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September 02, 2006

Derbyshire on Betjeman

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

John Derbyshire writes an appreciation of the English poet John Betjeman here. Although a man of the 20th century, Betjeman composed touching, funny, instantly-comprehensible -- ie., completely traditional and non-modernist -- poems. Needless to say, he has been almost completely overlooked by the American academic-media lit establishment. A nice passage from Derbyshire:

Practically all Betjeman's verses rhyme, scan, and yield up all their sense at a first reading, if you can get past the Britishisms. He ignored the "modern movement" in poetry altogether ... It follows from this that Betjeman is not really the sort of poet you can teach, and he is therefore of no interest to the academic Eng. Lit. clerisy. It is hard to imagine anyone getting a Ph.D. by "interpreting" Betjeman. There is nothing to interpret.

And what a lovely compliment that is.



posted by Michael at September 2, 2006



The sleepy sound of a tea-time tide
Slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,

Too lazy, almost, to sink and lift
Round low peninsulars pink with thrift.

The water, enlarging shells and sand,
Grows greener emerald out from land

And brown over shadowy shelves below
The waving forests of seaweed show.

Here at my feet in the short cliff grass
Are shells, dried bladderwrack, broken glass,

Pale blue squills and yellow rock roses.
The next low ridge that we climb discloses

One more field for the sheep to graze
While, scarcely seen on the hottest of days,

Far to the eastward, over there,
Snowdon rises in pearl-grey air.

Multiple lark-song, whispering bents,
The thymy, turfy and salty scents

And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free
The sweet susurration of incoming sea.

Posted by: ricpic on September 2, 2006 9:35 AM

Oops. Peninsula doesn't need an r. Sorry.

Posted by: ricpic on September 2, 2006 10:07 AM


Some of Mr. Derbyshire's essay sounds like it could have been written by yourself, given your consciousness of how little most art has to do with "respectable intellectual discourse": is not necessarily a bad thing for a poet to be bad at thinking. Milton could think, and so could Donne, but could Wordsworth, or Gray, or Tennyson? Not many of us are good at thinking…

Not many at all, though this fact must be very deplorable to the intellectuals who have now taken over our culture, our lives, and our society, and who believe themselves, sometimes correctly, to be very good indeed at thinking.

Of course, my riposte would be that somebody in a culture has to do the thinking...even if, as I admit, it is asking far too much of artists to do this type of heavy lifting on top of their artistic labors.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2006 11:19 AM

Betjeman was also a really important (IMO) writer on architecture. Timothy Mowl's book of a few years ago (something I always meant to post on here), "Stylistic Cold Wars," is subtitled "Betjeman vs. Pevsner." It's about men of radically opposed temperaments who waged a war for influence over the public consciousness of Britain's built heritage from the 1930s to the 1960s. If anyone should seek out Betjeman's architectural writings, be aware that he started out as a staunch modernist, gradually becoming the opposite of that.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 2, 2006 2:08 PM

Betjeman is very good. Very much worth reading. He was also a Christian. He had a Christmas poem I posted two Christmases ago.

Posted by: Lex on September 2, 2006 9:43 PM

Interesting how Derbyshire neatly finds a way to be elitist and middle brow at the same time. He praises poetry (not exactly everyday guy stuff), an obscure (to some) English poet and yet invokes accessibility as a high goal of literature while knocking intellectuals. I can easily imagine prep school mediocrities all over the country raising their glasses in a toast.

Derbyshire probably realizes that this is all a crock; after all, he refers to Brooke Allen’s 6,000 word piece on Betjeman, which appeared in the New Criterion, a wonderfully judicious essay which certainly reads like literary criticism to me.

This does not, of course, detract from Betjeman’s charms. In addition to his poems, amazon UK features an audiobook, “A First Class Collection,” of some of his BBC Radio appearances, as well as a printed volume of radio essays, “ Trains and Buttered Toast.”

Recently, the Sunday Times revealed that a love letter supposedly written by Betjeman and included in A. N. Wilson’s biography of the poet, was in fact an elaborate and somewhat obscene hoax directed at Wilson.,,2087-2330457,00.html

Posted by: Alec on September 3, 2006 3:24 AM

Ah, Lex: "And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says 'Merry Christmas to you all'." Not now: verboten; not multi-culti.

Posted by: dearieme on September 3, 2006 10:42 AM

Pure culture-war partisan bullshit.

The "modernist" ideology (as articulated by Pound and friends) can indeed be seen as a blot on history, but its impact is absurdly magnified in this piece. The praise of Betjeman, combined with an implicit diss of his contemporaries AND of popular music is just bizarre; Betjeman reads to me like the less important half of Robert Browning -- the realistic flow of conversational speech captured in meter -- but today's best popular music lyricists have that skill, and today's best formal poets (Dana Gioia, A.E. Stallings) write quite accessible verse with themes that are in no way restricted to the concerns of the intelligentsia. In a world in which Gioia is (or was recently) head of the NEA, and Richard Wilbur won a Pulitzer, I can hardly believe that intellectuals are trying to keep great, accessible, formalist poetry down.

Betjeman wasn't included in the cited anthologies because he just isn't all that appealing to most of us *widely read* poetry fans. Sad but true. I highly doubt either that Rod McKuen is included, or that Derbyshire would be therefore despondent. This complete mischaracterization of the current state of the art for the sake of ideological polarization is really offensive.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 3, 2006 10:50 PM

Ricpic -- Lovely, isn't it? The kind of thing that can hook people on poetry too. Thanks.

