Category Archives: Reviews

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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The Soul Exceeds its Circumstances: The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney

From The Irish Times

By Sean Hewitt

The Soul Exceeds its CircumstancesIn 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.

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‘On Empson’ by Michael Wood

By Denis Donoghue

On Empson“William, you’re very boring.” Empson, in the middle of a poetry reading, ignored the heckler. “William, you are very boring,” she said again. It was his wife…

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Claudia Rankine on the Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks

Claudia Rankine on the Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks-2The 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.
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Claudia Rankine on the Legacy of Gwendolyn BrooksREVISE 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.
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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.
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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.

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Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy: new Irish poetry

Review: Strictly No Poetry by Aidan Mathews and Europa by Sean O’Brien

Caitriona O’Reilly

Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy-1
Technical mastery and peculiar intimacy-2The career of Aidan Mathews is an interesting case study. Mathews published his first collection of poetry,
Windfalls, in 1977 with Dolmen Press. There have been only three since, each appearing at increasingly lengthy intervals and with a different publisher on each occasion (The Gallery Press, Jonathan Cape, and The Lilliput Press, respectively). If he were puckishly conniving at his own obscurity he couldn’t manage it better, so counter to the prevailing ethos of brass-necked, twittery self-promotion does he seem. The pressure to push product with grinding regularity – driven by the twin demons of overproduction (“Elbow room! Elbow room!”) and the haunting, pervasive anxiety that no one actually cares about or reads much contemporary poetry, except the poets writing it – seems to have left no mark on his work, judging by the poems in Strictly No Poetry. He’s been here all the time, quietly getting on with it.
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The material in Strictly No Poetry could not be described as a departure for Mathews. The voice here is still assured, confident, self-delighting in the true Yeatsian sense, and still circles around familiar themes: family, history, religion, the persistence of memory, illness, the body. But such a neutral gloss cannot give a flavour of the peculiar intimacy of a Mathews poem: the clash of sacred and profane; the sui generis brio of his image-making; the obsessive sexual synecdoche; the breadth of reference; and the weirdly hippyish buoyancy that sustains it all. I cannot think of another male poet, for example, who has written a poem of celebration on the occasion of his daughter’s first period. Yet Mathews has done this in the tender love poem Menarche. There is little that he cannot turn to poetic account; he makes syringing an ear seem like a profound metaphysical event: “Now the other ear is light as a moccasin slipper/Tracking the stickiness of a slug’s slow glister/Through the pulverised grass outside, the Jew’s harp//Of the hairs in the cashier’s nostril at reception…”

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Ian Hamilton’s collected poems are a source of wonder

Ian Hamilton influenced a generation of writers, including McEwan and Amis. Christopher Tayler admires a collection of his poetry.

Ian Hamilton's collected poemsIan Hamilton’s Collected Poems, published in paperback this month, is what the poet, who died at the age of 63 in 2001, sometimes called a “slim vol”. The meat of it – the poems he put between hard covers in his lifetime – takes up 62 pages; only one poem, a part-pastiche called “Larkinesque”, runs to more than a page. For Hamilton as a “creative” writer, narrowly defined, that was it. “Not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think,” he wrote in 1988. “And, in certain moods, I would agree.”
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Yet these sorrowing, hard-bitten poems about dying fathers, mad wives and the rigours of the writing life, darkly impressive and moving as they are, get added force from a wider myth around Hamilton, a myth in which their scarcity is the point. That myth – a skein of Grub Street lore involving booze, women, football, bailiffs and high-handed interactions with figures ranging from Stephen Spender to Ian McEwan – is also brooded over, sometimes covertly, sometimes less so, in his writings in prose, which are extensive, clever and very funny. Combined with his activities as the editor of, among other things, the best serious magazine of the Seventies, it all adds up to a body of work that makes him, it seems to me in certain moods, one of the most interesting figures in British cultural life in the second half of the 20th century.

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