Penguin Modern Poets 2: Kingsley Amis, Dom Moraes, Peter Porter, 1972.
The aim of the first series of Penguin Modern Poets was to introduce contemporary poetry to the general reader. The result was a wide-ranging sampler of English-language poetry in the 60s and 70s. At the time, most poetry was published in expensive hardbound editions and Penguin Modern Poets offered readers a taste of modern verse in an accessible format. The first volume was released in 1962; the last, No. 27, appeared in 1979. A second series was launched in 1990.
I still have a battered copy of the most successful volume in the first series, No 10, The Mersey Sound, which featured Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. It sold more than 500,000 copies making it one of the best-selling poetry anthologies ever published.
The link between the three Liverpool-based poets is obvious. But what connects Amis, Moraes and Porter? And who designed the beautifully simple cover of the 1972 edition of the second book in the series?
The answer to the first question appears to be emphatically not very much at all. The three poets were from different countries and were born some years apart; Amis in London in 1922, Moraes in Mumbai in 1938 and Porter in Brisbane in 1929. The wranglesome Amis was notorious for drinking, anti-Semitism and adultery. He was photographed sleeping on a beach with “1 Fat Englishman – I fuck anything” written on his back. His long-suffering wife Hilly seen in the bottom left hand corner of the photo was responsible for the lipsticked slogan.
Moraes was also very fond of booze and women; he had a lifelong battle with alcoholism and three failed marriages, including one to the actress Leela Naidu. Unlike Amis, he was a vehement supporter of Israel. Porter seems to have been relatively happily married, although his first wife killed herself in 1974, and he was not known either for his views on Judaism or for his drinking. Ironically, he died of liver cancer.
However, the three men were all substantial poets. Clive James described Amis’s poetry as “accomplished, literate and entertaining… a richly various expression of a moral personality coming to terms with the world”. I suspect Hilly may have taken issue with James’s use of the word “moral”. Porter was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and Moraes remains one of the best-known names in Indian poetry.
The only connection I can see between the three men is W.H. Auden. Amis and Porter both acknowledged that they were influenced by his work. In those days it was either Auden or Yeats; a bit like “The Stones or The Beatles?” in the 60’s and “Galaxy or Cadbury’s?” in the 90’s. The precocious 15-year-old Moraes is reported to have shown Auden his poems. I wonder if Auden offered to show him his?
Regrettably, I have no idea who was responsible for the black and white feather design on the cover of the 1970 edition of Penguin Modern Poets 2.