A Wilder Fowl

Literature has its battery hens ... I was a wilder fowl.
— William Plomer

In a career spanning five decades, Plomer produced ten books of poetry, five novels (several popular successes), five volumes of short stories, two biographies (Cecil Rhodes and Ali Pasha), four librettos (for Benjamin Britten), scores of essays, articles and reviews, and three edited diaries (Kilvert’s Diary is the best known). He was co-editor, with Campbell, of Voorslag, a literary review founded to counteract the chilling effects of proto-apartheid legislation in South Africa, featuring writing in both English and Afrikaans.

In later life he was a publisher’s reader and literary advisor for Jonathan Cape, where he was an early and ebullient proponent of Ted Hughes, Arthur Koestler, Stevie Smith, John Betjeman, John Fowles, Vladimir Nabokov, Alan Paton and Ian Fleming. (No Plomer, no Bond.) From 1937–51 he broadcast intermittently with the BBC a number of lit-programmes, including The Critics, on which he discussed new books with the novelist Rose Macaulay. He was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1963 and a CBE in 1965.

William Charles Franklyn Plomer – the surname rhymes with ‘bloomer’ – was born on 10 December 1903, in Pietersburg (now Polokwane), South Africa, of English parents. His father was an itinerant magistrate. In 1905 the family moved to Louis Trichardt, Limpopo. Times were tough. The township was largely abandoned and malaria rife – ‘romantic,’ Plomer wrote, ‘in a Rider Haggardish way’ (Haggard would have enjoyed that ‘ish’).

His younger brother contracted malaria and died, after which Plomer was sent to England, a country he recognised, he wrote, ‘as a mirror recognises a face’. He was educated at Beechmont, Kent, which he loathed, and later at Rugby. He cut his teeth on Chaucer, Eliot, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence.

'He is interested in technique in the right way' – F.R. Leavis

'He is interested in technique in the right way' – F.R. Leavis

In 1922 Plomer opened a trading post with his father in Entumeni, Zululand, where he cultivated an interest in the Zulus and their language. He was attracted first to their bodies: ‘the young bucks, descendants of Chaka’s braves’ – reminiscent of Melville’s comparison of the Marquesans with the peoples of New York – aroused him. Eros gave way to agape. The racialised complex of South African society, virulent and epidemic, prevented any but furtive intimacies. ‘It occurred to me quite early in life,’ Plomer recalls, ‘that the terms “black” and “white” were too arbitrary. One thing was rigidly clear – that the presumed line between so-called white and so-called black must never be crossed – at least openly.’ 

Plomer is ‘interested in technique in the right way’, F.R. Leavis noted, ‘For he is interested primarily in the world he lives in, and technique for him is the problem of getting the “feel” of living into verse.’ But what is that ‘feel?’ It is a poetry of place, of places. It is topographical – geophysical. Plomer shares Auden’s fondness for geology – for petrology, in particular.

Plomer is not difficult. He has in common with The Movement (the exponents of which he predates) an impatience for opacity. In the best poems, form and content are blended, their interdependence discernible to the most general of general readers.

In their directness of address – though not, it bears mentioning, in their stylistic import – the poems lean closer to the linguistic compressions of Hardy, Thomas and the Georgians than to the oblique bookishness of the high moderns. A self-described ‘lone prospector’, his ‘gain’ – sometimes rubble, sometimes ‘a handful of semi-precious stones’ – was, though inconsistent, sui generis

‘Literature has its battery hens,’ Plomer wrote. ‘I was a wilder fowl.’ Therein lies the rub. ‘An outsider from South Africa’, as Bayley puts it, Plomer was, by definition, peripheral. His muddled ethnic identity, and to a lesser extent his sexual orientation, confounds matters.

Race, sex, identity – contemporary poetry subsists on a diet of such shibolleths – Plomer should have more fans than he does (after all, he ticks all the ‘representational’ boxes). But there’s a catch, and a gratifying one. Plomer does not write to tell us about himself. He knew, like all good poets, that ‘selves’, by and large, are radically boring, no matter how beleaguered by crises of racial identity, sexuality or whatever else.

His commitment was to the life of the poem, to the discrete organisation of lines and stanzas, to character, to place: ‘I’m incapable / Of starting the very least personality cult / I have freed myself at last from being me’. ‘Austere, direct, free from emotional slither’ – thus Ezra Pound set out his hopes for the poetry of the twentieth century.

In the preface to the 1973 edition of his Collected Poems, Plomer decried the ‘general tendency … for the distorted personality of the artist to be valued more than the work of art itself ’, throwing in his lot with Pound in the ‘move against poppycock’.

On 15 March 1973, Plomer sent Lady Cholmondeley a short poem titled ‘Painted on Darkness’, collected here for the first time. Likely the last poem he ever wrote, it bears witness to his correctness, his clarity, his lyrical clout:

Each rose transmuted, sweeter than itself,

In pure vermilion stands out strange and new

Against the haunted glass intensified,

Painted on darkness, as a poem is.

This article was taken from William Plomer: Selected Poems (ed. Neilson MacKay).

Neilson MacKay is a doctoral candidate at the University of Durham and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He has written articles and reviews for The New Criterion.