Robert Adamson, The Goldfinches of Baghdad
Donald Allen, Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara
Anthony Barnett, Miscanthus: Selected and New Poems
James Booth, Philip Larkin: The Poet's Plight
Ian Brinton: Contemporary Poetry - Poets and Poetry since 1900
Lucy Brock-Broido, Soul Keeping Company
Basil Bunting, Briggflatts
Colin Burrow, ed., Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems
Peter Carpenter, Catch
David Chaloner, Collected Poems
Paul Chirico, John Clare and the Imagination of the Reader
Elizabeth Cook, Bowl
Donald Davie, Modernist Essays: Yeats, Pound, Eliot
Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse and Articulate Energy
Roger Deakin, Waterlog: A Swimmer's Journey through Britain
Roger Deakin, Wildwod: A Journey through Trees
Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem
Carrie Etter, Infinite Differences: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets
Archie Evans and Brian Murray, eds., The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown
Roy Fisher, Standard Midland
Matthew Francis, ed., New Collected Poems by W.S. Graham
Daniel Gabriel, Hart Crane and the Modernist Epic: Canon and Genre Formation in Crane, Pound, Eliot, and Williams
Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Gudrun Brabher et al., eds., The Emily Dickinson Handbook
Gillian Hughes, James Hogg: a Life
R.F. Langley, The Face of It
Zachary Leader, The Movement Reconsidered
Maurice Lindsay and Lesley Duncan, eds., The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry
Samuel Menashe, New and Selected Poems
Rod Mengham and John Kinsella, eds., Vanishing Points: New Modernist Poems
Stefania Michelucci, The Poetry of Thom Gunn: a Critical Study
Tim Morris, Wallace Stevens: Poetry and Criticism
Paul Muldoon, Horse Latitudes: The End of the Poem
Ruth Padel, Silent Letters of the Alphabet
J.H. Prynne, Poems
Adam Piette and Katy Price, eds., The Salt Companion to Peter Robinson
Peter Riley, The Derbyshire Poems
Peter Robinson, Talk About Poetry: Conversations on the Art
Peter Robinson, Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations
Peter Robinson, Untitled Deeds
Peter Robinson, Spirits of the Stair: Selected Aphorisms
William Rowe, Three Lyric Poets (Lee Harwood, Chris Torrance, Barry MacSweeney)
John Sears, Reading George Szirtes
Bernard Spencer, Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Anne Stevenson, Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop
George Szirtes, New and Collected Poems
George Szirtes, Fortinbras at the Fishouses
Nathaniel Tarn, The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology
Charles Tomlinson, Cracks in the Universe
Charles Tomlinson, New Collected Poems
Gael Turnbull, There Are Words: Collected Poems
Helen Vendler, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries
Joshua Weiner, At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn
John Welch, Visiting Exile
Nigel Wheale, Raw Skies
Shira Wolosky, The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem
The Goldfinches of Baghdad, by Robert Adamson. (Chicago: Flood Editions, $13.95)
In the darkness beyond our garden fence,
a white-tailed water-rat.
Sometimes you can see poetical quality in a flash, and in the most ordinary or uneventful material. Like this opening of Robert Adamson’s poem Winter Night. There are many ways in which you can define it, or fail to. You can talk of rhythm, balance, sound values. In the first line a simple two-stressed rhythmic and phonic structure happens twice as sign of a familiar normality. You would hardly notice such a line, but its song-qualities, which lure us into the poem, are reflected back from the contrasting second line, which breaks the regularity with a completely different rhythm, no longer ‘sprung’ between stresses but iterating four unequal stresses — a quickening and faltering of speech. All the main vowels of line 1 are of the ‘open’ (relaxed, continuing) kind; line two is the antithesis of this, except the first vowel of water which as-it-were ‘captures’ the sonic values of the first line, almost into a rhyming structure. The antithesis already has a small hint of harmony. The alliteration of Ws in line 2, what does that do? The stopped initial consonants are replaced by fluid ones, mental speed of sudden perception set against horological darkness. Or you can talk of imagery. The enclosure (fenced with those initial consonants) is attacked and broken, darkness by white, garden fence by water-rat; the dull, unknown but tense distance leading nowhere breaks into a focus on a contrastive thing, an object, a creature, suddenly, white-tailed like lightning. What difference would it make if our garden were the garden? Not a lot, but a little mutual/domestic tag is attached to the scene which is liable to be challenged by the ensuing visitation. All the time, of course, ‘nothing happens’. There isn’t even a verb.
How important is that? I feel that most British poets, especially the high-profile kind, would not be able to bear to place that full-stop after rat. The animal would have to do something, there would have to be an act. This is because what most British poets are doing most of the time is making speeches; they are operating a rhetoric, and that demands sentences because the sentence is where you form perception into a completed structure and make your claim on it, signalling your power over the listener. Or you could say that the absence of verb results in a different sense of the speaking self, who is not demonstrating before the reader, not making a declaration of any kind, not parading his perceptual abilities, but rather calling the reader in to a mutual witnessing, and participating in a kind of (mild) helplessness which says what is there but has no syntactical leverage on it, no designs on it. It is then a sheer presence and the artistry lies in the unappropriating quality of perception in this exposed condition, its fidelity to implicit world structures. So it is very important. (Some people think this ‘floating’ syntactical mode is American, but I think it derives rather from Central Europe).
This could be a complete poem in the pseudo-haiku tradition — it has the parallelism too, particularly marked in the double-barrelled term which ends each line. And it has implications which could satisfy any analysis of subsumed world perception. It is in fact the first line and a half of a twenty-line poem which goes on to develop the imagistic sense of this opening (‘Stars fracture the sky with light’) and beyond, with plenty of verbs and plenty of indicative rhetoric, but without losing the poised calm of the outset. It becomes a narrative of successive percepts within this little night scene, into which the self is gently, firmly, as if reluctantly inserted, not actually emerging as first-person-singular until just before the last verse -
As I come up from the wharf,
a flying fox rattles in the banana palms--
I hear the long whisper of its beating wings
follow me up the stairs. The stars flicker
letters from a dead god’s alphabet.
That last image is, of course, what the water-rat’s white tail has come to be through the process of the poem, the result of a process offered by the poem as it moves through a whole theatre of images, old and new, natural and artificial: cat, whiskey, river, motor-boat, nightjar... to find writing reflected back to the poet from an immense elsewhere. The impulsion which leads into these final lines is a notation of pain, a hook-wound in his finger that ‘stings like hell’, and then we move into the final pact. He returns to his house, safe in the presence of the furthest possible distance in space and time. There is a kind of unstated morality in it, a chastening, as it attaches the self with all its desires and wounds, as well as its eventless normalities, to the world at its largest extent.
Robert Adamson is an Australian poet of considerable repute in his own country, not so well published elsewhere as he should be. He lives on the Hawksbury River in New South Wales, which is a tropical zone so that the banana palms, flying foxes etc., are not exotica but daily sights of his normal existence. He has almost always lived there, his family fished there and he is a fisherman himself. To give an overview of his poetry is difficult, but it is largely concerned with where he is: the river, the natural environment and creatures, his life and history, his neighbours, love and death. It has little of the ‘pastoral’ feel about it, being obsessively attached to the present condition, and it never gives any sense of a contented settled existence free from urban cares, quite the reverse. There is indication indeed of a quite fraught personal existence, both past and present, without the poetry ever for a moment becoming ‘confessional’. It is too objective for that and too poetic — it always has the world on the edges of its vision, it always brings the poem to an utterance which reverberates across and beyond its immediate focus of attention. Images of the great river and the creatures it attracts, especially birds, are held against various sense of personal pain and loss, seeking through the movement of the poem a settlement with existence, often terminating in a pure, objective notation of the existence of natural objects without any intervening interpretation. But the scope is wide: local humour, international politics or literary comment may emerge at any time. The manner of writing is mostly within the lyrical ecstasis of Winter Night but includes a more leisurely descriptive mode in longer lines.
A substantial selection through his career called Reading the River appeared from Bloodaxe in 2004 and remains his only British book. The Goldfinches of Baghdad is a selection of his later poems, about half of which are also in the Bloodaxe book. Even if you have that, this book is well worth getting for the rest, for Adamson’s standards are consistently high.
