First of all: that’s Kingsley not Martin, the author of Lucky Jim not Yellow Dog, which may strike some readers as atavistic (and even a little quaint), given how fully Amis the Second has deposed Amis the First in the literary press. Still, Zachary Leader’s new biography, The Life of Kingsley Amis, reviewed in these pages last month by Mark Steyn, provides a welcome occasion to look again at the elder Amis’s splendid, varied, and enduring contribution to letters. Even a quick review of Amis’s work reveals him as a dab hand in several genres—from essays, memoirs, novels, and poems to his raucous correspondence, a hefty volume of which Leader edited in 2000.
Lucky Jim is simply one of the funniest (and best) books of the last hundred years, and it is no surprise that Amis the novelist has assumed pride of place in any reconsideration of his work. But what of the other Amises—including Amis the anthologist (The New Oxford Book of Light Verse, The Faber Popular Reciter), Amis the gastronome (On Drink), and Amis the critic (Rudyard Kipling and His World)? Of these, perhaps it is Amis the poet who is now most often neglected. He produced only a few slim volumes and wrote the sort of poems that have long fallen out of fashion: bare-knuckled, witty, light but never “lite,” outward-looking instead of inward-gazing—a kind of red-blooded vers de société that is in a league with E. A. Robinson’s poignant cameos and “Eros Turannos”; with Auden’s “Miss Gee,” “On the Circuit,” and “Who’s Who”; and with the poems of his friends and fellow Movement poets Robert Conquest and Philip Larkin. As Clive James wrote recently in The Times Literary Supplement: if Philip Larkin had never written, Amis’s “capacity to dramatize inner conflict and make it vivid through mastery of phrase and rhythm, would have made him … a contender for the title of the most accomplished and least self-satisfied poet of his generation.”
Larkin looms large in any reading of Amis’s poems. The two were lifelong friends, beginning with their days at St. John’s College, Oxford, in the early 1940s: Both were jazz enthusiasts, both suspicious of bogus poeticizing, both weary of the obfuscations of modernism. Amis, of course, greatly revered his friend’s poems and understood their lasting importance. When in the late 1970s Amis’s son Martin lent his father’s copy of The Less Deceived to a girlfriend, Larkin sent along a replacement. Kingsley acknowledged the gift in a letter from 1979, the same year his collected poems appeared:
Tks VM, OM, for TLD. When it came I turned over the pages saying “Better than me … Better than me … I could do that … Better than me … Better than me … I could—no I couldn’t … Better than me … I wouldn’t want to do that—well … Better than me … Better than me …” You sod.
Amis’s and Larkin’s shared allergy to sleeve-worn sentiment and pointless ornamentation led them to favor irony and the sober reflections of the plainspoken (and less-deceived) observer. Despite such affinities, however, a fundamental difference in tone distinguishes one poet’s work from the other’s. Where Larkin’s poems respond to life’s disappointments with a biting melancholy, Amis’s are slashingly satiric. Like the speaker of his poem “A Chromatic Passing-Note,” Amis replied to the ways in which experience inevitably falls short of the ideal with “a snarl of disappointment.”
Larkin, in the end, was the greater poet, as even Amis seems to have realized. Larkin was able to approach more nearly the flame of sentiment without getting singed. Having said that, Larkin (by choice or disposition) never matches the fierce note that Amis strikes so affectingly in poems such as “Nothing to Fear” (“I seem to sense/ A different style of caller at my back/ As cold as ice, but just as set on me”) and in his squalid portrait of the Welsh traveling salesman Dai Evans from “The Evans Country” sequence:
Hearing how tourists, dazed with reverence,
Looked through sunglasses at the Parthenon,
Dai thought of that cold night outside the Gents
When he touched Dilys up with his gloves on.
Amis’s poems rush headlong into the messiness of life, where Larkin’s tread with a more measured gait. Amis once remarked to the novelist John Mortimer that Larkin “was unlike us. He never threw himself at life. Marriage, adultery, all that sort of thing. He avoided all that.” Larkin’s moral tone recalls someone who has resisted the ersatz glamour of temptation and taken wistful solace in the fact that no eggs were broken. Amis’s moral tone suggests the penitent—someone who has made many omelettes with eggs filched from nearby farms and, tormented, turned himself in. For Larkin, deprivation, then, really was (in his famous phrase) what daffodils were for Wordsworth, which is to say he discovered in deprivation a certain nobility and even beauty. Deprivation for Amis, by contrast, generated something akin to anger—a frustration with the human condition and in particular with the agonies of the male libido—which fueled his brutal send-ups.
Both poets could be scathingly funny, in person and in print, but the tenor of Amis’s humor, in the poems at least, could rarely be mistaken for Larkin’s. Amis underscores the difference in his funeral address for Larkin in December 1985, in which he quotes his friend as saying:
I like to think of myself as quite funny, [Larkin] told an interviewer, and he was more than quite funny about those in the literary and academic worlds whom he considered fraudulent, and he found no shortage of those; and to hear him sounding off about a politician or any other public figure who was not to his taste did the heart good. But there was no malice in it, no venom.
Could one, I wonder, say the same for Amis? Venom becomes in his poems a kind of life’s blood, coursing through them the way it courses through the more scathing passages in his fiction. Take for instance this skewering of the insufferable Bertrand Welsh, whom Jim Dixon encounters in a decidedly unlucky moment:
“My work?” Bertrand echoed. “You make it sound like missionary activity. Not that some of our friends would dissent from that description of their labors… .”
“What work do you do?” Dixon asked flatly.
