Category Archives: Reviews
Ted Hughes, who quarried much of his life and work from myth and folklore, was hyperconscious of literary tradition. In a 1995 interview with the Paris Review, he identified his “sacred canon” as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Eliot and Yeats. This sombre obeisance to his lyric forebears is dignified and appropriate, but slightly misleading. Hughes had grown up with Yeats and Eliot, and was often linked with Wordsworth, but there was one writer with whom he was particularly obsessed: Shakespeare. Indeed, in the year that he died he confessed to a friend that he believed this lifelong fixation to have been fatal.
Beacon Press, $18 (paper)
Formalist poetry regularly tries and fails to escape the charge of atavism, so it is to Melissa Range’s credit that she doesn’t make such an attempt. Sometimes, the only way out is through. Her poetry is avowedly poetry with a history, or, more accurately, with several—at least three, by my count.
One history is that signaled by the title of Range’s collection: a Christian history, in which struggles of doubt and faith are seen on a timescale stretching back to medieval Europe. This is a history in which the same issues face both medieval pilgrims traveling to Chartres and modern tourists making the same journey:
sun pools blue and scarlet
on the floor, dappling the medallion
where, the legend goes, penitents
and priests walked on their knees.
Now anyone can walk here,
including the faithless, whom God always sees.
In this vein, Range writes poems in the voices (and sometimes words) of Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg. She relates her own labor, at both writing and belief, to that of the scribe Eadfrith in Lindisfarne. She recasts the Anglo-Saxon Fortunes of Men and puzzles over the exact nature of Byrhtnoth’s ofermōd in The Battle of Maldon.
Poetically, she draws from this history both a tone of fatalistic asperity and a striking ornateness. At times, ornamentation overflourishes content, but that excess does not make Range’s poetry any less lovely:
World’s Glim, Grim Cinderer, is it sin
or history or a whimsied hex that burns
all life to tar? We are dust, carbon
spilled out from your Word, a lamp overturned
into the pitch of pit beneath your pen
the inkhorn filled before the world was born.
Selected Poems by Thom Gunn
There were two anthologies of modern poetry in our house when I was a teenager and they both offered glimpses of the world outside that were more intense, more useful, than anything on television or on albums or in ordinary books. One was The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, edited by Kenneth Allott. It had been published first in 1950, with a second edition in 1962. The other was The New Poetry, also published in 1962. Edited by A. Alvarez, it had a crazy Jackson Pollock painting on the cover. In the Allott anthology I was intrigued by some of the poems that came towards the end, most notably Jon Silkin’s ‘Death of a Son’, whose last line (‘And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones, and he died’) I thought sadder than anything in Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen. I was also interested in Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Another September’, because I knew the house just outside Enniscorthy where it was set and I had met the poet’s wife, whose sleeping figure was evoked in the poem. What was most interesting about it, though, was the way it left the familiar behind and moved into a set of images and cadences that I could not fully understand:
It is as though
The black breathing that billows her sleep, her name,
Drugged under judgment, waned and – bearing daggers
And balances – down the lampless darkness they came,
Moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures.
‘Figures’ rhymes, of course, with ‘daggers’, but the rhyme is weak, almost faint, suggesting no sure-footed conclusion. Those two final words puzzled me. How would you know to end a poem with those two words?
Worse than hatred of literature is indifference
LITERATURE IS NOT LITERATURE UNTIL SOMEONE hates it on principle. Homer and Hesiod weren’t poets, in the way we’ve come to understand the word, until Xenophanes and Heraclitus and Plato attacked poetry’s governing credentials, its pipeline to the Gods. The last of these, speaking through Socrates, displaced poetry’s authority, itself drawn from the Muses, by banishing it from the well-ordered city; poetry’s tendency to arouse madness, its toleration of clashing voices, and its foundational place in the educational curriculum made it the enemy of an imagined republic where all positions were accounted for, where all discourse was to be phlegmatically compassed toward the truth. Paradoxically, though, this exile came to define poetry. Until their banishment, Hesiod and Homer were more like perennial Teachers of the Year or cool, dead popes—but universal. We don’t have a contemporary analogue.
