To Live as a Poet

Edward Upward's first book, Journey to the Border (Hogarth Press, 1938), takes place on a single day, when the tutor for a wealthy English family leaves his employer's house and goes to a country fair. At a certain point in that fair, which takes place at a horse-racing track, he experiences a mental breakdown. This personal crisis is partly centered on his realization that he has failed as a poet:

"He knew that he would never be a poet or a prophet, but that didn't mean he was done for, a hopeless failure. There were other, humbler ways of living a happy life. What ways? Where?"

These questions coincide with his observations of the crowds at the fair and how quickly some individuals among them can turn to violence. There's a moment when the tutor notices how a group of rowdy young men seem to transform into pig-like beings who menace anyone nearby. The tutor seems to be the only one to notice the danger represented by these potentially violent young men. The tutor travels to the border of his own sanity but he also discerns a border where theory and practice coincide.

The protagonist of this short novel is the same autobiographical figure that appears throughout most of Upward's fiction. As with many of his friends among the so-called Auden group, Upward was concerned about the rise of fascism in the late 1920s and 30s. These country fair hooligans who inject a sense of menace into the afternoon are symbols of the fascist threat that was looming over Europe as Upward was writing.

In his introduction to the 1994 Enitharmon Press edition of the novel, Stephen Spender wrote that Journey to the Border "contains some of the most beautiful prose poems of the century." While he was a student at Cambridge, Upward abandoned poetry and focused on writing fiction. But his short stories and novels have always maintained a discourse with poetry (Cf. the relation to poetry in novelists such as W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño and Jacinta Escudos). What I think Spender notices in Journey to the Border is how Upward's prose purposefully blends the physical and social landscape and the protagonist's mental states.

The tutor's hallucinations at the country fair and the prose used to evoke these have been described by some critics as surrealist. Many of the short stories Upward has written in the 1990s include these types of surrealist, hallucinatory elements. Dreams play a crucial role in Upward's recent work, and they often point to the very real presence of evil in the world, whether in political events or daily experiences.

For me, the most direct evidence of poetry in Upward's fiction is his conception of writing as a means of individual and collective transformation. The young tutor's horrifying hallucinations reinforce a paranoid conception of his immediate surroundings and of world events. Upward concludes the novel with a revelation: his protagonist is able to stop the hallucinations by simply looking directly at himself and who & what surround him. Physical reality takes precedence over any fears that might inhabit our minds. The tutor (like Upward) chooses communism as a method that can help counter the rise of evil in the world.

Upward didn't publish another book until after his retirement from working as a secondary school English teacher. In 1962 he released his second novel In the Thirties, which describes a young teacher's struggle to balance poetry and politics. In the "Author's Note" to that novel, Upward references his belief in poetry as a type of lived art:

"In the Thirties, which is the first novel of a trilogy, describes the experiences of a young man whose failure to live as a poet leads him to make common cause with the unemployed and with others frustrated by the social and economic conditions of the time, and to join the Communist Party of Great Britain. The second novel, The Deviators, will show how and why, in the late nineteen-forties, without becoming anti-communist he leaves the Party. The third novel will aim to vindicate poetry as having its own kind of truth, which the poet must not subordinate to political truth, and will show how he recognizes at last that his primary duty is to try once again to live as a poet."

Upward's later work frequently hovers around the following question: How does one "live as a poet"? He attempts to answer this without referencing poetry itself. There's always the danger of romanticizing the idea of "being a poet." That path can even become destructive, as a cursory glance at the actions of any Latin American dictator with epic illusions and visions will prove. What I think Upward is positing as an answer to this question is that we must be able to look at our surroundings clearly and humbly. To look at the material world as honestly as possible, without denying the very real presence of the metaphysical and of dreams.

I don't share Upward's continuing faith in the idea that a revolution could change our current dismal situation. At least not revolution as it has been enacted in places such as Cuba or Venezuela. But I do admire and share Upward's belief in poetry as method of transformation. And, of course, I'm inspired by the fact that he continues to write as he approaches his 102nd birthday.

"What mattered more than anything else to us at Cambridge was Art — not just our art but also the art of those writers, musicians and painters we most admired. [...] During term-time we seldom did any writing that we considered serious. Perhaps we were almost serious about the diaries we both started on the same day — and continued through our lives into old age. We started them under the inspiration of Barbellion's Journal of a Disappointed Man. I've forgotten what Christopher's earliest entries were like, but mine were artificial and poetically pretentious to a squirm-making degree, as I soon recognised, and my later Cambridge entries became more realistic and at times scandalous. Probably Christopher's from the beginning were much more down-to-earth and filled with the kind of realistic social detail I have always so much admired in his writing and hoped to emulate. His diaries were indispensable to him in much of his mature work."

(Edward Upward, Christopher Isherwood: Notes in Remembrance of a Friendship, Enitharmon Press, 1996)

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