Brownjohn, Alan (Charles)
BROWNJOHN, Alan (Charles)
Nationality: British. Born: Catford, London, 28 July 1931. Education: Brownhill Road School, London; Brockley County School, London; Merton College, Oxford, 1950–53, B.A. 1953, M.A. 1961. Family: Married 1) the writer Shirley Toulson in 1960 (divorced 1969) one son; 2) Sandra Willingham in 1972. Career: Teacher, Beckenham and Penge Boys' Grammar School, 1957–65; Wandsworth Borough Councillor, London, 1962–65; Labour Party Parliamentary Candidate, Richmond, Surrey, 1964; senior lecturer in English, Battersea College of Education, later Polytechnic of the South Bank, now South Bank University, London, 1965–79; tutor in Poetry, Polytechnic of North London, 1981–83. Poetry critic, New Statesman, London, 1968–76, and Sunday Times, London, since 1989. Member, Arts Council Literature Panel, 1967–72; chair of the Greater London Arts Association Literature Panel, 1973–77; deputy chairman, 1979–82, chairman, 1982–88, and deputy president, 1988–91, Poetry Society. Awards: Cholmondeley award, 1979; Society of Authors travel scholarship, 1985; Authors' Club (London) award for the best first novel of 1990, for The Way You Tell Them.Address: 2 Belsize Park, London NW3 4ET, England.
Travellers Alone. Liverpool, Heron Press, 1954.
The Railings. London, Digby Press, 1961.
The Lions' Mouths. London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1967.
Oswin's Word (libretto for children). London, BBC, 1967.
Sandgrains on a Tray. London, Macmillan, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1969.
Penguin Modern Poets 14, with Michael Hamburger and Charles Tomlinson. London, Penguin, 1969.
Brownjohn's Beasts (for children). London, Macmillan, and New York, Scribner, 1970.
Warrior's Career. London, Macmillan, 1972.
A Song of Good Life. London, Secker and Warburg, 1975.
A Night in the Gazebo. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980.
Collected Poems 1952–1983. London, Secker and Warburg, 1983.
The Old Flea-Pit. London, Hutchinson, 1987.
Collected Poems 1952–1986. London, Hutchinson, 1988.
The Observation Car. London, Hutchinson, 1990.
In the Cruel Arcade. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.
Radio Play: Torquato Tasso, from the play by Goethe, 1982.
The Way You Tell Them. London, Deutsch, 1990.
The Long Shadows. Stockport, Dewi Lewis Publishing, 1997.
To Clear the River (novel for children; as John Berrington). London, Heinemann, 1964.
The Little Red Bus Book. London, Inter-Action, 1972.
Philip Larkin. London, Longman, 1975.
Editor, First I Say This: A Selection of Poems for Reading Aloud. London, Hutchinson, 1969.
Editor, with Seamus Heaney and Jon Stallworthy, New Poems 1970–1971. London, Hutchinson, 1971.
Editor, with Maureen Duffy, New Poetry 3. London, Arts Council, 1977.
Editor, New Year Poetry Supplement. London, Poetry Book Society, 1982.
Editor, with Sandy Brownjohn, Meet and Write. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 3 vols., 1985–87.
Translator, Torquato Tasso, by Goethe. London, Angel, 1985.
Translator, Horace, by Corneille. London, Angel, 1996.*
Manuscript Collections: Manor House Library (Lewisham Public Library), London; Pennsylvania State University, University Park.
Critical Studies: Review by Peter Porter, in London Magazine, October 1969; The Society of the Poem by Jonathan Raban, London, Harrap, 1971; Roger Garfitt, in British Poetry since 1960 edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Oxford, Carcanet, 1972; Barbara Everett in London Review of Books, May 1981; Claud Rawson, in Poetry Review (London), April 1984.
Alan Brownjohn comments:
In consulting with Peter Digby Smith, the publisher of my first hardback volume of verse, The Railings, I evolved for the dust jacket the simple statement "Poems concerned with love, politics, culture, time."
I think this still defines the themes of my verse, with one or other of these four dominant at different moments. But they all, of course, intersect and interrelate: states of politics or culture affect the values of love; love and time constantly stare at one another, amused, shamefaced, or fatalistic; time watches politics rise to honorable humane achievement or decline into vanity.
I've come to some recent conclusions about the language, tone, and temperament of my poetry which critics might confirm or contradict. Although I am quietly, but very seriously, atheist, socialist, and internationalist, it's the Englishness of what I write that strikes me most as I look back at it—the use of language, the attitudes rehearsed, the codes of honor and styles of reticence employed. I don't feel like making apology for this, because I greatly admire certain English puritan values and feel that English rationalism, democracy, and humanity would be our best postimperial contribution to the world at large, the vehicle for transmission of these values being the English language.
Every poet would like to feel he was writing for, communicating to, the world; and if I ever succeed in doing that, in anything at all, I'd like to feel it was in the above terms and transmitting the above values. But of course we should, and do, receive values from other literatures; and I am aware, more and more as I grow older, of unconscious debts in my own verse to European poetry, e.g., that of France, Germany, and the eastern European countries.
