Poetry and the Age: Sir John Betjeman

In the mid-Eighties I was living in England, and one time, in a pub in Stratford, I won a pound note by being able to name the then current Poet Laureate of England: Ted Hughes. For those of you who don’t know, he was, at the time of her suicide, Sylvia Plath’s husband, and to this day there are people (American feminists, no doubt) who visit her grave in England only to desecrate it by scratching out the “Hughes” in the “Sylvia Plath Hughes” on her tombstone (of course, they’re doing it because they think he drove her to suicide, when, in fact, they should be doing it because he was such a patently bad poet.)

Much later in life did I come to appreciate the poetry of the man Hughes “replaced” (if one can do such a thing). His name was John Betjeman (pronounced “Betch-a-men”) and, at the time of his death in 1984, must have been considered quite an anomaly. First of all, he not only wrote poetry that rhymed and scanned, but he may have possessed one of the finest lyric ears of any poet who ever wrote in English. I’ve read and reread his poetry (perhaps the only compliment available to a poet) and if he ever scribbled a bad rhythm or rendered a line a foot longer than necessary, I haven’t come across it. Second, at a time when poets believed that poetry’s job was to remain as obscure and incomprehensible as possible – rendering readers into the rather cryptic categories of those who “get it” and those who don’t (with those “getting it” generally being academics whose job it was to set up cottage industries inside American universities with the sole purpose of “explaining” it to the undergrads) – Betjeman’s verse was, well, easy – and fun – to read. Clear, concise, comprehensible, Betjeman wrote poetry that actually communicated an experience to readers in terms that allowed to experience it themselves, as well as take pleasure – sheer, sensual pleasure – in the unique and metrical way that English poetry arranged itself. It is no doubt because of the anomalies I list above that no one in the U.S. has heard of him. His assumptions about poetry – that it has nothing whatsoever to do with “self-expression”; that it isn’t a private function of some poet attempting to work in what Philip Larkin called “teased out obscurities”; that poetry is quite public, something that belongs to all of us – are foreign to the American mind. It’s sad, really, that Americans grow up believing poetry to be one thing, only to arrive in colleges and universities to be taught by arid, lifeless academics that it’s something different altogether. Sad, still is that Americans believe these charlatans, and don’t call then out out for the canting, hypocritical wheedling phonies they no doubt are.

I bring this up because the Times Literary Supplement recently ran a review of a new bio of Betjeman. Clocking in at 750 pages, it seems a rather large tome for someone who, throughout his life, remained so humble about his verse (and about the great men and women of the 20th century who sought him out because of it). His life also belied what we now understand the public person of a poet to be: sullen, lost in thought, aetherial, out of touch with the public eye, hesitant to be a part of it. Betjeman, on the other hand, was a public man, always entertaining (at one time it seemed impossible to avoid catching him on the Beeb) by all accounts fun to be around (indeed, every single photo I’ve ever seen of him seems to have caught him in mid-laughter, as if a pub mate had just finished telling him a raucously and lecherously funny joke). We’d do well to have poets like him around, though the literary culture we’ve provided for ourselves just won’t do with the likes of him. Sad, indeed.

One incident from the Betjeman bio bears repeating here. Betjeman visited his biographer in Soho, and noticed a foundation stone engraved “Laid by the Poet Laureate.” “Every nice girl’s ambition,” Betjeman added, twinkle in his eye. Hear, hear.

Here’s a sample of Betjeman, one of my favorites, entitled “A Subaltern’s Love Song”:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,

Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,

What strenuous singles we played after tea,

We in the tournament – you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,

The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,

With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,

I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,

How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,

The warm-handled racket is back in its press,

But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,

And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,

And cool the verandah that welcomes us in

To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,

The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,

As I struggle with double-end evening tie,

For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,

And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,

And westering, questioning settles the sun,

On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,

The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,

My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair

And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,

She drove to the club in the late summer haze,

Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells

And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,

I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,

Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!

Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,

Above us the intimate roof of the car,

And here on my right is the girl of my choice,

With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,

And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.

We sat in the car park till twenty to one

And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

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