One informative and intriguing factor of the new book is its sectioning. It is in three ‘parts’, suggesting a sequentiality, and there are signs of one, from an opening credo through to poems at the end which seem to gather in towards a final pact with images and figures found throughout the book. But the most interesting thing about the sectioning is its elusiveness. The first section, of what I take to be the most recent poems (because they are mostly not in the 2004 selected) has many poems with ‘Eurydice’ in the title or other references to the Orpheus story. But no rational or mechanical consistency emerges — what Eurydice is in one poem she cannot possibly be in the next poem and the only possibility of narrative lies in further reaches of the imagination. Eurydice may be a figure of absence: the lost or departed or maybe just-nipped-out-to-do-some-shopping person, with great temerity and fragility made party to a self-drama which re-emerges near the end of the book. But even this is contradicted by at least one of the Eurydice poems in which she is pictured as present. It is as if this kind of claim to significance is not the poet’s principal interest, which is the poem itself, which whatever material it handles from trivial to mythic, first and foremost is made to exert its own power on the succession of words, and reach its own conclusion out of the perceptual and linguistic materials on offer.
There is also a section of bird poems, which is good to see as it has always been a favourite mode for Adamson of attaching the world outside, to focus on one of these flying creatures with their constant suggestions of distance and souldom. They are to us exotic birds, various kinds of parrot, cockatoo, bee-eater, bird of paradise etc., but they are mostly common enough sights for Adamson where he lives. He describes, wonders, is amazed at their brilliance, familiar with their habits, plays them against his own being, contemplates their reality on the edge of the anthropomorphic, but keeps his distance and returns to what precisely distinguishes them, how integral their nature is to its function, ‘how inhuman / they are, how utterly bird.’ (The Ruff, p.44). Their paradisal richness is both longed-for and distanced from. Ornithology triumphs and is suppressed. The self can only identify with the bird at a high poetic level.
But the main point is that these are not bird poems at all. The bird may fill a poem or be merely glimpsed or thought about in the middle of a quite different matter. Again it is the poem’s sense which defines its purpose, not its object of attention. One of the finest poems in the book, the title-poem The Goldfinches of Baghdad (obviously not a local phenomenon) is a thoroughly ‘poetical’ address to the recently inflicted tragedies of that city. It is a very simple and moving poem. The paradisal, musical, caged birds treasured by the Iraquis, now as in the aristocratic past, are literally on fire, they are burning, and as in other ways in other poems the human presence is delicately, regretfully inserted into the account by an identification which can only be reached at this deathly extremity
Flesh and feathers, hands
and wings. Sirens wail, but the tongues
of poets and the beaks of goldfinches burn.
Those who cannot speak burn along with the
articulate — creatures oblivious to prayer burn
along with those who lament to their god.
And this comes in the end to an apotheosis where the living totality itself is encaged in the mortal poetical music as its ultimate condition--
We sing or die, singing death
as our songs feed the flames.
The Use of English 58.1 Autumn 2006 62-66 © The English Association 2006
Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Donald Allen. (Carcanet Press £9.95).
In the Poetry Pléiade series Carcanet have just reissued this handsomely presented edition of the selected poems of one of the most intriguing figures of twentieth century American poetry. The volume contains an excellent selection of O’Hara’s most important poems and the editor, Donald Allen, makes it clear in his Preface how difficult a task that selection procedure turned out to be:
After devoting the better part of three years (five would have been even better) to the erection of the splendid palace known as The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, it at first seemed almost impossible to dismantle and reconstruct a selection. Fortunately my neighbour Bill Berkson came to the rescue; between us we managed to saw and hammer a possible structure…Meanwhile, Kenneth Koch generously took a long look at our choices and gave us his certainties, doubts and hesitations. Then Jimmy Schuyler added his suggestions…Thus have we all together at last constructed The Selected Poems.
This selection admirably compliments Mark Ford’s The New York Poets: an anthology, also published by Carcanet, which contains work by John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler as well as O’Hara. The term 'New York School of Poets’ was first used in 1961 and Schuyler said 'New York poets, except I suppose the colour blind, are affected most by the floods of paint in whose crashing surf we all scramble.’ This imagery is especially appropriate to the work of O’Hara.
In January 1949 the Journal which Frank O’Hara kept during his time at Harvard expressed deep unease at the mutability of life:
The fragility of things terrifies me! However belligerent the cactus, ash from a casual cigarette withers its bloom; the blackest puddle greys at the first drop of rain; everything fades fades changes dies when it’s meddled with; if only things weren’t so vulnerable!
He also recognised the importance of art as a way of translating immediate ephemera into something more permanent:
Simply to live does not justify existence, for life is a mere gesture on the surface of the earth, and death a return to that from which we had never been wholly separated; but oh to leave a trace, no matter how faint, of that brief gesture! For someone, some day, may find it beautiful!
A prominent example of O’Hara’s style of making the immediate into the concrete arose from a moment in December 1955 when, in response to being teased by Schuyler about being able to write a poem at any time or in any place, he went into his bedroom to compose, in a matter of minutes, 'Sleeping on the Wing’:
The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
too. Those features etched in the ice of someone
loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space
and speed, your hand alone could have done this.
The image of the iceberg is teasingly effective since it not only suggests that what we see is a consciousness which rides above so much more but also, since it is itself in the process of change, it highlights the need for 'speed’ in order to etch in the ice. The contradictions held in the image are further suggested by the living quality of 'breathe your warmth’ which promotes the disappearing of the ice-etching. This preoccupation with death, disappearance and the extinction of singularity is central to the poetry of Frank O’Hara and it accounts, partly, for that poetry’s haunting elusiveness.
In August 1956, responding to the deaths of Bunny Lang, whom he had known since Harvard days and Jackson Pollock whose fatal car crash happened some days before, O’Hara wrote the first of what he was later to refer to as his 'I do this I do that’ poems. In 'A Step Away from Them’ O’Hara left what his biographer, Brad Gooch, calls 'a record for history of the sensations of a sensitive and sophisticated man in the middle of the twentieth century walking through what was considered by some the capital of the globe.
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-coloured
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
CORNER. Giuletta Masina, wife of
Frederico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
Gooch refers to the poem’s 'handheld camera fashion’ as O’Hara 'heads on his lunch hour west and then downtown from the Museum, past construction sites on Sixth Avenue, through Times Square where he stops for a cheeseburger and a glass of papaya juice beneath the Chesterfield billboard with blowing smoke, and then back uptown to work.’ The seizing on moments, the tiny objects, the enticing sights and sounds of the everyday bring to life an intensity of gaze, a celebration of the moment. However, for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet’s Corner suggests, tombs. The fragility of the everyday is caught melting between the Puerto Ricans who make the day 'beautiful and warm’ and the end-of-line word 'First’ which heralds the references to the death of three close friends. As with the image of the iceberg, the poet here seems to be not only a step away from the dead but also from the fast movement of the day: sensations disappear almost as soon as they are presented.
The importance of the fleeting moment is perhaps caught with greatest humour in the much-anthologised 'Why I Am Not a Painter’:
I am not a painter. I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. the painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a colour: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
A little like the oil on wood painting. 'Frank O’Hara’, which Elaine de Kooning produced in 1956, presence is registered in absence: 'When I painted Frank O’Hara, Frank was standing there. First I painted the whole structure of his face; then I wiped out the face, and when the face was gone, it was more Frank than when the face was there.’
The Use of English 57.1 Autumn 2005, 85-89 © The English Association 2005
Miscanthus: Selected and New Poems by Anthony Barnett. (Shearsman Books, £11.95)
Each generation since the mid-Victorian era has produced a literary avant-garde that has become recognised, accepted and eventually established as part of the canon. This process is by no means uniform and involves the filtering out of many styles and approaches along the way. Anthony Barnett’s work is becoming recognised and accepted. It appears in A Various Art (1987) edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville; Poets on Writing: Britain 1970-1991 (1992) edited by Denise Riley and Other: British and Irish Poetry Since 1970 (1999) edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain. The work of J.H. Prynne, John Riley, Peter Riley, Iain Sinclair, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood and others from Barnett’s generation is similarly in the process of becoming recognised and accepted. Barnett has translated Norwegian, Swedish, French and Italian poetry and, as part of Allardyce, Barnett, has published a range of international poetry, music books and edited the journal, Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies. He has worked as a percussionist in the 1970s and as a visiting scholar at Meiji University, Tokyo in 2002.
Miscanthus: Selected and New Poems, edited with an Introduction by Xavier Kalck, form another part of that process of recognition and acceptance. Building on the Collected Poems entitled The Resting Bell (1987), Miscanthus draws upon work from six subsequent volumes and adds new poems from two sequences 'And When I Sleep I Do Not Weep’ and 'Florna’. Kalck’s selection begins from Barnett’s fifth collection Blood Flow (1975). Barnett’s work from the mid to late seventies is well represented. It is work that resonates in its purity of language. The poems are marked by a balanced of positioned language in short, condensed utterances where the unsaid, the spaces between the words, is as crucial as what is said. It is work that demands close attention to each word and punctuation and, with its beguiling brevity, works well in a classroom of sixth-formers. Mud Settles (1977) consists of a sequence of thirty four short (3-11 lines) units that move through a seemingly knowing narrative self, alive to the elemental and natural world, experiencing a disrupted perception of self and other. Successive units introduce new elements within a conflict between the self and other. There is
and what is already close (page 63)
This is followed by an unfeeling rose that 'stays in the cold’ and in the next unit:
Blood dries on the hot sand.
