Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

In the basement of hyper-intelligence: the poetry of William Empson

Page contents:

In the basement of hyper-intelligence

William Empson, Burns Singer, Encounter and the CIA

“Creatures of a sort of sterile headachy pseudo-intellectual heat”: Hilary Corke on the Empsonians 

G S Fraser on the Empsonians and “The Movement”

In the basement of hyper-intelligence

“From partial fires
The waste remains …”

In the early seventies my friends and I, as students or unemployed, worked our way through a number of landlords, leaving unpaid rent in our wake and generally ending up somewhere even less desirable than the slum we had just abandoned. And so one day circa 1973, we found ourselves moving our books and vinyl into “Cliffe House”, a big Victorian terraced town house on Wharncliffe Road, Sheffield, in a neighbourhood whose tone at that time went abruptly, and very visibly, “up” and “down” from block to block.

13 to 21, Wharncliffe Road - number 17 in the centre

Our place was in the “down” part. A few streets away was the anarchist commune on Havelock Square(since re-named), run autocratically by an awkward bearded character called Ticker. It boasted stars painted on the ceiling and communal mixed sleeping arrangements. Across the road from us girls worked on the corner most days, playing cat and mouse with the police (or maybe it was cowboys and Indians, given the amount of ducking and chasing involved). The boys in blue very considerately left the kerb crawlers alone, though for all we or they knew, it might have been Peter Sutcliffe at the wheel.

In reality our house was semi-derelict, but had been bought dirt cheap and prematurely rented out by an aspiring young salesman type who wore sunglasses in all weathers, and whom we cheerfully despised. (He will have made his millions long since.) He was perfect for us: our irresponsibility as tenants was matched exactly by his irresponsibility as landlord.

The back yard, of a considerable size, was entirely covered by bags of rubbish hurled outside by previous tenants or dumped during some attempt at refurbishment, so that it would not have been possible to walk from one corner to the other without climbing over garbage and scrap. The rear of the house was one level lower than the front, and the ground floor kitchen projected at the back on stilts. Not too long before, this room had been badly damaged by an accidental fire, and the kitchen table had partly descended through the burnt floorboards, its four legs now visible from the ground level back yard, hanging in space as a sort of unintentional monument to disaster. The doorway from the front hall to the ruined kitchen had been barred over, but, inconveniently, the electricity meter was still housed just the other side, so that, to shove a coin in the slot, it was necessary to stretch one arm through the barricade of planks and protruding nails.

We occupied the ground and upper floors, which at least had been given a lick of new emulsion. The basement, or ground floor flat on the rear elevation, was, on the other hand, totally uninhabitable, and had also been barricaded off. From the front hall a side door (nailed up but passable) opened onto a staircase down, dividing at the bottom into two rooms, with a little kitchen, and a rear door below the derelict ground floor kitchen. From the back window of this basement the view was of wall to wall garbage, varied only by the table legs descending like stalactites from the floor above. Inside, all was coated in a thick layer of dust and grime, perhaps compounded by ash and debris from the fire. But these rooms were still furnished, and seemed to have been left in a state of sudden abandonment. There was surviving crockery in the small kitchen, and playing cards were scattered on a table top as if the mysteriously absent final tenant had, on an impulse, walked away forever from a game of Patience. The atmosphere was one of stale and eerie squalor.

Before retirement in 1971 from the Professorship of English at Sheffield University, this little bunker had been for seventeen years the varsity lodging (away from the family home in Hampstead) of William Empson, poet and critic. Here he had hosted meetings of the Arts Society, offering dry Lyons cakes for refreshment. During our time there he was wheeled back once as Emeritus to read some poems, and, resting rather on his laurels, to talk about Seven Types and Some Versions of the Pastoral. I think he still sported that strange neck beard.

