As the recent Dulwich Festival Artists Open House has demonstrated, art flourishes in SE21/2/3/4/6 when two hundred and fifty, mostly local artists exhibited their work. In literature too, there is a steady flow of new books by local authors in the windows of Dulwich bookshops. So whatever happened to poetry? It is not as if there is not a local tradition, after all Byron lived his early years here, Browning walked to Dulwich from Camberwell and Thomas Campbell from Sydenham.
However, the real, solid birth of Dulwich’s poetry tradition started just after World War Two. It almost certainly began because of a row at the Poetry Society precipitated by the presence of the young and attractive new general secretary and editor of its magazine Poetry Review. Twenty-nine year old Muriel Spark had been an active presence in the society for two years when the joint vacancy occurred. Her application was not unopposed, but she was appointed with a clear majority.
The Poetry Society was criticised by a new breed of younger poets, and even by established ones, for mediocrity, or as Martin Stannard says in his biography (2009) of Muriel Spark, ‘a comfortable mutual admiration society with educational aspirations’. Spark’s rejection of HW Harding, the chairman & treasurer, of his sexual and literary overtures, led to his resignation and a subsequent enquiry by the society’s president, Field Marshall Lord Wavell. Other resignations, including Wavell’s followed. Protests within the society, with one camp supporting Muriel Spark and the other trying to force her out persisted. In November 1948 the opposition, led by Marie Stopes, succeeded and Muriel resigned.
Another bout of resignations then followed, including Howard Sergeant, a pillar of the Poetry Society and lover of Muriel Spark. Howard Sergeant was born in Hull in 1918 and had trained as an accountant. During the war he served in the Air Ministry and later the Ministry of Supply. In 1944, with the assistance of his friend and fellow Dulwich resident, Lionel Monteith, he founded, edited and published in Dulwich, his poetry magazine Outposts which would become the longest running independent poetry magazine until its demise in 2010. Sergeant had been writing poetry since childhood and his first poem to be published was Thistledown Magic in 1943.
In June 1949 Sergeant, then living in Croxted Road, and Monteith founded the Dulwich Branch of the British Poetry Society. Whether there were other branches seems unlikely and certainly there is no trace of them. It was almost certainly in response to the continuing turmoil at the Poetry Society where the emphasis remained on an earlier Britain unmarked by war or unsullied by social unrest. As press reports of the opening meeting record, the younger wave of poets were focusing on contemporary issues such as the atomic bomb and the threat of nuclear war. Quite a number of the poets at these early meetings, held on Friday evenings at the Crown & Greyhound, had Jewish roots and their poems reflected the then current theme of the return of Jews to Israel.
For the suggested donation of one shilling, the audience was invited to an hour and three-quarters of readings by poets who would turn out to be the nation’s most distinguished - Dannie Abse, Paul Dehn, (who later became an Oscar winning screenwriter responsible for Goldfinger, Moulin Rouge and The Spy who came in from the Cold) and Emanuel Litvinoff who read from their works at the opening meeting. The next meeting kept up this high standard with readings by Sydney Tremayne and Margaret Crosland. The third meeting, in August 1949 was advertised as a Brains Trust, with Howard Sergeant as question master and the panel being made up of Clifford Dyment, Dannie Abse, Derek Sandford, Robert Greacen and Muriel Spark - two of whose lovers were at the same table - Howard Sergeant and Derek Sandford.
The monthly meetings at the Crown & Greyhound continued with Danny Abse a regular reader and even Muriel Spark’s bête-noire, Marie Stopes, made a couple of appearances. Nor did the high standard fall, with Stephen Spender and Laurie Lee appearing in the 1950 programme. Michael Croft, then a teacher at Alleyn’s and future founder of the National Youth Theatre was also a regular reader. Like all such societies, the momentum was hard to sustain and it closed. Lionel Monteith founded a new magazine Poetry Commonwealth in 1951, and later become a priest and later still a psycho-therapist. Howard Sergeant assisted another Alleyn’s teacher, and poet, Alastair Aston to resurrect the Dulwich Poetry Group in 1960.
Sergeant once commented : “When I was compiling my anthology of poems 'for the youngest', Happy Landings, I found scores of poems about going to bed by candlelight or encounters with nannies, etc. but hardly any about, say, space travel, so I sat down and wrote the following poem”.
blasting off the ground
with a wake of flame behind you,
swifter than passing sound.
shooting through the air,
twice around the moon and back
simply because it's there.
cruising through the skies
to plant your flags on landscapes
unknown to human eyes.
Space-man - race, man,
scorching back to earth -
to home and friends and everything
that gives your mission worth.
“I have no illusions about the quality of this poem, and I would hardly place it amongst the best I have written, yet it has proved to be my most popular poem and has been anthologised over and over again for children, largely because it seems to meet a need. It will be observed that I have adopted a rhyming pattern for the poem. Although there is a tendency amongst contemporary poets to discard rhyme, it is my experience that younger children at least enjoy a definite rhythm and feel more at home with some kind of rhyme (this is not to suggest that they should be taught to write in this way only).”
Howard Sergeant later changed careers, moved from his house in East Dulwich Grove and entered full-time teaching. He continued to edit Outposts until his death in 1987. His publications include three volumes of poetry, three volumes of criticism and he edited or co-edited over fifty anthologies of poetry, specialising in Commonwealth poetry and children’s poetry. He was awarded an MBE for services to poetry in 1978.
The Dulwich Poetry Group continued on and off over the years but no longer exists. Other poetry enthusiasts staged a Dulwich Poetry Festival several years ago and a brave attempt, lasting a couple of years, was made using another pub, this time on Gipsy Hill as a venue. Perhaps it is time for a relaunch.