Blood of my beloved.
But you are nowhere
to be heard. (page 64)
The violence of the contracted self and disrupted other simultaneously can be read as a nature versus culture dichotomy and struggle between the sexes or individuals. It is a raw struggle with 'a trembling at every rise’ and
A terrible orchestra of contradiction
and expansion - (page 76)
that holds a balanced tension of meaning throughout.
From Report to the Working Party. Asylum. Otiose (1979) through A White Mess (1981), Moving Buildings (1982) to North, North, I Said, No, Wait a Minute, South, Oh, I Don’t Know (148 Political Poems) (1985), Barnett’s work becomes more spare, heightened to pitch and resonant. It is the work’s brevity that arrests the reader and demands attention. Barnett is able to render a few words into a high pitch, as in 'Not Godlike’ (page 90):
the poet is not god
you know this
and since god was not there
say the poet is
as ordinary as you are
sanguine, fearful and un-
you know this.
Through such brevity, the words 'sanguine, fearful and un- / loved’ have to carry great weight. It is Barnett’s skill that they do and are memorable. He is able to write with pristine clarity producing a stunning image, as in the poem 'Imperfect Faith’ (page 93), and compress material to an effective one line or two. There are only a few English poets capable of this level of intensity. One thinks of Thomas A. Clark, Lee Harwood, and John Riley and in a different vein the throwaway comedic lines of Tom Raworth. The mature Barnett poem offers an exemplary weight to each word utilised. It is knowing, playful, fretful, beguiling and sometimes elliptical. It utilises repetition in the manner of an improvising jazz musician. The Quiet Facts (1979) section combines compact simplicity within a poetic movement that echoes the preoccupation of Mud Settles with greater compression. By selecting short phrases Barnett focuses attention both on the individual words, their most obvious social meaning as well as their other possible meanings. There are twenty numbered units each comprising a few words that carry some reference to a social and domestic life and the elemental and natural world. Significantly, they are shorn of references to historical time and place is located through reference to minimal detail, 'The Corsican pine’, 'drift wood’, 'Sandalwood’, 'Salt’ and 'The gull’. The sequence moves through the domestic, with an unidentified addressee, to an implicitly alienated social and political world through a series of perceptual and psychological moments. As exact relationships are only implied by tenuous possibility the openness of the poetry is held through the bulk of the sequence. It is perhaps let down by reliance upon the use of the unmediated pronoun 'we’ that leads to an ultimate closure. However, there is a haunting beauty to the sequence that holds a firm grip on the reader.
tremble for another.
For a moment, and
for another moment.
We know and we understand
without knowing the burden.
We say you are a friend
who understands. (page 116)
The following sequence A White Mess (1981) is perhaps less successful with its use of a telling rather than showing narrative self. Contemplative of spring, a first person narrative self looks at the world and a disrupted other. There is less mediation and more ellipsis producing a partial imbalance. Little Stars And Straw Breasts (1993) returns to the familiar territory of distance and disrupted communication between a narrative self and other, in this case a lover. Here forty-two units of 4-9 lines employing from 6-20 words, mostly around 12-16 words, allow some tight metonymical writing to be unleashed. The spaces between each unit allows not only duration, the passing of time, but also a crucial movement beyond the previous unit in spatial terms as well. The gradual filtering of detail in each unit produces a cumulative impact and power. Barnett also takes advantage of the structure to add commentary outside the narrative action that draws in other levels of reference.
Doesn’t the etymology
of two symbols sound
sound as (metonymically)
a pair of cymbals?
Then a great clash.
Carp and Rubato (1995) embraces a fuller line and prose. Whilst it lacks the convergence of earlier work it does show a development in his use of form and music, as in 'Aching Bones’:
In sufficient shelter, in sufficient space. Your
symmetry, your chance, your perfect alibi, your
lame excuse. Silent, incoherent properties of rock.
Upset and set up. Welcoming, unwelcoming.
Aroma, Aurora. Flowers. Flares. (page 199)
Barnett’s late 1990s work shows much more reliance upon prose and is less dramatic. Some of the subsequent poems published for the first time show a return to the qualities upon which Barnett’s reputation in based. Here is 'Often By A River’:
Under the rose
Mistakes and I cup my face in my hands
Often where a river
Guilty of reeds and olive stupidity
Turns and runs
Locked and looked up
You are so lovely
Always clearing the throat (page 243)
Barnett is undoubtedly at his best an inspiring poet and one whose stature may well continue to grow. The weakness in his poetry is the use of an unmediated narrative self without a wider context to its unreliability or alienation from itself or others. There is also an occasional reliance upon the prosaic and rhetorical. Its great strength is its openness to the world. It is in this sense child-like and alive. It offers students an opportunity to examine relationships to language and to see the stark richness and potential of small units of language. There are no difficult words and meanings here.
They do not harden for us.
The wind rips the branches.
Sighs, and sighs
Turning into mother blackbirds. (page 117)
It is entirely possible to follow the lesions, edges, juxtapositions that Barnett utilises to reach a notion of what the poems mean. There are some poems that resist immediate meaning through the sheer joy of their music and openness. It is also possible through these poems to conceive of the world as a set of shortened or inexplicable connections and struggles. Such a world-view is not entirely inimical to the current generation of texting teenagers.
The Use of English 57.1 Autumn 2005, 80-84 © The English Association 2005
Philip Larkin: The Poet's Plight by James Booth (Palgrave MacMillan, £45)
James Booth is a renowned Larkin scholar whose major credits include as author, the excellent Philip Larkin: Writer; as editor and contributor, the resplendent New Larkins For Old; and as editor and excavator, Trouble At Willow Gables And Other Fictions. Unsurprisingly, therefore, A Poet's Plight is as densely knowledgeable as wide-ranging, invariably illuminating, and in all a most welcome addition to that growth industry, Larkin Studies.
He opens by dwelling on the word 'plight' as signifying both 'commitment' and 'manner of being, condition, state', going on to declare his prime aim – that of contextualising Larkin's poetry in a variety of ways while remaining concerned 'first and foremost with Larkin's texts' (my emphasis). When this applies, which it does for the most part, the results are invigorating and deeply incisive. However, there are other times when the determination to put Larkin's poems in some kind of immediate personal context leads to a limiting, even cramped exegesis of the works themselves. While he steers clear of the kind of literal-mindedness that tarnishes much of Andrew Motion's literary interpretation during A Writer's Life, Booth at times seems uncomfortably determined to domesticate the poetry that has spoken so directly to so many readers and in so many different ways. More on that later.
In an early insight Booth's draws attention to the prodigious number of participles in Larkin's poetry, prompting the deduction that he 'responds to life as a transient process rather than as fixed entity.' That attitude underscores the line in Dockery And Son' which follows the (in)famous 'Life is first boredom, then fear' – 'Whether or not we use it, it goes.' Its surrounding bleakness notwithstanding, I have always heard that line as fundamentally affirmative, indicating that life is for living, for using. The same credo lies at the heart of 'Days' and (though many may demur) both 'Toads' and 'Toads Revisited'. As Booth demonstrates, both directly and obliquely, Larkin was actually highly successful in 'using' his time on earth - be it as poet; scholarly and prolific writer of prose; deceptively inspiring and dynamic Librarian; lover; friend; colleague. He knew how to begin 'afresh, afresh, afresh', no matter how glum the face he often chose to present to the world.
Moreover, such matters reveal how deceptive, even crafty, Larkin could be in his use of mask and persona. Booth is suitably tart about the poet's claim that 'Form holds little interest for me. Content is everything,' calling it 'either the most misleading judgment any artist has made on his own work, or …startling proof of the truism that form is content.' This is masterly criticism, and if I favour the former explanation, that is because it can be coupled with arguably the most disingenuous assertion Larkin made in his entire career: 'There's not much to say about my work. When you've read a poem, that's it, it's quite clear what it all means' (Required Writing, 53-4).
Booth is equally adept in drawing attention to Larkin's antipathy to the 'poetry reading' as an event and, further, his conviction that poetry is more a private than a public medium anyway: poems should be dwelt on at the reader's own speed, engaging brain, emotion and above all the inner ear. Booth's appraisal of the poems always impresses when he does just that, which occurs with satisfying frequency. He soon compels brain and heart on 'Aubade,' 'Going' and 'Money'; later - in what I consider the two finest chapters, 'Poetic Histories' and 'Living Rooms' - he provides a wealth of detailed commentary on 'Large Cold Store', 'Solar', 'Livings', 'Here', 'The Whitsun Weddings' (especially fine) and 'Poetry of Departures'.