This is the thesis, or a thesis, of William Marx’s The Hatred of Literature, another in a line of books, following Ben Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry, that defines literature through its strongest negative, hatred of it. Both authors, in this respect, make right with William James’s program in The Varieties of Religious Experience, which bets that the most extreme examples usefully illuminate the commonplace. The hatred of literature, the thinking goes, might tell us a thing or two about our relation to letters in general.
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The award-winning poet addresses everything from bullies to the big bang in a stimulating new collection
JO Morgan’s new collection requires and rewards repeated attention. Rereading poetry goes with the territory: a poem you do not want to reread is unlikely to be up to much. But this book is especially challenging. Each time you read – like rubbing a brass or watching mist lift or solving a clue – it becomes clearer, more striking, new things come to light. It is a work to be caught in snatches, in flashes, by stealth, as life itself sometimes is. Don’t be put off by the unwelcoming title – Interference Pattern merely hints at its collage of contents. The book reminds me of TS Eliot’s much-quoted line: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” – words that have inspired much obscure and pointless writing. But this collection carries you, unnerves and stimulates. It absolutely meets Eliot’s requirement that poetry be “genuine”.
Morgan lives on a small farm in the Scottish Borders, a pleasingly unlikely detail, given the many unbucolic settings of his work – offices, public swimming pools, the interiors of cars. He is the author of four collections and has earned awards (his first was shortlisted for the Forward prize). This volume opens with alternating narratives, in couplets. Each introduces a desperado woman. One injures herself with a razor: “She felt nothing more than the negative line/of metal drawn smoothly across her warm soft skin.” The other falls from a ledge: “There was the disbelief of her slow backward fall.” The two are helplessly connected (the same woman?), the boundary between accident and intention blurred. Then follows an energetic outburst – such passages recur to quicken the whole:
From The Irish Times
By Sean Hewitt
In this much-needed volume, leading Seamus Heaney scholar Eugene O’Brien collects 16 essays on the late poet, focusing on the “later poetry”, which in the context of this book comprises the collections Seeing Things (1991); The Spirit Level (1996); Electric Light (2001); District and Circle (2006); and Human Chain (2010). Tracing the shift in Heaney’s style “from an artesian to an aerial imaginative structure”, the essays here are wide-ranging, and locate Heaney’s later collections in the larger scheme of his poetic output, contextualising and analysing them through a variety of approaches and lenses. Neil Corcoran explores the notion of “late style” in relation to Heaney, and Richard Rankin Russell uses “thing theory” alongside theories of memory to discuss Heaney’s use of objects. Magdelena Kay and Helen Vendler provide moving and insightful readings of death in Heaney’s work, and Bernard O’Donoghue contributes a fascinating essay on Heaney’s use of European and classical texts. This is a rich, cohesive and diverse collection of fine work on one of the supreme poets of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks
Edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith
278 pp. The University of Arkansas Press. Paper, $29.95.
REVISE THE PSALM
Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks
Edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku
Illustrated. 416 pp. Curbside Splendor Publishing. Paper, $24.95.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kan., at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 7, 1917. But her family moved to Chicago shortly after her birth, and she was a Chicagoan until her death, in 2000. The author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, Brooks holds the distinction of being the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950, for her second book of poems, “Annie Allen”), and she received numerous accolades, including the National Medal of Arts and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. In honor of the centennial year of her birth, two anthologies have arrived: “Revise the Psalm,” edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Sandra Jackson-Opoku; and “The Golden Shovel Anthology,” edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith.
In their shared mission, these books complement each other without too much overlap. The novelist Richard Wright, in a reader’s report for Harper & Brothers in the early 1940s, declared Brooks essential: “America needs a voice like hers.” Confirming Wright’s claim are the hundreds of artists represented in these two new anthologies, poets who have used her work as a prompt or a point of engagement.