Empson called this basement his “burrow”. Here is John Haffenden’s account of it, from his biography of Empson:

“It is not clear just how many digs he got through in his first months at Sheffield … but he ended up on the rear ground floor of a tenement dwelling at 17 Wharncliffe Road (which is about a quarter of a mile from the main university buildings). The postal address was not one he would choose to use for correspondence, because that would mean having to make his way to the front door of the large, three-storeyed, bald-fronted terraced edifice: he would take up his residence, that is to say, in the cellar, which was entered through a yard that led from a narrow alley or skillet linking the backs of this block of run-down houses. His accommodation consisted of a stark single room, about twelve feet square, along with a tiny kitchen area by the door; the floor was bare concrete, and an iron-framed single bed stood in the corner; there were two small open bookcases to left and right of the room, a naked lightbulb dangled from a flex in the ceiling, and a portable single-bar 14” electric fire was the one permanent source of warmth – though he would also borrow ‘for keeps’ a pink paraffin stove as an occasional supplement, or for use during power strikes. The only decorations he ever put on the walls were his prized portrait of the young Mao Tse-Tung and a wonderfully expressive photograph of a hippopotamus … In the centre of the room stood a plain deal table. This drab place was where he would work: reading, making notes, turning down the pages of books and annotating them, ‘smacking out’ articles and chapters on his old Corona typewriter, and marking essays. Beyond an inner door, a stairway led to the floor above, where in theory he could make use of the toilet, but he soon came to feel he would prefer not to go that way. ‘I won’t tell you what I do,’ he once remarked coyly to a colleague. (Invariably, he would urinate in the yard.) He occasionally had a bath at a colleague’s house … The upper floors were occupied by an assortment of tenants …

The front basement window, as it is today

He would live in these conditions for the remainder of his time at Sheffield – no less than seventeen years – until 1971; and until the last year or so an old woman (‘my old tortoise’) would come in to ‘do’ for him … But she did not clean very thoroughly, and even Empson occasionally became concerned about the insanitary state of his dive … Besides being dirty, his pièd-a-terre was also damp at times in the winter; bit its smallness made it relatively easy to heat. Empson would emphasize, rightly so far as most visitors could tell, that it did not really smell. Otherwise, the place did seem to agree with him: cheap and handy, it did not attract an excessive number of callers, and involved no time-consuming keeping-up of standards; and it left him perfectly independent. The door was never locked during term and not always during vacations: there was nothing to be stolen. He was the proverbial beggar who could sing before the thief.”

This pretty much describes what I remember, though a single room of twelve square feet seems less than I recall. Admittedly, in the four decades since, much of that part of my life has faded. But the memory of that basement – not the fine details, more the pure impact – has stubbornly remained. We were hardened to bohemian living, but that basement just seemed very odd indeed. Its oddness has to do, I think, with the wonderful but scary dysfunctionality of the super-intelligent.

Kenneth Lo recalled that “William was one step removed from contemporary reality and seemed to stroll through life unhindered by its troublesome details.” We make considerable allowances for “the life of the mind”. Though in his childhood we might have him statemented, pegged out somewhere along the autistic spectrum, in his adulthood we wink cheerfully at the hapless genius who shies at the challenge of boiling an egg. Inside, sharpness of focus; outside, beyond pebble lenses, the chaos.

Which, at the risk of abusing the proper (and entirely Empsonian) critical employment of biography,  brings us to Empson’s poetry. He was much read by young post-war poets of an intellectual cast, seeking correctives to the mini-epiphany of the Imagist significant moment, the discredited political verse of the ‘thirties (“the revolutionary romp, the hearty uproar”), the tedious automatism of the doctrinaire surrealist poem (“the superrealistic comp. by a good student who enjoys a nightmare”), or the thin symbolic word-mush of the New Apocalypse.

In The Movement (1980), Blake Morrison points to the influential and lasting impact of John Wain’s 1950 article on Empson in Penguin New Writing, “particularly amongst young poets in Oxford”. Wain was critical of the utter impenetrability of some of Empson’s poems, but was still ready to rate him alongside Auden. “Empson is the idol of dons and undergraduates,” confirmed Betjeman. Reviewing Empson’s 1955 Collected Poems, Burns Singer (see below) caricatured him as “the unwilling headmaster of a whole school of promising or accomplished young versifiers”. It’s interesting that Anthony Thwaite, in his Poetry Today round-up of the ‘sixties, included Empson, who had published nothing poetic since 1955, alongside the prolific in his “Select Bibliography”; even in the ‘seventies, he was still clearly an elephant in the room, just as his invisible presence still haunted his abandoned basement.

And should still haunt us, if only as a ghostly but essential point of reference, as a corrective. His distancing, his objectivity, are needed as a corrective to the prevailing anecdotal in poetry, and to the self-indulgent anecdote in particular. His obsessive tinkering with the language is needed as a corrective to mere thinking aloud in poetry, the thinking that is deaf to the sound of words, that writes towards words and not out of them. The intelligence and the broad referencing of his content are needed as correctives to the populist stand-up of what now passes for “performance poetry”, the easy anti-intellectualism of the “celebrity rant” and other slam-fodder.

