Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We don't still read Spender, do we?

I have just read David Leeming's 1999 biography of Stephen Spender, "A Life in Modernism." Spender, forever associated with Auden and Isherwood in our image of the 1930s had a presence throughtout the 20th century, like a literary Zelig. Leeming's book is fast paced and gossipy and in parts reads like Fitzgerald's description of a Gatsby party, a litany of the rich, famnous, fashionable and infamous. Born as late as 1909 he knew so many, and outlived them all, so that when he passed away in his 80s, by then Sir Stephen Spender, he was the last man standing. Spender's always seemed to me one of those literary names you read about but don't read, and in many ways the book is the story of that. A poet who was more engaged with being a critic, a commentator and a literary acolyte. In Leeming's account, everyone was not just an acquaintance but a close friend, and one is left with the sense that he had a genius for friendship - and not just writers, he dines with Henry Moore and Lucien Freud, is close to Stravinsky, and meets politicians. Man of letters perhaps - but a very modern man of media too. Yet underpinning it all is his bisexuality, his close relationship with his Oxford peers, and the ever-present freedom of his trust fund.

"Money, sex and poetry" could have been the subtitle but to be honest, coming to Spender with some scepticism, I came away liking him alot. He was a heart on the sleeve poet; a leftwinger whose dabbling with communism was always aware of its darker side; and - it seems - a friend to most of the 20th century's notable writers. His best work was written in the 1930s by this account,and he was overlooked or outgrew various awards as life went on. In this sympathetic account he knows that he should have spent more time writing his poetry. that feathering his intellectual nest, and if theres a modern day equivalent would it be a publisher like
Micheal Schmidt or a media figure like Clive James? The poetry, it seems, has hardly lasted - yet the criticism, in essay after essay alluded to here, sounds like its worth rereading. He didn't just have one literary icon, Eliot, but two, with his contemporary Auden - and it is poetry that he kept returning to, even though he wrote copious prose, literary criticism, novels and a well received autobiography. As a literary activist he was involved with PEN and Index on Censorship, and as an editor with both Horizon and Encounter.

His life seems utterly full of incident - his homosexuality at Oxford and in Weimar Germany returned to throughout his life as a husband (twice) and father of 2 children. Much later in the USA he would be in love with a much younger man, whom we only find referred to as B. If modernism remains more than a literary movement but something of the mind, then Spender seems one of its key analyst - yet his own poetry neither found its way into the Oxford Book of English Verse or lists of the great modernist writers. Extracted here his poems seem interesting and emotive but without the intellectual purity of Pound, Auden or Eliot. He was too much the romantic, and that didn't fit with the times. Spender's solipsism is of the heart-on-sleeve kind, whereas a different kind, Auden's apparent indifference to the world that was collapsing around them in the 30s, 40s and 50s, was needed to truly chronicle the age. Spender instead is spinning off to Spain to help rescue his ex-lover; or taking another young writer under his wing.

We don't still read Spender it appears - and his poetry, that mattered most to him, became incidental throughout an active literary life. The books kept coming however, and his industry and wanderlust seem somehow connected to his bisexuality, and his constant need for young male companions, whether intimate or not. Yet the scenes with his children and wife seem generally touching. A bit like the younger Bruce Chatwin, an understanding wife seemed vital to this gregarious soul's ability to inhabit 20th century literary life so fully.

More poignantly, as the book ends, and Spender's last years seem to be made up partly of writing elegies for the departed, we see, perhaps more than we realise, what a specific time in literature was taken up by 20th century modernism. It - rather than fascism or communism - was the ideology that both consumed and finally destroyed these writers. The second world war and what came after killed the sense of the 'modern' even as a free-er less ideologically complex generation - of beats, confessionals and others - continued the project in some other way. Modernism as an elitist game played by the Bloomsbury set can sometimes seem appallingly redundant, but reading of Spender's part in it, and the artistic risks that were not only taken, but supported, one can only admire the extent of the project. The world that came after - angry young men, Mailers and Vidals, Heaneys and Larkins seems far less complex, and far less convincing in its artistic ideology.

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