“I am a painter. Not, alas, a painter of houses, or I should have been able to make my pile and retire by now. No, no; I paint pictures. Not, alas again, pictures of trade unionists or town halls or naked women, or I should now be squatting on an even larger pile. No no; just pictures, mere pictures, pictures tout court, or, as our American cousins would say, pictures period.”
Not even Jim himself, the hero of the novel, escapes such hilarious, ruthless treatment.
Amis’s poems, like his novels, unsparingly lay bare his characters’ foibles. “A Song of Experience” unfolds in a pub—a setting close to Amis’s heart—and features an anonymous traveling salesman, a forerunner to Dai Evans. The proceedings begin jovially enough, then take a sinister turn:
A quiet start: the tavern, our small party,
A dark-eyed traveller drinking on his own;
We asked him over when the talk turned hearty,
And let him tell of women he had known.
He tried all colours, white and black and coffee;
Though quite a few were chary, more were bold;
Some took it like the Host, some like toffee;
The two or three who wept were soon consoled.
Amis’s sordid portrait ends not in any alcohol-soaked glorification of this predatory creep and his conquests but with a chilling glimpse of his banality:
What counter images, what cold abstraction
Could start to quench that living element,
The flash of prophesy, the glare of action?
—He drained his liquor, paid his score and went.
I saw him, brisk in May, in Juliet’s weather,
Hitch up the trousers of his long-tailed suit,
Polish his windscreen with a chamois-leather,
And stow his case of samples in the boot.
Amis tells Michael Barber in his Paris Review interview from 1975 that experimental writing, which he loathed, is “usually thought of as entirely to do with style and intelligibility. But there are other forms. I mean after all, can’t one have experiments in mixing farce and horror, comedy and seriousness … ?” “A Song of Experience” combines precisely these elements.
Amis’s mode is satire not confession, self-scrutiny not self-expression. As Paul Fussell writes in The Anti-Egotist: Kingsley Amis, Man of Letters, Amis sees the sometimes vile opinions of his central characters as being both his and not his, each character becoming not so much a version of the author as a conduit of self-criticism. “By projecting himself into an entity that is part of himself and yet not himself,” Amis writes, the novelist (or poet) “may be able to see more clearly, and judge more harshly, his own weaknesses and follies.”
When Amis was invited to edit The New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), Larkin was excited for him. Larkin, whose Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse (1973) had challenged the modernist leanings of Yeats’s Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), quipped to a colleague that the two of them would stamp their taste on the age in the end. Amis, in his introduction to the volume, was not as optimistic about the fortunes of light verse, which in the 1970s ranged from “political ephemera” to “exercises in the styles of the dead or the aging, for the most part in competitions in weekly journals; and limericks,” adding that he could not “see the situation improving much.” Far from improving, it has fallen off precipitously, leaving Amis’s poems to moulder in his own brilliant and ill-fated anthology.
Earlier in his introduction, Amis discusses vers de société in a way that recalls his own poems. He defines it as
a kind of realistic verse that is close to some of the interests of the novel: men and women among their fellows, seen as members of a group or a class in a way that emphasizes manners, social forms, amusements, fashion (from millinery to philosophy), topicality, even gossip, all these treated in a bright, perspicuous style.
Amis’s style is always perspicuous but not always what I would call bright. In fact, he can be relentlessly and hilariously gloomy, both about man’s nature and about his surroundings, as in “Lovely,” in which an old flame figures:
The best time to see things lovely
Is in youth’s primordial bliss,
Which is also when you rather
Go for old shags talking piss.
A similar sour irony marks the poem’s counterpart, “Shitty,” which appears on a facing page in Collected Poems 1944–1979:
Look thy last on all things shitty
While thou’rt at it: soccer stars,
Soccer crowds, bedizened busheads
Jerking over their guitars,
German tourists, plastic roses,
Face of Mao and face of Ché,
Women wearing curtains, blankets,
Beckett at the ICA,
High-rise blocks and action paintings,
Sculptures made from wire and lead:
Each of them a sight more lovely
Than the screens around your bed.
Not surprisingly for someone who was so uproariously alive—whether stumbling drunk down the steps of the Garrick or suffering the hangover of another romantic indiscretion—Amis was extremely fearful of losing his ability in old age to drink and laugh and be with friends:
Look at old Morrison!
Isn’t he wonderful?
Fit as a fiddle
And tight as a tick;
And spouting his stories—
Just listen a minute
And laugh yourself sick.
Some folks like Morrison are fortunate, retaining their faculties to the end; others like Weatherby and Hooper (and, finally, like Amis himself) are not so lucky:
Different for Weatherby,
Struck with incontinence,
Mute in his wheelchair
And ready to go;
Different for Hooper,
Put back on the oxygen,
Breathing, but breathing
Less angry, more circumspect, is this late untitled poem about the misery of last things, which begins:
Things tell less and less:
The news impersonal
And from afar; no book
Worth wrenching off the shelf.
Liquor brings dizziness
And food discomfort; all
Music sounds thin and tired,
And what picture could earn a look?
The self drowses in the self
Beyond hope of a visitor.
Desire and those desired
Fade, and no matter:
Memories in decay
Annihilate the day.
This poem appeared in The Times Literary Supplement in May 2004. If, as Leader suggests, it is reminiscent of Larkin’s “Aubade,” which appeared in the TLS in 1977, it is because in it Amis moves away from persona and toward a lyric voice that, as in much of Larkin, one associates more nearly with the poet himself. Leader calls the poem (which, as the missing title suggests, may well be unfinished) Amis’s “ne plus ultra.” It is a fine and moving poem, but it is the sort of poem that, as Amis wrote in his letter on The Less Deceived, Larkin does “better than me.” Pure Amis is something grittier—bawdy and tragic, unflinching and unapologetic, culpable and morally acute, and teeming with an excess of life.