We need, from time to time, to step back down into that uncomfortable basement.

Talking of the basement,  we moved on from Wharncliffe Road before too long.  Our yuppie ex-landlord got a solicitor’s letter through to us at the next address, demanding his back rent. We binned it and never heard from him again.

“It seemed the best thing to be up and go.”

*          *          *

William Empson, Burns Singer, Encounter and the CIA

Burns Singer by Bet Low

The comments on Empson’s poetry that follow are taken from Burns Singer‘s review of Empson’s Collected Poems (and Poems by F T Prince) in Encounter for January 1956. They demand a bit of background here, though Singer is interesting enough to warrant his own section elsewhere on this site at some point. A Glaswegian wunderkind-poet exiled in the London literary scene, his combative arrogance had made him plenty of enemies among his elders at parties and readings. At the TLS, Singer found an opening as a reviewer through his personal contact with the poetry editor G S Fraser, but he also wrote for the recently established Anglo-American magazine Encounter, whose UK literary editor was Stephen Spender. Encounter was essentially funded by the CIA, and in the cultural cold war had functioned since its launch as a covert mouthpiece for US policy. Its story has been told extensively elsewhere; after incontrovertible evidence of its compromised nature became public in 1966, Spender was obliged to resign, protesting his ignorance to the last.

But allegations about Encounter had been current for years, and one of its fiercest enemies had been William Empson. Almost from the launch in 1953, he had challenged Spender over articles on the execution of the alleged Soviet spies the Rosenbergs (a cause célèbre at the time), and on Chinese affairs, and had speculated on the source of the “foreign gold” that kept the magazine afloat. Hardly a coincidence then, that on the heels on this spat the waspish Singer was wheeled out to damn Empson’s Collected with some very faint praise indeed. A lifelong US citizen (though raised in Glasgow), and an instinctive romantic liberal with an Outsider complex, Singer was just the man to have a knock at a supposed establishment fellow-traveller.

Cleverly conceding Empson’s eminence as a critic, Singer proceeds to rubbish his poems as little more than “carefully designed illustrations of critical principles”. Empson’s admiration of the Metaphysicals is excessive, and his espousal of ambiguity harmful to poetic clarity. His poems, “snarled up in all sorts of trickery” and “pointless extravagance”, contain lines of real merit, but not a single one is found to be “entirely perfected”. An “adolescent lack of economy in the choice of images” allows Singer finally to hold up a resemblance between bits of Empson and the worst wordiness of Dylan Thomas – an identification that would have outraged Empson’s followers. This is below the belt, for Singer himself owed much to the example of Thomas. Moreover, he was more than happy himself to fracture syntax wilfully – a feature he rebukes in Empson.

Singer goes on (not included here) to compare Empson unfavourably with F T Prince, whose work had by then become somewhat eclipsed in Britain (and still largely is). It’s particularly interesting though to note that Prince’s style was to be very influential on John Ashbery and the New York school of the 1960’s. Was there not an agenda at work here, analogous to the CIA’s cold war promotion of abstract expressionist painting?

Meanwhile, Empson v Spender continued to rumble. Things became physical in 1961 at a party given by the MacNeices, when (as told both in Haffenden’s biography of Empson and Sutherland’s of Spender),  Empson followed his adversary around the room chanting “Stephen’s a cheat!”, and had a glass of wine thrown in his face for his pains. The two were never quite reconciled. But here’s Singer:

IN STARS OR IN OURSELVES?

WHAT causes a poet to influence his contemporaries or his juniors? Is it merit? Or originality? Or oddness? Or has it little to do with the poet’s own productions? Is it one more manifestation of these secret activities which can be removed from the field of individual decision by the eternal alibi of the Zeitgeist?

These questions are raised by a reading of the verse of two very fine poets who both published a good deal during the thirties and who are therefore old enough for it to be possible that their work should affect those who are only beginning to write or to publish. Of the two, Mr. William Empson has found himself the unwilling headmaster of a whole school of promising or accomplished young versifiers, while the other, Mr. F. T. Prince, is appreciated by no more than a small, though distinguished, section of the poetry-reading public.

