Category Archives: 1) Wastebook

In traditional accounting the wastebook is where rough entries of transactions are entered. Here it is jottings about anything (but mostly poetry).

Review: ‘T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and literary form’

The strength of Anthony Julius’s T. S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and literary form (Cambridge University Press, 1995) is also its weakness: the book does not linger on Eliot’s motivations, his influences, or his reception, but instead focuses, almost to the point of exhaustion, on how Eliot used anti-Semitism – its images, its ways of thinking, its resonances – to make poems. The skill with which he did this, Julius argues, makes these poems a contribution to the anti-Semitic imagination, not simply a product of it.

The author is a barrister not a poet or a critic. He picks his ground carefully. Later in life, Eliot protested that as a devout Christian he could not possibly be anti-Semitic, since anti-Semitism was theologically unsound. That a little glance at history proves that far from the case is not the point: Eliot was deflecting the charge onto his own character, and away from the poems. Julius does not fall for the trap.

As Julius puts it, the poems he considers ‘exclude’ Jews by presenting them as objects of disgust and deirision. I have never been able to read the Collected Poems without them leaving a bad taste. ‘Gerontian’, the ‘Sweeney’ poems and ‘Burbank with a Baedeker’ squat at the beginning of the book, inevitably colouring the rest. Even reading ‘The Wasteland’ I am always waiting for some catty, coy suggestion that Jews are responsible for the state of the world. It never comes but only because Ezra Pound (of all people) excised a section known as ‘Dirge’, which depicts Bleistein’s corpse decaying beneath the Thames. The phrase ‘neither gentile nor Jew’ remains, though, and I find it hard to read the word from Eliot without hearing a sneer.

T. S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and literary form is an uneven book. Partly this is a matter of style: Julius does not have any. He reads best when he is dissecting naïve notions about poetry’s intrinsic lack of content, the idea that if a text includes an argument or a statement, or is morally suspect, then it is not a ‘true’ poem. (Critics have argued that the poems cannot be anti-Semitic, because no good poem could be). Sometimes it takes an outsider to treat arguments like these with the short shrift they deserve.

Yet Julius will also riff for pages on the implications of a particular line or image, and while this is part of his method, it is hard to follow and often feels overcooked: it is not necessary to believe that Eliot understood every single unsavoury implication of ‘Rachel nee Rabinovitch’ with her ‘murderous claws’ to believe he knew exactly what he was doing by putting her in the poem.  

When the book came out, it caused a storm. But it was a storm which, as Tom Paulin observed in the London Review of Books, went nowhere. Instead, in the press, and in the LRB’s letter pages, the issue settled swiftly into the familiar and largely irrelevant question of whether or not Eliot’s other poetry could be enjoyed guilt-free (in effect, whether or not he should be cancelled).

That reception can partly be attributed to the book. Julius does not go into any depth about what writing anti-Semitic poems might have meant for Eliot’s development as a poet, or for his influence as a writer and public intellectual: there are tantalising hints about the importance of defacement and ugliness to modernism, or about Eliot’s conflicted notion of himself as an intellectual. There is even a suggestion that anti-Semitism might have been necessary to Eliot’s own conversion to Anglicanism, in that it offered him a world-view with the Jew at one extreme, representing everything Eliot detested about modern society, and the Christian at the other (the English Christian, too, Paulin would stress).

In short, there is more to say about the connection between anti-Semitism and Eliot’s reactionary modernism, and how appealing that world-view was to writers and readers here and in the US before and after the war, and still is. But Julius doesn’t go there, and the debate about the book slipped into comfortable clichés about distinguishing between the art and the artist. As far as I can gather, the critical reckoning Paulin was calling for twenty-five years ago never got going.*

* As an example of how low the reception of Julius’s book sank, the LRB published a letter in response to Paulin wondering whether Eliot was right about the Jews after all. It is a bucket of nonsense, but I will quote the worst bit: “It is an astonishing weakness of Tom Paulin’s review that he shows no awareness of the insidious ambiguity of the term ‘anti-semitism’ or of the great damage done to the fabric of Western nations by Jewish interests during the last few hundred years.” You can read the article and responses here.

The Quick and the Dead

In a recent post on his always thought-provoking (and, crucially, given what I had to say the other day, short) blog ‘Rougue Strands’, Matthew Stewart asks whether poets are reading enough new poetry.

