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Poetry Focus: Alun Lewis

Alun Lewis by Tom Phillips

Alun Lewis is a poet whose name is more familiar than his work. Although there have been new editions in “selected”, “collected” and even “miscellaneous” variants since his death in 1944, his reputation has pretty much dangled from a single thread: his much-anthologised, Edward Thomas-echoing poem, “All Day It Has Rained…”.

This, it’s true, is one of his finest poems, a masterpiece of understatement with a bitter flourish at the end, but his two long-out-of-print volumes, Raiders’ Dawn (1942) and the posthumous Ha! Ha! Among The Trumpets (1945) show him to have been far more than simply “the second best poet of World War 2” (after Keith Douglas) or, as some have claimed, the “missing link” between the 1930s and the Movement.

While “the ruthless loneliness of war” is, by default, his “headline” theme - a theme which began long before his wartime posting to India physically and, as it turned out, permanently separated him from home and loved ones - he was also profoundly engaged in mapping a metaphysical terrain marked out by the eternal conundrums of love, life and death.

“Romantic existentialist” would be the category you’d need to invent if you wanted to shoe-horn him into a pigeonhole and, whether jaded or uplifting, his always questioning, always deftly crafted poems range from the hallucinatory nursery rhyme of “Raiders’ Dawn” (“And lovers waking…. /Recognise only/The drifting white/Fall of small faces/In pits of lime.”) to the sceptical flirtation with mysticism of “Karanje Village” (“And when my sweetheart calls me shall I tell her/That I am seeing less and less of world?/And will she understand?”).

In between are poems which flex their linguistic muscle with an artisan’s delight in words (“Lines on a Tudor Mansion”), saunter into satirical Audenesque (“Lady In Black” with its “Death’s only a vicar/armed with a gun”), rage against the psychological machinery of war (“After Dunkirk”) and deal with the ever-changing details of love with a rare, clear-eyed intimacy (“Song (on seeing dead bodies floating off the Cape)”).

Read the new Collected Poems, in fact, and the “precursor to the Movement” tag soon comes to seem hopelessly wide of the mark. Sure, Lewis’s work is not ambitious, cosmopolitan modernism in the Pound/Eliot vein, but neither is it Larkin behind his “High Windows”. If anything, in fact, it forms part of a very different pathway, from Rilke and Yeats to Plath and Heaney. What’s more, Lewis was a socialist, a firm believer in poets being no different from anyone else in the conscripted crowd, and he ticked off Robert Graves for accusing him of ivory tower tendencies (a ticking-off which partly inspired Graves’ lifelong respect for the younger Welsh poet).

Born in 1915, Lewis died in Burma on 5 March 1944, from a single gunshot wound, described in official records as an “accident” but, just possibly, self-inflicted, the ultimate judgement of what he himself called “the immaculate Gestapo of his brain”.

Tom Phillips is a poet and writer whose work has appeared previously at Eyewear.
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