Kingsley Amis at Cambridge University, 10 October 1961. Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Should we take Kingsley Amis more seriously as a poet?

The acclaimed novelist harboured dreams of writing verse

Artillery Row

If Sir Kingsley Amis was still alive today, on the occasion of his centenary — an event that would owe a quite remarkable amount to medical science, and might, given the context of this particular weekend, even be seen as a second Resurrection narrative — he might be amused by the way that he has been treated by posterity. I’ve written about the decline in Kingers’ fortunes, justified or not, for the May issue of The Critic, but one area that I was only able to touch on in the most passing of fashions was one that many Amis aficionados prefer not to dwell on. Yes — oh dear yes — Kingsley Amis wrote poetry. Many may have wished that it were not so. 

He was never taken up by Faber, the traditional poetry publisher

This does one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant writers a disservice. One of the oft-repeated ironies of his epochal friendship with Philip Larkin is that, for a fair amount of their early lives, each man saw himself in the opposite sphere to the one in which he ended up excelling: Larkin wished to be a novelist, Amis a poet. Big Phil’s published novels Jill and A Girl in Winter are now regarded with a certain amount of reserved respect — and students of social history should treasure Jill’s precise, icy evocation of wartime Oxford — but it is unlikely that they would be especially remembered were it not for the more conspicuous success that he found in poetry. (A third novel, The New World Symphony, was abandoned, with Larkin saying despairingly that “You know, I can’t write this book…I’m not sure it even interests me sufficiently to go on.”) 

Amis, on the other hand, persisted with poetry throughout his career, to steadily diminishing returns. A Collected Poems was published in 1979, but this was less because his was an oeuvre that particularly deserved a volume of this kind, and more due to his savvy agent Jonathan Clowes realising that he could double his client’s advance with his new publisher Hutchinson. (It was telling that he was never taken up by Faber, the traditional poetry publisher, who forged an important and lasting relationship with Larkin.) Unsurprisingly, no further poetry collections appeared during Amis’ lifetime, and there seems little likelihood that a posthumous selection of unpublished work will appear at this distance, although perhaps some enterprising Jake Balokowksy-type may be digging through Amis’ papers in the Huntingdon Library in California at the moment, bent on putting together a final slim collection of occasional verses in belated celebration of the centenary.

 If it were to appear, it would be fascinating to see whether it is any better than the existing work. Amis’s second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard compared his verse dismissively to that of Larkin’s, saying that he lacked his friend’s “dedicated, chaste” commitment to The Art — no bachelor flat in Hull for the famous bon vivant — but also suggested that her former husband would have liked to have written more poetry. Underneath his bluff, hail-fellow-well-met public image (one carefully cultivated throughout his life), Amis was both insecure and vaguely anxious about his reputation as a poet, even as he called writing verse “a limited risk enterprise”. He commented, while debating whether to include poems written in the Seventies in his Collected Poems, “there are five (no doubt there should be more) I feel dubious about: will they add to my reputation or tend to fuck it up?” 

His critical writing on poetry was often hilarious

In the end, the poems that Amis was unimpressed with never made it into the anthology, which nonetheless feels of a piece with much of his fiction from the Fifties onwards. Reading his Collected Poems now, Amis, like Larkin, was clearly inspired by plain, straightforward English poets such as Hardy and Housman who have always been beloved by novelists for the accessible way in which they convey their universal themes of longing, loss and regret. Yet there were also side-steps; Amis’ Welsh connections (he was a lecturer at Swansea University) were acknowledged in his moving, elegiac sequence “The Evans Country”, and he was unafraid to lampoon himself in his writing in a way that Larkin never was. His half-comic, half-bitter poem “Something Nasty In The Bookshop” could almost be his friend’s work, were it not for the fact that it’s both sneerier and, frankly, not as good:

Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.

We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.

And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.

Amis remained insecure throughout his life about his work, and even his performance of it. A letter to Larkin of 7 March 1980 refers, jokingly-but-not-jokingly, to a criticism of how “when listening to Amis read [his 1956 collection] A Case of Samples on the Marvell Press recording, one is surprised to note how little expression gets into his voice, and, as compared with Larkin’s recordings, how chaste and impersonal is his delivery.” Although his allusion (“And on those records how chaste and impersonal is my delivery compared with yours HAHAHAHHAHAH”) is determinedly jocular, there is something miserable about a famous, wealthy and successful novelist still harbouring grudges from a quarter-century before, to be brought up in a letter to a friend who had achieved far more in his originally chosen field than he had ever done. 

Yet this is not to dismiss the idea of “Kingsley Amis, poet” entirely. His critical writing on poetry was often hilarious (on Edward Lear, who he despised: “the lands where the Jumblies live may well have been far and few, but neither far nor few enough to suit me”), always perceptive and sometimes inadvertently revealing, such as his observation on Tennyson that “[he] was sensitive to criticism. Nearly all artists are, major and minimal alike“. And when Amis wrote on Dylan Thomas, who he once revered, he made perceptive comments about the inner life of poets, even as he damned the Welsh windbag by association: “poets are usually passionate about some irrelevance; cooking, racing, painting, budgerigars; not this one.” 

But what was Amis himself passionate about? The cynical might say “trying to be Philip Larkin”. But this is a gross and unfair misreading of his work, to say nothing of his life. At its best, Kingers’ poetry has its own unexpectedly weary integrity, as if the school clown had read “Adlestrop” and had secretly attempted to spend the next few years writing his own version of it. Poems such as “Senex”, “A.E.H” — the inevitable Housman homage — and “A Reunion” have a cumulative power, if read in the right, Amisian spirit, complete with a glass of Amisian spirit to hand, that I have found can produce all the effects of deep emotion. 

It is surely now time, as we celebrate (or mourn) a centenary of Kingsley, to return to his poems in the spirit of good-humoured enquiry, rather than simple dismissal. We may even be surprised by what we discover therein. 

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