Category Archives: Reviews

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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American Originality: Essays on Poetry by Louise Glück

American Originality[From the Seattle Public Library website] “A luminous collection of essays from one of our most original and influential poets. Five decades after her debut poetry collection, Firstborn, Louise Glück is a towering figure in American letters. Written with the same probing, analytic control that has long distinguished her poetry, American Originality is Glück’s second book of essays–her first, Proofs and Theories, won the 1993 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. Glück’s moving and disabusing lyricism is on full display in this decisive new collection. From its opening pages, American Originality forces readers to consider contemporary poetry and its demigods in radical, unconsoling, and ultimately very productive ways. Determined to wrest ample, often contradictory meaning from our current literary discourse, Glück comprehends and destabilizes notions of “narcissism” and “genius” that are unique to the American literary climate. This includes erudite analyses of the poets who have interested her throughout her own career, such as Rilke, Pinsky, Chiasson, and Dobyns, and introductions to the first books of poets like Dana Levin, Peter Streckfus, Spencer Reece, and Richard Siken. Forceful, revealing, challenging, and instructive, American Originality is a seminal critical achievement”–

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Delmore Schwartz vs. Delmore Schwartz

BY ANGE MLINKO

Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz
edited by Craig Morgan Teicher. 
New Directions. $17.95.
Delmore SchwartzDelmore Schwartz (1913–1966) lay dying of a heart attack in the hallway of a sleazy midtown Manhattan hotel for at least an hour before an ambulance was called around 4:00 a.m.; his body then lay in the morgue unclaimed for two days. The judgment of his contemporaries and students on this early casualty of the confessional 
generation could serve as a snapshot of blighted promise. “The American Auden,” boasted James Laughlin. Or, no, “the new Hart Crane,” proposed Dwight MacDonald. “He was tortured, beyond what a man might be,” avowed John Berryman. “The two sides of his face were different one from the other and reflected, he thought, a split in his personality,” reported Eileen Simpson. “One vowel bedevilled by seven consonants,” quoth Lowell. “You were the greatest man I ever met,” Lou Reed effused.
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John Ashbery was neither contemporary nor student of Schwartz, but “admired his poetry even before coming to the university” where Schwartz occasionally taught — Harvard — and writes now, in his introduction to this newest selection: “The bulk of his work is unpublished and probably unpublishable.” Between his Partisan Review debut in 1937 and winning the Bollingen Prize in 1959, Delmore Schwartz wrote poems, stories, criticism, and verse plays. His attempted epic, Genesis, might have been the longest American poem in existence if he had finished it; after two hundred pages, the
protagonist Hershey Green had only reached the age of seven. Hefty volumes of letters and notebooks were published posthumously. In his last days, according to his biographer James Atlas, “he sat in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library filling one notebook after another with incomprehensible novels.”
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A friend half-jokes to me: “For that generation, it wasn’t that you couldn’t write poetry after Auschwitz, but that you couldn’t write poetry after T.S. Eliot.”

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Czeslaw Milosz: One of the most fascinating poets of the past 100 years

By Troy Jollimore

Czeslaw Milosz-100-yearsAt 4 in the morning on Oct. 9, 1980, Czeslaw Milosz’s phone rang. The caller was a Swedish journalist who informed him that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It can’t be true,” Milosz said, and hung up and went back to sleep.
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This, at any rate, is the story Milosz told later. Most likely it isn’t true. But there is at least a grain of truth in it: Many people, not just Milosz himself, must have thought, “It can’t be true” on learning that the 69-year-old Lithuanian-born poet and author, who since the early 1960s had been laboring in obscurity as a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, had suddenly been transformed into a celebrity by winning the most prestigious literary prize on the planet.
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In America, he was practically unknown as a writer; most of his work had never been translated into English. In Poland, his writings had been banned for decades, ever since his 1951 defection to the West, which followed several years during which he worked as a diplomat for the Soviet-controlled government that had run the country since the end of World War II. There were those in Eastern Europe who remembered him, some with antipathy, labeling him a traitor, others with fondness and admiration. His work circulated, unofficially and in often in small, hand-produced formats, despite the efforts of the Polish regime to squelch it.
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The Byelaws

Glyn Maxwell

Never have met me, know me well,

tell all the world there was little to tell,

say I was heavenly, say I was hell,

harry me over the blasted moors

         but come my way, go yours.
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Never have touched me, take me apart,

trundle me through my town in a cart,

figure me out with the aid of a chart,

finally add to the feeble applause

         and come my way, go yours.
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Never have read me, look at me now,

get why I’m doing it, don’t get how,

other way round, have a rest, have a row,

have skirmishes with me, have wars,

         O come my way, go yours.
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Never have left me, never come back,

mourn me in miniskirts, date me in black,

undress as I dress, when I unpack pack

yet pause for eternity on all fours

          to come my way, go yours.
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Never have met me, never do,

never be mine, never even be you,

approach from a point it’s impossible to

at a time you don’t have, and by these byelaws

          come my way, go yours.

