Coningsby and Friends: Some Books in Brief

One of the first reviews I ever wrote was of a pamphlet of poems by Jonathan Davidson, called ‘Humfrey Coningsby’. In a turn of events I will not explain but which involves Twitter and Jonathan’s new collection of his and other people’s poems, A Commonplace, I discovered the website the review had originally been published on was no more. This was a small lesson in the transience of the digital record, but it felt appropriate to Humfrey, the subject of the pamphlet, an obscure traveller forever passing in and out history. However, I still had a copy, and it is now on Jonathan’s blog.

I really enjoyed both ‘Humfrey Coningsby’ and A Commonplace. Reading one and rereading the other, I think one of the hallmarks of Jonathan’s poems is the power and memorability of his final lines. Final lines are often the most difficult to get right. There are plenty of books I have read recently that I would like to give a response to which is more than just a social media post, but I have not had the time and do not think I will. In lieu of anything longer, here are some highlights:

sikfan glaschu — Sean Wai Keung, Verve Poetry Press (2021)

I reviewed Sean Wai Keung’s pamphlet ‘you are mistaken’ for London Grip. sikfan glaschu is his first full collection. I would have liked to see some of those earlier poems included, and I hope new readers will go back to ‘you are mistaken’ too, if the Rialto have any copies left, but I can see the point behind starting fresh: sikfan glaschu takes the themes of migration, insecurity, family and food dealt with so arrestingly in that pamphlet, adds a city, and makes something distinct and whole out of them. The collection is in three parts: a series of ‘reviews’ of eateries in Glasgow (‘glaschu’), a section from lockdown, and a final, more meditative section on food, family and identity. It is funny and heart breaking. Wai Keung has dropped the ‘+’ sign which tied together some of the earlier work and the poems move down and across the page with what feels like a newfound freedom. The best praise I can offer is that I was genuinely excited to get my hands on sikfan glaschu and that my expectation was more than rewarded. It includes ‘stay inside’, the best ‘lockdown’ poem I have come across, a poem about KFC, and a very good example of a rare category: a poem about council tax.

That Old Country Music – Kevin Barry (Canongate, 2020)

I first came under the spell of Kevin Barry’s short stories when I found them on a shelf in a cabin in Ireland. The location helped: we were a few minutes’ drive away from the hotel in which one of the tales was set, and the fjord that floods it. I do not know anyone that writes like Barry. It is intoxicating. He writes novels too: I have read one of them (City of Bohane), and will try the others, but the short stories are what ought to get him the Nobel Prize (which being, in his own words, a ‘raving egomaniac’, he makes no bones about coveting). This new collection is in some ways less varied than ‘Dark Lies the Island’, with a narrower cast of characters. Each time I was a little disappointed when I realised it was another story about a lonely, mysterious, and unaccountably alluring man, though the real character is the Irish landscape. There was a piece in the TLS last year asking whether men had lost the nerve to write about sex. The author had not read Kevin Barry. But soon enough, the spell takes over and all is forgiven. Someone ought to chain him to his desk until he writes more.

Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling (2020)

Not a book but definitely ‘written’. In many ways this feels like Marling’s most straight-forward album, musically and lyrically, though I did not listen to the last one and now will have to. It was, apparently, an attempt to write ‘confidences and affirmations’ to an imaginary daughter, inspired by Maya Angelou’s ‘Letter to My Daughter’. I only just read that: what is interesting is that these songs are so entirely convincing they each feel more ‘real’ than any of the more obviously autobiographical songs Marling used to write. The other thing that has changed is the melodies, which are beautiful. This was not always the case. Her earlier albums got by more on her charisma as a writer and singer. These you want to play again and again. There is an interesting story behind the last track, ‘For You’. Apparently, it is a homage to Paul McCartney, was never meant to be a ‘proper’ song: “I had a fight with a friend of mine, weirdly, defending Lennon against McCartney and I took it so personally. For some reason I felt like Paul McCartney was the good one and Lennon was the bad one and I was somehow embodying the bad one – so I thought it’d be interesting to see why I felt that strongly about it.” In the end, she realised how good a songwriter McCartney really was. For my money, the difference between the two Beatles is not so much moral as musical. McCartney wrote melodies. Proper or not, melodies are what lasts.

The Uncomfortable Beach Chair

W. H. Auden is still best known for the poetry he wrote in the 1930s, which captured the spirit of an anxious age. But his later poems are unsettling in their own way too, if you know where to look.

