Nationality: British. Born: London, 5 August 1929. Education: Oundle School, Northamptonshire; Corpus Christi College, Oxford (senior research scholar and research scholar of Goldsmiths' Company, 1952–53, 1954–55), B.A. 1952, M.A. 1956; Princeton University, New Jersey (Procter visiting fellow, 1953–54); Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (Rockefeller fellow, 1955); University of New Mexico, Albuquerque (D.H. Lawrence fellow, 1958). Family: 1) Married Ursula Barr in 1956 (marriage dissolved 1961), one son; 2) Married Anne Adams in 1966, one son and one daughter. Career: Gauss lecturer, Princeton University, 1957–58; visiting professor, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1960, and State University of New York, Buffalo, 1966. Advisory poetry editor and poetry critic, The Observer, London, 1956–66; editor, Journal of Education, London, 1957; drama critic, New Statesman, London, 1958–60; advisory editor, Penguin Modern European Poets in Translation, 1965–75; presenter, Voices program, Channel 4 television, 1982. Awards: Rockefeller fellowship, 1955–56; Vachel Lindsay prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1961. Agent: Aitken and Stone Ltd., 29 Fernshaw Road, London SW10 OTG, England.
(Poems). Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1952.
The End of It. Privately printed, 1958.
Twelve Poems. London, The Review, 1968.
Lost. London, Turret, 1968.
Penguin Modern Poets 18, with Roy Fuller and Anthony Thwaite. London, Penguin, 1970.
Apparition. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1971.
The Legacy. London, Poem-of-the-Month Club, 1972.
Autumn to Autumn and Selected Poems 1953–1976. London, Macmillan, 1978.
Screenplay: The Anarchist, 1969.
Hers. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974; New York, Random House, 1975.
Hunt. London, Macmillan, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Day of Atonement. London, Jonathan Cape, 1991; New York, Random House, 1992.
The Shaping Spirit: Studies in Modern English and American Poets. London, Chatto and Windus, 1958; as Stewards of Excellence: Studies in Modern English and American Poets, New York, Scribner, 1958.
The School of Donne. London, Chatto and Windus, and New York, Pantheon, 1961.
Under Pressure: The Artist and Society: Eastern Europe and the U.S.A. London, Penguin, 1965.
Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967. London, Allen Lane, 1968; New York, Random House, 1969.
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971; New York, Random House, 1972.
Beckett. London, Fontana, and New York, Viking Press, 1973; revised edition, London, Fontana, 1992.
Life after Marriage: Scenes from Divorce. London, Macmillan, 1982; as Life after Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982.
The Biggest Game in Town (on gambling). London, Deutsch, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Offshore: A North Sea Journey. London, Hodder and Stoughton, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Feeding the Rat: Profile of a Climber. London, Bloomsbury, 1988; Boston, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.
Rainforest, with Charles Blackman. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1988.
Night: An Exploration of Night Life, Night Language, Sleep & Dreams. London, Jonathan Cape, and New York, Norton, 1995.
Where Did It All Go Right? An Autobiography. London, Richard Cohen, 1999; New York, Morrow, 2000.
Editor, The New Poetry: An Anthology. London, Penguin, 1962; revised edition, 1966.
Editor, The Faber Book of Modern European Poetry. London, Faber and Faber, 1992.*
Critical Studies: Interview with Ian Hamilton, in New Review (London), March 1978; interview with Gregory Lestage, in PoetryReview (London), spring 1998; The Mind Has Mountains: A. Alvarez at 70 edited by Antony Holden and Frank Kermode, Cambridge, Los Poetry Press, 1999.* * *
In volume the published poetry of A. Alvarez is slight indeed, but it is rich in its economy. Autumn to Autumn and Selected Poems 1953–1976 contained only thirty-seven poems, sixteen published for the first time. Of the new poems eight had been written after 1974, seven of them comprising the section called "Autumn to Autumn."
It is a shame that Alvarez, who has done so much to cultivate a climate receptive to the confessional poetry of Lowell, Berryman, and Plath—even though his essay on Plath in The Savage God could be criticized for feeding the public's nearly insatiable appetite to feast upon a poet's life to understand her art—and whose writings on Donne and Eliot have done much to clarify their place in the history of contemporary poetry, should be so restrained in his own practice of the art. Perhaps he is too wary of rendering a poetry in the style of the Movement which he so aptly described in his essay "The New Poetry; or, Beyond the Gentility Principle." Does he fear that he cannot heed his own warning and remain "immune" to gentility? He complained of the nine poets who formed the so-called Movement that their "academic-administrative verse, polite, knowledgeable, efficient, polished, and, in its quiet way, even intelligent," practiced its own pieties and strove too hard to make the poet appear like the man next door. Although Alvarez has found his own colloquial, modern voice and there is a hard-to-find originality in his novel Hers, in his poetry he clings to a compression of style and a formality that seem ultimately to inhibit him. Perhaps the standard he sets at the close of his essay is too high. There he asks that contemporary poetry be like "Coleridge's Imagination," that it "reconcile a 'more than usual state of emotion' with more than usual order."
Alvarez's later poems continue the strain and form of the poems in Lost. They are poems of ephemera, in which an emotion is briefly isolated, felt, and wafted away, leaving the persona with a sense of perplexity and regret. The poet often depicts mates divided by fears and dreams inhabiting their "grey untender rooms." In "He Said, She Said," from Autumn to Autumn, a scent and a presence pass through the bedroom as two autumnal lovers lie together. He names the smell "hawthorn" and says that it beckons, "Come"; she scoffs and says that it said, "Gone." Alvarez closes the poem characteristically, with a note of mild irony:
A flicker of gold, a smile, a far voice calling
Confusedly, "Come," "Gone," "Come." The jumbled scents
of Spring on the autumn night. "Our last chance," he said
And she answered, "You take it without me."
More than a decade earlier, in another poem of dialogue, "Autumn Marriage," the wife's words were equally matter-of-fact and loveless. Alvarez's range has continued to be narrow.
Autumn to Autumn, containing poetry of two decades, reflects Alvarez's admiration for Donne, Eliot, and Frost and for Plath and Hughes. Several of the poems written in the late 1950s and early 1960s recall Plath's stridency and savage treatment of love's anger. "Sunstruck" is such a poem, "Anger" another. "Operation," "Back," and "The Nativity in New Mexico" recall Plath's "Tulips" or "Cut." They shed a harsh, clinical light on a grinning midwife and on thighs sticky with afterbirth. Others use an economy of words to call up ordinary scenes—closing time in a park, a sleeper awakening, the coming of old age. Alvarez's preoccupation with dreams, restlessness, and disintegration mark his modernity, but his verse forms and gift for understatement recall the traditional British poetry of the early twentieth century.
—Carol Simpson Stern