FvB -- Who exactly should be doing a culture's thinking is a great question. And how should it be decided?

Francis -- As an architecture buff, Betjeman started off as a modernist? I'd had no idea, tks. I've read his book on cathedrals, I think it was, and it was mighty good. He'd certainly come around to the traditional point of view by that point!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 3, 2006 11:04 PM

Lex - That's a nice one, tks.

Alec -- Thanks for the links. I hadn't run across that story before. Hoaxes can be fascinating, as can the poisonous feelings that run in the veins of some literary types. I wonder, though, if you aren't reading Derbyshire in perhaps inappropriately American terms. The common-sense view of art 'n' lit and the skepticism of intellectuals and theory-driven approaches are pretty stand-issue British attitudes.

Dearieme -- Maybe the Christian thing will come back into the canon when it becomes a demonstrably quaint and peculiar minority thing.

J. Goard -- Derbyshire certainly plants some barbs and provocations in his piece. But are they so unfair? For instance, I don't think Dana Gioia owes his prominence to intellectuals, or to academic-media poetry circles, do you? And unless things have changed greatly since I last looked into the matter, the New Formalists aren't exactly a big presence on campuses or in literary magazines. (I once talked with the head of a major poetry organization. He all but called the New Formalists fascists, and non-poets.)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 4, 2006 3:57 AM

John Betjeman's work may seem "touching, funny, instantly-comprehensible" to the English (as different from the English Major) or dedicated Anglophile but, with so much poetry and so little time, it is easy to understand why he has been "overlooked by the American academic-media lit establishment." Given that Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Robert Service and a host of other poets who employ metered rhyme schemes ARE taught at various levels, Betjeman makes a less than ideal Poster Poet for more traditional poets being taught. Or is Dylan Thomas is too "modernist" for your taste?

Nevertheless, the real question is why it is assumed one cannot (or perhaps it's should not) enjoy and appreciate a wide range of styles in poetry or art or architecture? Why these false dichotomies? Can't a poetry lover read and enjoy Betjeman AND e.e. cummings or Frost AND Ginsberg? In my experience far fewer fans of "modernist" art, be it poetry or painting or whatever, reject or disparage traditional forms than the reverse. I find it perplexing.

Posted by: Chris White on September 4, 2006 9:23 AM

Michael - Betjeman’s fellow poets and critics all happily classify him as an amiable, but minor poet. No one views him as the particular avatar of accessibility. British common sense, aware of the great depth of British literary tradition from Beowulf to the Beatles, recognizes that there are great and sometimes difficult poets as well as easily enjoyable ones.

Oddly enough, one amazon UK reviewer sees Betjeman as not entirely accepting of the notion of “common sense” and everyman sentiments, and I am not sure that even the most craven Anglophile would entirely endorse Betjeman’s antiquarian impulses:

"Trains and Buttered Toast" … also shows that Betjeman was fascinated by individuals and individuality. He is correspondingly cruel about English stereotypes - the lumpen proletariat who, in the late 1940s, listened to popular music on car radios or went on holiday in luxury coaches. His point, however, is to criticise people's failure to open their eyes, ask original questions and discover fresh beauties - something he sees as the public's sheep instinct. The antidote, he suggests, is to look for inspiration at people who didn't go where everyone else went and who weren't damaged by commercial pressures and mass production. He finds his role models in Victoriana, an age that he regards as rich in the culture of individuality.

Posted by: Alec on September 5, 2006 5:42 AM

"In my experience far fewer fans of "modernist" art, be it poetry or painting or whatever, reject or disparage traditional forms than the reverse."


Posted by: the patriarch on September 5, 2006 10:29 AM

As you probably know, Michael, I'm no great fan of the most prominent academic poetry journals, although I do keep up with them fairly well. My present objection is not to bemoaning the state of the art, which I regularly do myself. Rather, it's to a wildly incorrect characterization using as its template the crude bogeymen on one side of this "culture war" that plagues our society.

The difference between my dismay at much contemporary poetry -- I who have read it -- and that of Derbyshire's apparent target audience is vast. He's speaking straight to the subset of Joe Sixpacks who read Service or Kipling or even Frost, reinforcing their existing belief that the problem of poetry lies with elitist brainiacs who couldn't tell an Allen wrench from a corkscrew, so immersed are they in layers of textual analysis. This is not my experience with poetry.

In fact, most people are not of above-average intelligence (ha ha). Seriously, though -- even in intellectual/literary settings, most people are not brainiacs, or even really all that clever. What turns me off about much contemporary poetry is not overly dense thought requiring volumes of interpretation, but the opposite: facile political, cultural, sexual, racial, or just plain emotional perspectives gushing onto the page with embarrassingly insufficient artifice. It would be an inversion of the appropriate lesson to conclude that, by comparison, "The Road Not Taken" is great for its undaunting meter and readily accessible sense. Actually, its relative greatness lies in the careful craft of each line, in the several levels of irony that emerge from the analysis of a smart reader, and in the universal impact unmatchable by any ideological screed.

Just as the greater struggle is not between sides in a war, but between militarist and pacifist tendencies, the big struggle in the arts today isn't between the hyperintellectual left and the common-sense right, but between merely superficial work from both sides and the truly talented creative minds who are threatened by the war itself.

Posted by: J. Goard on September 5, 2006 8:16 PM

"the big struggle in the arts today isn't between the hyperintellectual left and the common-sense right, but between merely superficial work from both sides and the truly talented creative minds who are threatened by the war itself."


[tip o' the hat to the patriarch]

Posted by: Chris White on September 6, 2006 7:11 AM

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