So far, so very good indeed. But chapters three and four are problematic and uncomfortably contentious. Here Booth is minded to explore Larkin's relationships with various women, investigating thereby their direct impact on certain poems. 'Loves and Muses I' posits the translation of 'Life into Art,' exploring Larkin's relationships with his mother, Ruth Bowman, Winifred Arnott and Patsy Strang; 'Love and Muses II' extends the practice to his later, long-term affairs with Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan, and what is termed the poet's 'Late Fling' with Betty Mackereth. Though the text is never less than interesting and impeccably researched, two things about it prompt unease. First, the majority of the poems offered in evidence are by no means top-flight Larkin, and even when they are, Booth rarely addresses them with the fierce cogency that distinguishes so much of his analysis elsewhere.
Second, the avowed intent to contextualise Larkin's poetry in this way is less than successful; indeed, in several instances it strikes me as simply a mistake. Though far from Larkin's finest piece, 'This Be The Verse' is about rather more than his relationship with his own mother, just as 'Love Songs In Age' transcends her particular experience, moving though that dimension is. Still more reductive is the notion that 'The Old Fools' and the superb 'The Building' are chiefly to do with Eva Larkin's growing senility; here unease gives way to bewilderment, as it does when Booth identifies the emotional provenance of 'The Whitsun Weddings', 'Afternoons', 'Here' and 'Essential Beauty' as rooted in Larkin's relationship with Maeve Brennan. That may be so; however, it does not follow that these poems are most revealingly 'explained' in the light of such biographical information, nor that such a context is why 'a large faction of Larkin's readers' consider these poems 'his most satisfying poetic achievement.' It is not just that 'faction' is a bizarre choice: both aesthetically and teleologically the judgment fails to persuade or enlighten.
From time to time Booth bravely and fair-mindedly offers contrary interpretations from the people involved. He records Winifred Arnott's rejection of the reading which 'Lines On A Young Lady's Photograph Album' might appear to invite, and also that she fervently denied that she and Larkin had indulged in any 'Flirtation' (Booth's sub-title for this section). Even more significant is Larkin's own declaration, 'I don't really equate poems with real life as most people do – I mean they are true in a way, but very much dolled up and censored.' Booth quotes this at the end of the lengthy, often less than persuasive section 'The Long Courtship'; he does so without any detectable awareness that such lexical complexity might subvert his governing line.
As telegraphed, things pick up almost spectacularly well for the remaining three chapters. Booth suavely demolishes hostile misreadings by such as Eagleton and Alvarez; he is vigorously sceptical about Larkin's alleged membership of the 1950s 'The Movement', observing that Larkin was 'wary of the label' and that the poets concerned were highly disparate. As a considerable bonus, his appreciation of 'Spring' provides a splendid counter to the narrow 'Englishness' still often associated with Larkin; as Booth concludes, 'There is 'nothing here to suggest any particular date … nor even England.' Best of all, he furnishes masterly critiques of 'Church Going' and 'Show Saturday'; in the latter he is trenchantly agnostic about either its elegiac thrust or the celebratory quality others have discerned in it, and I wholly concur.
The Poet's Plight ends with a consideration of Larkin as elegist, finding that mode fundamental to his oeuvre; those who may not agree will still find an abundance of insights into 'Ambulances', 'Next, Please', 'Deceptions' and 'Arundel Tomb'. But the chapter's most riveting moment is provided by John Bayley:
If I am feeling really low I often read 'Aubade' or 'The Building', and they have an immediate and bracing tonic effect: however perverse the process might seem, they at once raise my spirits.
Booth might have dwelt on the remark more than he does, for it surely points to something fundamental. Martin Amis once observed that 'Good literature is incapable of depressing anyone,' by which he meant (as implicitly does Bayley) that a poem, drama or novel that is truly well-wrought will invigorate and even cheer, simply because of what Hopkins in 'The Windhover' called 'the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!'. That explains why a good production of Medea, King Lear or Death of a Salesman will exhilarate, no matter how forlorn or even abject the final vision offered. Larkin at his finest – and there is so much of that – instils the same satisfied pleasure in being alive and able to absorb material that testifies to human accomplishment at its highest.
It is that phenomenon which prompts my reservations about Booth's contextualisation strategy, his many strengths and felicities notwithstanding. Larkin once famously said, 'Don't confuse me with the poems: I'm bigger than they are.' That may very well be true in a variety of ways; so, however, is the approximately palindromic, 'Don't confuse the poems with Larkin's life: they are bigger – and wider – than that was.' Another fine Larkin critic, Jonathan Smith, remarked of his first reading of High Windows, 'He spoke to me.' More than any ingenious contextualisation or 'inside knowledge', it is that directness, that ability to engage heterogenous readers of all ages and most circumstances that explains Larkin's timeless appeal and indeed his greatness. A hundred years from now few readers will know - or care - about what Larkin's family and lovers were like and how they affected him. But the poems will continue to 'speak to' and enrich their consciousness as they do ours.
The Use of English 57.3 Summer 2006, 235-239 © The English Association 2006
Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990 by Ian Brinton (C.U.P. £8.50).
This text is part of a series designed for advanced students and has an ambitious aim in attempting to introduce the minefield that poetry has become since 1990. Ian Brinton’s necessarily selective take on the period is engaging in the way it presents particular preferences and passions as well as a thorough knowledge of the contemporary scene with regards to journals, self publishing, online publishing, and the like. Added to this he covers key political events of the nineties: the Blair years, 9/11, Invasion of Iraq, Foot and Mouth to explore the interaction of poetry and politics. In all these respects it is a valuable text not only for A level students and undergraduates but also anyone interested in publishing their own poetry.
He sets the scene in his introduction by offering us two texts as Virgilian Guides: Peter Robinson’s Talk about Poetry: Conversations on the Art and Ruth Padel’s The Poem and the Journey. Robinson’s text provides a range of insightful discussions on the nature of poetry showing how in Robinson’s view poems arise from ‘the circumstances of life’ from its ‘ordinary events and occasions’. Padel’s text includes close analysis of over sixty poems. These texts are drawn on at intervals to assist Brinton in explaining to students how to cope with poetry’s complexity stressing the need for close reading of the words on the page. In the introduction he also brings readers right up to date with the poetry scene by outlining the impact the internet has had on publishing – in particular the use of podcasts – as well as the revolution in publishing created by the two major print-on-demand (POD) publishers, Shearsman and Salt who now dominate the market in this area. He finally draws attention to the importance of the musical qualities of poetry when analyzing poetry not to mention the necessary connection between sound and silence – the words and the spaces between the words.
From here he divides the text into six sections: one and two provide an account of key influences on contemporary poetry along with drawing attention to a range of genre: war poetry, women’s poetry, black poetry and poetry in translation; part three offers a sampling of poets and their work to illustrate the different genres; four looks at ways critics approach poetry; five discusses approaches to writing about poetry and the final section offers useful resources and references. Throughout the text Brinton shows himself aware of his key audience in that he opens each section with a series of bullet point questions to be addressed in the chapter and concludes with helpful extended writing assignments to consolidate what has been discussed.
Part one is the most densely informative section of the text and the one that clearly reflects Brinton’s own interests, something of an insider’s knowledge of the current state of contemporary poetry. He begins by charting the towering presence of T.S. Eliot and his hugely influential The Waste Land (1922), placing Eliot side by side with the influence of Dante – ‘the cornerstone of European culture’ – as evidenced by the sheer volume of Dante translations. From here he then contrasts those who reacted against Eliot’s Dantean Europeanism such as William Carlos Williams (1812-1963) and others who were more concerned with ‘an awareness of the value of ordinary moments and the emotional importance of the everyday’ along with a focus not on ideas but in things conveyed in precise language. An additional criticism such writers had of Eliot was his distance from American technology, something well reflected in Williams’ long poem Paterson. Brinton then goes on to discuss some examples of the sharply observed images of the political poet George Oppen (1908-1984), which give an eerie immediacy to some of Oppen’s nuclear images. From here he moves on to the other towering twentieth influence, that of Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and by way of example describes how it was felt by Charles Tomlinson as a student at Cambridge in the forties – a connection that gives a nice intimacy to Brinton’s account of these wide-ranging cultural Anglo-American interactions. Pound played a major role in further promoting concise sharply defined poems and this growing trend was ultimately to lead the poets Williams, Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsy to form a group called Objectivists, poets whose influence is also clearly reflected in the work of Charles Tomlinson.
