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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: November 2019

2 - Realisms, Rhapsodies and Responsibilities


Douglas Dunn's career was flourishing by the time his second volume The Happier Life was published in 1972. He had left his job at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull and was working as a full-time writer. His poems and reviews appeared regularly in major magazines. Terry Street had been awarded the Somerset Maugham Award and his work had appeared in a number of anthologies including Norman MacCaig and Alexander Scott's Contemporary Scottish Verse 1959–1969, Dannie Abse's Corgi Modern Poets in Focus – 1 and Jeremy Robson's The Young British Poets. However, far from being seen as a consolidation of early success, The Happier Life was a book that displeased critics and has continued to do so. In the interview given to John Haffenden, Dunn observed that ‘Reviewers felt that I was setting off on a different tack, trying to write a book that was self consciously different’ and adds that ‘I don't think that was the case’ (Haffenden, 20). Writing in 1975, Maurice Lindsay used the image of ‘The Terry Street Room-at-the-Top Dunn’ becoming ‘Life-at-the-Top Dunn’ to characterize what he saw as the book's greater detachment from its working-class subjects. Sixteen years after the book's publication, Alan Robinson castigated Dunn for ‘superficial prejudice’ and ‘paternalistic complacency’ and for turning ‘drop-outs into scapegoats’.

It is clear that critics were expecting and have continued to expect The Happier Life to be Return to Terry Street and that, despite Dunn's insistence to the contrary, his second book is very different. In Terry Street his original idea had been to mix the poems of parts one and two together but Philip Larkin dissuaded him. The Happier Life lacks such clear groupings of poems and its diversity is therefore highly visible. Dunn told Haffenden that there are a number of poems that are ‘rather similar to Terry Street, but they're too general to be set in Terry Street. There's a seam of these running through the book’ (Haffenden, 20–1). At the same time, there are also seams of poems about France and Scotland and a group of long discursive poems of 50 – 124 lines.