Gavin Ewart was born in London in 1916, of Scottish descent. He was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, and Christ’s College, Cambridge. While at Cambridge, Ewart was literary editor of Granta.
In 1933, at the age of seventeen, Ewart's first ‘adult’ poem, ‘Phallus in Wonderland’, was published in New Verse – the highly regarded literary magazine well known for publishing Auden and his circle. Heavily influenced by the poems of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Ewart continued to contribute accomplished and for the period rather shocking pieces to the magazine. Ewart’s first book was published in February 1939, just before his 23rd birthday, and between 1940 and 1946 he served as a captain in the Royal Artillery, fighting in North Africa and in Italy; from then up until the early 1960s he published hardly any poetry. On demobilisation, he served as a functionary for Editions Poetry London and worked for the British Council from 1946 to1952, afterwards working as a copywriter in various advertising agencies.
It was partly through the inspiration of meeting some younger fellow poets – most notably Peter Porter – during his time as a copywriter that Ewart returned to poetry with renewed vigour. He rejoined the literary circuit in 1964, with the publication of Londoners. Pleasures of the Flesh (whose brand of irreverent eroticism saw it banned by W.H. Smith's) followed in 1966. Ewart published well over a dozen substantial books of poetry over the next twenty-five years, and was editor of a number of anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Light Verse (1986). His distinctive voice had fully emerged: witty, nimble, metrically resourceful, and able to handle the erotic and the satirical with equal verve and confidence.
Ewart was extremely prolific in his more advanced years, a fact wryly acknowledged in titles such as
Late Pickings (1987) and Penultimate Poems (1989), The Collected Ewart in 1980, and a
Further Collected Poems ten years later. The intelligence and casual virtuosity that frame his often humorous yet ultimately humane social commentaries always make his work entertaining, and on occasion unexpectedly touching.
These recordings contribute to an appreciation of this dimension of Ewart's work. His delivery is concise and witty, although the humour of his everyday subject matter is undercut by the melodious, at times almost mournful, cadence of his speech. It is through this special combination of reserve, mockery and compassion, which Ewart's voice so clearly sympathises with, that the work's more forceful undertow reaches the listener. As sardonic and lustful as his verse can be, the connecting tone is more despairing than each piece taken alone might suggest, and the examination of and revelling in frivolity often finds in its descriptions some foreboding resonance, as the strictures of work, age, time and memory fringe the exuberance and spontaneity of the poems' lighter moments. It is surely these qualities that have attracted Ewart's most prominent advocates: Philip Larkin, Peter Porter, Clive James and Antony Thwaite, and prompted Stephen Spender's appropriately understated yet admiring appraisal: ‘He is compulsively readable, and from a rather bitter isolation makes devastatingly funny comments on contemporary manners.’
1971 Cholomondeley Award for Poetry
1991 Michael Braude Award for Light Verse