Gavin Ewart, 1916 – 1995, poet and advertising copywriter
Letter to Gavin Ewart
You were born in 1916 – the same year as my father –
that’s the kind of opening line you wouldn’t disdain,
though whether you wrote with a pearl-finished fountain pen
or bashed out your verse on your old copywriter’s Imperial
is one of the many things I don’t know about you,
and probably never will. You worked at Notley’s,
the kind of agency named like a minor prep school
that today no longer exists – you must be laughing
of Lucky Generals (that sounds so like a brand
of cigarettes I would very much like to have smoked
in the days when agency air was sanctified
with the calming wreaths of tobacco. Did you smoke?
No doubt in your youth a pipe, and surely no-one
could get through wartime service sane without fags:
I pity today’s shell-shocked millenials
fleeing the smokeless decks of their open plan offices,
though after all, I wonder, they may be the sane ones
and healthier too without those three course luncheons
and bottles of claret you must have known so well).
You were fired from advertising before I’d started
(thrown, as you put it, screaming into the sack
with your screaming wife and children) but made your way
as a writer after that; I was rather surprised
how little importance the ad game seemed to play
in your life; perhaps you would be surprised
how many people bragged to me when I was younger
about the ‘real poet’ who had worked in advertising,
and that was you, not your friend Peter Porter.
I’m rambling, Sir, a word often pejorative
in matters of composition, though when it comes
to reclaiming Kinder Scout for the next generations
or taking the long view, filling your lungs with air
and strengthening the sinews, it seems it’s not so bad,
and it was in that spirit you rambled too.
You would be, today, I’m sorry to say,
frequently labelled ‘inappropriate’
if not plain sexist; the more charitable
would mutter something about the ‘Mad Men’ era;
I think we should just learn to listen to you with respect
for the honesty and irony with which you charted
the unstoppable subterranean floods of sex.
My first years in the business were closer to yours
in time than they are to the present, so I know
how our working days and evenings and weekends
writing meaningless crap were sweetened by decent wine,
twenty Bensons and the reek of ‘sex suppressed’
that kept us all alive; looking back I imagine
that I enjoyed it all, the same way I really quite liked
boarding school, though everyone else today
seems to claim that it scarred them for life and left them a wreck.
I flirted with poetry too, you know, but I think
(here’s a massive whinge coming out) when I tried to get going
I found everyone took it all far too fucking seriously,
and after I’d written for twenty years or so
the Muse buggered off, no longer willing to wait
for the fame I’d promised her. So I have to admit
to a more than sneaking, a great galumphing envy
for the way you could publish every squib you wrote
on an envelope back in the lunch hour ( would you have got on,
I wonder, with Frank O’Hara? probably,
even though you weren’t gay in the least),
and the books would get reviewed in the national press
and everyone would celebrate dear old Ewart
as a national treasure, a sort of scary but harmless
old uncle, more filthy than Betjeman, much more profligate
than anal-retentive Larkin – God, you even rose
to be the head of the Poetry Society
during one of its occasional phases of not falling apart,
and you stood for the Oxford Professorship (lost it of course
to Peter Levi, SJ, and who remembers him now?)
It would be nice to say (you so admired Auden)
that Madison Avenue hurt you into poetry;
you were certainly silly like us, if not more so, but
your stuff frequently looks worse than it is,
though sometimes it really is bad, and that too’s part of its greatness:
it sucks up, it seems to me, enormous strength
from the great sink of rotted manure that is advertising,
refusing, as most poets do, to hold its nose
and wipe its feet on the mat, and agonise
over every stanza (though you were technically ace,
could do any verse-form or style, could render a horrible
episode of violence from Northern Ireland
exactly to the tune of the ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’).
You knew, like Thelonious Monk, which were just the right
wrong notes to hit in the heat of the moment-
did you like jazz? again, I don’t know, that unwritten
biography isn’t available yet on Amazon.
And 2016 will be your centenary.
How will you be remembered, if at all?
Fashions in poetry change faster than trousers
and what seemed daringly naughty in ‘66
is often now just ‘political incorrectness’.
I have a ‘critical study’, extremely thorough,
by an American scholar (whose name is not
Jake Balokowski) – apart from that, there’s nothing
to read about your life. Will you be recalled
like the eighteenth century ‘thresher poet’, Duck,
as ‘the advertising poet’, a curiosity,
the works unread (are they already out of print)?
And that would be a shame, because I think
you have an awful lot to say to us all, in our smug
thought-policed, overworked, over-regulated
electronically neurotic open-plan lives
where the Prêt sandwich curls uneaten by the laptop,
the unbranded cigarette’s greedily sucked by the dustbins
and the bullying email replaces the pinch on the bottom.