There are both strengths and weaknesses in the final section of the first chapter as Brinton attempts to bring the reader up to the present. He is clearly extremely knowledgeable about current journals and the kind of poetry their editors like. He thus gives some interesting insights into the progression of contemporary poetry, ones particularly useful for writers. This said his attempts to categorize poetry into mainstream versus modernist/avant-garde occasionally get a little lost in the telling. Ironically, this is made all the more apparent because his detailed survey actually provides a range of poets and viewpoints that don’t quite accommodate this black and white division. It might have been more useful to present a scale that ranges from poetry that is performance or populist, onto more complex traditional writing with avant-garde and experimental writing at the other end, and even here such a scale has it limitations, since performance poetry can also be complex just as some experimental verse can ultimately offer us less than meets the eye.
What does come through glaringly clear is what has always been the poetry world’s darker side: the inevitable in-fighting. Particularly useful is his examination of the impact of certain texts, in particular anthologies in reflecting key affiliations. He notes the controversial appearance of Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1972) where Davie argues for Hardy as the most important poet, rather than Eliot (or indeed Yeats or Lawrence – both notably absent from Brinton’s survey) for contemporary poetry. For Davie it was Hardy’s ‘world of specific places at specific times’ that impacted on poets like Douglas Dunn and Philip Larkin. Drawing on Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars, British Poetry and the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court, he outlines the clash between modernists and traditionalists where radical poets of the 1960s and 70s drew inspiration from American poets. He provides a useful survey of the range of contemporary anthologies showing how they divide broadly into the two camps. In this respect he draws our attention to another important group that moves away from the traditional, that of the 1950s Black Mountain School led by Charles Olson describing its central tenets as: ‘ the world of different viewpoints, competing discourses, fragmented perceptions and memories. It becomes a type of collage that goes beyond offering the single viewpoint of an observer’. This theory was to have a large impact on the poets Andrew Crozier, Lee Harwood and J.H. Prynne.
In chapter two, Brinton moves on to analyzing specific texts. He provides discussion points for students at numerous points in the analysis. He starts by exploring the nature of meaning in poetry, what he sets forth as ‘the mundane versus magic’ by establishing the interplay of understanding and imagination. From here he moves through a range of genre. His discussion of women’s poetry is largely focused on women’s poetry from a feminist perspective. He suggests that women’s concerns about how their identity is molded by society’s attitude towards women that has led many of them to focus on dramatic monologues as well as myth and fairytale in their poetry. He cites Deryn Rees-Jones view in Consorting with Angels, Essays on Modern Women Poets (2005) to support this idea: ‘the monologue works as a place in which the unstable selfhood of the female poet can comfortably reside, providing a position which problematises and at the same time explores issues of gender, and identity’. This is a rather limiting perspective on women’s poetry and perhaps one that may have led a poet such as Elizabeth Bishop to refuse to be included in anthologies exclusively for women in order, presumably, to be regarded as a poet rather than a ‘woman’ poet, but given the limitations of Brinton’s space one can understand his focus and at least it is an improvement on Anthony Thwaite’s earlier study Poetry Today: A Critical Guide to British Poetry 1960-1995 where he includes a chapter casually entitled ‘Some Women’.
Of the remaining three genres the one on war is really good for bringing this topic right up to date for the student. Brinton draws on Todd Swift’s anthology 100 Poets Against the War (2003) where Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ is discussed before looking at some more recent war poetry. Thus we have Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’, his response to the photograph of the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier during the First Gulf War in 1991. Brinton draws on other poems from this anthology as well as other useful background to the period that it provides. He brings a balanced view to the topic by covering a range of different stances to war. His discussion of poetry in translation largely focuses on the interest of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes in this area, as well as bringing the topic back to the large interest poets have in translating Dante. For his discussion of black poetry he makes ample use of Alistair Niven’s essay ‘Black Men’s Poetry in Britain’ poetry. One key difference that Niven notes from white British poetry of the same period is the fact that it comes from an oral tradition. He also draws attention to the earlier issue regarding women’s poetry: Niven, in noting black poets’, ‘acute problems of gaining recognition by the arbiters of equality’ looks forward to the time when the adjective ‘black’ will become redundant: ‘Derek Walcott, after all, has commented that no one ever called him a black poet until he received the Nobel Prize, whereupon it became obligatory!’
In the remainder of the text Brinton includes a nice range of material mainly, but not exclusively, from the poets discussed in his opening chapters. Rather than providing long reading lists he is far more helpful in that he provides useful synopses of a more selective range of books of criticism that he considers useful. He lets us in on all the key players regarding journals and offers a list of very useful websites. Overall, in places, this text is a little too specialised for students just embarking on advanced studies, but its strength lies in Brinton’s passionate, quite quirky engagement with the area and it is ultimately the feeling that he is an insider, providing us with a take on the current scene that may be changing as we speak, that makes this such an appealing text. It could certainly be a must on all the creative writing courses that are currently around.
The Use of English 60.3 Summer 2009, 258-262 © The English Association 2009
Soul Keeping Company by Lucie Brock-Broido (Carcanet £9.95)
Soul Keeping Company is the first UK publication of work by Lucie Brock-Broido, an American poet who was born in 1956 in Pittsburgh. It contains a generous sampling of poetry taken in more or less equal measure from her three collections, A Hunger (1988), The Master Letters (1995) and Trouble In Mind (2004). Having held various academic positions in American universities, she is now Director of Poetry in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. She has also been the recipient of major awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This new selected edition opens with the intriguingly titled, ‘Domestic Mysticism’. It is a dazzling tour de force which, on first reading, seems both weirdly impressive and bewildering. However, as with many of her poems, Brock-Broido has supplied an explanatory note which gives the reader a helpful insight into her ways of ‘making strange’. The footnoting of poems may be a contentious issue, but it must be admitted that her brief references to Herodotus, Empedocles and the cycles of reincarnation do at least enable the reader to make some sense of a poem which might otherwise remain impenetrable:
In thrice 10,000 seasons, I will come back to this world
In a white cotton dress. Kingdom of After My Own Heart.
Kingdom of Fragile. Kingdom of Dwarves. When I come home,
Teacups will quiver in their Dresden saucers, pentatonic chimes
Will move in wind. A covey of alley cats will swarm on the side
Porch & perch there, portents with quickened heartbeats
You will feel against your ankles as you pass through.
From the outset one sees that Brock-Broido has no qualms in using language that is highly wrought. There is the wilful archaism of ‘thrice 10,000 seasons’ and the artful rhetoric of her list of ‘Kingdoms’, whilst at the same time she can also be precise and objective in her delightful description of teacups. Although her tendency towards mannerist extravagance may not be to everyone’s taste, it cannot be denied that she does also have a good instinct for the musicality of language as evidenced in the stanza’s closing sentence, where syntax twists and turns as lithely as the cats she evokes. Through the poem’s seven massive stanzas her Whitmanesque flow is ‘refracted’ (to use one of her favoured terms) through the elegance and the preciosity of Wallace Stevens, one of her avowed influences. With little interest in the merely quotidian, she would seem to be placing herself in the Orphic tradition of poets such as Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas or Allen Ginsberg, all of whom in their different ways assume, sometimes rather self-consciously, the mantle of le voyant. Combining the role of poet with that of a seeress, Brock-Broido creates a haunted, feverish world which might well appeal to those countless readers of Tolkien-inspired fantasy or the gothic novels of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. It is a world of ‘dyed velvet’, ‘orchids’, ‘minstrels’, ‘wizards’, ‘owls’, ‘the queer light left when a room snuffs out’.
Defining her poetic terrain and setting the tone for much of the work that follows, ‘Domestic Mysticism’ is also, like many of the poems in her first book, a dramatic monologue. In some ways reminiscent of the early work of that brilliant, but now largely forgotten figure, George McBeth, they are poems in which enigmatic characters find themselves in extreme situations, and which would often be inaccessible were it not for the poets’ notes. In ‘Domestic Mysticism’ the protagonist refers to him/herself as ‘a witness & a small thing altogether’. This is a phrase which could be applied to several of Brock-Broido’s alter egos. ‘Birdie Africa’ is about a real child, Oyewulffe Momar Puim, who from the age of two was brought up in a religious cult and was one of only two people who survived when the cult’s headquarters were firebombed by the police:
My father calls me Wolf.
He says that I will see things other people will not see
at night. When he holds me, heat comes out
of his big arms & I belong to him.
In the cold of Christmastime he rocks
me in his deep lap in the great shadow of a comforter.
