The old Penguin Modern Poets series – along with the brilliant European series – was a real poetry education for me, just as the severe blurb suggested: ‘this series is an attempt to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader…’ (attempt! No blurb-writer would phrase it that way now.) I loved the cow-parsley cover of number 1, and didn’t know two of the poets: Lawrence Durrell and Elizabeth Jennings. The third, R. S. Thomas, had already made an impression in George Macbeth’s influential anthology British Poetry 1900-65.
I had no idea that Lawrence – the centenary of whose birth occurs this week – was the same as ‘Larry’, the lounging brother of whom Gerald Durrell made gentle fun in My Family and Other Animals. ‘Four small nouns I put to pasture’ was an opening line I still remember; that wasn’t in the Penguin selection. I did go on to read the Alexandria Quartet novels a bit later, and perhaps this is why I recall his poems as sun-baked and Mediterranean.
‘Poems, like water-colours, should be left to dry properly before you alter them – six months or six hours according to the paints you use.’ This is Durrell’s advice in Reflections on a Marine Venus: a companion to the landscape of Rhodes (1953), which quite coincidentally our Hon. Treasurer flourished at me the other day. ‘Poetry attempts’ – that verb again! – to provide a ‘link between the muddled inner man with his temporal preoccupations and the uniform flow of the universe outside.’ Durrell continues:
These reflections are the fruit of an afternoon spent alone, reading under a cypress tree on Mount Phileremo…. The gaunt burnt-out skeleton of the airdrome beneath with its charred aircraft was a reminder that one was, after all, in the world…
Looking back at the Penguin selection, I feel the keen, post-war British hunger for the seas and lands that had been out of reach: Corfu, ‘the warm Adriatic rides’, Rhodes, Ithaca, Delos, Venice – and further, Brazil and Rio. While Durrell was capable of very vivid particularities in his travel writing, in his poetry these places are curiously indistinguishable, one large landscape of myth, and love affairs gone sour, and frustrated longings.
Yet perhaps he still has readers out there: ‘in the vast perspective of dispersal / His words float off like tiny seeds’, as he writes in his affectionate, admiring poem for the Greek Nobel laureate, George Seferis:
How marvellous to have done it and then left
It in the lost property office of the loving mind,
The secret whisper those who listen find.