Sassoon in the Guardian

Today the last of the Faber Great Poets series came with the Guardian. It was Siegfried Sassoon this time, and while one or two voices have been raised on the Guardian blog that he’s not in the same poetic league as Eliot, Auden, Plath, etc., he came over well in this format. Thirteen poems, and not one of them a dud.

It was good to be reminded of the extraordinary image in The Effect:

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the firestep like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat.

Also included is To Any Dead Officer, with its ending “Cheero!/I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” That last line is terrific, I think, taking the characteristic semi-facetious euphemism of the officer, “decent show”, but in such a way that we are made aware of what the slang is repressing – the indecency of war.

The introduction by William Boyd is intelligent, and probably useful to someone who doesn’t know the poet well. You can’t say this for all the introductions. The worst is the Ted Hughes one by dotty old Jeanette Winterson. She compares Hughes with:

“the best English poets (take Eliot and Auden, Spender and Isherwood as examples)”.

Eh? Isherwood a poet? Well, he did write The Common Cormorant:

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt,
Is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have failed to notice is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

I’m not sure that those lines really rank him among the country’s finest. Doesn’t the Guardian have a fact-checker? Or a literary editor or something?

Then poor old Andrew Motion’s introduction to Larkin is in his funniest “embarrassed vicar” mode, apologising for Larkin’s political views and taste in porn, but pleading that he’s a good poet despite all that. If only Max Beerbohm was around to draw the current literary scene,  the Max illustration that I would most like to have would be his depiction of what that Motion describes so feelingly in his Larkin biography, the moment when he opened up Larkin’s porn stash and saw the kind of stuff that his hero enjoyed. The description is one of the century’s most exquisite treasures of unintended humour, but I bet Max could have matched it with a drawing – the aghast face of pious Andrew contrasting so graphically with the curvy salaciousness of a jolly Miss Whiplash.

One small quibble about Boyd’s introduction. He says that The Royal Welch Fusiliers “contained four of the most remarkable writers to come out of the Great War”. Graves and Sassoon obviously, and he gives a proper recognition to J.C.Dunn(The War the Infantry Knew) and Frank Richards (Old Soldier Sahib). But he neglects to mention another from the regiment – David Jones, whose In Parenthesis gives the soundscape of the war in a way that no other writer equals.



  1. Andy Frayn
    Posted March 19, 2008 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t Ford in the Welch as well? Boyd is seemingly omnipresent in this sort of thing, and I have to say I find his introduction to Manning’s Her Privates We in the Serpent’s Tail edition very disappointing, too.

    Maybe all writers are poets, and we’re just being too narrow in our definitions…

  2. Posted March 19, 2008 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    If all writers are poets, then the word “poet” stops meaning anything significant.

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