(1995) Entering one's seventh decade is—as for anyone else in any other vocation or trade—a disarming and thought-provoking experience for the poet. I grew up believing that, as with so many of the romantics, poets did not survive as creators—or often as living persons—after forty. Quite naturally, I no longer think that and hope now to diversify and renew whatever talent I have well on into my late years. Fiction, after the modest success of a first novel published at 59, tempts me more these days. But critics have noticed that my verse tends toward the condition of fiction in many of my poems.
(1999) And at the beginning of a new century and millennium I'd see no reason to alter any of the above statements. But I would not want to seem settled, unchanging, or complacent. On the beginning of the year 2000, and at sixty-eight years of age, I would still want to do much, in poetry, fiction, perhaps also in the translation of drama (if I were starting again, I would strive to do more of that). The old values and dilemmas are not altered by a new technology, which gives us, if anything, more diverse problems to face. Confronting such problems is one of the duties—and the pleasures—of persons engaged in the arts. And as "pleasures" is not a word I've used much in writing about my own work, I'd like to conclude this statement by affirming that I've always hoped it would give pleasure.* * *
With the publication of his Collected Poems 1952–1986, Alan Brownjohn can now clearly be seen as one of the major talents of contemporary British poetry, a poet of his time and the best of our social poets. Although the subject matter of Brownjohn's poetry ranges widely, taking in such traditional themes as love and childhood, it is the expression of his concern for social issues that marks his work as especially his own. His poem "Knightsbridge Display Window" ends with "sometime we'll get perhaps/A commonwealth of sense, and not with guns," which is in line with his statement that the poem aims "at a kind of cheerful democratic puritanism." It is an ideal not without a degree of paradox, but that may well be in the nature of most ideals. In his collection The Railings Brownjohn's concern can be seen from the beginning as very much a poet's concern:
Don't look for hunger and disease before
You blame a country. Stop and listen, now,
For the unquestioned currency of talk
Its people handle.
This is the stand that a society is to be judged by the quality of life it engenders. In The Lions' Mouths this concern is pursued, and we find that while the view is compassionate it is, nevertheless, allied to an uncompromising critical stance. "Why shouldn't they do as they like?" asks the "fool-libertarian voice" in the poem "A Hairdressers." "No," the poet replies, "I can't wish I were as liberal as that." Here is the puritan speaking, a voice that persists and that we find in the collection A Song of Good Life, where in "In Hertfordshire" Brownjohn writes sadly, even harshly, of modern development and new towns:
It has fangs of reinforced concrete and triple glazing,
Its eyes are huge stacks of strip-light in Industrial Areas
Refining precisions to blur life, imprinting so tidy on
Clicking cards the specific patterns of your death.
Yet the human spirit is more robust than that, as his group of poems in the same collection on the wiles and adventures of the Old Fox would suggest.
In all of Brownjohn's poetry there is the same sharp mind probing and enquiring. The poem "For a Journey" explores the significance of what at first seems an unlikely subject, the naming of country fields—"Topfield," "Third field," and the like—to conclude, "Who knows what could become of you where/No one has understood the place with names?" Brownjohn's need to analyze is reflected in the language he uses. On occasion it can become as complex as the line of thought he pursues, as in "Apology for Blasphemy":
It is with metaphor
We can assuage, abolish and
Create. I will apologise
The tendency is for such poetry to become abstract in both content and form. Yet in Sandgrains on a Tray we find him successfully combating this and developing a clarity and directness that give added strength and purpose to his work, as does his deliberate avoidance of decoration or embellishment. The words are made to work in their own right, consistent again with his cheerful puritanism.
In Brownjohn's collection Warrior's Career poems such as "Ode to Centre Point" and "A Politician" see him making his points much more directly, and a new, more personal element emerges in the section of love poems. Meanwhile, the thread of social concern continues in the group of poems in A Song of Good Life that present a picture of life in the 1970s through their observation of modern habits and fashions. In A Night in the Gazebo the narrative aspect of Brownjohn's poetry comes more to the fore, and via the observations of character and attitude explored in these fictions the oblique questionings and probings of society emerge: "There are too many evils, they race too fast, you lose/Much more than a point if you don't contrive to intercept them."
"Our middle age should have altered a lot of things," Alan Brownjohn writes in his poem "Watermarks." What it has done in his case is to see the production of three more substantial collections of poems: The Old Flea-Pit, The Observation Car, and In the Cruel Arcade. These new poems contain elements of fantasy and dream:
And then, one unexpected day, sail back
With another persona, yes, like someone
Else altogether, and nothing like myself,
As an unknown deus ex machina
In the end, however, the poems are still firmly rooted in reality. Brownjohn's survival and recovery from a serious illness also has introduced a deeper, more somber note in his work and a greater awareness of time passing. "All the old picture girls are dying," he writes in "On The Death Of Margaret Lockwood," and "Somehow you left us out of your address book" in "Not Known." But the jokey, robustly humorous Brownjohn is still there. Witness the poems "Ballad Form Again" and "A Brighton."