Alan Bennett: joining the literature club

The playwright used to feel baffled in the face of poetry. All the more reason to compile an anthology of popular poets, from Hardy to Larkin
alan-bennett-joining-the-literature-clubWhen I was young, I used to feel that literature was a club of which I would never be a proper member – as a reader, let alone a writer. It wasn’t that I didn’t read books, or even the “right” books, but I always felt that the ones I read couldn’t be literature, if only because I had read them. It was the books I couldn’t get into (and these included most poetry) that constituted literature – or, rather, Literature.
After a lifetime, these feelings of impotence and exclusion are still fresh in my mind. I have only to hear someone extolling the charms of Byron, say, or Coleridge, neither of whom I’ve ever managed to read, to be reminded of how baffled one can feel in the face of books.

Mindful of this, when, decades ago, I put together a TV series about poetry – featuring Hardy, Housman, Betjeman, Auden, MacNeice and Larkin – I didn’t make any bones about admitting what I didn’t understand or sympathise with. I’m all at sea with much of Auden, for instance, but feel less of a fool saying so, because that kind of plain speaking is a refreshing feature of Auden’s own literary criticism. Auden is an exception, though, because the poets and poems I chose are all in differing degrees accessible. This seemed to me essential. Obviously, any poem repays study, but if it is only to be heard once and without detailed exposition, then a poem should be understandable at first hearing.

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