There is a game which critics like to play where they trace the career of a poet and try to track the ways in which what they wrote changed over time, what those turning points say about the poet, their poems, and the times they were living in. Like all good games, this one is endless. There are as many answers as there are people; there is always a different position to take about what the change was, or how it happened, or what ‘version’ of a poet is best. Or, like Philip Larkin did, you can pretend you are above the game by saying you don’t believe that poets ‘develop’ at all.

W. H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden had a long career. In the 1930s he was the most famous young poet of his generation in England. When he died in 1973, he was living in Austria, having left England for America just before the Second World War. Auden is a perfect subject for the game, in two ways. He captured something in the atmosphere in the thirties in a way no other poet did, the connection between private anxiety and public foreboding, the emotions of ‘dread, guilt, disaster or disease’ which have made so many people compare then to now. But his career also has an obvious ‘turning point’ to get the game started: when the war that his poems had done so much to presage broke out, his poems changed.

John Sutherland says that Auden has two identities. On the one hand, ‘he is… the greatest English lyric poet of the 20th century,’ and, on the other, he is ‘a top-ranked American lyric poet of a rather different, more reflective character’. Larkin, writing as a young-ish man in 1955, was less charitable: Auden’s later poems too often seemed to be written ‘by someone no longer capable of strong feeling, or of conveying strong feeling in poetry, or of thinking it matters whether it is conveyed or not’.

Larkin played the ‘development’ game like a master, even as he professed his own disbelief in it. He even had an answer (‘no more than a hint’) as to why this had happened: ‘[Auden’s] decline as a poet dates from the time he cut himself off from… the insecurity that England represented’. He praises the old Auden’s ability to find, amongst that insecurity, ‘images, rhythms and phrases that completely won the reader’s confidence, no matter how little was otherwise conceded’ (those readers included Larkin, whose schoolboy poems were largely attempts to copy him).

But Auden scared himself with his own precocious powers of persuasion. Later, he scrupulously revised poems to edit out, or supress entirely, moments where he thought that he had been too breezy about politics, or too certain about the truth.[1] Auden’s ability to express ‘The Age of Anxiety’ was always about more than his ability to convince, or the way in which he reflected specific responses to a specific time and place. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted.

Rather, what counted was Auden’s feeling for the feeling of unease. On the one hand, he could create suspense in all the ways Larkin admired about the early poems: by being elliptical, alluding to warfare, or espionage, or actual disease, and writing in a way which makes you feel like he is leading you on a secret mission, though you have no idea what the object is, only that it probably isn’t good (‘Control of the passes, was he, saw, the key’). Auden also played against expectations by using familiar forms in unfamiliar ways, particularly the creepy bastardisations of nursery rhymes and ballads that lull the reader into thinking something innocent is going on, before pulling the rug from under you. Auden’s consistency was in effect, not form, or even tone: he is trying to unsettle you. ‘Their Lonely Betters’, written in Auden’s post-war period, is a good example of how his later style developed, while retaining that sense of unease (follow the link to read the full poem). Auden starts with a simple image of himself doing what the lucky have been doing a lot of recently: sitting in his garden, listening to the birds.

               As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade

               To all the noises that my garden made,

               It seemed to me only proper that words

               Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

The tone is firmly tongue in cheek, but we are prepared for a kind of argument. Perhaps it is God withholding words from the vegetables and the birds: Auden had ‘reconverted’ to Anglicanism at this point. In any case, the argument appears perfectly legible whether you believe in a creator or not. It is the difference between humans and nature. He continues:

               A robin with no Christian name ran through

               The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,

               And rustling flowers for some third-party waited

               To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

In ‘only proper’ and ‘Robin-Anthem’ already you can see the extension of that ‘garrulous, ingenious, playful-sentimental’ and ultimately going-nowhere tone of voice which convinced Larkin these later poems were devoid of feeling. The tone extends into the third stanza, which lays out the argument even clearer: ‘Not one of them was capable of lying’. This is all done in such perfect, almost too perfect rhymes, and a simple, lightly skipping rhythm: the first line or two of each stanza have an extra syllable, running down to the end, but the rest are regular. 

Something changes, however in the final stanza, and when it does, it changes the whole poem. First, there is the brilliance of the first line. It wakes you up.

               Let them leave language to their lonely betters

               Who count some days and long for certain letters;

               We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:

               Words are for those with promises to keep.

