Saturday, February 28, 2009

The ghost of a reader

‘The journal writer, like the poet, is haunted by the ghost of a reader; but a ghost is very different from some palpable flesh-and-blood reader whom the writer imagines looking over his shoulder with his expectations, standards and demands.’ So wrote the British poet Stephen Spender, born a century ago today, in trying to explain why he had decided to publish his diaries, even though they were not written with publication in mind. The diaries themselves contain similar self-analysis (about his role as a poet for example) as well as many interesting anecdotes about other literary figures of the 20th century.

Spender was born in London, exactly 100 years ago today, to a mother of German-Jewish descent and to a liberal journalist. He was educated at University College School, Hampstead, and at Oxford where he became acquainted with other poets such as Auden, Isherwood and MacNeice. After Oxford, Spender lived in Hamburg for a while and then Berlin. From the start of the 1930s, he began to publish poetry and literary criticism, much of it flavoured by his left-wing politics. One of his poems, The Pylons, gave rise to the label Pylon Poets.

During the Spanish Civil War, Spender helped write propaganda for the Republican side; during the Second World War he worked for the National Fire Service. In the early 1950s, he published an autobiography giving an account of his relationship with the Communist Party. He went on to be editor of Encounter from 1953 to 1967, and to be involved with Index on Censorship. At times, he also lectured in the US. He was knighted in 1983 (the same year he appears to have stopped writing a diary) and he died in 1995.

More information on Spender can be found at Wikipedia; and The Diary Junction has some diary-related links. The Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which says it aims to widen knowledge of 20th century English literature with particular focus on Spender’s circle of writers, has a biography, a bibliography and photos.

Although best remembered for being a poet, and, to some extent for literary criticism, Spender did produce other kinds of writing, travel books, a couple of plays and a handful of novels. For much of his life, he also wrote journals intermittently, often for specific purposes. These were compiled and edited into a single publication by John Goldsmith - Stephen Spender’s Journals 1939-1983 - and published by Faber and Faber in 1985. Spender, himself, however had some control over which entries were included in the volume, and provides a biographical commentary before each chapter.

In his introduction, Spender explains his journal-writing philosophy: ‘The essential of the journal for me is that I can put down whatever I like without consideration of fulfilling the expectations, or catering for the taste of, an editor or a reader. ‘But after all,’ the reader may protest, ‘here you are, publishing your journals.’ The answer to this objection is, I think, that the journal writer, like the poet, is haunted by the ghost of a reader; but a ghost is very different from some palpable flesh-and-blood reader whom the writer imagines looking over his shoulder with his expectations, standards and demands. The writer of the journal need only set down what is interesting to himself, his own truth, and much of this will conform to no standards of publication that he is aware of at the time. Much of it will, indeed, be unpublishable.’

In the 40 years and more covered by Stephen Spender’s Journals 1939-1983 there is only entry dated 28 February, i.e. on his birthday. It’s from 1970: ‘I drove to New York and dined with Auden. My sixty-first birthday: his sixty-third was two days ago, 26 February.’ And there follows a poem which starts ‘Dined with Auden. He’d been at Milwaukee . . .’

Here, however, are two other extracts from the book, forty years apart.

20 October 1939
‘It must now be three weeks since my weekend at the Woolfs. They live in a very pleasant house at Rodmell near Lewes . . . I arrived in time for tea. After tea, we went out on to the lawn and played a game of bowls. . . Virginia and I walked about the garden talking about writing, which she said she wanted to discuss with other writers. She was pleased that I kept a journal because she said she found it was the only thing she could do, too. She thought that every day an occasion arises in which one sees things in an entirely new and different way, that these moments of transformation are one’s grasp of reality. This is the experience she tries to catch hold of in her journal.’ (NB: See The Diary Junction for more on Woolf’s diary.)

5 October 1979
‘I wrote a poem about Derwentwater. One of my best, at this moment, I think. Why do I have such resistance to writing poetry? Since when I am writing it I can become very absorbed, happy, fascinated. The resistance comes first from the sense not so much of failure as of non-recognition. I can’t really convince myself my poetry gives pleasure to anyone. I feel apologetic sending it to a friend, humiliated sending it to an editor, as though asking for a favour. Next, writing it is a test in which all one’s best qualities are brought in confrontation with all one’s incapacitiy. Next, poetry is not ‘work’. And there is always ‘work’ elbowing its way in and pushing poetry aside. . .

Being a minor poet is like being minor royalty, and no one, as a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret once explained to me, is happy as that.’

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