit Larkin-heavy is maybe understandable, but there’s a lot of repetition across the essays — Amis’s attack on ‘Picasso, Pound and Charlie Parker’; Larkin ‘still going on’; the proclamation that ‘nobody wants any more poems about art galleries or foreign cities’; Jimmy Porter’s lament for the lack of ‘good brave causes’ and so on. By the third time Thom Gunn’s uncharacteristically tin-eared squib about standing up for ‘the overdogs from Alexander/ To those who would not play with Stephen Spender’ comes round you groan, slightly.

But there’s much more to praise here than deprecate. In ‘How It Seemed Then’ Anthony Thwaite quotes himself extensively and with admiration. Elsewhere there’s penetrating stuff on the influences of Empson and Auden; enlightening material on Donald Davie’s hilariously choleric criticism; a discriminating essay on linguistic prescriptivism in the Movement; and a sinuously argued, unexpectedly persuasive piece by Terry Castle on Philip Larkin’s lesbianism.

I loved, too, Colin McGinn’s essay ‘Philosophy and Literature in the 1950s: The Rise of the “Ordinary Bloke” ’ — and not only because of the pleasure he must have taken in including the sentence:

Jim Dixon, provincial lecturer, medieval historian, blunt talker, girl chaser, boozer, cigarette smoker, occasional liar, bed destroyer, face puller: behind him, improbably enough, stands the gaunt figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Craig Raine’s essay on ‘Counter-Intuitive Larkin’ seems to me to be less counter- intuitive than its title boasts — of course he was a secret romantic! — but it is a virtuosically attentive series of close readings, and frequently very funny to boot. (I am friendly with Raine, an interest I should declare, but if anyone reads his essay as a result of this review and thinks it lousy, I’ll gladly refund them the price of this week’s Spectator.)

Critics often seem, by a sort of sympathetic vibration, to take on some of the stylistic features of their subjects — and you can see these critics rising (or sinking) to the idiom of the Movement. It’s hard to be fey and self-referential when, embedded in your text as quotation, is an admonition against ‘old shags talking piss’. The best essays here are robust in address, firm in judgment, and alert for the deflating hatpin behind the arras. It’s seldom you get to use the word ‘rollicking’ of semi-academic literary criticism, but some of these earn the epithet.

Robert Conquest — whose 1956 New Lines anthology (along with D. J. Enright’s earlier Poets of the 1950s) was held to have set the canon — gets the last word. As befits the father of the Movement, he more or less denies its existence.

He makes a good case. If the Movement was to Romanticism and Modernism as garlic is to vampires, he points out, how come the poem of his that inspired Anthony Thwaite to get in touch was called ‘The Death of Hart Crane’ (one of the few poets who manages to be Modernist and Romantic at the same time) and contained the line ‘vestigial to the dying endless sea’? ‘That alone,’ he says now, ‘ought to be enough to derail the old preconceptions.’

A bit later on he quotes a poem he wrote for ‘the notably non-movementy verse magazine’ Stand.

When verse seemed in need of improvement
We sat down and started a movement
We foregathered in Hull
Working hard to be dull
For we sure knew what being in the groove

He omitted it, he tells us without comment, from his New and Collected poems.