Category Archives: 2) News and reviews

Reviews of books (new and old) and notice of writing published elsewhere.

Making Nothing Happen

It was probably inevitable that the two most famous quotes about poetry’s purpose, Shelley’s ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ and W. H. Auden’s ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ would be so contradictory: poetry is a house with many rooms and so, rightly, is criticism.

David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s ‘New Defences of Poetry’ project, now available on its own website here, marked the bicentennial of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ by inviting defences of poetry today and received an appropriately diverse and challenging range of responses. (I was very glad to have a piece included.)1

One of the pieces I particularly appreciated was Polly Atkin’s essay ‘Poetry as its own defence’, which puts Auden’s quote in its proper context. Often invoked ‘to gesture to the redundancy of poetry’, Auden’s words, which are lifted from the poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, are their own defence:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

For Auden, through Yeats (and now through Auden), poetry is a mouth: as Atkins memorably puts it, ‘a conduit for speech, meaning, knowledge, understanding.’ The phrase ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ ought really be read not only in the context of the line (poetry makes nothing happen, but ‘it survives’, which is something), and not only in the context of the whole stanza, which, like Auden’s Yeats, is a bit silly, if knowingly so (Mad Ireland?), but in the context of the poem. Auden puts his faith is not in some abstract thing called ‘poetry’, but in life, however difficult that proves:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I am with Atkin, too, in being sceptical of Shelley’s figure of the poet as ‘interpreter of the sacred and the arcane’, this idea that poets have exclusive insight into moral or spiritual truths beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Not only does the evidence just not bear this out, it is a conservative idea – or at a least slightly cultish one – implying a hiearchy with poets (and perhaps their fans) at the top.

It is an idea which, at least on these islands, seems to be rearticulated in new ways in every generation: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ted Hughes all went in for it and you can still smell it lurking at the bottom of a lot of ‘poetic reasoning’. Auden represents a dissident tradition: respectful of poetry’s ‘gift’, he knew that poets themselves are as human as the next person.

My own piece was the result of a long running, if entirely one-sided, argument with Ben Lerner’s book, ‘The Hatred of Poetry’. My broader aim was to defend poetry from those who ask too much of it, or who place it on a pedestal, of whom Lerner happens to be a particularly prominent representative.

On reflection, I think one reason I am troubled by Lerner’s argument is that it reminds me so much of that Shelley-esque notion of poetry possessing some unique moral understanding, an understanding that resides somewhere in its poetic essence – quite where is rarely made clear – rather than anything the individual poet actually writes, does or says. (To his credit, Lerner is clear that for him this moral value resides in poetry’s familiarity with failure, but I do not buy this either.)

Sometimes poets take pride in arguing that arguing about what poems are and what they do is impossible. If I was being cynical, which I usually am, I would say we fear taking poetry apart and looking under the bonnet because we worry it will undermine its value: in effect, we think we need to choose between faith and reason. It’s a false choice.


1 David’s introduction says everything I would want to say and more about why criticism, poetics, whatever you want to call it, is important. It is also generous survey of the ‘defences’ themselves, which are a treasure trove. There is a great deal to think with in there and I was humbled, frankly, to be in the same store as so many poets/critics I always look forward to reading. In the spirit of David’s call for the project to be a spark for further discussion, over the next few weeks (more likely, months) I am going to try to respond to some the pieces which spoke most to me.


NB the picture is W. H. Auden. His notoriously wrinkly face has been crinkled again by the book cover.

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 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.    

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. Each time I was a little disappointed when I realised it was another story about a lonely, mysterious, and unaccountably alluring man.* Soon enough, however, once you are a few sentences in, the intoxication takes over and all is forgiven. Someone ought to chain him to his desk until he writes more.

*(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.)

Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling (2020)

Not a book. 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, Marling says 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.

London Library Anthology

No one had any idea when the London Library’s inaugural “emerging writers” scheme kicked off in spring 2019 (a year’s membership and a programme of workshops for forty writers at various stages of emergence) that it would end with us not being there.

The London Library is a remarkable, magical building set off St James’s Square in Pall Mall. I don’t think I was alone in not having heard of it before seeing the application for the programme, but it is used as an office-away-from-home by London literary types, or anyone wanting a quiet place to work.

Besides the building’s charm and the incredible location the Library’s real benefit is that the “stacks” are open – you can browse the books on the shelves. You might end up with something you hadn’t thought you wanted, which are often the things you need.

To celebrate the scheme’s first year, the Library have put together an anthology, featuring contributions ‘from 35 writers spanning prose to poetry, non-fiction to YA, stage to screen.’ The blurb says: ‘This is a feast of words and creativity from an exciting array of bright new talent.’ The book is available as a PDF or an eBook. It will also be published as a paperback: £2 for the eBook or £8 for the paperback – with all proceeds going back into the Emerging Writers Programme.

We were asked to pick something to contribute over the summer, so the choice was made under the influence of lockdown. I sent in three poems. One was my own pandemic poem, a squib of frustration riffing off comparisons between our situation and the Second World War. Another was a good idea which on reflection I smothered with too many commas. The first is about Greggs – sort of.

The library is an amazing space, especially if you don’t have much of that at home. I am very grateful to have been part of the first cohort (and particularly appreciated the ‘peer support’ sessions). Next/this year’s scheme is open for applications.