It is a fair question. Stewart suggests that well-reviewed books often only sell around 200 copies. As I understand, debut novels will often only shift a few thousand, and the difference probably reflects the difference in ‘market share’ between fiction and verse. The truth is, when I review, it is never with any expectation that it is going to sell books. They are responses to the poems.

For some time now, I have been trying to read more widely in twentieth-century poetry, whatever that means to you. Mostly it means coming across more poets I don’t feel I have enough time to read more of, but want to. Someone, in person or print, will recommend them to me, or I will find them in an anthology.* To take a few more recent names at random: Edwin Morgan. Langston Hughes. The Welsh-Jewish poet Dannie Abse. Thom Gunn, who I had read but not really read.

But I also keep trying to go further back in time, to Wordsworth and John Clare, for instance, both of whom I have read but never properly digested. I am still half way through Paradise Lost (it is good). Each one of these poets is, by any reckoning, a major figure. It will take me years to really appreciate any one of them. And I have a lot of novels and trash non-fiction to get through in the meantime.

Regardless of how much reading is really going on, all new poetry is competing, within a small readership, with every poem ever written. It is not simply that there is a lot of good new poetry out there: there is a lot of seriously good poetry out there from ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or even 400 years ago. Suddenly, selling 200 copies to real, living, breathing humans begins to look like very good going indeed.

The vast majority of poems I read are by dead people (dead men, if those examples are anything to go by) and probably always will be. But that also helps explain why I take an interest in ‘contemporary’ poetry in the first place: it is as much about being social, about offering solidarity, about, ultimately, placing a bet on the future, as it is about the poems themselves.

*I have the Bloodaxe The New Poetry anthology, from 1993, in the loo (I presume this is what the editors would have wanted) and it is the source of a lot of discoveries, but also a lot of anxiety. There are so many great poets from the 80s and 90s in there. None of them are very new any more.

In Praise of Magazines (a Via Negativa)

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not / You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

– T S Eliot, ‘East Coker’

In the last few months, in one of my vain attempts to use the internet better, I tried signing up to some of those newsletters, the ones where an individual writer sends their articles direct to your inbox. The idea was that I would read more and spend less time scrolling through social media.

I do not read them. Whether it is a cause or an effect, I have never paid for any of the ‘extra’ content. I do not think this is because of my attention span, either. The ones I sign up for, thinking I will get something out of, are often very long and wordy, and I find reading anything long on a laptop or a phone difficult: we are in the realm of distraction. Something else is just a click away. .

Then there is the fact that the kind of thing I keep signing up for, writing about culture or ideas or whatever, really does, it turns out, need an editor. This is a sad thing to learn for someone writing a blog, but one person’s interests, especially on anything vaguely complex, are not enough – and, to be frank, should not be enough – to sustain the attention of an audience of other individuals, even if they find that person particularly interesting.1

It is not just the quantity. When anything first gets written, and especially about something complex, the first draft is effectively the writer talking to themselves. You leave all kinds of things unsaid and assume knowledge on the reader’s part you shouldn’t. This is inevitable: the reader is a little repressive dictator (“why are you saying this, why aren’t you saying that”) and you have to think about them as little as possible just to get the thing out.

Without editors as intermediaries all writing risks being a kind of droning on, all talk and no ears. I think this is why a lot of people who could write, don’t. Not because they are afraid, or uninterested: they just do not want to be bores. They are probably right.

Blogs (I hope) are a bit different, and there are some very good newsletters which are effectively blogs, like Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Imperfectionist’. They do not tend to be very long. They are more informal, so an editor would defeat the point, whereas the phenomenon I am griping about is marketed by the author as the sort of thing you might find in a magazine or from a book. A blog also sits there waiting its turn, which is, frankly, better manners.

The problem is that the writing which comes into my inbox is a bit like being rung up and talked at by the same few strangers every week. I could pick out a particular time of the month to get through them, but just makes clear how much the whole ‘substack’ phenomenon has in common with another way in which our current digital habits are so depressing – under the illusion of control and personalization, you lose variety, choice, and, ultimately, community.

1 Naming no names, but the most common problem a magazine faces is an extension of this: always commissioning the same people, who always write the same thing.