Mr. Empson’s influence is partly accounted for by the fact that he is one of the greatest of contemporary critics; and there is a singularly close connection between his critical prose and his creative activity. Some of his poems could almost be taken as carefully designed illustrations of critical principles. He has also been able to draw attention to the merits (and perhaps to over-estimate them) of those metaphysical poets, like Donne and Marvell, who provide the chief sources of his own technical repertoire. In this indirect way it can even be said that he has reached through to poets like Mr. Prince himself who derive much of their apparatus from the group of writers whom Milton labelled, and not so unjustly as is generally supposed, The Fantasticks.

The most influential of Mr. Empson’s theories has been that of poetic ambiguity. This was perhaps first adumbrated by Dante in the Convivio where he says that all poems contain at least three levels of meaning. As expounded by Empson it leads to a great increase in our understanding of the poetic ironies inherent in such diverse works as Chaucer’s Troilus and Cresseyde and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In the hands of some of his admirers, however, it degenerates into the dictum that the pun, which is the basis of most bad jokes, is also the fundamental element in all poetic creation. It entirely ignores the fact that the very greatest poetry is usually singularly unambiguous in its sweeping assertions of the greatest and simplest human values.

This omission is important to the consideration of Mr. Empson’s poems as poems. Snarled up in all sorts of trickery, with an adolescent lack of economy in the choice of images, they very seldom reach through to that passionate clarity which is the distinguishing feature of a major poet. Perhaps one should invert the statement and say that, in spite of all their pointless extravagance, they sometimes do search out that bitter kernel in the middle of the mush of our experience. Certainly there are lines of the most austere magnificence, like:

Flame far too hot not to see utter cold
And hide a tumult never to be told.

or:

I can so love for truth, as still for grace,
Your humility that will not hear or care.

or:

The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.

To one reader, however, there does not seem to be a single poem which is entirely perfected, where we have “a finish worthy of the start” or a start worthy of the finish. The last two lines to be quoted come, for example, from a six-line poem which contain six of the fourteen lines which the poet has written in the past sixteen years (apart from a small and rather embarrassing Masque on The Birth of Steel which was performed on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Sheffield), and this small poem, which contains five magnificent lines, begins:

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.

That one grotesque distortion of normal syntax is almost enough to cudgel the poor poem to death. That it should be followed by the limpid but powerful exactitude of the following four sentences is scarcely credible.

But although Mr. Empson’s syntax is often very odd and sometimes downright wrong, it is his use of images and his choice of verse forms which have most affected the younger generation of his admirers. His commonest verse forms are the very formal, though often involuted, stanzas of the villanelle, terza rima, or the quatrain. Apart from a very few exceptional instances, like the conversational Ignorance of Death, there is a kind of bus-stop at the end of each line where certain meanings are allowed to alight while others are brought aboard in preparation for the journey along the next line. This technique hardly makes for the kind of metrical fluency which we find in such a poet as Mr. Prince, who seems to take the entire poem rather than the single line as his rhythmic unit – except in those poems where he himself is most influenced by the 17th century metaphysicals.

As for images, Mr. Empson’s are scholarly, scientific, and very numerous. This, combined with the metrical uniformity of the lines, tends to give his worst work a superficial semblance to the worst of a very different, though equally influential, writer: the late Dylan Thomas.

Pillowed on gulfs between exiguous bobbins
The Son of Spiders, crucified to lace,
Suspends a red rag to a thousand dobbins
And sails so powered to a better place.
All his gained ports, thought’s inter-reached trapeze,
Map-sail, transport him towards Hercules.

That stanza could almost have been written by either poet, only Thomas would not have furnished us with a complete explanation of the intended inter-relations between the images as Mr. Empson has done in his extensive notes at the back of the little volume of verse which form his Collected Poems.

*          *          *

“Creatures of a sort of sterile headachy pseudo-intellectual heat”: Hilary Corke on the Empsonians 

Here is another hit at Empson from Encounter. Or rather, at his followers, though in the wake of the heated exchanges on Chinese affairs between Empson and Spender in the columns of that CIA-funded periodical, a hit at the Empsonians was only slightly indirectly a hit at Spender’s nemesis. This is focused on Oxford Poetry 1954, and is excerpted from “The Bad Old Style”, a longer set of reviews in the June 1955 issue. The reviewer, Hilary Corke, was a poet who espoused a sort of well crafted neo-romanticism.

