As part of a series of events exploring past PEN Presidents, friends and colleagues met for an evening to debate the complex legacy of the acclaimed poet, free speech campaigner and former PEN President Sir Stephen Spender. Chairing the event was Dr Lara Feigel, a lecturer in English at King’s College, London who is currently co-editing Stephen Spender’s journals for publication. Joining her on the panel was Grey Gowrie, a poet who taught English and American Literature at Harvard at the University of London, where he was a colleague and friend of Stephen, before exchanging an academic career for public life as a Cabinet member and businessman; Alan Jenkins, a poet and deputy editor of the Times Literary Supplement; and John Sutherland, Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London and a former colleague and biographer of Stephen.
Dr Lara Feigel began the evening by introducing the audience to the life and works of Stephen Spender. Born in 1909, Spender was educated at Oxford, although he left like so many of his generation without a degree. At the age of only 23, Spender burst onto the literary scene to great critical acclaim publishing his first major collection of poems. “Another Shelley speaks in these lines,” Herbert Reed declared while the Fortnightly Review found the collection “an unmistakable declaration of genius.”
Spender became part of a new generation of English writers in the 1930s known as the MacSpaunday poets. It was a coterie of brilliant, young, left-wing – and mostly gay, men guilty about their own middle and upper class backgrounds but excited by progress and industrialisation. Along with other members of the group, Spender visited Berlin in the early 1930s, primarily in search of boys. What they found though was a difficult political situation which led them to conclude that the role of the writer was not simply to observe but also to participate in politics.
Spender’s personal life was no less intriguing. Despite a number of relationships with men throughout his life, Spender married for the second time during World War II to the pianist Natasha Litvin. After a youth travelling around Europe and Britain in search of political events, Spender settled into family life with Natasha and carved out a respectable career as an unofficial ambassador and man of letters. He by no means relaxed into domesticity though, spending the rest of his life passionately representing British literature abroad, travelling on behalf of the British Council and as Head of Literature at the newly-formed UNESCO. He also edited his own literary magazine, Encounter, as well as founding Index on Censorship before accepting the PEN presidency in 1976. In 1994 Spender was awarded the Golden PEN award, a fitting tribute to a life dedicated to freedom of expression around the world.
Following on from this introduction, Grey Gowrie shared his concerns with the audience that although Spender is rightly remembered as a public man and a great fighter for freedom, his legacy as a poet has waned in recent years. Recalling a “remarkable, interesting and big, fat anthology of English verse” by the now editor of Faber & Faber, Paul Keegan, Grey was surprised that the volume did not contain a single poem by Spender reflecting, Gowrie believed, how much Spender’s shares as a poet had fallen. It is a view that Gowrie says must be redressed, remarking that Spender was one of the most important young men in literature whose reputation deserved rescuing. Gowrie praised in particular the beautiful love poems Spender wrote in his later years and the talent for lyrical poetry that he possessed. Indeed, as W.H. Auden once told Spender: “We must save you for lyric poetry, lyric poetry is what you do and what you’re good at.”
Alan Jenkins set the debate alight at this point by informing the audience that he “took exception with rather a lot that Gowrie said!” Currently busy trawling through the extensive Spender archives at Oxford University, Jenkins said he was drawn to the project partly because Spender was a fascinating figure in literary history but also because as a young man, Jenkins often borrowed a small volume of Spender’s collected poems from his local library. The volume struck Jenkins as “remarkable…there were lines in it that have haunted me ever since and I am completely besotted by certain moments in some of those poems”. However, when returning to the poems as an adult, Jenkins was further struck by how “not terribly good he often is as a poet. Even in poems that contain quite remarkably haunting and powerful lines and moments there are moments of extreme clumsiness, bathos and almost abject wrongness”.
Assuring the audience that he was not here to “bury Stephen’s reputation”, Jenkins commented, however, that “if we are to resurrect a reputation that’s in danger of dereliction, we should be very careful about that reputation and what it is we value in Stephen Spender’s work”. He went on to say that he could “hardly think of one poem that is good from beginning to end without any of these moments of what one fierce critic has designated archaic diction, confused syntax, wild apostrophes to time history and freedom”.