With its rolling ‘l’s, the line leaps off the tongue. That skipping, extra syllable suddenly sounds a lot more serious, an incantation rather than a going-through-the-motions. The line seems to sum up the argument so far: able to speak, people are ‘better’ than nature, but they are lonely, divorced from its certainty and happy ignorance. The next line seems to back this up by letting us see the loneliness which language entails: ‘who count some days and long for certain letters’. The natural thing to expect is ‘count the days’. If someone is expecting something, we don’t usually talk about counting individual days. Or Does Auden mean that for some people, only some days ‘count’?

It’s not clear. The uncertainty stops you in your tracks. We have been stopped twice, in fact, first by the clarity of the first the line, then by the doubt of the second. The l in ‘long for certain letters’ picks up the speed and the skippishness of the line before, but only partly, so we also have a further sense of falling, and that sense is compounded by the early break in the third line: ‘we, too’. It is a break in sense as well. Auden is pointing out our similarities with animals and vegetables. Some emotions are instinctive. The doubt, which was first introduced by the word ‘some’ has been there all along.

There is a kind of mirroring between the helplessness of the person waiting for ‘certain letters’ and the flowers in the second stanza who are waiting for the bees to decide who they can ‘mate’ with.[2] It is not so much the sadness of being separated from nature that Auden is drawing out (which is, after all, not so sad — how could we be anything but different?). Dependent, as we are, on language, we are vulnerable to one another, and Auden is writing about that vulnerability, the loneliness and uncertainty which is a part of being human, of being loved and unloved, and doing so in ways which, Auden feels, we cannot control. Despite the certain-sounding rhymes of ‘weep’ and ‘keep’ (they end in consonants) the final lines land as a question, almost an accusation.

Until I wrote this thought I agreed with Larkin about Auden’s ‘development’. But there is ‘strong feeling’ here: the feeling of uncertainty. Perhaps Auden isn’t sitting so comfortably in his beach-chair after all. 


[1] This included the astonishing poem ‘Spain’, with its reference to ‘necessary murder’ in defence of the Spanish Republic (George Orwell objected), as well as another now totemic poem, ‘September 1, 1939’, where Auden changed the final line ‘we must love one another or die’ to ‘we must love one another and die’.

Larkin inherited this uncertainty. Just a year after he criticised Auden’s later work, he would write his own confident-sounding last line about love in ‘An Arundel Tomb’: ‘what will survive of us is love’. He, too, thought it too confident. It is the same line.

[2] I have stolen this point about the birds and the bees from John Sutherland’s article.

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

A Long Slide from a High Window

Philip Larkin is one of the most distinctive and best loved voices in modern poetry, yet a poem like ‘High Windows’ hits home because he was also a master of switching register.

Inevitably, I am going to talk about Philip Larkin. Inevitability is part of the universe of Philip Larkin’s poems — the inevitability of death, but also the impossibility of escaping where we come from. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. The poems I’ve been writing about here have been one step removed from ‘normal’ language. Larkin, who is still, just about, contemporary, stays close to speech by using it directly. Most strikingly, he swears. A lot. Expletives are par for the course in modern poems, but kids still recite that line in the playground.  

For some, this nearness to real life, which, for Larkin, meant a recognition of its limits, was a limitation. Couldn’t he cheer up a little? Write with more swing? Then there is the man himself. Though his writing — and career as a university librarian — is shot through with a deep, genuine concern for other people, he ended his days as a lonely, racist alcoholic.[1] Much of the ‘dark’ side of Philip Larkin only came out after his death, when his letters were published (at his own request, one of his lovers had burnt his diaries). Larkin kept his prejudices private, which may be a form of hypocrisy, but the poems leave you with no doubts that he is familiar with unkindness, and even cruelty.

A great deal of Larkin’s nastiness was directed at himself. About ‘High Windows’, the poem which lends its name to his final collection, he wrote ‘I don’t think it is very good: I called the book after it because I like the title.’ Most writers dislike most of what they write most of the time, but the savagery of Larkin’s self-criticism still shocks. In his workbook, the final three words are replaced by ‘and fucking piss’.[2] This is not very helpful, given I’m going to explain what I like about it. In fact, I think the way ‘High Windows’ works says something important about how poetry.

