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The Symbolism Survey

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?

McAllister had just published his first story, “The Faces Outside,” in both IF magazine and Simon and Schuster’s 1964 roundup of the best science fiction of the year. Confident, if not downright cocky, he thought the surveys could settle a conflict with his English teacher by proving that symbols weren’t lying beneath the texts they read like buried treasure awaiting discovery.

His project involved substantial labor—this before the Internet, before e-mail—but was not impossible: many authors and their representatives were listed in the Twentieth-Century American Literature series found in the local library. More impressive is that seventy-five writers replied—most of them, in earnest. Sixty-five of those responses survive (McAllister lost ten to “a kleptomaniacal friend”). Answers ranged from the secretarial blow off to a thick packet of single-spaced typescript in reply.

The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.

Even if he approached them en masse, with a form letter.

And failed to follow up with a thank-you note.


Kerouac p. 1


Kerouac p. 2

Norman Mailer


Ayn Rand


John Updike p. 1

Updike p. 2


Ralph Ellison


The answers to the questionnaire were as varied as the writers themselves. Did Isaac Asimov plant symbolism in his work? “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?” Iris Murdoch sagely advises that “there is much more symbolism in ordinary life than some critics seem to realize.” Ayn Rand wins the prize for concision; addressing McAllister’s example of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, she wrote, “This is not a definition, it is not true—and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.” Kerouac is a close second; he writes, “Symbolism is alright in ‘Fiction’ but I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew.” The apologies Bruce received from secretaries—including those of John Steinbeck, Muriel Spark, and Ian Fleming—explaining that they were traveling and unable to respond were longer than that.

Science-fiction writers—most notably Fritz Leiber, Lloyd Biggle Jr., Judith Merril, and A. J. Budrys—were the most expansive. Biggle sent a lengthy letter and then, nearly a year later, sent further thoughts. In the second letter, he advised McAllister to read an essay by Mary McCarthy, “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” saying, “You will not want to do any kind of article on symbolism until you have read [this] … You will find much good material there, as well as an emphatic reinforcement for your viewpoint.” (McCarthy sent the same advice herself.) Judith Merril’s response is heavily mired in linguistics; she offers McAllister a chart to illustrate her semantic overview.

Some were dismissive of Bruce’s project, or his methodology. MacKinlay Kantor chided, “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.” Others, like William Melvin Kelley, cite the work and characters of other authors rather than their own. Kelley names Faulkner, Robbins, Hemingway, Twain, and Salinger: “Holden Caulfield is a person, but enough of us felt that we were like him to make him a symbol. But if he’d been a symbol, Salinger would have been an unknown writer living in Vermont.” Henry Roth mentions Dante, Blake, Joyce, and perhaps Malamud as writers who intentionally incorporate symbolism (Updike names Joyce and Dante as well, along with Homer). Roth notes that the Greeks, Elizabethans, and Cervantes were “interested in a type of what existed rather than symbols of abstract ideas, forces, beliefs.” For himself? “My own feeling at the time I wrote CIS [Call It Sleep] was that the symbol was well-surrendered or abandoned for the greater verity or the more striking insight.”

Saul Bellow p. 1

Bellow p. 2


I recently spoke with Bruce McAllister by phone about his recollections of his literature survey. There is a pleasing symmetry in the fact that the one-time student seeking knowledge has devoted most of his career to teaching. McAllister, who has published widely and been nominated for some of the most prestigious genre fiction prizes—his 1988 “Dream Baby” was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards—taught literature and writing at the University of Redlands in southern California for nearly twenty-five years. For the past dozen years he has run McAllister Coaching, helping writers of books and screenplays shape their manuscripts. McAllister at sixteen? Self-described as full of “the arrogance of high schoolers” he felt beyond his classroom assignments, and was, as he put it, “tired of symbol hunting.”

Though McAllister now claims, “It never occurred to me that [the writers] would answer,” once they did he was delighted—as was his English teacher: “a sweet, teacherly soul,” impressed by his industry but unable to absorb the import of its result. The search for symbols would continue, at least until the end of the 1964–65 school year.

In reflecting on the project, McAllister feels “caught between the intimacy of each individual response, and the pattern of the cumulative replies.” The question remains: Why did they answer? McAllister claims no credit, describing his survey form as “barely literate.” He recalls that in his cover letter (no examples of which exist) he misused the word precocious—he meantpresumptuous—and in hindsight he sees that he was both, though few writers seemed to mind. “The conclusion I came to was that nobody had asked them. New Criticism was about the scholars and the text; writers were cut out of the equation. Scholars would talk about symbolism in writing, but no one had asked the writers.”

Ray Bradbury p. 1

Bradbury p.2


December 5, 2011 | by Sarah Funke Butler

 Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc. She is curator of the exhibit, “Virginia Woolf: The Flight of Time,” now on view at the Forbes Galleries in New York.