The position, as I see it, is roughly this. The past ten years, at any rate in England, have witnessed something of a revolution: the poems that appear in our periodicals, for instance, are now usually fairly rigid in form and fairly clear in content, a decided reversal of between-war practice. They tend to rhyme and to use full-stops and commas: try that on a thirties editor and hear his indignant rejection – ’Rhymes? Commas? Old-fashioned stuff!’ The magnitude of this revolution, however, is obscured, first by the fact that there are no new big convenient names to bandy, secondly that it is inevitably in the nature of a retreat into territory that has been, at any rate superficially, occupied before. It has no news value: reaction always gets a poor press compared with the headlines of action.

These new ’formalists’ fall  into two groups. The first is a small homogeneous body, a ’school,’ known  generally as ’the Empsonians.’ How far Mr. Empson is gratified by this, I cannot say. The recipe for this type of poetry is simple. Read five hundred lines of Dryden until you have the ’noble frank and manly’ rhythm pat; choose any theme more proper to critical prose; garnish with two chic philosophical terms, three classical references (minor writers, please!) and half a dozen rather naughty ones; deluge in an espagnole of Total Knowingness, and serve up in villanelle or terza rima. This style is particularly affected by the  youngest writers: about half of Oxford Poetry 1954 (Fantasy Press. 5s.) is given up to it, and the results (though creatures of a sort of sterile headachy pseudo-intellectual heat) are not  wholly without their amusing moments. It is the pretentiousness that is the chief drawback; only those who know very little could think it worth while pretending to know quite so much. And they have a most uningratiating habit of saying ’we’ when they mean ‘I’; thus Mr. George Macbeth:

‘No acts performed in fact have been
Rehearsed upon a private stage
Inside the head.’ We know you mean:
What bunch of nerves has come of age
To play the ghost in the machine?

We don’t, you know! We don’t for a moment. The same poet provides plenty of examples of the ‘Empsonian’ movement at its most characteristic and its most absurd:

Shy maids may blush who whisk suspenders up

or

So Kant was right. What flirt would be discreet,
Or spoil a likely romp by shamming coy?

And here is Mr. Jonathan Price:

Small men make love on stilts, and hold their poise.

It will be seen that it is unnecessary to invent parodies of this style. Nevertheless it has this importance: that here is a group of young poets (not only at Oxford but widely spread over the country) who feel sufficiently dissatisfied with the bad old style to band together in that most un-English thing, a school, and (what is more) attempt to establish what our poetry has not known for close on 200 years, a universal metre. No doubt, believing that every metaphysical age must be succeeded by an Augustan, each hopes to become the 20th century Pope, where the most he can hope for is to become the 20th century Edmund Waller (the position of the 20th century John Waller being already adequately occupied): nevertheless Oxford Poetry 1954 is a more vigorous and stimulating little collection than has come out of a University for quite a long time and should be read widely, both for its Empsonian and for its other contributors.

*          *          *

G S Fraser on the Empsonians and “The Movement”

Was there any substance or not to “The Movement” in ‘fifties British poetry? It’s been tirelessly (and tiresomely) debated. Certainly, there was Philip Larkin, though he had been writing for a decade already. And certainly there were the self-serving ambitions of Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest. In the same year (1956) as Conquest’s notorious New Lines anthology, which contained just nine “Movement” poets, G S Fraser edited for Faber the anthology Poetry Now, containing the work of no less than 74 contributors, including the New Lines nine. Attempting representative scope, this took a broad focus. Fraser had started as a ‘forties Apocalyptic, but kept up with developments both as poet and critic, and as the host of monthly readings at his London flat, where he rubbed shoulders with many of his contributors.

In his introduction he gives a tempered, informed and readable summary of the recent climate, from the wartime reaction against the ‘thirties, via neo-romanticism, to the new return to form. Of the New Lines poets, he singles out John Wain, Donald Davie, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings for honourable comment. He does not do so for Amis or Conquest. Most importantly, he carefully declines to identify any “Movement” other than a grouping influenced by the example of Empson. And he sets Davie and Jennings outside this definition, as “late Augustan” and “highly individual” respectively. No “Movement” here in the Amis-Conquest sense, then. And Fraser was certainly in a position to judge. Here he is on the Empsonians and “The Movement”:

Number five of 'Nine' magazine, D S Carne-Ross's attempt to 'replot the traditions'. Revisionist, obscure and often reactionary.

