Thursday 20 July 2023

A Poetical Scrap and 34 Stanzas of Filth

 When the elderly John Masefield died in 1967, the post of Poet Laureate became vacant – who would succeed? Finding a successor should have been a fairly straightforward matter, but such things are rarely straightforward in the overheated, viciously rivalrous world of poetry (see Sam Riviere's Dead Souls).    Newly released documents from the National Archive reveal what went on behind the scenes as the poetry establishment scrapped ferociously over the succession, briefing against every candidate but the one they favoured. Betjeman was imperiously dismissed by Lord ('Two Dinners') Goodman: 'The songster of tennis lawns and cathedral cloisters does not, it seems to me, make a very suitable incumbent for the poet laureateship of a new and vital world in which we hope we are living.' Ah yes, that new and vital world, I remember it well... Philip Larkin was 'a reserved man who will never give a public reading' (though he was happy to appear in front of millions on TV). Stevie Smith was described as 'unstable'. Hugh MacDiarmid was reported to be 'heavily on the bottle, and has rejoined the Communist party'. Edmund Blunden 'suffered from severe mental lapses and was almost incoherent at times'. 
  As for the favourite, W.H. Auden, he, it seems, was ruled out largely because of a pornographic poem that appeared under his name in various underground publications. It had several titles – 'The Platonic Blow, by Miss Oral', 'The Gobble Poem', 'A Day for a Lay' – and was a narrative poem consisting of 34 ABAB stanzas of unremitting filth. I remember seeing it in, I think, the magazine Suck, and thinking something along the lines of WTF! Can this really be by Auden? Well, it seems it was, though the poet never intended it for publication. It was privately circulated among like-minded friends, and would have remained unknown (at least until after Auden's death) had it not been for Ed Sanders – yes, Ed Sanders of the notorious Fugs – who got hold of a copy through an employee of the Morgan Library and published it in the magazine he founded, the delightfully named Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Auden initially admitted, at least to friends, that he wrote the poem, but later he denied it. Fair enough for a man who was forever revising his corpus. 
  As for the laureateship, in the end it went to the 'safe' Cecil Day Lewis, who died five years later. He was duly succeeded by John Betjeman, who all along had been the man best fitted for the job, and was certainly the best laureate we have had in recent times. 


  1. Wasn't Auden by then an American citizen? Certainly he had lived for many years in New York by then. Not that I know the rules for laureateship, but I'd have expected HM Government to choose local laureates.

    The United States for many years named no laureate, but rather had the position of Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, which Wikipedia says was a two-year appointment. The billet is now "Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress", but still on the two-year system, and still nominally in the gift of the Librarian of Congress. I see that Stephen Spender got to be consultant almost sixty years ago.

  2. Yes, he was, George – and spending very little time in England, even when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. None of this would have helped his case, but citizenship alone doesn't seem to have debarred him.