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This item is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.


In Roger Caldwell’s rather condescending review of Nicholas Moore in PNR 235, the third paragraph is a sweeping dismissal of what he calls ‘1940s poetry’, and ‘New Apocalypse’, which he refers to as ‘The Apocalypse movement’. Since I first became interested in mid-Century British poetry I feel as if I have read this paragraph about fifty times, beginning with contemporary reviews as early as 1940 and continuing with mind-numbing repetitiveness for ever after. I am quite shocked that it is still being trotted out today exactly as it always was, especially when most of the poets he can be assumed to refer to have long disappeared from print.

Nothing has changed. The animus against ‘1940s poetry’ remains automatic and unquestionable. It is still considered unnecessary to mention any particular poet, or to quote any of the poetry under attack, indeed it is not even necessary to indicate exactly what it is about the poetry which is so offensive except in the most vague and assumptive terms, in the standard tone of the irate schoolteacher: ‘unreadable’, ‘misty portentious overblown language’, ‘unfocused imagery’, ‘intellectual and technical failure’, ‘A collapse of standards’, ‘carelessness’, ‘self-importance’, ‘vatic mythologising’...  None of this says anything and it is not literary criticism. There are no grounds of judgement beyond a categorical repulsion, though we are at least free of the disgusting ad hominem attacks which people like Graves made on Dylan Thomas. The word ‘vatic’ was always a favourite – I think I remember Donald Davie using it against W. S. Graham’s The Nightfishing in the 1950s – and it is used wrongly, for all it actually means is ‘foretelling the future’.

Moreover, what he’s talking about is not ‘1940s poetry’ at all. The poetry that repels him is continuous with that of Gascoyne, Barker and (especially) Thomas in the 1930s; the movement was well established by 1939 (so it was not a reaction to the war) and by 1946 had been beaten into the ground by all the upholders of ‘standards’ and most of its poets were not heard from again, indeed some were so discouraged that they stopped writing. But others, such as Graham, continued through the next five decades, writing with increasing clarity but maintaining an attention to distinctly verbal qualities which owes a lot to their more experimental writing in the 1940s.

Towards the end of the review Mr Caldwell quotes two lines of Nicholas Moore which are said to show him slipping into ‘typical forties fustian’:

O visionaries, all the empires fail.
The sailors sail away to meet the dead.

These strike some of us as powerful and meaningful lines concerning the state of the world, then or now. Here Mr Caldwell’s polemical scheme at once becomes clearer – a stylistic policing of poetry of a kind which I hoped was long past, a fearful shrinking from the larger scope and the big public tone. The first letter is probably enough in itself to elicit a marginal reprimand.

The commands are clear and they are still being issued. Poets must be well behaved and quiet. Poets must be modest and subdued. Poets must not attempt to refer beyond the social world and the instantly recognisable image. Poets must be at all times rational. Mythology is not admissible. Poets must not attempt to recover anything like a Miltonic or Biblical tone of address. Above all, poets must not be passionate.

Peter Riley
Hebden Bridge


Peter Riley attributes to me a ‘polemical scheme’ and sees me as a stylistic policeman requiring poets to be tame, boring, and biddable. Quite how he reads this into my text is unclear: does he suppose that, because in the historical context I refer to the Movement, that I am thereby advocating a return to the 1950s, or that – bizarrely – I am castigating Nicholas Moore for not writing like Philip Larkin? Anyone who actually reads what I have written will see that I am not treating him according to any such prescription. Indeed, it would otherwise be inexplicable how I am able to find merit in his confounding the well-bred critic’s little box of precepts or what I see as his joyous sense of play and fertility of invention. I fail to see how this is ‘condescending’.

However, little of what Riley complains about has to do with my treatment of Moore in particular – though clearly he has more stomach than I have for a line beginning ‘O, visionary’ – but rather with what he perceives as my cavalier dismissal of certain prominent strands of forties poetry. He is right to point out that the New Apocalypse movement made its entrée onto the poetic scene in the previous decade (its first anthology appeared in 1939) and was short-lived. However, the style of poetry it helped to spawn wasn’t. He is right too that I, in the otherwise excellent company of Donald Davie, mistakenly use the word ‘vatic’ in a derogatory sense, whereas its dictionary meaning is simply ‘prophetic’ – whereas the point is rather that these poets were ‘pseudo-prophets’. Over the decades much mud has been slung at them, but what Riley seems unable to concede is that not all that mud has been slung in the interests of a smug fifties orthodoxy, and that there may be good reason why so much of it has stuck.

Two of the founders of the New Apocalypse movement were J. F. Hendry and Dorian Cooke. The first gives us lines such as ‘Formality withers, / Shattering man/s gigantic iceberg – death’. The second offers ‘Destiny furls the rock-flung years. / In the soil is heard a desolate face beaten stiff.’ These are not isolated examples, but something close to a poetic norm: poets who went on to better things (as well as those who didn’t) made similar misguided assaults on the Miltonic sublime by piling on the rhetoric and ignoring the demands of intelligence or sense. If we admire such poets as Barker or Graham it is not because of their adherence to any forties poetic creed, but rather in their ability to reach beyond it. One wonders who, apart from the poets concerned, believed in the apocalypse at the time. Certainly it is hard to do so now. This is not a matter of decrying poetic ambition, as Riley, playing to the gallery, suggests. It is the sober matter of noting a vertiginous gap between aspiration and execution.

Roger Caldwell


I do apologise to Rory Waterman for misreading his comment on James Booth’s Larkin biography; his syntax was slightly ambiguous and, of course, I had the LRB’s cover-line ‘How Not to Write about Larkin’ lodged in my memory. I’m afraid I suspected a slip or a typo.

Speakings of typos, a couple of things have gone badly amiss with the first of my essays on ‘The Poet Alone’ (PNR 225). All the italics for book titles have vanished, despite being carefully restored at proof-stage, and mysterious indents have appeared (also post-proof) after the inset quotations which are all actually in the middle of paragraphs. Such serial offences, while requiring human complicity, are at least partly perpetrated by computers, electronic files and the wretched internet. Anyone who thinks ‘the future is digital’ should read, or re-read, Forster’s novella The Machine Stops. Like Les Murray (‘The Privacy of Typewriters’), I’m going back to typewriter, pen and paper.

Neil Powell

This item is taken from PN Review 226, Volume 42 Number 2, November - December 2015.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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