At the turn of the 1940s, two magazines, Nine and Colonnade, both of which paid particular attention to translation and to reviving interest in the great literature of the past, marked a minor breakaway from the prevailing neo-romantic mood. For the emergence of a really new attitude to poetry, rooted in new social conditions, we had to wait till the early 1950s. Then, in the ninepenny pamphlets published by the Fantasy Press in Oxford and the limited small editions of new poets published by the Fine Art Department of Reading University, and chosen by Mr. John Wain, was introduced (at first to a small audience) a set of poets too young in most cases either to remember the 1930s, to have had their attitudes fixed by the war years, or to be deeply affected by the current London fashions. These young poets had often been influenced by the teachings and writings of Dr. Leavis, and by the poetic example of Mr. Empson. Their arrival on the scene represented what might, perhaps, be described as an ousting of the bohemians by the pedants. Many of these new poets were teachers of English, or sometimes librarians, often in provincial universities. They were more in sympathy with the ‘puritan’ and ‘provincial’ strands in the English tradition than their immediate predecessors, and as practising poets at once more scholarly (with certain reservations, and within certain limits) and also much more cautious. They worked almost entirely in the typical Augustan line, the end-stopped iambic pentameter. Certain metrical forms had an unusual prestige with them, notably two, borrowed from Mr. Empson: the villanelle, with an ironical twist of emphasis in its refrain: and terza rima, used for meditative verse, and ending often with a single line hanging in the air. The quatrain was also popular …

… Mr. Empson, himself, in a broadcast, speaking of these young disciples (and alluding to himself in the third person) observed that Empson no doubt had a narrow talent but not quite so narrow as you might think from reading these young men. Yet what attracted the best of these young poets to Mr. Empson was not, obviously, merely the ‘noble, frank, and manly’ style which he shares with Dryden but the fashion in which, in his best poems, a mind of the first order can be seen exercising an ironic control over an inner core of passion. The problem about these disciples is whether they have merely the irony, without the core. At the same time, the degree to which Mr. Empson is the sole dominant influence over the newest group of the young can be much exaggerated. One sees his influence clearly in Mr. Wain’s earlier poems, much less in his later ones; very clearly in Mr. Alvarez’s poems, but not unhelpfully, since Mr. Alvarez seems close to Mr. Empson in natural temper of mind; helpfully, on the whole, in Mr. Jonathan Price’s poems; unhelpfully, perhaps, in Mr. George MacBeth’s poems, who seems to make rococo out of Mr. Empson’s baroque. Mr. Donald Davie, on the other hand, owes much more to his favourite late Augustans than to any contemporary model. Mr. Thom Gunn, one of the best poets of this group, has hammered out for himself a plain, direct style – sometimes slightly awkward and aggressive – that suggests a general recurrence to some of the standards of the 1930sbut no direct personal influence. Mr. Philip Larkin, a poet of deep feeling, of delicacy and restraint, sometimes (as in his beautiful poem about old horses at grass) suggests a chastened Yeats – a Yeats ‘done over again’ in water-colour. What all these writers do have in common is a new strictness and sobriety. The general standards of their craftsmanship compare very favourably indeed with the slapdash, hit-or-miss methods of the 1940s. The danger that confronts them as poets is, on the other hand, the aridity that comes from always playing safe.

In so far as there does exist a dominant immediately contemporary ‘movement’ in English poetry, the movement which I have described – or some of whose characteristics I have roughly sketched in – is it. But it is not a movement which by any means has it all its own way. There are young poets of great promise, like Mr. Christopher Logue and Mr. Burns Singer, who will have nothing to do with the new sobriety: they are exuberant, or nothing. There are others, like Mr. Martin Seymour Smith (In some of his best poems apparently a disciple of Mr. Robert Graves), Mr. Richard Murphy, and Mr. Hilary Corke who share the concern of the poets of ‘The Movement’ with careful craftsmanship but have very different visions of life, technical approaches, admired masters. Both Mr. Cork and Mr. Murphy have criticized to me in conversation the monotony of the revived iambic pentameter as a staple line and the too self-conscious sophistication (sometimes concealing callowness) of the neo-Empsonian tone. The best of the younger women poets, also, like Miss Elizabeth Jennings and Miss Mairi McInnes, tend (like most good women poets, at most times) to be highly individual, and to fall outside the literary journalist’s groupings. These groupings, for that matter, should not be taken for anything more ambitious than they are: convenient pigeon-holes, for documents that deserve individual scrutiny.

One response to “In the basement of hyper-intelligence: the poetry of William Empson

  1. Mark Thompson April 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful and convincing post. Looking forward to the promised more on Empson.

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