An analogous figure appears in ‘Edward VI on the Seventh Day’, where the sickly and introspective boy prince is, by way of contrast, in awe of his overbearing father: ‘I am, by far, too fair for him. / He is dark & brilliant with a temper, fire / I am airy, scampering.’ ‘Jesssica, from the Well’ is based on the story of Jessica McClure, an eighteen-month-old girl, who fell into a well and survived for 58 hours until she was rescued. Apparently she had no ‘psychological scarring, no memory of the event.’ However, the five pages of her soliloquy do seem an improbable outpouring for so young a child. The theatricality of Brock-Broido’s work may usefully be highlighted by comparing ‘And So Long, I’ve Had You Fame’, her poem about the death of Marilyn Monroe, with Sharon Olds’ poem on the same subject, where ‘ The ambulance men touched her cold / body, lifted it, heavy as iron, / onto the stretcher […].’ Olds’ evocation of the stark actuality of a dead body could not be further removed from Brock-Broido’s more idealised vision:
How odd that she would die into an August
night, I would have thought
she would have gone out in a pale clear
night of autumn, covered to the shoulder
in an ivory sheet, hair
fanned out across the pillow perfectly.
Largely written while she was in her twenties, A Hunger is by any standard an astonishingly precocious debut and one which seems to have left the poet exhausted. In an interview with Carole Maso for BOMB Magazine in 1995 she recounts how, shortly after its publication, she visited her ‘prophet-teacher’, Stanley Kunitz, confessing to him: ‘That’s it for me. I have nothing left.’ It would be seven years before her second collection, The Master Letters, was to appear. In ‘A Preamble to The Master Letters’ she explains how the genesis of this collection is to be found in three mysterious letters that turned up amongst Emily Dickinson’s papers after her death. Two of the letters are addressed to a ‘Dear Master’. The third is addressed to ‘a Recipient Unknown’. It is not clear whether they were drafts of letters which Dickinson ever sent or intended to send, or whether they were simply literary creations. The ‘Master’ may have been one of her known correspondents, a lover, or maybe even God. In Brock-Broido’s words these letters are ‘gracious, sometimes nearly erotic, worshipful documents, full of Dickinson’s dramas of entreaty & intimacy […].’ Her own poems, which are written either in prose or in loose couplets, she describes as ‘a series of latter-day Master Letters’ which ‘echo formal & rhetorical devices from Dickinson’s work.’ In Brock-Broido’s reworkings ‘the Master […] began as a Fixed star’ who ‘took on the fractured countenance of a composite portrait […].’ The ‘Speaker’ became ‘a brood of voice – a flock of women with Dickinson as mistress of the skein, the spinning wheel, the Queen Domestic, composed and composing, as she did, from her looms & room & seclusion.’ She explains finally how the ‘Speaker’, like the ‘Master’, also became for her a composite figure as ‘Raids on other work began – Sappho, Bradsheet, Brontë, Akhmatova, Plath. Then, a lustrum into the composition, I signed a poem –L.’
Brock-Broido waxes lyrical to such a degree in her enthusiasm for these letters that one might hesitate to enquire what all this really amounts to, lest it should seem bad manners. Nevertheless, there is something unsettling and even irksome in the poet’s use of that highly charged classical term ‘lustrum’, which implies a too complacent assumption of the role of visionary, when really all she means is ‘some time later’. More worryingly, one has to wonder why she needs to ‘raid’ the work of so many others before she tentatively signs one of the letters in her own name. Her poem ‘Also, None Among Us Has Seen God’ is fairly representative of the collection:
My Most Courteous Lord –
The Teutons have their word for keeping Quiet which our blessing
Language does not have. To say nothing of – Agone, to say nothing
Of the monk who set himself ablaze, in autumn hair & all, the ravish
& wool of him, the mourning & the sweetest smell of him – Alive –
How did you teach the learning of this Holding & the holding
Back – To say nothing of Ago, obedience, the hiding in
The feral peace of speaking Not, the root & oath of it –
Old as a prehistoric furrow horse abed in awe & sediment,
Curled on his runic side, in the shape of an O, broken. Wake
Is agape, an outskirt of agony, blouse-white and bad – To say
Nothing of the nook of sleep – which is the ravage in the chamois night-
Sweat of your raff & shames, the fevers of a minor fire, the rage
Or punishment, the Agapé, the kerosene & bone-red rag.
That was the best moment of his life. The burning down.
As we have now come to expect, this poem has an explanatory note. However, like most of the notes to The Master Letters, it merely indicates a source, so that we learn that the title of this poem derives from a line in Archibald McLeish’s poem ‘Epistle to Be Left in the Earth’. Brock-Broido’s use of it as her title promises a great deal and it does seem fairly clear that the poem is about the self-immolation of a monk and the ‘Speaker’s’ identification with him. However, where does the poet stand in all this, or does it matter? The poem’s salutation seems little more than a literary game, as is the hit and miss capitalization, the disjointed syntax, both of which derive from Dickinson. The opening lines are portentous but don’t really make any obvious sense, while the ‘Teutons’ seem dragged in to give that medieval gloss that the poet is so keen on. ‘Runic’ is used later in the poem to the same end. The wordplay between ‘Agone’ and ‘Ago’, ‘agape’ and ‘Agapé’ is laboured, whilst the repetition of the phrase ‘To say nothing of’ runs the risk of bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down. Death and transcendence, the prospect of union with a supreme being – these are hugely ambitious themes. Unfortunately, one is not convinced that the poet has the means at her disposal to deal adequately with them.
Brock-Broido’s most recent collection, Trouble in Mind, appeared in 2004, nine years after its predecessor. Its sombre, bluesy title refers to the fact that in the interim she had lost both her parents. However, her uneasy coming to terms with mortality and the ravages of time had already been hinted at in lines from that signature poem ‘Domestic Mysticism’, which she had published by the time she was barely thirty: ‘In the next millennium, I will be middle aged. I do not do well / In the marrow of things. Kingdom of Trick. Kingdom of Drug.’ In ‘After Raphael’ we sense that the poet is making a conscious attempt to restrain some of the effusiveness of her previous work and to adopt a more sober style appropriate to the expression of grief:
Perhaps it isn’t possible to say these things
Out loud without the noir
Of ardor and its plain-spoken elegance.
First, my father died. Then my mother
Did. My father died again.
After the strange storm they were ruined down
From the boughs.
There were apples everywhere.
Even here one has doubts and has to question her use of ‘noir’, which inescapably suggests a certain style of cinematic thriller. Why is it coupled with ‘ardor’, which seems a strange word to use in the context of mourning? Again one feels that the writer may be striking a pose. After a brief perusal of her ubiquitous notes, one is struck by something even more disconcerting. The titles of several of these poems are ‘titles’ which our poet has ‘adapted’ from a list of several hundred which she found in Pieces of Paper, a private notebook in which Wallace Stevens concocted a list of titles for poems he never wrote. This is a surprisingly circuitous way for a mature poet to deal with personal angst and grief. One such poem is ‘Still Life with Aspirin’ in which the poet seems to be coming to terms with the possibility of an afterlife, a notion which her more rational self has been taught to consider improbable:
There she was, the mother of me, like a lit plinth,
Heavenly, though I was reared to find this kind
Of visitation impractical; she was an unbearable detail
Of the supreme celestial map,
Of which I had been taught that there
was no such thing.
One has no reason to question the emotion that informs these lines. Regrettably, however, it is almost immediately diffused by the donnish tone and the condescension of those that follow:
Stevens wrote that
For a poem to be true, it must “come from an Ever.”
If you don’t fathom that, then you should not be reading this.
Brock-Broido is not a poet to whom one can easily remain indifferent. In her interview with Carole Maso she quotes Zbigniew Herbert, in making a distinction between two types of poet. There is ‘the ox’ who ‘is plodding and deliberate’ and ‘the cat – who’s sleek and nocturnal […].’ Brock-Broido, unsurprisingly, assigns herself to the latter category. In a further comparison between herself, Frank Bidart and Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate is left to pursue his honest labours amongst the lumbering oxen. In her own way, Brock-Broido is of course merely reiterating a long-established dichotomy between Classicism and Romanticism, or Nietzsche’s distinction between the ‘Apollonian’ and the ‘Dionysian’. Fearless and ambitious, Ms Brock-Broido’s poetry is a high wire act in which she pushes language to its limits. It will be seen by some as inspired, whilst others may dismiss it as incoherent.
The Use of English 62.2 Spring 2011, 163-169 © The English Association 2011
Briggflatts, by Basil Bunting. (Bloodaxe Books, £12)
As an undergraduate in the early 70s, writing a lot of Yeats-and-water, I was recommended by a wise friend to read Bunting. I bought the Collected Poems, published by Stuart Montgomery’s Fulcrum Press and failed to understand much, but realised I was not a poet. The Zen-like first line of Chomei at Toyama, with its image of movement in stillness, struck however, ‘Swirl sleeping in the waterfall!’ and this was the poem I kept returning to. Much later, coming across Thom Gunn’s brilliant essay from the 90s, What the Slowworm Said, I went back to Briggflatts and finally began to see the point of its dense complexities. It is a poetry that, as Gunn says, compresses the world, and is full of specifics. When I taught it recently to a group of sixth formers, an intrigued student counted fifty-six different creatures in its 700 lines, from the bull and the slowworm, to vultures, anemones, ferrets and maggots.