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The Best Literary Fiction Blogs & Websites

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Written on November 22, 2011 by  in Writing Advice

Automat / Edward HopperAutomat / Edward Hopper

Earlier this fall, I was asked for a list of the best blogs and websites focused on literaryfiction and culture. While I knew of a few, I put the question to my social network, and was able to curate the following list.

If I’ve missed any sites that deserve consideration, please let me know your favorites in the comments, and I’ll consider expanding the list. (Note: I have deliberately excluded well-known traditional media, e.g., Publishers Weekly, New York Times, etc.)


Best Literary Fiction Blogs & Websites

  • Bookslut. One of the oldest and best places to find out about new books and literary news, by Jessa Crispin. Twitter: @thebookslut

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No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?

November 24, 2011 Leave a comment

When our daily news is apocalyptic, it’s irresponsible to read made-up stories. It’s time to start reading the serious stuff instead

Zoe Williams serious books

Zoe Williams recommends reading serious non-fiction rather than novels. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

It’s something that they say a lot in publishing, apparently, that once you turn 40, you start reading biographies. I do remember in my 20s, someone nearing 40 saying, “When a novel says, ‘So-and-so walked into the room,’ I have this voice in my head shouting ‘So? They’re not real! The room isn’t real!'” I thought, what an incredibly weird, sad, unexpected, unattractive side of ageing, like getting cellulite on your nose. Sure enough, though, I’ve found my appetite for fiction has fallen off a cliff. It’s possible that this is just part of my inexorable crawl toward death. But there’s a topnote of guilt, which reminds me of that wartime poster: “To dress extravagantly in wartime is worse than bad form. It is unpatriotic.” When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand, and a lot of it is quite basic (what’s the point of low interest rates again? How do you devalue a currency? Why are there so many earthquakes? Tell me one more time about tectonic plates; I promise this time I’ll listen … ), it feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.

There is a surge in popular economics books – if you look at the Penguin catalogue for next year, every second one is about money, how it works, how it doesn’t work and how soon it will end.

There is a surge of books about the changing world order: India Rising, from Faber, as of course it is, but also Keeping Up With the Germans. Its author, Philip Oltermann, finished it before the crisis, and before Angela Merkel fetched up at the centre of the eurozone pantomime. He describes the eerie experience of hearing economic commentators pose exactly his question, as a matter of urgency: how on earth can everybody keep up with the Germans? The book is not straightforward economics. “It’s a book about why English and German people sometimes get on and sometimes don’t. It’s a book that argues that, in order to understand the phenomenal success of the German economy over the past 50 years, we need to look beyond the cliche of robotic, machine-like ‘efficiency’ and understand why Germans are ultimately sentimental romantics, even when it comes to cars.”

And that, in a way, is why I feel as if I should be reading it. It’s reasonable, as an adult, to decide you don’t want to read a book about the German economy, because you probably wouldn’t understand it, whereas it seems unreasonable to watch a crisis unfold before your eyes, and know so little about it.

There are two questions looming over every conversation – how did we get into this mess? And who, in 10 or 20 or 30 years’ time, will have come out of it? I had a sudden snap of realisation about how prevalent those questions had become when I was flicking through a book called Running With the Kenyans; I misread it as “Running With the Keynsians”; my friend misread it as “Running with the Koreans”.

The key text for popular economics is John Lanchester‘s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. It’s sold 30,000 copies since it was published last year. (For comparison, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman wrote an incredibly slim, readable volume called The Return of Depression Economics, and that’s sold 19,000 in three years – these are UK figures, by the way.) Lanchester wrote the book because he was researching the financial industry for a novel, Capital, which is out next year; and the intricacies of the way finance worked seemed a) so interesting and complex that they were effectively a character in their own right, and b) vitally, this was stuff nobody understood. “I felt, and still feel, that the gap between people who speak money and people who don’t is actually a democratic deficit. This is the only time I’ve ever felt that I have a citizenly duty to keep it up. I mean, only reactively, when I’m asked.” I personally am of the view that he should do a Whoops Roadshow, but that is between him and his citizenly duty – at some point you do start thinking, I should have understood this before circumstances made it alarming not to understand it.

