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British Poet Laureate's "Radio Poems" Find New Audience

March 4, 2009

A collection of works, including seven previously unpublished poems by former British Poet Laureate John Betjeman are finding new audiences thanks to the release of "Poems in the Porch," a volume edited by Kevin Gardner, an associate professor of English at Baylor University. The collection of poems, originally recorded for a weekly religious program aired on the BBC, include one of Betjeman's most famous works, The Diary of a Church Mouse.

Betjeman achieved tremendous fame in England as a beloved television personality in addition to finding success with his poems. Although he was well respected by other poets, Betjeman's style prevented him from being considered a serious poet in academic circles.

Gardner is one of the first to bring Betjeman's works into academia. "The subject of the poems can be very modern and relevant to the contemporary world. Betjeman was very interested in faith and the nature of faith and doubt." Betjeman's poems, once described as "combining piety with nagging uncertainty" often included a certain admission that faith wasn't always easy, observes Gardner.

While Betjeman's poems often take on complex themes on religion, faith, and culture, Betjeman's form was not considered to be in a modern voice by many scholars says Gardner. His works were well-liked by the English for their rhyming structure even though his style was more popular in 19th century poetry.

Betjeman's works also explored the decline and preservation of culture, particularly through architecture. In the aftermath of World War II, Betjeman had great concern for the fabric of cities and towns as selections were made on which buildings and churches to preserve or raze. Betjeman, identifying buildings and churches as physical manifestations of spiritual health feared that new construction would overwhelm the past. Believing that the church played an important role in creating a common identity among the English, Betjeman was an outspoken critic of those unwilling to reconstruct or refurbish many of England's old churches that were damaged in the war.

Betjeman felt strongly that the form of poetry itself was distinctly British, and it was his intent for his works to be accessible and relevant to the lives of all English citizens. Betjeman's style of positioning deep and complex subjects with a light, rhyming verse allowed ordinary citizens the means to consider the works' deep topics.

Knowing that his radio poems were being created to be read aloud rather than silently, Betjeman could allow the rhythm of the poems to be similar in style to Victorian hymns.

With the publishing of these works, Gardner hopes that more scholarly work can be done on this important figure in British poetry. "Betjeman's was able to reach a very wide audience with his works. There is a lot to be gleaned from his canon not just on faith and doubt but in the cultural context of modern Britain."