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on 19 April 2010
Friend of Larkin, admired by Wendy Cope, Gavin Ewart's stock was once high enough for him to appear in Bill Brandt's 'Portraits' where he sits in his back garden, craggy and impassive, like a lion by Edwin Landseer. The photograph, with its deep blacks and greys, is a tragic one, but the vision is Brandt's, not Ewart's. His muse was far too restless to be confined to one means of expression as this book amply demonstrates. Virtually anything could get him going: the review above, his cat, even a typo. Like his hero Auden, his technical mastery was such that if no form was readily available he'd invent it and his poetic language was flexible enough to embrace Latin and Lallans.

Ewart's finest work is often in dialogue with the poems of the past. In the 'Larkin Automatic Car Wash', he uses the scheme of 'The Whitsun Weddings' as the here and now of the car wash becomes a focus for the narrator's longing for elsewhere in a way worthy of the great man himself. In 'I.M. Anthony Blunt', he takes his lead from Betjeman's 'I.M. Walter Ramsden' and the poem stands as a humane corrective to the baying hysteria over Blunt's fall from grace. 'The Gentle Sex', a legitimate masterpiece, is told in the metre of 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' and if anything using Hopkins's formal structure makes a brutal true story even more shocking.

Then there are the sex poems, which WH Smith's once refused to stock on account of their explicit nature. They are a young man's work, full of swagger and bravado, but offering little real insight beyond the smart-aleck way they are based on the animals in a children's book. The later ones written after marriage - at the relatively late age of 40 - are irradiated by kindliness and understanding and remind us that for all his cleverness, compassion was never too far away either.

So why has he fallen into neglect, especially when only a curmudgeon could resist having a good time? Partly because for all of Ewart's virtuosity, many of the poems are oddly evanescent. The lesser topical poems are little more than fleeting verse reportage, the light verse is exactly that and the pleasure of a line that sets down roots in your mind and delivers fruit each time you return to it doesn't appear to be in him. In the end, Ewart just might have been a victim of his own fecundity. And as the notoriously reticent Larkin could have told him, being prolific in verse can be as much a vice as it is a virtue.
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