The question of who poets are, and how we as readers feel about them, is particularly acute with Larkin because it is often his voice which draws you to him in the first place. He is the sweary misanthrope who writes about ordinary lives in ways that are both true and beautiful, bitter and generous. Like most poets with a wide readership, you know when you are in Larkin’s world, like you know you are in a world created by Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney or Wendy Cope. Often that world is the city he adopted, Hull. But the voice is crucial too.  

‘High Windows’ kicks off with somebody chatting away:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s   
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm
[…]

This is the classic ‘Larkin’ persona, a frank enough observer of post-war society to talk about sex, but also clearly an outsider, and a slightly creepy one at that. But a Larkin poem — and this one especially — is also a series of different voices. This is one of the things I like about them.[3] Some might find ‘fucking her’ shocking or offensive. It is done self-consciously. ‘Here’, Larkin’s saying, ‘is the sort of thing people say.’[4] The next stanza adds another category of person, old people, and the language shifts again:

I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—   
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester
[…]

You could argue there are as many voices in a poem as there are strong words, which is to say, words with associations, words which put us in mind of people or ways of life which aren’t directly represented in the poem. Here, we are in the realm of social analysis. It is Larkin the librarian talking: the language is academic, sociological — ‘bonds and gestures’.

Having warmed up, Larkin shifts tone again, dramatically, by imagining a specific voice, which is italicised to make it clear it is meant to be a reported speech. This voice is still recognisably Larkin-ish – bitter, ironic — but it’s not Larkin himself. He imagines someone ‘old’ observing his own generation, jealous of their freedoms:    

[…] He
And his lot will all go down the long slide   
Like free bloody birds.

Larkin’s voice draws the reader in, convincing you that you are at least dealing with a real, fallible person, however unfamiliar or uncomfortable their perspective might be. Uncertainty and self-criticism sit alongside grand generalisations about life: the latter wouldn’t hit so hard if they weren’t accompanied by the former.

The shifting of tones I am talking about here performs a complimentary, but different, function. For one thing, hopping between voices is just more fun than being talked at, endlessly: it keeps you on your toes and is another way of adding variety. But I also find something oddly refreshing about the way a poem can hold so many different perspectives together in one place, if only for a moment. It is like the opposite of a Zoom call: you get something like an encounter with a series of genuinely individual voices, but also, at the same time — whether through the sheer weight of voices, or that ‘third person’ voice used for sweeping metaphors or grand, universal statements — a sense of community and certainty. And (which is key) you get both sensations without the unwelcome, impossible demand of having to commit entirely to one or the other, either fully empathising with another person or submitting yourself to some greater, impersonal whole.

For me, this is the best way of thinking about why poetry might be valuable, now, in lockdown, although it’s only a version of why it’s always been valuable. If poems were only about helping us to empathise with other people, the current vogue for them would suggest that, usually, we get our fill of that elsewhere. Poetry would be a stopgap before we go back to normal life. But Poems are something else: a shifting between self and society. No other art, and no part of normal life, does this in quite the same way. If people are turning to poems now it might be because our understanding of who we are, and how we relate to other people, is under such pressure.

Think about the difference between a poem on a page and a poem read out loud. Philip Larkin was recorded reading many of his poems and I find it fascinating to hear how he intended them to be read. But inevitably any reader only has one voice, and one voice is all it takes to break the spell of a poem like ‘High Windows’. Larkin once said he didn’t want to be a professional poet, working the lecture circuit, because he wouldn’t want to go around ‘pretending to be himself’. This is another of those self-deprecatory remarks that hides a serious point about the difference between the poet and the poem: by manipulating tone on the page, the writer gives the poem a life beyond them. All of this comes together in that astonishing last stanza:

[…] And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The tone shifts decisively, for the final time. Here is that universality, the grand statement, the highly symbolic image of the window with the blue sky behind it. Larkin’s reflection on the way different generations see each other has led him to see the way they are each part of something bigger, which is a kind of nothingness, which is a kind of freedom. But we have been prepared for this as readers, precisely because he has worked his way through a series of individual voices first. It is as if the journey from being ‘Larkin’ at the beginning, through the various other guises, has stripped him of that overbearing personality which announced itself so forcefully at the beginning. The poem is a kind of ‘long slide’. That is why the recording of Larkin reading ‘High Windows’ doesn’t work for me: it fails on the final word, where Larkin — pretending to be himself — stresses ‘endless’ like someone lost or confused, or slightly afraid of the sublimity of it all. The suspense only holds on the page.   

