Category Archives: BLOG

Jottings about anything (but mostly poetry)

Throwing it all away

The other day the philosopher (you can be one of those) Julian Baggini wrote an article which annoyed a lot of people on the internet. The title – ‘Why is it so hard to get rid of our books?’ – probably didn’t help, nor did the screenshot circulating on Twitter, where Baggini wondered whether “the main reason to keep a house full of books is to show ourselves and others that we are intelligent and well-read.”

In fact, most of the article was dedicated to a survey of all the other perfectly good reasons someone (or, at least, Baggini, his friends and his acquaintances) might have for keeping a book: as a reference, or to share with someone else, to re-read later, or as a treasured memento of a time or a person – or a time you were a different person. He admits that the aesthetic attraction of a bookshelf depends on seeing them en masse ‘irrespective of what lies between the covers’. (They’re good insulation, too.)

Which all seems pretty uncontroversial. What rubbed people up the wrong way was the fact Baggini had dared suggest it was possible to use books as status-symbols (as if this pretty mundane observation was itself an assault on knowledge), combined with the faint hint whiff of ‘personal optimization’: at one point Baggini describes how the process of throwing away a book means coming to terms with ‘failure’ (as if not having enough time to read everything you want to read says something about you, not life).

Put those two together, ignore the nuance, and what was a harmless if anodyne series of reflections by a man moving house starts to look like yet another attempt to police people’s behaviour, right at the level of the most sacred thing there is: books. How dare he!

The fact is, philistine as I am, Baggini’s driving argument was one I recognised and agreed with: holding onto books can be a way of holding onto ‘unrealistic illusions’ about ourselves. “We use books to underline our identities when more often than not they undermine them,” he writes.

I don’t read this as an assault on the concept of literature so much as an attempt to square up to the conditions under which literature is made and read, and which make reading and writing meaningful in the first place: our limited time on earth, our limited attention spans, and our willingness (or not) to change our minds.

Like many people, I buy more books than I will ever read and I keep more books than I will ever revisit or re-gift. That won’t change. But I am well aware that one of the reasons I do this is to fool myself: to pretend, against all the evidence, that I will have time to reread this, or write something about that, or read everything I want to. The books are an escape. Every now and then I try and be brutal about it and chuck a load out. Probably, that is a kind of escape too. But at least it makes space.

Modern vs Contemporary Poetry

All categories are slightly artificial and perhaps none more so than periods in literary history. When I wrote about first encountering ‘contemporary’ poetry, I wanted to emphasize how far our ’now’ can, or should stretch. Decades, not years

Perhaps it should stretch further. Playing with categories is like shuffling cards: potentially endless and, after a certain point, pointless. But the way we use words like ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ says something about our attitudes to the past and the present and this is always interesting to me because it means they are also value judgements, statements of feeling as much as descriptions.  

For example, you could argue that having a very narrow conception of the contemporary is simply an extreme version of a much older debate about the value of modern as opposed to ‘classical’ poetry: whether literature should reflect the world the writer is living in or be based on ‘timeless’ principles, usually associated with particular forms and conventions.

If what distinguishes the modern from the classical is its ‘present-ness’, then we should expect poetry to change as often and as drastically as the world does, i.e., a lot. So, although Milton, Wordsworth and, say, Elizabeth Bishop, are all ‘modern’ in comparison to Homer, they represent distinct eras. What now tends to get called modern poetry is just the era before whatever era we are in right now.

Then again, none of these writers (or their contemporaries) are as distant as we might think. People once dismissed the idea of writing poetry in English at all, or of writing plays which weren’t modelled on Greek tragedy. Then they dismissed poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge as, well — romantics. W. H. Auden feels pretty contemporary right now – but so does John Clare.

One the things which makes poetry poetry is the way it sits somewhere outside of ‘day to day’ time. It speaks to — and is a way of listening to — the past as well as the present. There is no point in quibbling about where the contemporary begins, because all poetry is contemporary.

And yet: there is a lot of past to choose from. And because poetry is so time-specific, it is easy to take out of context. How people chop up history almost always says more about the chopper than the thing being chopped. There is something inevitable about this. Everyone has to work out for themselves what they want to listen to, who they want to speak to. You have to chop your own wood.

The problem comes when history is wielded in order to exclude or diminish other kinds of writing with different concerns, or to demarcate a particular community: ‘everyone should read and admire X, not Y, or they are not truly one of Z’. (The traditional sign that something radical has become prescriptive is that you have to study it in school or at university.) The rebels always end up inside the castle.

Louis MacNeice said it best when he advocated for ‘impure poetry… for poetry conditioned by the poet’s life and the world around him.’1 Beyond that, perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it.


1 The quote comes from MacNeice’s book-length essay Modern Poetry, which was published in 1938.

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 great strength Anthony Julius’s book (first published in 1995) is also, in a way, its weakness: Julius 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, rightly, does not fall for the trap.

As Julius puts it, many of Eliots early poems ‘exclude’ Jews by presenting them as objects of disgust and deirision. The truth is I have never been able to read the Collected Poems without them leaving a bad taste, even before I knew about the views expressed in Eliot’s other writing. Poems like ‘Gerontian’ 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 coy hint that Jews are responsible for the state of the world. It never comes, but only because Ezra Pound, of all people, excised an interlude 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 really 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 or meant 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).

If that reception says something about literary culture in Britain, it can also 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). But the threads are never picked up.

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 in the absence of these questions, the debate about the book slipped into clichés. 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.