Laurence Lerner

b. 1925 – d. 2016

Laurence Lerner was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1984.

Laurence Lerner, often called Larry, was a South African-born British literary critic and poet and novelist. Also a lecturer, he taught in many universities around the world.

Laurence Lerner remembered – by Gabriel Josipovici

A brilliant and individual mind

I don’t think I ever told him, but one of the reasons I applied to the newly-formed University of Sussex in the winter of 1962 was that Larry was teaching there. In those days you couldn’t open a weekly like The Listener or the New Statesman without finding a poem or a review by Larry. He had also, I discovered, recently published a volume of poetry, Domestic Interiors, a novel, The Englishman, and a book of literary criticism, The Truest Poetry. If Sussex are happy to employ someone like that, I thought, then it’s the place for me.

And indeed it was. Larry was only one of a galaxy of brilliant and individual minds assembled by David Daiches in those early years. Gãmini Salgãdo had rejoined Larry from Queen’s University, Belfast, and Stephen Medcalf arrived at the same time as I did to rejoin his old Merton friend, Tony Nuttall. Larry was always at the centre of any gathering, talking, arguing, endlessly quoting (he and Stephen seemed to have an uncanny ability to remember whole poems verbatim, and not just in English). The quip went in those days that it was no wonder the University of Sussex was able to attract the best students since it included luminaries with such names as Supple, Lively and Lerner.

Larry was born in South Africa in 1925 of a Jewish Ukrainian father and an English mother. He attended schools in Cape Town and then the University of Cape Town. On a camping trip in 1945 he met Natalie, and they both promptly won scholarships to Cambridge, where Natalie studied for a phd and Larry (typically) for a second ba. They married in 1948 and, after a spell at the new University of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), they returned to Britain and Larry found a job at Queen’s, Belfast, where Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane were among his students. Attracted by the interdisciplinary nature of the new University of Susssex, he applied and was taken on in the university’s second year, 1962. In the course of his many years at Sussex, though, he was frequently absent, taking up temporary teaching posts in France and Germany (he wanted to be able to speak and read the languages, and soon did), the United States and Canada. By 1985, disliking the increasingly antagonistic politics of the era, he joined his friend and fellow poet Donald Davie at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee. On retiring from there in 1995 he moved to Lewes, teaching more than ever on various adult education courses, walking the Downs with his friends and active in the Quaker community.

I once asked Larry why, since he was such a fine poet, he did not devote more time to it. ‘If I did nothing else,’ he replied, ‘I would probably not write poetry either.’ Certainly his manifold activities did not seem to stand in the way of his poetry. Eight further volumes followed Domestic Interiors, all full of well-crafted, highly intelligent, often funny and often moving poems. Never flashy, he was, like Edwin Morgan, the master of many forms: dramatic monologues such as the brilliant and disturbing ‘The Merman’ and ‘Written from Ypsilanti State Hospital’; Movement poems such as one of his favourites, ‘Strawberries’; and formal experiments (he would never have called them that or thought of himself as an experimental poet) like the poems that make up a.r.t.h.u.r., a collection ostensibly written by a machine. Though in later life he liked to assert that he no longer wrote poetry, only verse, there are a few poems he sent me but never published which I cherish, such as the subtle and hilarious ‘Let’s Play Philosophy’, which begins:

I’ve often wondered if we humans can

Explain just why the universe began.

And reaches a climax with                                               Perhaps

Thinking is just the way the brain cells lapse

When things go wrong. Nobody understands

Why we can only walk on feet, not hands,

Why ears can’t see and eyes can’t hear, or why

The price of living is you have to die.

Sadly, and to me inexplicably, he seemed to go out of fashion when he moved to the United States. He returned to England to find the friends who had been poetry editors of magazines and publishing houses had died or retired and a new generation in place who did not know him and were not interested in what he had to offer. I wonder if he made much of an effort to get his work published. I suspect not. But I feel it’s a shame and hope very much that one of these days we may see a Selected Poems of Laurence Lerner on the shelves. Such a volume would only confirm what all his admirers know, that his best work is among the best in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century.

Gabriel Josipovici is a novelist, short-story writer, literary theorist and playwright.