It was Yeats who, on meeting the young Bunting in Rapallo in the late 20s, had described him as one of Pound’s ‘more savage disciples’, a reference presumably to the enthusiasm of his poetic discipleship than to any personal savagery, though there is something aggressively self-conscious about Bunting’s image-making at the time, judging from contemporary photographs. In the composure of old age, Bunting was to say that he had learnt as much from Spenser and Wordsworth as from Pound, though his reputation as the English language’s last, great Modernist rightly persists. His short masterly poem On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos wittily expresses both the mess and the magnificence of the Master’s huge poem, while identifying himself with the ‘cranks’ ready to climb its Alpine crags to see what texts the ice has left on the rock.
Words scraped on rock or carved into slate: ‘Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write.’ The image in the first section of Briggflatts is associated with the mason father of the protagonist’s early love. He is carving a name (‘naming none,/ a man abolished’) on a tombstone and then he and the lovers travel by horse and cart through Garsdale and Hawes to set it on a grave. That night the boy and the girl make love by the cottage range. We now know that she was called Peggy Greenbank and was the sister of the friend who brought Bunting from Leighton Park School to the small Cumbrian village of Brigflatts (with one g) where his deep affection for its Quaker meeting, and his fascination with the Dales and the Viking Eric Bloodaxe, began. He calls the poem ‘An Autobiography’, and dedicates it ‘To Peggy’, and in the splendid new Bloodaxe edition there is a picture of her sitting in the grass outside her family’s cottage, looking wistful and pretty.
Briggflatts is not this kind of autobiography however, not as Bunting says ‘a record of facts’ about his life, though it follows that particular life’s trajectory and the reader is certainly helped by knowing something about Bunting’s experiences and ideas. Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, has produced an invaluable 26-page digest of the life, liberally scattered with photographs, as an accompaniment to the poem. Amusingly he prefaces it with a typically cagey statement by Bunting to the effect that ‘My autobiography is Briggflatts – there’s nothing else worth speaking about.’ It brings together material from two sources not easily obtainable any more: Richard Caddell’s Basil Bunting: a northern life, and the critical biography by Sister Victoria Forde, based on Bunting’s extensive correspondence with her. When I first tried to read the poem none of this material was available, and although I listened to the sound, as Bunting continually emphasised that the reader should, understanding of the sense was limited. Having the source material to hand in the one edition makes the poem much more accessible to both the resourceful student and the general reader. The text of the poem itself looks as clean and beautiful on the page as it did when first published in 1966 by the Fulcrum press. This will make an excellent edition for teaching.
‘The truth of the poem,’ Bunting adds to his cautionary observation about hunting for autobiographical facts, ‘is of another kind.’ The nearest he ever got to unveiling it was in a short note left in typescript until some years after his death and then only published in a limited edition by the Bunting Archive at Durham University. It now appears as the first of several fascinating appendices in the Bloodaxe edition. It begins unpromisingly enough by telling the reader that Briggflatts needs no explanation and, once again, that the meaning is to be found in the ‘sound of the words spoken aloud.’ But Bunting goes on more helpfully to outline the structure of the five-part poem: love and betrayal in the spring of life (in a letter to his friend Zukofsky he wrote that the poem would be about ‘what happens when one deliberately thrusts love aside’), the disasters attendant on ambition and the forcing of destiny (summer), autumn as a time of retraction and reflection and finally the winter of (Lear-like) acceptance in old age. Representing these emotional, ultimately spiritual, perspectives of a human life are historical figures, the key among them Bloodaxe, Alexander, Aneurin and Cuthbert. Alexander, specifically the Persian version of him, comes in the extraordinary central section, the only part not governed by one of the seasons. In an interview (also reproduced in this edition) Bunting had scribbled a diagram to clarify the poem’s shape: it looks like a mountain range, two sets of double-peaked mountains on either side of a taller peak, rising to the centre on one side and falling away on the other. The central peak has a line drawn down the middle, indicating the turning point of the poem, as Alexander’s world-conquering ambition turns to the (quite unhistorical) realisation that ‘man is contemptibly nothing and yet may live content in humility.’ That is the cue for the most accessible and attractive passage in the poem, the slowworm’s song, an ecstatic celebration, in language of bared lyricism, of life stripped to essentials. The rhythms of the poetry enact the swaying movements of the slowworm and its delighted sense of the whole of nature, wheat, seeds, wind, dancing with it. The last two sections of the poem are permeated by an almost Franciscan awareness of nature and the physical universe as the poet returns from his unquiet wanderings to his Northumbrian home, except of course the consciousness is not the Italian’s but the northern Saint Cuthbert’s, ‘who saw God in everything.’
Reading Bunting’s note again I am struck by its profoundly spiritual sensibility, not quite Christian (he describes the philosophy of Eliot’s Four Quartets as ‘the mystical Christianity that nineteenth century theologians brewed from a mash squeezed from Plotinus’!) but undoubtedly formed by his experience, as a child and in later life, with the Quakers. The 700 word essay ends movingly with a denial that we can ever know anything about where we are or why (the idea expressed in Briggflatts’ Coda) but that in silence (and how Bunting would have been baffled by the ubiquitous noise of our contemporary lives) ‘we can detect the pulse of God’s blood in our veins.’ This hesitant credo is humbly but exactly expressed, and it is wonderful to see it printed in conjunction with the text of the poem, whether or not that was ever Bunting’s intention.
Further appreciation of how the poet intended his poem to be received can of course be had by listening to him read it. In the Preface to the Collected Poems (not included here) he wrote that he had ‘set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence but to trace in the air a pattern of sound’ and with its publication, Fulcrum advertised a record (price 10/-) of Bunting reading. It now comes free as a CD with the new Bloodaxe edition. The exaggerated Northumbrian accent and the deliberate placing of every alliterated and internally-rhymed syllable does not make for easy listening (in the 1978 Agenda Special Issue on Bunting, the devil’s advocate was Peter Dale who wrote an article entitled Bunting and the Quonk and Groggle School of Poetry!). Much more illuminating is the film made for Channel 4 in 1982 (three years before Bunting’s death) in which Bunting also reads from and talks reflectively about Briggflatts but against the background of shots of the Meeting House itself, the River Rawthey singing its madrigal, a mason chipping at a grave stone, and all to a mosaic of recorded natural sounds and music (Scarlatti accompanies a tractor threshing hay in a field) relevant to the poem. It is a work of art in its own right and it too comes free as a DVD with the book. Even Bloodaxe’s cover, a reproduction of one of the letter pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, serves our understanding of the poem, the patterns of interweaving lines with animal bodies and heads reflecting Bunting’s sense of the interlocking unity of the universe, ‘splendour to splendour, excepting nothing that is.’
The Use of English 61.2, Spring 2010, 182-185 © The English Association 2010
Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems, edited by Colin Burrow. (OUP, £65.00).
The main purpose of Colin Burrow’s absorbing edition of The Complete Sonnets and Poems is to ask 'What sort of poet was Shakespeare?’ This would seem to be an obvious question, but it is one that in fact has not often been posed. To this end Burrow provides detailed and often revealing contextual materials in his Introduction, for example citing John Clapham’s 'highly Ovidian Latin poem’ Narcissus, in 1591 the first work dedicated to Southampton, as a pre-text for Shakespeare’s own Venus and Adonis, the second work of dedication to Wriothesley. (This name at the time was probably 'pronounced “Risely”’, Burrow informs us, so sadly dispelling any chance of puns on 'rose’ throughout the poetry.) Also as a means of reading Shakespeare’s poetry within its original context, Burrow reproduces all twenty poems of The Passionate Pilgrim, a rather shabby miscellany brought out by the stationer William Jaggard in 1598/9, and attributed to Shakespeare on the title page, though only five of the poems are confidently ascribed to him.
This pamphlet was 'clearly designed to exploit the excitement which surrounded the name of Shakespeare in that year’ . Burrow interestingly argues that the collection 'does give some indication of the kinds of works which could be sold as his at the height of his fame as a poet’ and Jaggard is redeemed, not as a thief and scoundrel, but as a 'sharp publisher and a shrewd reader’.  Burrow has a similarly fruitful reading of that unearthly lyric, 'Let the bird of loudest lay’, appended together with fourteen other poems to Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr in 1601. He argues that the poem’s grave abstraction might in part derive 'from the social and financial needs of a poet in this period, to write verses of praise which are both new and sufficiently abstract to … appeal to a number of patrons’, and beyond this, from careful thought 'about where Elizabethan poetry might move next’ .