Jenkins noted that this clumsiness did not go unnoticed by Spender’s contemporaries and friends. Although his relationship with T.S. Eliot was an “admiring, encouraging and unequivocally positive one”, others such as W.H. Auden and Isherwood often found Spender and his work “silly”. A figure of fun in the eyes of these, in their own judgment, much more intelligent and politically astute men, Jenkins noted it was “not unfair to say they often looked down on him creatively and intellectually”.
Jenkins continued by reading Spender’s poem “In the Railway”, commenting after that “one would have to be a fairly brutal sort to take exception to the message of the poem but the language is antiquated”. To his audience, his poetry seemed modern and exciting, full of real world and up-to-the-minute observations but to some the way he was doing it and the language he was using was rather old-fashioned.
Offering a diagnosis of why he thought Spender wrote in this way, Jenkins observed that while the great poetry of the day, as exemplified by Auden, was a poetry of the ironic, objective, detached gaze, even when it spoke very deeply about personal emotion, Spender trusted almost entirely to subjective feeling and subjective response with no detachment from it: “Stephen believed that that was what poetry was, poetry with a capital P, that represented the unexamined feelings of the poet. With one or two remarkable exceptions, such as The Double Shame, that was his attitude to poetry almost throughout his life.”
This view provides a link to the “brilliant” work Spender did in his journals, where, Jenkins believed, he was at his best as a writer taking a very detached look at himself and the world around him: “All the great world events are in Spender’s journals and he records them with a reporter’s eye, objective angle and intelligence. They are remarkable in ways his poetry seems unremarkable, thrillingly accurate, objective and truthful. If only he got some of what he got in his journals into his poems.”
Agreeing that Spender was not a writer in the league of contemporaries such as Auden or Christopher Isherwood, Gowrie argued though that there was a misjudgment about the element of naivety in Spender’s first writings. “After all,” Gowrie said, “these are the poems of an adolescent and it is part of the charm of his poems.” He went on to say that he had “never met anyone who weathered old age and physical decay so well” and that it was precisely this “ungrown up, privileged, adolescent” side to Spender that gave his poems their strength and charm.
Concentrating on Spender’s life away from poetry and writing, John Sutherland read a letter received by Spender in November 1956 from a young American postgraduate at Oxford. Intrigued by the letter, Spender invited the student to forward some of his writings which Spender eventually published in his own Encounter magazine. As a result of the publication, the student, Reynolds Price, went from an unknown 23-year-old to a famous poet almost overnight, going on to become one of the most prolific and influential American writers of the 20th century. It was, Sutherland remarked, symbolic of Spender’s kind nature and desire to help fellow writers, and at odds with the otherwise gladiatorial literary world around him that Ernest Hemingway once described as “like a bucket full of tapeworms feeding off each other”. In the tradition of PEN, Spender believed in a community of writers and numerous examples can be found of him helping his friends in the literary world. It was indeed such kindness that led to Spender and his wife Natasha to form a campaign in response to an open letter in The Times in 1986 by Pavel Litvinov about the struggle of writers in the Soviet Union. And it was this campaign that led to the foundation by Spender of the Index on Censorship in 1972, promoting freedom of expression around the world.
Sutherland described how an experience during the Spanish Civil War served as a turning point for Spender, spawning his passion to help others on a personal level. Like many young left-wing writers, Spender joined the Communist Party on the eve of the civil war and travelled to Spain, not to fight but to observe. Once there, Sutherland commented, he behaved “very gallantly in a peculiarly Spenderian way”. After Spender’s devoted boyfriend, Tony Hyndman, deserted from the International Brigade following a particularly shocking bombardment, Spender moved “heaven and earth” to rescue Hyndman from the Brigade’s firing squad. This encounter with the Brigade served to “turn Stephen off” institutional ways of improving the world and led him towards a belief in very personal acts of salvation. It was a moment of great dissolution for the young idealist, instilling in him “a distrust of anything that wasn’t tactile or face-to-face.”
It is perhaps this distrust which goes some way to explaining why Spender did not join PEN until persuaded by the then-president Storm Jameson at the end of World War II and why he was initially reluctant to accept the presidency in 1972. He did accept it though and in doing so reaffirmed his belief in the power of writers to work together to address social injustice. As the panel agreed, in PEN today the spirit of Stephen Spender lives on.
Report by Steffi Hunt
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/worldwithinworldstephenspender/