Witty and warm, expressed in musical but plain language, Laurence Lerner’s poems cast an intelligent and human eye over the lives we variously lead. His first published collections introduce an amiable and wryly observant poetic persona, a thoughtful poet and academic who knows that “true verse is from the heart”, as ‘To School’ has it, but also that it is the schooled intellect which allows us to “sing the true shape of grief”.
Born in South Africa in 1925, Laurence ‘Larry’ Lerner studied at the University of Cape Town and later, Cambridge. He embarked on an academic and writing career that would take him from Ghana to Belfast, Sussex to Tennessee, before returning to England’s south-east, where he formally retired but continued to teach and publish. Negotiating ‘Through Literature to Life’, Lerner quietly distinguished himself as a straight-speaking poet who wore his considerable scholarly knowledge lightly. Beginning with Selves (1969) and through to his last published volume Rembrandt’s Mirror (1987), an increasing use of personae also served to broaden his verse’s empathetic and imaginative range. Perhaps the best example is the character of A.R.T.H.U.R. (1974), an artificially-intelligent digital computer trying to make sense of a world of “metal people / And movers”, the latter a “slow-witted” group who “make what they call mistakes”. Serving as the basis for two books of poems (A.R.T.H.U.R. & M.A.R.T.H.A. followed in 1980), it makes for an amusing but telling analysis of human nature from an ‘outside’ perspective, recalling the short-lived Martian school of poetry in its cryptic and entertaining metaphor-making.
Though Lerner sadly passed away in early 2016, before he was able to make a full recording for the Poetry Archive, the remastered audio of the six poems included here showcase what Mark Abley, writing in Quarto, describes as Lerner’s ability to “preserve a fine balance between compassion and wit”. In ‘Visiting Troy’ and ‘The National Trust’, it is the poet’s awareness of the chasms of history, the felt gaps between then and the here-and-now, that inform the writing: “if / You had succeeded”, asks the narrator, taking us on a tour of a historic country home, “could you ease your life / Among these moments and monuments? / Could you, could I, or could the paying guests?” Lerner’s sense of time’s passing, of changing cultures and attitudes, also informs the more everyday reflections of ‘My Friend Janine’ and ‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, where fear, ignorance and uncertainty are shown to underpin instances of racism, sexism and other intolerances. Whatever the subject and whoever is doing the talking, though, Lerner delivers his poems with a knowing yet avuncular tone, well suited to his work’s subtle complexities.