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The ByelawsPluto – the non-planet, the ex-planet – is the dominant celestial influence in Glyn Maxwell’s new collection: Pluto is a book about change, the before-and-after of love, the aftermath of loss: change of status and station, home and place, of tense and pronoun. It also marks a radical departure for one of our most celebrated English poets: his formidable skills as a rhetorician and dramatist are suddenly directed inwardly, to produce poems of brutal self-examination, raw elegy, and strange songs of the kind those bruising encounters often leave us singing to ourselves. In Pluto, Maxwell has set out something like a metaphysic of the affair; the result is a lean and concentrated poetry of great emotional power, and far and away Glyn Maxwell’s most directly personal work to date.

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Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American Poetry

by Jonathan Ellis

Elizabeth Bishop and Modern American PoetryAmerican poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was one of the most praised poets of her generation. Yet she was never the most read or respected at the time. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1965) both sold more copies than any of her collections, while Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959) continues to take the critical plaudits as the key work of poetry for most post-World War II readers. Lowell was godfather to the Confessional poets. His gift was somehow to fuse the radical themes of Beat writers like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac with the formal ingenuity of poet-critics like Randall Jarrell and Allan Tate. As a teacher at Harvard in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, he also acted as an informal mentor to a new generation of younger poets, including Plath and Anne Sexton. Bishop’s influence, on the other hand, took time to make itself felt and is still something of a well-kept secret. While each of her four collections of poetry gained recognition from her peers in the form of various fellowships and prizes, this acclaim did not immediately translate into much academic interest or popular success. At the time of her death there was just a single critical book on her work, a short introductory study by the poet Anne Stevenson. Poetry readers knew her, if at all, as the author of the much-anthologised piece, ‘The Fish’ (Bishop called it ‘that damned Fish’, [2] so sick was she of requests to republish it).
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Much has changed since the 1980s. Bishop, rather than Lowell, is the poet new writers usually cut their teeth against. She is a favourite poet of authors as diverse as Thom Gunn and Paul Muldoon, Jorie Graham and Louise Glück, Lavinia Greenlaw and Jo Shapcott. In fact, poets have been instrumental in raising Bishop’s profile, as well as providing some of the most acute and intelligent assessments of her work. Adrienne Rich’s 1983 review of Bishop’s Complete Poems is central to this. It was one of the first feminist readings of Bishop’s life and art, connecting ‘her experience of outsiderhood’ with ‘the essential outsiderhood of lesbian identity’. [3] While other poets disagreed with this assessment – notably Alicia Ostriker, who characterised Bishop in 1987 as one of those ‘poets who would be ladies’ [4] – it laid the groundwork for women poets’ re-reading of Bishop in the 1990s as a more sensual and sexual writer than had previously been thought. The poetry of Deryn Rees-Jones in England, Caítriona O’Reilly in Ireland, and Sandra McPherson in America, all owe something to Bishop’s understated, almost invisible, focus on the human body.

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An early reminder that we’ll be discussing the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop on September 28

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CATWALKS THROUGH THE MIDDLE REALMS OF HEAVEN

by Adrienne Leavy

CATWALKS THROUGH THE MIDDLE REALMS OF HEAVENA Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht
By Jonathan F. S. Post

Jonathan Post’s A Thickness of Particulars is the first book-length study of Anthony Hecht, one of the major American poets of the second half of the twentieth century. A Distinguished Professor of English at UCLA and the editor of Hecht’s Selected Letters (John Hopkins University Press, 2013), Post has lectured extensively on the poet at Yale and UCLA. The depth of his scholarship on Hecht is evident throughout this monograph, which emphasizes the “habitually dialectical quality of Hecht’s thinking,” his passion for poetic form, and his ability to write in complicated rhyming schemes without sacrificing an easy conversational tone.
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Alternating between close readings of the poems, wherein Hecht’s work is placed in conversation with poetic giants W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Elizabeth Bishop, and the poet’s private correspondence, Post provides a biographical context for understanding the complexity of Hecht’s impressive corpus. As the author points out, however, this is not biography per se, but rather a general introduction to Hecht’s poetry. In nine chapters arranged chronologically, Post’s narrative ranges from discussions of well-known individual poems to collections of early and late efforts, with additional chapters focusing on thematic angles such as the influence of Shakespeare and the poet’s ekphrastic verse.
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Rime without reason

KELLY GROVIER

Rime without reasonMalcolm Guite has made an intriguing literary discovery, one that has eluded critics for over 200 years: the inspiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epoch-defining poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. But this is no ordinary scholarly find. To be accepted, Guite’s revelation requires a particular frame of mind, or what the Romantic poet himself called a “willing suspension of disbelief”.
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Guite contends that the true source for the Mariner’s arduous odyssey – from degradation to redemption after committing the cosmic crime of killing the albatross that had guided his imperilled ship through the Antarctic mist and ice – was, in fact, the physical, spiritual and psychological torments that Coleridge himself would suffer in the years and decades after he wrote the poem when he was just twenty-five years old. It is Guite’s belief, not that the poet lived his poem after composing it between the autumn of 1797 and spring of 1798; rather, that Coleridge’s work is based on mysterious foreknowledge of his future self. Line by line, symbol by symbol, Guite painstakingly traces the ghostly congruities between the Mariner’s ordeals and its author’s own subsequent travails.

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Listen to Ian McKellen read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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