I've always been concerned to get into [my poetry] the details of daily living which portray - or betray - human strengths and weaknesses and oddities. - Alan Brownjohn
About Alan Brownjohn
Alan Brownjohn (b. 1931) grew up in London and was educated at Merton College, Oxford. He worked first as a schoolteacher and then a lecturer before becoming a full-time freelance writer in 1979. His writing life since then has demonstrated a long-lasting commitment to the promotion of poetry: he served on the Arts Council Literature Panel, was the Chairman of the Poetry Society from 1982-1988 and has collaborated in three teaching anthologies for secondary schools. His poetry has been recognised by a Cholmondeley Award and his novel The Way You Tell Them won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and has been followed by three further novels, The Long Shadows, A Funny Old Year and Windows on the Moon.
Brownjohn’s public spiritedness (he was a Labour councillor and once stood for Parliament) comes through in his poetry which, like Larkin’s, often investigates the contradictions between obligation and desire. Brownjohn himself acknowledges the moral purpose of his writing: “I write nothing without hoping it might make the world one grain better – a pompous statement which, I suppose, makes me a moralist as a writer, a humanist one.” This is borne out by the subject matter of his poems which, for all their stylistic and thematic diversity, are principally interested in human social interaction. Narrative is often the chosen mode of investigation: some poems, ‘An Orchard Path’ or ‘The Presentation’ for instance, have the charged mystery of the best short stories. Brownjohn is an acute and sometimes satirical observer of “the minutiae of human behaviour” whether exposing the sinister banalities of modern life in ‘Incident on a Holiday’ or detailing the rituals of boredom and hierarchy amongst the department store staff in his sequence ‘The Automatic Days’. Alongside this social realism is also a strong streak of the fantastic and surreal, often employed in the creation of dystopias as in his description of the overbearing Nanny in ‘From his Childhood’ whose ringing cry of “Courage!” is both amusing and unsettling.
A veteran of hundreds of readings, Brownjohn’s relaxed voice is the perfect medium for the measured tone of his work. Dramatic without exaggeration, it’s a voice that invites the reader’s trust and then subverts the “courteous periphrases of English life” (Sean O’Brien) into something far more dark and disturbing.
His first recording was made for The Poetry Archive on July 12th 2002 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Liane Aukin. Alan Brownjohn returned to the recording studio for a second reading on June 23rd 2015, recording at the Soundhouse, London, with Richard Carrington as producer.
Alan Brownjohn has written this note about his more recent work:
“Since I recorded a substantial collection of my poems as an early contribution to The Poetry Archive in 2002, I have published three more volumes of verse, now represented in these later recordings: The Men Around Her Bed (2004), Ludbrooke and Others (2010) and A Bottle (2015).
Having listened to that earlier recording before starting on this new venture, I ran my eye down the list of poems I had decided to read from these three books and was pleased to feel that, for better or worse, there have been changes rather than repetitions, some ideas not resumed and others explored for the first time. There was little about memory and the past in that selection – and this time there is, in some narratives of wartime, schooldays and early working life. There was no self-examination through the invention of a fictitious character, and now an extended sequence about an enterprising and perhaps disreputable person called “Ludbrooke” makes up for that.
On the other hand, I am still looking to show a diversity of theme and form – readers and listeners will have to decide whether it is achieved. If anything, experiment has become a bit more important, and that I intend to continue. But I am deeply aware of the power and importance of the great modern poets who have triumphed with traditional rhyme and meter, even when their subject-matter and their temperament has been utterly different.”
Alan Brownjohn’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:
“Poetry as ‘a criticism of life’ has always appealed to me, but it’s usually forgotten that Matthew Arnold went on to add ‘under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty.’ In other words, the poetry – which has to come out of a sense of the wonder of existence and the desire to give it meaning and permanence (and sometimes extra colour and oddity) – comes first.” – Alan Brownjohn on Matthew Arnold
“Poetry is as exact a science as geometry” – Flaubert
“A poet I admire and enjoy deeply, John Crowe Ransom, said somewhere that writing poetry was somewhat like gardening, which is strange from someone whose poems don’t look in the least ‘organic’, but have a kind of painted or sculpted formality.” – Alan Brownjohn on John Crowe Ransom
Alan's first recording was made for The Poetry Archive on July 12th 2002 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Liane Aukin. Alan Brownjohn returned to the recording studio for a second reading on June 23rd 2015, recording at the Soundhouse, London, with Richard Carrington as producer.
Poems by Alan Brownjohn
Featured in the Archive
Books by Alan Brownjohn
The Lions' Mouths
Sandgrains On A Tray
She Made of It
A Song of Good Life
A Night in the Gazebo
Collected Poems 1952–1983
The Old Flea-Pit
The Observation Car
In the Cruel Arcade