Turning to the Sonnets, Burrow frames his reading of the sequence by arguing that it developed the procedures of Shakespeare’s earlier, narrative poems to a new level of sophistication, to 'a point at which one is not quite sure who is male and who is female, who is addressed or why, and what their respective social roles are’. Reading in this way, all the maddening questions about the protagonists who are involved within the emotional complications of the series become 'an enabling condition of the delighted mystification’ which the sonnets 'repeatedly invite’.  Burrow’s edition declines to feed an inflamed imagination with biographical guesswork, possible candidates, or even usual suspects, to fill out the cast list of the 1609 Sonnets and its dedication. By contrast, Katherine Duncan-Jones in her 1997 Arden edition takes a very biographical approach, and endorses William Herbert as the object of our sonneteer’s attentions. If this is what you want, then a very enjoyable version of the game is Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun, 'A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-life’, highly recommended, in a fantastical vein.
Burrow’s Oxford edition is beautifully designed, the Photina MT fount giving a lovely clarity to the text. The Sonnets are printed one-per-page, en face with a most helpful commentary. A recent study that is virtually a companion volume to Burrow’s edition is Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells’ Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2004) in the 'Oxford Shakespeare Topics’ series. Chapters deal with central issues such as 'Form’, 'Artistry’ and 'Concerns’ of the Sonnets, but also include original, even daring sections on 'The Sonnets in Relation to Shakespeare’s Life’, and 'The Sonnets as Theatre’. In order to test the quality of Burrow’s readings, I compared his commentary on the Sonnets with that of John Kerrigan’s Penguin edition of The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint from 1986. This was a major contribution to our reading of Shakespeare’s poetry – and drama, in fact – since Kerrigan was one of the first critics, even so late in the day, to call attention to the importance of that deeply strange poem, A Lover’s Complaint, which concludes Thomas Thorpe’s 1609 quarto of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Neuer before Imprinted. Burrow makes this very clear, describing Kerrigan as 'the first editor to see that the poem is integrally connected to the sonnet sequence it follows’  and so definitively dispelling any remaining doubts about the status of A Lover’s Complaint. Kerrigan is therefore a very hard act to follow. How do the editions compare in their analysis of the collection?
As Stanley Wells observed in his 1985 OUP edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 'A continuous reading of the sequence is not easy, partly because the closed form of the sonnet, with the finality of its concluding couplet, does not lead the mind forward, partly because there is no easy narrative sequence, partly because the mood changes so rapidly. Nor is it a comforting experience’. Both editions are in their different ways invaluable guides to this disconcerting poem-in-154-sonnets. Burrow maintains the common argument that Sonnets 1—17 form the opening manoeuvre of the sequence, in urging the youth to marry. Kerrigan, as so often, reads with an interestingly different emphasis, extending the first group to Sonnet 19, where 'the displacement of breeding by verse, begun in 15, is completed, and the poet feels able to defy Time on his own terms’ . Read in this way Sonnet 19 does seem to function as a strong marker, the poet now confident that his love 'shall in my verse live ever young’.
Kerrigan frequently offers two or more possible readings of lines and phrases, for example 43 line 4, 'bright in dark directed’, where Burrow gives one apparently secure paraphrase of the same line, though the reverse is the case with the troubling ambiguities of 53.14, 'But you like none, none you, for constant heart’, where Burrow offers three options, and Kerrigan privileges the comfortable choice, 'in constancy you exceed everybody, nobody can compare with you in that’. Kerrigan consistently offers more parallels from elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work, and from other texts. Kerrigan also suggests more of the near-philosophical acuity which some of the Sonnets attain. Of the wonderingly anguished 53, 'What is your substance, whereof are you made’, Kerrigan exactly captures the profound nature of this poem’s dilemma: 'One of the most fascinating things about this strand in the volume is its poet coming to realize that, though violently reversed metaphor preserves the particularity and being of the beloved, it denies the tenor of the world, and lets flattery in by the back door.’ 
Burrow’s more concise commentary is very helpful in suggesting thematic shifts and developments within the sequence of the Sonnets, small tonal accumulations that can crucially change the emotional range of the series, as we read through. So, the group from 43 'up to 48 deals in simpler antithetical concepts and more straightforward amorous relationships than 29—42’, and this seems a very accurate description, for example, of the archly antithetical 43, describing how the poet prefers to look on the beloved in sleep rather than in bright day, when his eyes, 'darkly bright, are bright in dark directed’. The refusal to note any fault is implicit, neither so anguished nor self-deceiving as 40. Of the 'rival poet’ series, 78—86, Burrow provides more parallels in near-contemporary sequences, and observes that other collections 'do occasionally attack scribbling rivals, although never at such length’. Of 94, an 'elusive poem … perhaps the most discussed in the collection’, whose 'ironies are almost inordinate’ (Kerrigan), there is a plain disagreement over the reading of lines 7—8:
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
Kerrigan argues that the antecedent of 'their’ is 'others’ only, while Burrow allows that the antecedent could be either 'others’ or the 'lords and owners’. Kerrigan does provide a lengthy and fascinating comparison of the sonnet with Act Two Scene One of Edward III, now attributed, with increasing confidence, at least in part to Shakespeare.
While Kerrigan’s edition is certainly more copious in providing alternative semantic readings, Burrow is more alert to possible number symbolism, even if this is not fully developed numerology. In commenting on Sonnet 60, Kerrigan misses an obvious numerological trick that is noted by Burrow: 'The sixtieth sonnet is concerned with the passage of minutes. Spenser’s Amoretti 60 is also rich in the passage of years’; nor does Kerrigan point out that 12 dwells on the hours of the day, as Burrow does. The span of life was generally allotted as seventy years, and Katherine Duncan-Jones has noted that Sonnet 71 may refer to this final rite of passage, 'No longer mourn for me when I am dead’. Burrow cites a persuasive article by René Graziani on symbolic numbering in the Sonnet sequence that links 63 to the early modern notion of the 'grand climacteric’, or main crisis in the human body’s development, which does accord with the theme of the poem, where the persona describes himself 'With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er-worn’. Sixty-three is also half-way through the 126 sonnets addressed to the fair youth. So, what is the result of this editorial contest? Perhaps that Kerrigan is the more brilliant, Burrow the more grounded of the two scholars. As such they provide perfect foils for what must be our unending reading of this extraordinary poet of drama.
The Use of English 56.3 Summer 2005, 252-255 © The English Association 2005
Catch, by Peter Carpenter. (Shoestring Press £10.00)
It is often helpful to have know when Emily Dickinson’s has touched on a subject in her other writings, when analysing her poems and seeking to establish her meaning. For instance, she declares her view that human consciousness is awe-inspiringly greater than the senses, in a letter (c. 1881) to her friend T.W. Higginson: ‘It is solemn to remember that Vastness – is but the Shadow of the Brain which casts it.’ This poem, written c. 1862, takes for granted that the brain is greater than the physical world and rather explores the relationship between human consciousness and the very nature of God. Can God be greater than one’s comprehension of him? Dickinson says no – the two differ only in small respects.
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside — Humorous and surprising use of the second person.
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets do — The meaning of his line defeats me utterly!
The brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound — ‘Heft’ is an Anglo-Saxon word – used elsewhere in Dickinson’s poetry e..g. ‘There’s a certain Slant of light‘ where it appears as a noun. Here, the core word describes a basic ‘rough and ready’ human activity – and its unexpected use, in a contemplative piece, is not only humorous but also shows a certain casuality towards the divine!
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound — The alliteration helps to lead us into considering the similarities and differences between syllable and sound. One difference is that all syllables are sounds but not all sounds are syllables.A syllable is either part of, or a complete word. We might remember that ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1). Also, syllables also convey meaning even when they are not whole words; for instance, poets craft their writing with accented syllables to provide a rhythm that draws out meaning e.g. look at the iambic ‘And they will differ if they do’, which has a very different meaning from any other permutation of accented syllables. However, it is also true that it is not only syllables that can have meaning – non-syllabic sound can, and often does, have meaning too e.g. when conveying pain or suffering. The simile draws out the meaning that the differences between the human mind and God are minute, despite seeming very different.
I hope this commentary and the annotations will help you to develop a sustained critical response to this poem. Do have a look at my Dickinson main page for recurring structural and language features, which appear in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
MY OTHER PAGES ON EMILY DICKINSON’S WORK
Please go to the Dickinson tab for the drop-down menu on her poems A-Z or click on the following: