Going through Alan Bennett’s Six Poets gives the impression of sitting through a series of engaging lectures on the poetry of six major British poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It seems as if the renowned playwright is talking to us — trying to entertain us with interesting aspects of the life and art of those poets and reading for us some of their poems that are among his favourites. Thus, Alan Bennett takes the readers with him on a journey of appreciation and discovery of poems and it proves to be a very enjoyable journey.
In Six Poets Bennett handpicked over seventy poems of Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, John Betjeman, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNiece and Philip Larkin. This is not a typical book of poetry criticism. Nor is it purely an anthology. Alan Bennett sprinkles his discussion with anecdotes, his own thoughts and biographical snippets that bear on the poems he selects. This method helps the readers to have a more thorough comprehension of the poems. For example, Bennett tells us that ‘Hardy’s poems are sometimes like entries in a writer’s (or a film-maker’s) notebook’ and then quotes Hardy’s poem The Whitewashed Wall — a poem that tells a touching story. Often the biographical details reveal interesting aspects of a poet’s mind and Alan Bennett can surprise his readers with comments like ‘Housman ….could unbend with women and children, perhaps because, to him, they didn’t really count’!
Alan Bennett’s Six Poets sings a paean to poetry and poets. The material he provides here will make these six poets more accessible to the readers, especially the uninitiated readers. He makes each of his selected poems ‘understandable at first hearing’. And he dares to make sweeping judgements about some of these poets’ art: ‘Auden was a good poet and perhaps a great one, though far from flawless’ or ‘ ….a lot of his (Hardy’s) poems were plain bad’.
The value of Alan Bennett’s Six Poets lies in how the author brings the poems to life by adding anecdotes and biographical material to his discussion. At the same time he reminds us that each literary creation enjoys an independent existence from the time they are created, that ‘the “I” is always the eye. It is not always I.’ In his introduction to the book, the playwright tells the readers that when he was young, he used to think that ‘the books I couldn’t get into (and those included most poetry) that constituted literature’. With Six Poets, Alan Bennett certainly helps his readers to ‘get into’ many memorable poems. In his inimitable way, he presents the ‘leaping light’ of the poetic imagination for his reader’s delight. If his readers stand beside him and look on the island, they are bound to hear the ‘swaying sound of the sea’:
‘Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.’
(Look, Stranger — W.H. Auden)