Category Archives: Reviews

Poet Robinson Jeffers and wife, Una, ‘tell their own story’ in newly published letters

The 1,000-page first volume of the Collected Letters, published by Stanford University Press, is an “epistolary autobiography” of one of America’s greatest poets, Robinson Jeffers. The volume includes correspondence between Robinson and Una, who was his married lover before she was his wife. It also includes letters Una Jeffers wrote to her jilted husband.

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

poet robinson jeffers
They fell madly in love. But she was married to a wealthy and prominent Los Angeles attorney. Her lover, Robinson Jeffers, three years younger, was an unemployed student who drank too much. The affair hit the front page of the
Los Angeles Times in 1913.
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“Una did not want a divorce, despite the torrid romance,” said scholar James Karman, editor of The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, Vol. I, newly published by Stanford University Press. She went to Europe to think it over, sending hundreds of pages of letters to her husband “asking for forgiveness, a second chance,” he said.
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She didn’t get one. The letters to Teddie Kuster, her jilted spouse, and her future husband, Jeffers (1887-1962), one of the greatest American poets of the last century, are included in the volume’s nearly 1,000 pages, which cover the years from 1890 to 1930.
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“I’ll say he’s the most important poet of the 20th century, but nobody’s buying that yet,” said Karman. “No one in the 20th century came near to what he was trying to do. The sheer scope of his endeavor is unrivaled. There’s nothing like it in American literature in the 20th century.”
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According to Tim Hunt, editor of Stanford University Press’ five-volume Collected Poetry, Jeffers is “the least understood of the major American poets from the first half of the 20th century.” The projected three-volume series of letters is fully annotated, with a substantial introduction to Jeffers’ life and work.

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9 Books of Poems That Prove 2018 Was a Fantastic Year — at Least for Poetry

By Meghan O’Rourke

9 books of poemsAmerican poetry is having a renaissance — or something like it: Whatever you call the moment we’re in, poetry feels newly invigorated by a potent diversity of voices, rendered with extreme stylistic range on the page. The following, in order of their release, are some of the books I was thankful to have as company — some of the books I needed to read — in 2018. There are others, of course, but each of these remarkable books offers a respite as this long, strange year comes to a close. Each invites us to slow down, to linger on thoughts that unfurl against an expressive white space, and each is a quiet protest against easy truths and alternative facts. These are poets, in other words, who have made silence speak. They have written beautiful books, yes; but also powerful books — of resistance, of voices finally unleashed, of loss, of possibility.

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Seamus Heaney: as seen from Russia, Hungary, Poland and Mexico

Four translators reflect on their experiences of bringing the poetry of Seamus Heaney to new audiences in their native language

Seamus Heaney as seen from RussiaFour long-standing translators of Seamus Heaney’s poetry gathered in Dublin yesterday [April 25, 2018] to celebrate Heaney’s poetry in translation to mark the opening of a new home for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation.
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The event featured readings of Heaney’s poetry in Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Mexican Spanish by Heaney’s translators and paid tribute to Heaney’s contribution to literature as a writer and translator, and also acknowledged the poet’s strong support of the development of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. A partnership between Trinity’s School of Languages Literature and Cultural Studies, Literature Ireland and the Dalkey Archive Press, the centre fosters and promotes literary translation, bringing the best of international literature to Irish readers and the finest of Irish literature to readers around the world.
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Sinéad Mac Aodha,  Director, Literature Ireland, commented: “Literature Ireland, the organisation for promoting Irish literature abroad, is a proud and active partner in the Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation. Working closely with publishers and translators from around the world, our aim is to build a profile and a deep appreciation for Irish literature from Beijing to Buenos Aires, Cairo to Chennai. Since our establishment in 1994, we have funded over 2,000 translations of Irish books into over fifty languages. In a world that needs open minds more than ever before, 36 Fenian Street will open a door to the exciting possibilities of literary translation and cultural exchange.”
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Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

From Sappho to Toni Morrison, an homage to writers who have wielded the power of the mind in language with uncommon virtuosity.

By Maria Popova

Literary Witches“The absence of the witch does not invalidate the spell,” Emily Dickinson wrote. So great writers bewitch us with their work long after they have absented themselves from the world. The enduring bewitchment of thirty such titans and trailblazers of the written word, Dickinson herself among them, is what author Taisia Kitaiskaia and artist Katy Horan honor in Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers (public library) — a lovely compendium of impressionistic sketches, fusing biographical facts with flights of the invocational imagination to celebrate such enchantresses of literature as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Sappho, Audre Lorde, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, Anna Akhmatova, Toni Morrison, and Emily Brontë — women born “before they invented women,” as Ursula K. Le Guin put it in her brilliant unsexing of literature.

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Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love by James Booth review – judge the poems, not poet

An enthusiastic but judicious corrective to previous biographies of the ‘Hermit of Hull’
By Nicholas Lezard

Larkin-BoothThis is now the third biography of Larkin. So far, they seem to be coming out at the same rate as his volumes of poetry did: that is, about once a decade. For a man whose life was quiet even by the standards English writers are said to set, this is quite something. The lesson here is that even a dull life will fascinate if the work is interesting or good enough, or if there is a question of adjustments to be made to the reputation.
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When his letters and the first biography, by Andrew Motion, were published, more than 20 years ago, Larkin was revealed as someone given to poisonous racist utterance in private, and as a collector of pornography. The image of the gloomy ‘Hermit of Hull’ became tarnished; at the time it seemed irreparably so. But there were still the poems, and for all that academics such as Lisa Jardine said, in effect, that they weren’t that good anyway, a lot of people felt otherwise, with good reason, and the dust has settled.
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However, James Booth feels that the modified reputation Larkin now has – yes, a fine poet, but not a nice person at all – could do with some correction. “Those who shared his life simply do not recognise the Mr Nasty version,” he says in his introduction, and his biography is a corrective.

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Listen to “Looking at Larkin,” an LRB Podcast with Seamus Perry and Mark Ford

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How Shakespeare’s ‘blood cult’ became Ted Hughes’s fatal obsession

He believed he’d found the secret key to unlock all of Shakespeare’s work. Twenty years after Hughes’s death, this is the story of the lifelong fixation he feared would destroy him

How Shakespeare's 'blood cult_ became Ted Hughes_s fatal obsessionTed 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.
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Hughes, in his 20s, never ceased reading and rereading the playwright’s work. The spell it cast over him goes back to his Cambridge days, and predates his meeting Sylvia Plath. In February 1952, he described his undergraduate routine to his sister Olwyn: “I get up at 6, and read a Shakespeare play before 9 … That early bout puts me ahead all day.” Five years later, he confided to a friend that he was “reading all Shakespeare in what I consider the order of their being written.”

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Scriptorium

CAT FITZPATRICK

Scriptorium: Poems
Melissa Range
Beacon Press, $18 (paper)

ScriptoriumFormalist 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.
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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
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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.
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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.

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On Not Being Sylvia Plath

Colm Tóibín

Selected Poems by Thom Gunn

On Not Being Sylvia PlathThere 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?

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Literature Shrugged

Jonathon Sturgeon

Worse than hatred of literature is indifference
Literature Shrugged
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.
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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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Interference Pattern by JO Morgan review – bracingly original poetry

The award-winning poet addresses everything from bullies to the big bang in a stimulating new collection
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Interference-PatternJO 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”.
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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:

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