Much of the territory of Whoops relates to financial instruments, CDOs and other toxic debt bundles. “Some of the people who didn’t understand them were the directors of major banks. That should be a joke, but isn’t.” That counts as a mitigating factor, for the layman – but the storm we’re living through now makes me realise how little I understood of any of the past 20 years, in terms of the economic foundation stones they were laying down. So to take, at random, the eurozone again: there were people objecting who weren’t just dyspeptic Tories. There were also leftwing Eurosceptics, Jack Straw, the late Peter Shore, predicting exactly, to the letter, what would happen to a single currency – that the interest rates would be determined by the strongest economies, but wouldn’t suit the weaker ones, which then wouldn’t be able to devalue and wouldn’t be able to leave. I didn’t really know why a low interest rate would suit a strong economy, and I didn’t understand the point of devaluation. I was too busy reading Martin bloody Amis. As if that’s going to help. Lanchester says, possibly by way of reassurance, “We’d all rather be in the back seat of the car, with our parents in the front, driving. But now we’ve woken up doing 90.” The problem with ignorance is twofold: you feel alienated and disempowered, and that’s quite anxious-making, but you also feel embarrassed by the limits of your understanding, so you back out of the conversation.

When you back out of a conversation at a macro-level, that’s how you wake up doing 90, with a government full of bankers and technocrats. I’m emphatically not saying, “We’re all going to be Italy in a minute,” because that’s the kind of scaremongering nonsense that you’d only start if you hadn’t just read (26 pages of) Akerlof and Shiller’s Animal Spirits. The alienation effect makes it necessary, much as it pains me to say it, to understand what the parents who were driving were actually thinking: so not only do we have a citizenly duty to understand Germany, economics, the new world order, science and climate, but we probably also have to read, if not Tony Blair’s autobiography, at least Gordon Brown’s and/or Alistair Darling’s.

But this isn’t just semi-sincere self-flagellation; there is also a problem with the modern novel and its continuing fear of saying anything useful, for fear of not sounding literary enough. Everyone expected Alan Hollinghurst to write the definitive book of our recent past, since that’s what he did for the 1980s, in The Line of Beauty. Instead, to use a technical publisher’s term, he “did an Atonement” – this is where you re-site your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political. Hannah Griffiths, editorial director at Faber and Faber, explains that this is partly a pragmatic consideration: “You’d have to write a very ambitious contemporary novel, because they take so long to come out.”

Damian Barr is a writer and playwright who also runs literary salons in Shoreditch House, as a result of which he has read almost everything: “There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn’t have to be informed, and it doesn’t have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter. Of course, I only mean the ones worth reading.” Lanchester notes: “In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that’s not literary enough.” I can remember the beginning of falling out of love with fiction, when it began to annoy me if the main character didn’t have a job or any visible means of support. Once that annoys you, you get annoyed by almost everything.


And if fiction is permeated by considerations – some practical, some literary, some pretentious, some reasonable, because long explanations of things are boring – that make it fight shy of big questions; even non-fiction shares some of this coyness. The Costa shortlist came out this week, and in the biography section, one (broadly) about the first world war, one (broadly) about the second, one biography of Charles Dickens and Patrick and Henry Cockburn’s Henry’s Demons: Living with Schizophrenia, a Father and Son’s Story. And that last is a fine book, but Cockburn’s area of expertise, won over a lifetime, is as a foreign correspondent. Yet when he writes a book about Iraq (Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq), about things that would be quite useful to know, especially if we’re going to start attacking Iran, the mainstream acts as if it had never happened.

Of course, there’s a caveat, isn’t there? A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the “tell me, Professor” moments, that will be more use to you, probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms. “If I’ve learnt anything real,” Griffiths concludes, “I’ve learnt it through fiction.”

And this point is made flesh, really, by John Lanchester, who illuminated all this nefarious financial jiggery-pokery – but Whoops was a side-dish or an amuse-bouche to the main project, Capital, a great monster of a novel, which does more than illuminate finance: it animates it; and that’s when you fully comprehend something, when you can see its face.

 – The Guardian, Saturday 19 November 2011
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Why flatpack fiction will always be two dimensional

November 19, 2011 Leave a comment

As the Booker shortlist proved, too many modern novels are assembled for a market

There’s a fairly widespread view that English fiction is in the doldrums. This year’s showcase for the contemporary novel, the Man Booker prize, a bellwether for our literary culture, has inspired some more than usually anguished hand-wringing. “Is that it?” and “Is this the best we can do?” have been among the dominant reactions in an almost universal expression of dismay and disbelief.

This cultural recession mirrors the economic downturn. Last month, on a visit to the US, I got a rare glimpse into the desperate conditions in which the contemporary writer must operate. Apparently, for at least one prominent literary agent, there is now only one rule, which can be expressed mathematically as 1/10, thus: “A new novel should be summarised in a single sentence, and should stop dinner conversation for at least 10 minutes.”

My thoughts went to my favourite novels. Who, by such criteria, would give Heart of Darkness or Ulysses a second glance? Monty Python’s “summarise Proust” competition was an inspired moment of surreal comedy, but apparently that’s now the reality. How, for instance, would you explain The Portrait of a Lady in a single sentence? American girl, transplanted to England, refuses English peer, falls victim to the sinister Madame Merle and marries a worthless dilettante, in a terrible compromise of frustrated emotion? Well, hardly.