Larkin said: ‘It’s a true poem. One longs for infinity and absence, the beauty of somewhere you’re not. It shows humanity as a series of oppressions, and one wants to be somewhere where there’s neither oppressed nor oppressor, just freedom. It may not be very articulate.’[5]


1. Larkin said that deprivation was for him ‘what daffodils were to Wordsworth’. That one line remains probably the best key to the poems and the person.

2. From The Complete Poems edited by Archie Burnett.

3. Larkin originally wanted to write novels. He published two — Jill and A Girl in Winter, both very different, and both a little uncertain, yet both as beautifully written as the poems. With typical self-deprecation Larkin said ‘he wasn’t interested in other people enough to be an author’. What he was signalling, however, was that he at least knew that being interested in other people was important. He knew what he lacked. By comparison, you do not come away from T. S. Eliot’s poetry thinking he has any real interest in the way other people feel. But Eliot was a publisher who also wrote a lot of criticism so his views about literature have spread, while Larkin, with the obvious exception of the poems, and a long career reviewing jazz records, largely kept his mouth shut.

4. He said it was ‘part of the palette’, (i.e. not necessarily his) which implies he was recording what he was hearing: ‘You use them when you want to shock. I don’t think I’ve ever shocked for the sake of shocking.’ You can tell Larkin was self-conscious about the swearing, because he brings it up unpromoted: ‘I have a new collection of poems coming out early next month. My advance copy seems full of four-letter words, not at all likely to please a JP! Perhaps you can ban it.’ The person he was writing to had just been made a magistrate. When Larkin started writing publishers could still be prosecuted for ‘obscenity’. (The Complete Poems)

5. The Complete Poems

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

Boom, Boom – On Elizabeth Bishop

View of the Capital from the Library of Congress’ by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop sounds like an austere landscape painting, but the poem gently mocks the seriousness of its surroundings.

Bishop is maybe most famous for her poems of place: she spent much of her life living in South America and she wrote collections called Questions of Travel and Geography III (there was no ‘1’ or ‘2’). ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’ was written while working at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an office which looked across to the vast white wedding-cake ‘Capitol’ building which houses the US House of Congress — the capitalised ‘Dome’ of the poem. The poem does what it says. It is both what Bishop sees and her experience of seeing it. 

Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.

‘View of the Capitol’ starts with a description of sunlight moving across the dome and it’s a light airy poem. Bishop apparently called it ‘trivial’. I like it as much as any of her serious ones, which I often struggle to follow. There may be trivial or non-trivial American allusions I don’t pick up here too. Who cares! There are some similarities with MacNeice’s ‘Snow’: the use of ordinary, unpoetic language, the touch of the surreal in the imagery. The lunette’ — a kind of window? — is compared to a horse. Until the final stanza there is a regular, unbroken metre of four beats to a line. But Bishop deliberately undermines it. ‘A big white old wall-eyed horse’ feels a beat too long (it’s not). Why? Because, I suppose, there are four adjectives where you expect three, while the gap ‘old’ creates between the two ‘wh’ sounds slow you down. It’s ugly. 

On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but – queer –
the music doesn’t quite come through.

The ‘Air Force’ band is dressed in ‘Air Force’ blue. The repetition of the word is kind of faux naivety: you’re not supposed to repeat words. Here it contributes to the ease with which the poem moves forward. It helps that the word itself is light and breezy. Air doesn’t sound like anything, but the word ‘air’ hardly exists either. There are no hard consonants in ‘force’. In the next stanza we learn ‘the music doesn’t quite come through’. It comes in snatches, caught in the ‘giant trees’ like ‘gold dust’. The next stanza paints an even more pathetic picture: the leaves wave ‘limp stripes’ of sound into the air. The metaphor itself is a bit limp. It stretches too far. What’s in strips, the sound? Yet, in the last stanza, the set up comes good:

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom — boom.

Bishop asks the trees to ‘edge over’. The ‘gathered brasses’ of the band (which makes them sound like something natural) want to ‘boom — boom’. ‘Boom — boom’ is kind of pathetic, too. If you’re not supposed to repeat words, you’re definitely not supposed to just print out the sounds. These rules may just be a product of my id — I don’t believe in them, but I’m sure someone does. The brasses sound pathetic too: they ‘want’ to make an impressive sound but the stilted rhythm undermines them. ‘Boom’ is deliberately childish. Bishop brings the military band down to size: the climax is an anti-climax.

