I have been making some videos about poetry, some for British schools and some for a Russian university. I was asked this morning whether one of the poems I have recited is a great poem or not. It made me think.
There are certainly great poems in the anthologies I am using, but, to be frank, there is also alot of rubbish. When it comes to Stephen Spender’s poetry, I am really not sure what to say. He was one of two poets I met while I was an undergraduate- the other was Elizabeth Jennings with whom bizarrely I shared lodgings down winchester road. She was nocturnal, peculiar, deeply religious and also a film fan. There was a time when the two of us went repeatedly to see Attenborough’s “Gandhi”- at one point she was astonished to be tossed out of the cinema by an usher who thought she was a tramp. I rented a converted conservatory in the garden, and Elizabeth Jennings used to come into the garden and watch my rabbits. We also gossiped about John Gielgud and Daniel Day Lewis who was her godson and was about to take over from Rupert Everett in “Another Country”. What an interesting lady, and, of course, when I read her poetry today, I can still hear the cadence of her own voice, and her writing, thus, is coloured by a starry-eyed memory.
Spender brings with him some of the Elizabeth Jennings’ baggage in so far as he was also linked to many people in the arts’ world, and meeting him was a bit like touching literary divinity. Or was it minor sanctity?
The problem with Stephen Spender is that he is not really very good. Even in his day, he was regarded as second-rate, a cheap Rupert Brooke. So much so that Cyril Connolly pulled him up over his “bad writing”. But he enjoyed “being a poet”. There is a story which he quotes in his own memoir “World Within World” where he meets TSEliot for lunch and Eliot asks him what he plans to be in life-
I said: “Be a poet.” “I can understand you wanting to write poems, but I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘being a poet,'” he objected.
His was, I fear, the pose of “being a poet” rather than actually doing the job. He wrote a good deal (again in his memoir, he confesses that he wrote four poems a day while Auden managed only one in three weeks, but the quality control was different). He enjoyed the image- so much so that the leader of the communist party apparently said that the best thing Spender could do for the cause was to follow Byron and die. There is even a link between Elizabeth Jennings and Stephen Spender- Cecil Day Lewis was one of Spender friends!
Like the current Minister of Education in Russia, Spender also admired Stalin. “Forward to Liberalism” is evidence of his gullibility, stupidity, naïveté. But it is the way he seems to have treated his lovers that really gets my goat. I don’t have alot of time for people who indulge in open relationships- in the end someone always gets hurt, but Spender seems to have gone on and on with this – leaving his first lover to tend to his garden, abandoning his first wife Inez Pearn, and cheating on his second. To judge from the account given by his sculptor son Matthew, Natasha Litvin was determined to brazen it out. When his mother died, Matthew opened up a can of worms that was an open secret anyway.
“Her take on her marriage is that my father, when he met her, had put his former homosexual life aside and become totally straight and faithful to her. This is a myth that meant a great deal to her, even after Dad had died. But she knew that I didn’t really go for it, and she knew that I felt that once Dad was dead his life should be reinterpreted in a different way. For a start, my father left hundreds of indiscreet letters all over the place. But there was never a confrontation; we just simply didn’t mention it, either of us.”
In the end, I think we read Spender only because he lived so long and knew so many people. Even his exposure in a portrait by Hugh David and then in the Leavitt book “While England Sleeps” that makes it quite clear he never took his parents’ advice to avoid the company of “rough” boys, adds to his image. It is that image, rather than any of his actual writing that will be remembered.