Category Archives: Reviews

Poetic Artifice: A Theory of 20th-Century Poetry by Veronica Forrest-Thomson

Poetic ArtificeThis classic study, reprinted after more than 30 years, prefers bad new things to good old ones

By David Wheatley

The death of Veronica Forrest-Thomson in 1975, aged just 27, is among the most galling and tragic losses to modern British poetry. Born in Malaya and raised in Glasgow, she published a first poetry collection at 20 and gravitated to Cambridge, where she was taught by JH Prynne. Heavily influenced by the close reading tradition of IA Richards and William Empson, her criticism also drew on French structuralist and poststructuralist theory, then much in the air.
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Published posthumously in 1978 and now reprinted for the first time, her classic study Poetic Artifice marked a provocative intervention. There is a widespread and mistaken assumption, Forrest-Thomson argues, that poetry is important for what it tells us about the external world. Not so: poetry is important for its vindication of “all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal and logical devices” that make it what it is, and the production of “alternative imaginary orders”. Anything else is flim-flam. It is not the job of poetry to deliver states of “inarticulate rapture”, but to be the articulation of that rapture.

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A Possible Keats

Fleur Jaeggy
A Possible KeatsJohn Keats (1795-1821) was seven years old and in school at Enfield. He was seized by the spirit of the time, by a peculiar compulsion, an impetuous fury—before writing poetry. Any pretext seemed to him a good one for picking a fight with a friend, any pretext to fight.
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Fighting was to John Keats like eating or drinking. He sought out aggressive boys, cruel boys, but their company, as he was already inclined to poetry, must have provided some comic and burlesque treats. For mere brutality—without humor, make-believe, or whimsy—didn’t interest him. Which might lead a person to extrapolate that boys aren’t truly brutal. Yes, they are, but they have rules and an aesthetic. Keats was a child of action. He’d punched a yard monitor more than twice his size, and he was considered a strong boy, lively and argumentative. When he was brawling, his friend Clarke reports, Keats resembled Edmund Kean at theatrical heights of exasperation. His friends predicted a brilliant future for him in the military. Yet when his temper defused, he’d grow extremely calm, and his sweetness shone—with the same intensity as his rage had. The scent of angels. His earliest brushes with melancholy were suddenly disrupted by outbursts of nervous laughter. Moods, vague and tentative, didn’t settle over him so much as hurry past like old breezes.
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From These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor.

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With a Perfect Contempt: On Editing Marianne Moore

Heather Cass White

With a Perfect ContemptIn trying to sum up the experience of having spent the last ten years editing the poetry of Marianne Moore, most recently in the New Collected Poems, I think of a recent classroom interaction I had. Toward the end of a course on twentieth-century poetry, one of my students, clearly at the end of her patience with me, demanded to know why I kept asking them, “But what is a poem?” It’s probably a measure of how deeply I feel that question that I hadn’t noticed I’d asked it even once before she pointed it out.
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I do know why I am stuck on it, however. Editing Moore’s work will deprive anyone of their certainty about what a poem actually is. All poetry editing raises a fundamental issue: Is a poem a specific ordering of words on a page? And if so, which page? The one the poet originally wrote, whether by hand or type; or the one that was first published; or the one that was last published? If all of those arrangements of words are identical, one may duck the question, but they rarely are. Typesetters and proofreaders make mistakes, and they also make corrections which poets find agreeable. Poets change their minds. Conventions of spelling and punctuation vary from house to house, and change over time. There are competing theories about how to handle such issues, and consensus views to guide practitioners, but the questions must always be confronted.