The Memory Police

Like all ordinary people I worry I am not making a thorough enough record of the books I have read. I do not know when I started having these compulsions: I have not always been like this, and the fact is the worry is never motivating enough to sustain any commitment to one method. Instead, every now and then, I tell myself I am going to come up with a new way of keeping track, whether that is a personal reading diary, or a blog like this. After a few weeks, the compulsion burns off.  

My most recent attempt to find a method was a reading diary: I resolved to make a brief note on every book I finished, month by month. Like all the others, this attempt has fallen by the wayside. Which in retrospect makes the first entry, The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, from December 2020, rather fateful: the novel is about memory and loss, and memory, loss, and literature.

Since the beginning of lockdown in 2020, I had been on a run of reading or rereading classic science-fiction: lots of John Wyndham and H. G. Wells, trying pulp classics like Dracula (fun beginning, fun ending, otherwise a stodgy detective novel) or I Am Legend (very different to the Hollywood film) for the first time.

I also wanted to expand my own definitions of ‘sci fi’ beyond the usual suspects. Ogawa is one of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists, but I think it is fair to say she does not have a big profile here: The Memory Police was shortlisted for the 2020 International Man Booker Prize (for works in translation), but the original was published in 1994. It is a remarkable book.

I also felt I had to read it for professional reasons: one of the quotes on the cover compares it to Nineteen Eighty-Four, a story deeply concerned with memory, and the struggle of the individual to defend those memories from an overweening state, and which I have a responsibility to through my day job.

In the novel, which is set on an unnamed island, long since disconnected from the mainland, the intimidating Memory Police play a role in policing the islanders’ relationship with the past: those who continue to hold onto it live in constant fear of being found out and disappeared.  

Beyond those superficial similarities, however, they are very different books. The Memory Police has been described as a ‘dystopia’, but it is more like a slow, icy nightmare; comparisons have also been made with Kafka (who also came under my expanded definition of ‘sci fi’). Entire categories of objects regularly disappear. They literally depart, as in one memorable image of the petals on all the island’s flowers flowing downriver, but they also lose their meaning for the inhabitants before they finally go, so that by the time they are gone, the islanders do not even know what they are missing. In the case of human possessions, the islanders will often set about destroying the next set of objects, seemingly without instruction, burning photographs and books in their gardens.

There is none of the world-building, none of the political, social, or even psychological mechanisms you might expect from a ‘dystopia’. These things just happen. The Memory Police themselves have a walk-on role. They are a threat, especially to the few islanders who have the ability to remember, who they hunt down mercilessly, but otherwise seem to largely mind their own business.

This could be a comment on indifference. But it means the novel reads like a meditation on memory, on holding onto objects and the histories they carry like smells. On what it means to resist decay.

Memory is not a theme science-fiction has any exclusive domain over. Because of its cultural status, it is easy to forget that Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ‘literary’ a book as any ‘literary fiction’: Nathan Waddell writes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four that the reason the novel has achieved that cultural status it has is not simply because the problems of power it poses but because of how engaged the book is with the process of writing itself, ‘with how literary production can be influenced by the most diabolical pressures.’

In The Memory Police, the connection between memory and literature is far more explicit: the main character is a writer, attempting to write a book which is slowly slipping away from them, who finds themselves having to hide their own editor from the Memory Police.

But in the absence of the normal dystopian trimmings, in the facelessness of the enemy, and in the novel’s sustained focus on ordinary, domestic life (much of the book is spent describing the process of constructing the editor’s hideaway), the pressure the characters are under feels far more diffuse than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, more akin to time itself; less ‘diabolical’, but seriously chilling.    

Poets Dropping from the Sky

I have a very admiring review of Peter Didsbury’s new collection A Fire Shared in the new issue of the (excellent) Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, which you can get here.

When writing any kind of criticism, people often talk about poets like they drop from the sky, so I think some openness about how we (in this case, I) encounter them would be a good thing and perhaps even go a small way to making poetry, and criticism, less intimidating. Despite the navel-gazing, how I came across Didsbury’s poetry is particularly relevant in this respect because it goes back to how I got into ‘new’ poetry in the first place, and because I could easily have never come across him at all.