If the brasses are brought down to size, the ‘great shades’ are promoted. Bishop asks them, politely, if they could ‘edge over’. The act of asking, like the notion that the brasses could ‘want’ to boom, isn’t just playful: this is how it looks and sounds. I am sitting at the window with Bishop. I can imagine, from here, willing the trees to just edge over a bit, I can see the sound of the brasses trapped in the leaves, feel the distances.

Another American poet, Ben Lerner, has a theory that all poems are failures because they attempt to represent the ‘perfect’ poem which we all have in our head and this isn’t possible (I paraphrase). I don’t agree. It is enough to capture an experience as best you can. The experience here is the playfulness of seeing and you can’t fail at that. If you could, you wouldn’t be playing.    

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

Poemy unpoeticness – On Louis MacNeice

There are not many writers I could point to and say ‘yes, that is the first time I read X, and here is how I felt about it.’ But there are two poets I remember encountering for the first time more vividly than most. The first is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. I had bought the translations by Stephen Mitchell from the Brick Lane Bookshop, when I moved to London for the first time. I was at a loose end. I had drifted into a job I wasn’t sure about, having come back to the UK from Sri Lanka earlier than expected in unusual circumstances, where I was teaching English in Colombo. Rilke’s poems are about transience and comforting in a vaguely mystical way. The circumstances met the poems.

The second is the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice, whose poem ‘Snow’ is the subject of this blog. I remember encountering MacNeice for the first time, because he produced real resistance. It sounds (and is) ridiculous, but there was something about his surname which put me off. “MacNeice.” It was clinical, sharp, abrasive. And this seemed to be mirrored in the poems, which, to my unfamiliar ear, felt too tightly controlled, almost prickly. There was a flintiness to his subjects, too: real life in the 1930s, with little sentiment, and any broader themes, such as I could identify, introduced elliptically. It was all a world away from the Tennyson and Milton we had been studying in school, or the lyrics I was listening to at home and trying to write for our garage band. It wasn’t what I thought poems were. I remember thinking: this is a bit hard, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

It’s difficult now to reconcile those feelings with this poem, ‘Snow’, a short, sharp hymn to the multifariousness of the world. The context is simple: MacNeice is sitting in a room, in front of a fire, eating a tangerine. It is snowing. There is a vase of roses in the window. We are thrown in at the point at which the snow, the roses and the window undergo a change, and become an overwhelming spectacle. Perhaps it has just started to snow, or MacNeice has only just noticed.  Whatever is going on, it is a surprise, and the surprise is the prompt for some engaging, chummy philosophising about the richness and variety of the world, and our perception of it.

‘Snow’ does all the right poemy things. The sounds match what is being said. The world is busy, busier than we realise, and so is a phrase like ‘soundlessly collateral and incompatible’. Then there’s that tangerine. The words come down to single, propulsive syllables, so that you must also spit to say, ‘spit the pips and feel’. But there is a deliberate unpoeticness to ‘Snow’, an awkwardness in the phrasing and language, and this is one of the things I like most about it. That and the open-ended imagery: why is there more than glass between the snow and the roses?

Notice, for instance, how the ends of the lines draw attention to themselves. You might have tripped up when the first line finished on ‘was’. The natural thing would be to put ‘was’ on the next line, as it is not a stand-alone verb at all, but part of the verb ‘was spawning’. As it is, you stop and start again.  When we are taught poetry in school, there is a temptation to say that enjambment (the technical term for when a phrase, an image or an idea, is broken up by two lines) is meant to mean something special. Often it is just a convenient (or lazy) way of drawing attention to a word or phrase. Here, the enjambment does the thing it describes. It is surprising.

One of the reasons we sometimes take enjambment for granted is that very few modern poets use metre, that is, a set rhythm. MacNeice is not using one here, not really. Most lines have six beats, but there is no pattern. But there is a rhythm behind each line. One phrase stands out because it is the only one in iambic pentameter (five beats in a line, often thought of as the metre most like ordinary speech, because one line of it takes one breath): ‘Word is suddener than we fancy it.’

There are other ways in which MacNeice goes out of his way to break expectations. Roses, fire, snow: these are symbolic, ‘poetic’ images, but here they do not represent anything other than themselves. By the end, the ‘huge roses’ have become something other than themselves, alien and strange. ‘Fancy it’ and ‘Suddenly’ are not phrases you expect to hear in such a short, condensed poem, where space is at a premium. The only two rhymes in the poem are ungainly. Against it / Fancy it. Supposes / Huge roses. Yet, how satisfying is it to land on ‘roses’ at the end! That satisfaction derives in part from the fact everything that came before, the words, the rhythm, the images, has been slightly offbeat. Just in the previous line there were four triple beats and no punctuation. Even ‘huge roses’ is a bit wrong: I find I have to put the stress on both words, like an engine juddering to a halt.   