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Pieces Falling into Place

BY HANNAH BROOKS-MOTL

Pieces Falling into PlaceROBERT LOWELL ONCE SURMISED that the publication of his friend Elizabeth Bishop’s letters would lead to her being recognized “as not only one of the best, but also one of the most prolific writers of our century.” That day does not seem far off. One Art, the first selection of Bishop’s letters, appeared in 1994 and was nearly seven hundred pages long; her correspondence with Lowell himself, Words in Air, stretched across nearly nine hundred pages. Now Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker, the chronicle of her forty-five year relationship with the weekly magazine, has arrived and it is over four hundred pages.
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The once well-guarded secrets of Bishop’s personal life are now exhaustively bare. Her early feelings of abandonment, her struggles with alcoholism and depression, her romances with various women—most notably her partner of fifteen years, Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares—and her careful stewardship of her own career have all shaped the reception and reading of Bishop’s slim output of poems. Bishop admitted she enjoyed writing letters because doing so is “kind of like working without really doing it,” and her letters focus attention on her fluid, relaxed style. Here, for example, is Bishop describing some Brazilian post office travails to Katherine White, an editor at The New Yorker:
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It is such a job to mail things here—the stamps have no glue, or not enough, and you have to stand in line at a glue machine, and get all covered with it—if you trust stamps to begin with; they say they are stolen in the PO often, and the mail just thrown away. (A newspaper editor friend of mine here found a cache of thousands of pieces of mail for the paper that that had happened to—imagine.) So if you don’t trust stamps you have to go to the central office where there is a stamping machine—and in any case you have to go to one of the few post offices, since the mail boxes are never collected—haven’t been for years. No one ever dreams of writing a letter within the country—they just vanish. Fortunately air-mail in and out is considerably better … If you do receive this, it is an [sic?] earnest of more. I never used that expression before & I don’t think I like it—I also rather doubt you’ll be able to use this short poem [“The Shampoo”], but there are more coming.

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We will be reading and discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28

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The sudden world

Anthony Thwaite welcomes a new Collected Poems to mark Louis MacNeice’s centenary year

The sudden worldCollected Poems

by Louis MacNeice, edited by Peter McDonald

836pp, Faber, £30
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In the centenary year of the births of WH Auden and Louis MacNeice [2007], celebrations are scheduled for both. In many ways Auden might seem the stronger candidate; but there are signs, some of them coming from Ireland and its jealous feuds, that MacNeice is going to have just as much attention.
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MacNeice was about as English as education in Sherborne, Marlborough and Oxford could make him. But he was born in Carrickfergus near Belfast, his father a clergyman in the Church of Ireland, later to become a bishop; and there is plenty of evidence, in the poems and elsewhere, that he felt himself to be a kind of troubled Irishman. His voice carried, behind its disdainful Oxford nasality, a sort of strangled Ulster utterance.
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My Breakfast with Elizabeth Bishop

By A.M. Juster

My Breakfast with Elizabeth BishopMost poets who enter the canon arrive amid clatter and controversy. Elizabeth Bishop took a different route. In an era when it was still possible for a poet to become a national celebrity, Bishop avoided publicity and published only about a hundred poems. Nonetheless, her reputation rose slowly and quietly, and continued to climb after her death in 1979.
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Bishop became a consensus favorite in the literary community. Formally oriented poets admired her innovative off-rhymes, skilled variations in line lengths, and the rhythms folded into her meter. Political poets of the left, such as Adrienne Rich, clashed with Bishop about being reluctant to promote the women’s and gay liberation movements through sacrificing her privacy, but most such critics stood down when Bishop’s lesbianism became more public. Today, she often seems beyond criticism.
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Megan Marshall, a professor at Emerson College and former Bishop student at Harvard, accepts her subject’s greatness with no apparent hesitation, but readers should not be afraid to test that assessment. It is true that Bishop’s technical strengths make her a poet’s poet. When it comes to craft, Bishop’s poetry rivals that of James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, and A.E. Stallings. When it comes to precise and striking extended descriptions, she is in a class by herself.

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Seeing things

Sharon Olds shows a vision that never flinches in her collection of poems

By Charles Bainbridge

Seeing thingsSelected Poems by Sharon Olds 160pp, Cape

Sharon Olds is a stunning poet, and this volume gathers together much of her best writing from the past 26 years. She has always confronted the personal details of her life with remarkable directness and honesty, but the key to her success is the way this material is lit up by a range of finely judged shifts in scale and perspective. Her poems are vivid morality plays, wrestling with ideas of right and wrong, full of symbolic echoes and possibilities.
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In “The Lifting”, for instance, she describes her dying father removing his hospital gown to get her to look at the reality of his wasting body. The poem, as so much of her work, enacts the process of being made to look at the difficult, the hidden, bringing what we want to avoid fully into the gaze: “I looked / where his solid ruddy stomach had been / and I saw the skin fallen into loose / soft hairy rippled folds / lying in a pool of folds . . .” In the final lines Olds parallels this language of harsh physical description with the language of Biblical revelation. The lifting of the gown is portrayed as a version of the lifting away of ignorance – “the way we were promised at death it would rise, / the veils would fall from our eyes, we would know everything”.