When I arrived at university a decade ago my idea of a contemporary poet was someone who had featured in the modern sections of the GSCE or A level anthology. So, Gillian Clarke and Seamus Heaney were contemporary poets but so, in a way, was W. H Auden. (Arguably he still is.) That, plus anything recent-looking I could find on the shelves at home, which by any standard was probably an abnormally large amount of poetry: Larkin, Plath, Walcott, Hughes, more Heaney. The odd anthology.

At university, however, I met people interested in poetry who were not my teachers or my immediate family. From them, whether by osmosis or direct instruction, I learnt there was something called ‘contemporary poetry’, which was different to the poetry I knew, because it was being written now. I also learnt that, if I wanted to be interested in, let alone write, poems, I needed to read it.

Initially, I did not like this one bit. There were enough poets already, and I already knew what I liked! Besides, surely art was universal? The discovery of this world, which I did not know about, also hit a real anxiety. It is hard enough being a kid interested in words and ideas in a world which isn’t (boo hoo).

Now, suddenly, here were people who not only liked poetry as much as I did, but knew more about it, and no amount of mentioning Auden would cover up my ignorance. The embarrassment of being interested in poetry was compounded by the embarrassment of being an imposter.  

Because I am nothing if not a diligent student, I went away and did my research. The problem was where to start. A friend mentioned Bloodaxe (the idea that people other than Penguin or Faber published poetry was new to me too), so I scoured their website.

Because I was stubborn, I still did not want anything too new. Because I was a snob, it still needed critical approval. If change over time was important, and one of the reasons why I could not simply read the old stuff was that poetry had to change to keep up with the times, there was also no sense in diving straight into the new. I needed poets who would form a bridge with what I knew already.

In retrospect this was odd behaviour. However, I got lucky. The two books I chose were Fleur Adcock’s Poems 1960 – 2000 and Peter Didsbury’s Scenes from a Long Sleep: New and Collected Poems. The idea of buying a single collection of poetry, on a student budget, and picking in the dark, seemed astonishingly bad value. Why on earth I did not get an anthology, I do not know, but perhaps it was for the best: a collection is a personal initiation, and more powerful for it.

Both poets, from what I could tell, seemed to be in that next generation after Larkin and Hughes, and both were, crucially, still writing. Adcock is actually in the same generation as Hughes and Plath but she had to get over here from New Zealand first.

They are both superb writers, too. In a way, they did also serve as a kind of bridge: most recent poetry is far more subdued than anything I was used to from school, far less metrical, far more conversational, and far more ironic (change is on the horizon, there is a romantic wind in the air). Though each individual, and have other qualities, Adcock and Didsbury are those things too.

All that says to me is they are as contemporary as anyone. Literature does not progress in a linear fashion. Sean O’Brien once described Didsbury as the kind of writer who makes you realise what you have been putting up with in the meantime. With no disrespect to the meantime, I think he is right.

I want to finish with a quick word on Adcock’s book, because I cannot help but see the two as a kind of pair. The front cover is very striking: a full reproduction of Hans Holbein the Younger’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling. That, surely, was one of the reasons I chose it. The artwork matters. The back cover is covered in admiring quotes, and these probably played a role too.

Looking at both Poems and Scenes from a Long Sleep what is striking now is how individual and interesting the quotes are compared to the average blurb. Of course, it is easier when you are picking from a long career. Most of the quotes would have been taken from longer reviews and articles, and so talk specifics: the reason most puff quotes today are so awful is they are not, and do not.

Arguably, the most telling quote on Fleur Adcock’s book comes from ex-laureate Andrew Motion: “Throughout her writing life [it goes] she has made a fine art of folding on to principles of orderliness and good clear sense; but she has made an even finer one from loosening her grip on them.”

I agree. Though I do love Adcock’s “poised, ironic… tense and tightly controlled” style, whatever the subject, my favourite poems, like the much anthologised (and very funny) ‘Things’, the eerie, sci-fi infused ‘Gas’, or ‘A Surprise in the Peninsula’ are those in which menace is very close to the surface.  

Though I do not know the context, there is something faintly patronising about Motion’s quote when you read it in full: he claims “most of Fleur Adcock’s best poems have something to do with bed”, which, besides being simply not true, is not the sort of remark Motion would make about a writer he recognised as his equal – it implies a narrowness of subject. But Adcock is more than a match for Motion. She pioneered a particularly contemporary style – poised, ironic… tense and tightly controlled – of which plenty of poetry published since often reads like a pale imitation.