Before working for the BBC after the Second World War, where he wrote radio plays, MacNeice lectured in Classics in Birmingham. So knew his way around Greek and Latin poetry, and his trochees from his spondees. ‘Snow’ works against expectations, without ever being inaccessible. Every now and then it gives you the satisfaction of a ‘normal’ line or a clean rhyme. You get poetic language (‘incorrigibly plural’) but it is leavened with ordinary speech: ‘crazier’. I have never warmed to the argument, well-meaning though it may be, that poetry has a unique ability to ‘re-enchant’ the world, show it to us with new eyes. A good poem may do that, but so would the right novel, painting, film, or photograph. So could a conversation. The poem is its form, and, done right, the form is its own surprise.  

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

Negative Virtues – On Robert Frost

Poems are not social in any normal sense of the word. You must spend a lot of time alone to write or read them. The reader might share them or even read them to someone else (it does happen) and you can say that this is a kind of socialness.

Here we get a little closer to the truth, but it’s still not the whole truth: the pleasure the writer and the reader receive from the excuse to be alone which a poem provides them is not identical to the thought of the pleasure they may bring other people. At least that’s not my experience. If it was there would be fewer poems. In fact, a lot of great poetry comes with a drop of misanthropy. Misanthropy comes in different shapes and sizes. It might appear as a preference for some abstract principle — like an idea, or history, or God — over actual, living, breathing people. With Robert Frost (and this is true for many of the poets I like best) it comes as the desire to be alone.

Someone mentioned to me, after the first blog, that ‘Into My Own’ was an odd poem to start off with. It is not an easy poem, or an especially well known one. It’s not that the poem isn’t easy to understand, line by line: it’s a wish, because it won’t happen. The trees really are only a ‘mask of gloom’, rather than the endless forest Frost wishes they were, stretching away ‘unto the edge of doom’. So far, so simple. The couplets keep the poem rolling on like that ‘slow wheel that pours the sand’ in the second stanza, as does the mirroring of the sounds within the lines (assonance). ‘Scarcely show’ is the sound that a breeze might make (though, like the breeze in the poem, it doesn’t shout about it). However, when we get to the third stanza, things begin to break down.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back, 
Or those should not set forth upon my track        10
To overtake me, who should miss me here 
And long to know if still I held them dear. 

What is Frost is saying about the people who miss him? Does he want them to follow him or not? And where does the final couplet come from? What did he think was true? Why is he surer of it now?

They would not find me changed from him they knew— 
Only more sure of all I thought was true. 

There is a difference between a poem making sense, and a poem having (as in, possessing) a meaning. Some people are suspicious of this. Quite reasonably, they see it as a license for obscurity, a kind of laziness. I must level with you. I do not think that poems need to have meanings, or that meaning even emerges out of the imagery and language. Poems are just not things which have meanings, in the same way that concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ are not the sort of things which have colours. I’m more inclined to agree with Philip Larkin, when he argued that poems are expressions of emotions, though I don’t think, as he did, that these emotions need to be clear or simple.

One thing that is clearly expressed in this poem is the strength of Frost’s sense of independence. Equally clear is his refusal to feel sorry about it. In the third stanza, he says that doesn’t see why, if his friends miss him as much as they say, they should not follow him. In the last couplet, he is saying that he doesn’t think this journey into himself is one which will change him. To make sense of these last lines, it helps to think about what usually happens in a story when the hero goes on an adventure: they change for the better. They become more useful to others. Not Frost!

This is all very antisocial. It is also in stark contrast to the chummy, down-to-earth ‘farmer’ persona which Frost presented to the world for much of his career, where he was the major poet in the United States after the Second World War, even being asked to read at JFK’s inauguration.[1] Ian Hamilton, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin Selected Poems, makes the point that for all Frost’s earthiness, “the virtues that have been so widely thought to be endearing, are really much more negative than positive. They each have their harsh, misanthropic centre.”