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Cramming for Success

James Wood

Cramming for SuccessThomas Hardy: Half A Londoner by Mark Ford Harvard, 305 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 73789 1

Human character, we know, changed on or about December 1910, but it had already changed on or about December 1863, when Baudelaire published his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. In the course of writing about the journalist-illustrator Constantin Guys, Baudelaire leaves the salon and goes out into the street, away from art criticism to urban digression. He mentions Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, whose narrator, recovering from a recent illness, sits in a London café and watches the human traffic through the window. Artists are like convalescents, Baudelaire adds: nervously alert, grateful for the slightest detail, omnivorously curious. And the convalescent is like the child, who sees everything as if for the first time, drunk on novelty. Inspiration, Baudelaire continues, ‘has some connection with congestion’. Guys is such an eternal child, and the urban crowd is his domain: ‘he watches the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling … He gazes at the landscape of the great city, landscapes of stone.’ From this, comes a further generalisation: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’
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I was often put in mind of ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ while reading Mark Ford’s study of Thomas Hardy. Ford doesn’t mention it (though he does refer to Baudelaire’s flaneurial poems), perhaps because that manifesto is too obvious, or too obviously theoretical: he prefers to build his case patiently, historically, in solid empirical sediments, beginning and ending with biography, a form often maligned or ignored in academic criticism. But Ford realigns our sense of Hardy, moving him from Wessex fields to London streets, and offering a transformed writer: less the time-torn pastoral tragedian than a painter of modern life.

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Read also: Thomas Hardy: Half a Londoner by Mark Ford review – how the capital shaped Hardy’s Wessex
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Listen to Mark Ford discuss Thomas Hardy’s sense of being torn between two worlds

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EMPSON IN THE EAST

by David Bentley Hart

The Face of the Buddha, by William Empson, edited by Rupert ArrowsmithEMPSON IN THE EASTWilliam Empson (1906–1984) was not, as he is frequently said to have been, an “important critic,” but only because there is no such thing. By the same token, neither was he a unicorn, a square circle, or a decent impulse in the heart of Donald Trump. What he was, however, was a thinker with an incisively original mind and a fine, lucid, and always lively prose style, and the exquisitely inconclusive analysis of great works of literature, at which he so excelled, provided him with endless occasions for displaying both. He was also a talented mathematician and a remarkable poet, though he largely abandoned mathematics after his undergraduate studies at Cambridge and stopped writing much poetry in his mid-thirties. He probably possessed most of the natural intellectual gifts of a good philosopher, if little of the temperament. His first and still most influential book, for instance, Seven Types of Ambiguity—which he wrote when he was twenty-one and published when he was twenty-four—exhibits a subtler and more penetrating understanding of language and its limits than does, say, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published eight years before. (Not to worry: Over the next several decades, Wittgenstein would grope his way toward a level of sophistication comparable to Empson’s.)
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By all rights, the publication of Seven Types should have secured Empson’s future. It nearly did, in fact. While still in manuscript, it was enough to confirm the brilliance he had exhibited as a student and to win him a fellow’s perch at his college, Magdalene, from which he could have looked forward to decades of long strolls along the Backs, long afternoons in the Pepys Library, long conversations in the upper combination room. . . . But all of it was, in fact, cut very short when a college porter discovered a package of condoms in his rooms. Today that would merely earn him plaudits for social conscientiousness, but Cambridge in 1929 was a very different world; the porter dutifully reported the abomination and Empson was expelled from his college and the university, his name literally expunged from its records. Any real employment, apart from some freelance cultural journalism, became all at once impossible for him in England.

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David Jones – the 20th century’s great neglected genius

A.N. Wilson

Thomas Dilworth’s biography, a lifetime’s work, finally does justice to this deeply spiritual, original artist and poet

David Jones – the 20th century_s great neglected geniusWhen Stravinsky visited David Jones in his cold Harrow bedsit, he came away saying, ‘I have been in the presence of a holy man.’ Other admirers included T.S. Eliot (his publisher) and the Queen Mother (who wrote asking if she could buy some of his work). Harold Bloom, Kenneth Clark and W.H. Auden were all not merely admirers, but passionate in their admiration. Auden thought Jones’s long Eucharistic poem ‘The Anathemata’ the ‘finest long poem written in English this century’.
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Yet Jones remained completely his own man, belonging to no ‘set’. He had very little money and has never, as far as one can tell, been part of the Eng. lit. mainstream. While ‘first world war poets’ on the BBC still seem to be Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, Jones’s In Parenthesis — the greatest war poem in the English language — remains a cult book read by the few.

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