Tag Archives: poetry

The Long Haul

For reasons not unknown, but entirely arbitrary, I read two epic poems for the first time recently: Milton’s Paradise Lost and Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Night. It wasn’t my first stab at Paradise Lost: we had ‘done’ the first two books for A Level (most of the term was spent trying to get the class to comprehend the plot by turning it into a story board). But we weren’t expected to read the rest, and I rarely go beyond expectations.

I rarely read an ‘epic’, let alone a really lengthy poem, either. Much longer than a page is usually a reason to skip a poem in a book that is new to me. I am pretty confident I am not alone in this. Most readers have no idea what to expect from poetry, but even the few of us who might have a sense of what we are looking for, are usually looking for something like a lyric: a modest shape on the page which, as Robert Frost put it, begins in delight, and ends in wisdom. Ends quickly, he might have added (Frost’s own longer poems are not his best loved, perhaps unfairly).

Epics are another thing entirely. Stories written to be recounted, although more than stories: fables, myths, almost arguments. It might seem obvious, but what struck me about these poems was not just the sound, but the relentlessness of that sound. Line after line after of blank verse or alliteration. And all that space, meaning the imagery and the ideas, the repetitions, and the contrasts, build up and interlace across the huge chunks of verse, yet wound more tightly than a novel.

I enjoyed both Gawain and Paradise Lost a lot, though it took me two holidays to finally finish the latter. The form is so unfamiliar. Even putting aside the language, you are not likely to have come across a thing like it unless you studied English or a classical language at university. And by then, for most people, it is probably already too late. It is not a poem. It is not a novel. It is something else.

The form is unfamiliar. It had also, to my mind, which is invariably instrumentalist, been superseded by other types of writing. If you want narratives, there are novels. If you want language, lyrics. Argument, philosophy. And that relentlessness of sound, that was partly a way of helping the recounter remember the thing. What purpose does the epic serve in a text-based culture?

I find it hard to think of a future where long poems (let alone epics) don’t remain rare occurrences or largely academic interests. But what purpose does a novel serve? Or a poem? By holding longer poems to a standard I don’t hold any other kind of writing, I was just giving myself an excuse not to read them.


1 The thing is there are plenty of long poems, if not epics, I know I like a lot: Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice, Alice Oswald’s Dart, or Wendy Cope’s The River Girl, which is one of the best things she’s done. But when I think ‘what do I want to read next’, it is never ‘a really long poem’.

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 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.

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 getting into poetry 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. 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 I met people interested in poetry who were not my teachers or my mother. From them, whether by osmosis or direct instruction, I learnt there was something called ‘contemporary poetry’. This was different to the poetry I knew, because it was being written now and not everyone was published by Faber and Faber. 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 idea at all. 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. 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 at all was compounded by the embarrassment of being an imposter.  

Nevertheless, 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, and, having literally no idea where else to start, I scoured their website hoping something would catch my eye. Because I was stubborn, I still did not want anything too new. Besides, 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 youngest poets. I decided I needed poets who would form a bridge with what I knew already.

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. 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.

In retrospect, the idea of buying a single collection of poetry, on a student budget, and picking in the dark, seems astonishingly bad value. And risky. 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. I also got lucky: they are both brilliant.

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, far less dramatic, 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: quiet, conversational, ironic.

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 add a quick word on Adcock’s book, because having bought them together I can’t 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 Adcock’s Poems and Didsbury’s 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 they deal in specifics; puff quotes, plucked out of the writer’s brain on request, are usually abstract guff. 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.  

That said, there is something a little patronising about Motion’s quote when you read it in full. He claims, for instance, that most of her “best poems have something to do with bed”, which besides simply not being true implies a narrowness of subject and a faintly gendered one at that. 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.