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This article is taken from PN Review 167, Volume 32 Number 3, January - February 2006.

The Poet's Response: William Empson and the Faces of Buddha Richard Pollott

Explaining to Christopher Ricks his reasons for stopping writing poetry, William Empson describes his early poems as 'love poems about a boy being too afraid of a girl to tell her anything'. Michael Schmidt in his Lives of the Poets recognises a 'facetiousness in the remark, but perhaps some truth, since the poetry ground to a halt shortly after boy told her something and Empson married'. The commonly held belief, that Empson's marriage of 1940 was responsible for the cessation of his poetic output, although in keeping with Empson's own biographical (and occasionally eccentric) speculations, underestimates the reaction of the poet's acutely modern sensibility to the new and threatening confusion precipitated by the Second World War:

After the war [...] I first, for about a year, wrote an essay on Buddhist sculpture before 1000 AD, which got lost afterwards, but there was no such need to start writing poetry again, and the theme which all the modern poets I admired had been working on, which I had been working on too, had been blown out like a candle.


This may well be the same 'theme' that Empson's close friend Kathleen Raine indicates in her unpublished memoirs, further discrediting the notion of Empson as a tongue-tied love poet:

On reflection I presently realized that Empson was concerned less with the charms of love than with those of surface tensions, the behaviour of reflections, galaxies, photons, chemical transmutations; and with man's ...


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