Letter to Gavin Ewart – a poem

ewart book

ewart book 2





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

to hear of Atomic, of 18 Feet and Rising,

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.


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