Collected Poems: 1952-2006
Alan Brownjohn Enitharmon, 480pp, £25
One of Alan Brownjohn's better-known poems, "Knightsbridge Display-window", recalls how, in the garden of his thrifty great-aunt, "Potatoes flowered/Blue, white and green,/English republican colours". The poem goes on to celebrate the family's commitment not to grand rhetoric, the crown and its army, but to "cutting bread thinly" and to a "commonwealth of sense". As it is with Brownjohn's bread and potatoes, so it is with his poetry: this is verse kept down to earth and thinly sliced.
Distrustful of usurped powers, flummery and pretension, firm on their politics and morals, Brownjohn's poems have some good Puritan virtues. Yet frugality can serve up meagre fare. Those after strong emotion, flashing wit or complex meditation must look elsewhere. And while Brownjohn uses a variety of verse forms, his unexalted tone and diction, unmelodious prosody and fondness for making iambs sound like prose make this a matter of a formidable work ethic rather than of luxuriating in poetry's rich store.
As a poet, Brownjohn's true affinities lie with Philip Larkin. Of Larkin's poetry, Brownjohn writes that it "has never been a matter of blinding revelations, mystical insights, expectations glitteringly fulfilled", but is where life "is something lived mundanely". This gets Larkin slightly wrong, but is a good guide to Brownjohn. For where Larkin's poetry habitually entertains the mystical, the revelatory and the glittering while facing up to truth or disillusionment, Brownjohn's dwells on the dullness, vice and disappointment of everyday life. The poems insistently remind one of the superior claims of the moral over the aesthetic, and the desirability of, in the words of 1066 and All That's account of the English civil war, "the right but repulsive" over the "wrong but wromantic".
Ezra Pound declared poetry to be "news that stays news". Reading Brownjohn can be like leafing through old newspapers and magazines. A one-time Labour councillor and parliamentary candidate, he is an engaged and knowledgeable observer of the issues of the day. So if thoughts on "William Empson at Aldermaston" or "Heroic Couplets" on Simon Armitage and the Millennium Dome like to point out how other poets stand in relation to public events, Brownjohn couldn't be accused of hiding how he stands himself.
Much of Brownjohn's work can be classed as vers de société or light verse. Nevertheless, his humour is less an outpouring of delight than a compensation for life's lack of it. And while he may pretend that it's best not to be "too satiric" - "Some people think that Elton John is singing,/ Some people can sit straight-faced through a Bob Dylan lyric" - he is incapable of resisting a good snap at whatever happens to irritate him.
Brownjohn's great strength has been his hand-ling of age. As he has gone from disgruntled young man to grumpy old one, he has addressed the matters of the moment while keeping his core political and poetic values. The politics and morals can lack nuance, but there is value in his chronicling of how the "sick with power" are busy "afflicting the sad with none", and in some of his critiques of the corruptions and stupidities of the day. It may be, however, that Brownjohn will have to trust the social historians to ensure his posterity.