Like his more well-known poems ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, or ‘Acquainted with the Night’, ‘Into My Own’ has a darker side still. What if the truth which Frost knows is that nothing is worth knowing, or that there is nothing to know? What is that ‘doom’ doing there? The critic Lionel Trilling pointed to the ‘utterly uncomforting and resolute sense of futility’ in Frost’s poems, and you can see that here. Whatever is being said, there is an inhuman certainty in the final statement.[2]

When I first read this poem, I didn’t read it as negative at all. The combination of the emotion and the image appealed. Not only the joy in being alone, the bracing independence of it (although there is that), but also the specific image of the line of trees, which might hide something infinite. I like the cutaway nature of the edge of a forest. The sense of potential. Even though you know it’s only a sense, it is always disappointing to find that, at some point, the forest stops. Then there’s the language. The tone is conversational, so it’s hard to take the negative tone seriously. It is ‘one of his wishes’. That sounds less like a man who’s completed committed to disappearing off into the wilderness, and more like someone who just enjoys entertaining the idea. And the idea is presented with such an easy, confident sweep in that second stanza: ‘fearless of ever finding open land’.

In short, Frost achieves a tension between those two feelings, the carefree desire for independence, and the misanthropy hiding behind it. He doesn’t come down on either side. Neither, for many people, does the desire to be alone. There is pleasure in it, and there is something darker too. That is how it is. None of this really has anything to do with what we’re going through right now. We are all alone, together, out of a sense of duty to each other, although I would suspect that many people are looking forward to being able to experience that different kind of being alone again. We might worry that Frost is going off too blasé about whether anyone will miss him or not. Pretty self-indulgent. Pretty big assumption to make. The poem isn’t an argument, though, so there is not much point in judging him. Frost is saying: here is how it is for me.


[1] Robert Frost’s reputation in the UK has never even begun to compare to his status in the States, despite beginning his career as a poet in England. He was also, through a close friendship and much encouragement, one of the main causes of that most English of English poets, Edward Thomas.

[2] Referenced in Ian Hamilton’s introduction to the Selected Poems

This blog is part of a series I started in March 2020 where I pick a poem I like and talk about what I like about it. I wrote a short introduction about my motivations here.

2 reviews: Hannah Lowe and Stewart Sanderson

I enjoy doing OPOIs (it stands for ‘one point of interest’) for Sphinx Review, the brainchild of Helena Nelson at HappenStance Press. The form, 350 words on one thing you liked about a new pamphlet, works like all forms – the restriction becomes a kind of freedom. If you haven’t written any criticism before it is a good, supportive place to start. By ‘criticism’ I mean any kind of reflection on how literature does and doesn’t work, though these days the word will seem negative to many people. There is no reason why this has to be the case.

For me, the beauty of the OPOI is that because of the word limit you have to direct that attention on the poems. There’s no room to speculate. Two recent efforts are below, on Stewart Sanderson’s An Offering and Hannah Lowe’s The Neighbourhood.

In the first, I talk about how rhyming can help a poem carry an argument or a narrative. I’ve been thinking about this again recently reading Pope properly for the first time, most of which is in rhyming couplets. Pope’s ‘Essay on Criticism’, incidentally, argues that the point of criticism is to encourage what is good. Hannah Lowe’s pamphlet is very close to home: my street in Brixton is on the front cover. In the OPOI I talk about how one poem in the pamphlet deals with different kinds of distances.*

An Offering, Stewart Sanderson

The Neighbourhood, Hannah Lowe

*Even if you agree with Pope that criticism is a positive thing, the question then, is – who wants to put themselves forward as the arbiter of what is good? To which you can only really ask: who else is going to do it? Books want readers! At the end of the day, you are only explaining what you like and it is worth bearing that in mind…

Another Way of Forgetting

I wrote something about ‘A Very Expensive Poison’, a play on at the Old Vic last year about the Litvinenko poisoning, how I enjoyed it (the play, not the poisoning) and what I thought it said about the way in which we think about ‘Russia’ for the Observer/Anthony Burgess Foundation prize for arts journalism and it ended up being shortlisted. The review is now online with the rest of the shortlist and the winning piece by Lucy Holt.

This the first time I’ve been published in a newspaper since a highly prophetic but entirely ineffective letter to Nick Clegg about the 2010 election. The Observer also gave us all these nice plastic blow-ups which make the article look like a real thing in a broadsheet, which is sweet. Reviewing is an unnerving job, and any critic with any self-awareness will feel like an imposter. So, it is good that the prize is encouraging new writers, and I would encourage anyone who even vaguely thinks of themselves in those terms to look out for it next time.