Perhaps one should not get too prudish about the 1/10 formula. Henry James himself wrote in The Art of Fiction that “the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel… is that it be interesting”. While the criterion of 1/10 tells us that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, this news is all the more perplexing because, at first glance, the marketplace appears to be in such rude good health. Never has there been more new fiction, from chick lit to manga, available to the common reader. According to Nielsen BookData, of the approximately 150,000 new books that came out in the UK last year, 78,000 were works of fiction, generating about £476m.

This is a market that promotes quantity before quality, but in a new way. Mass culture has always been banal and high culture its redemption. Not any more. The 1/10 formula helps to explain why the 2011 Booker shortlist had such an air of painting-by-numbers. With the exception of the winner, The Sense of an Ending, every one of its nominated titles could be summarised in a single sentence and would indeed have sponsored a few minutes’ dinner conversation (but not more).

For this, you can blame the literary agents, or the festivals, or harassed readers, or creative writing schools, or simply the desire to attract an audience in a cacophonous market, but the upshot is the same. It’s the Ikea novel, shaped by the logic of 1/10. Ikea novels are the kind of fiction that comes direct from the factory, with no intercession of craftsmanship or artistry en route to the consumer. They are created by often talented writers, frantic to make a career, who have acquired a boxed-up fiction kit at a suburban outlet and assembled it in their spare time on the living room floor, with a construction manual in one hand, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook in the other.

The Ikea novel has all the things that fiction is supposed to have. It is competently written in a simulacrum of fine writing. It has character and situation, conflict and resolution. Somewhere you will find the “arc of the narrative”. Under its highly painted metalwork there’s probably an “inciting incident” or two. Ikea-fiction writers know all about “first-” or “third-person” and “unreliable” narrators. The latter are fashionable just now, because they can be used to explain away narrative cock-ups.

The thing that Ikea culture manufactures looks like fiction, sounds like fiction and even reads like fiction. There’s just one problem: Ikea fiction is not original, and not distinctive, with no inner vision or humanity. It comes from a kit. It’s a fake and can never be a work of art. How could it be? It was invented to please a market, and to make money. No wonder so many erstwhile novelists are turning to film and television.


The Inky Fool comes up with golden nuggets

In a sign of the times, Mark Forsyth better known as the blogger Inky Fool, who has been riffing in cyberspace on the myriad secret connections of the English language, has come down to earth with the publication of a hardback, The Etymologicon (Icon Books), shortly to be a pre-Christmas Book at Bedtime on Radio 4. Forsyth, who describes himself as a “journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter and pedant”, has trawled the OED for some very strange nuggets. The Etymologicon (the word is Milton’s) links sausages and botulism, testicles and the Bible, even Bikini Atoll and Godzilla. In 250 pages crammed with cross-references, this inky fool has given the nation’s quizzers the stocking filler of the season. How else to describe a book that explains the connection between Dom Pérignon and Mein Kampf.



Farewell to Stevenson’s most devoted servant

The world of Stevenson studies is idiosyncratic, obsessive and sustained by passionate amateurs, many of them living, as Stevenson himself did, on the Pacific Rim. Recently, Stevensonians lost one of their most dedicated servants, Ernest Mehew, at the age of 88. For the record, Mehew was renowned as the editor of RLS’s letters. In the absence of the full-scale biography for which the Stevenson world still waits, this volume is a canonical text and Mehew its architect. But in the margins, this man of letters was a one-time civil servant at the Ministry of Food and, later, an ad man. He played an important part in some great campaigns – “naughty but nice”, “drinka pinta milka day” and “go to work on an egg”. Stevenson, a master of brevity, would have approved.

 – The Observer, Sunday 13 November 2011


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Interior with Extension Cord

November 3, 2011 Leave a comment

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The Forward poetry prize at 20

October 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Set up to bring greater attention to contemporary poetry, the Forward prize celebrated its 20th anniversary this week. Fellow poets and writers pay tribute to those who have won the Best Collection.

Blake Morrison on The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn, 1992


“I wake up cold,” the title poem begins, “I who / Prospered through dreams of heat.” That sudden chill sets the tone for this collection of elegies, written at the height of the Aids epidemic. Gunn’s previous book, The Passages of Joy, 10 years before, had sung of the Californian good life: “Sweet things. Sweet things.” Desire for young flesh (“the hard-filled lean body”) still courses through this collection. But it’s chastened by grief and loss. The titles alone tell the story – “In Time of Plague”, “Terminals”, “The Missing”, “Lament” – and much of the imagery comes from the sickbed: greyish-yellow skin, pills, feeding tubes, parched mouths, collapsed lungs. “My thoughts are crowded with death / and it draws so oddly on the sexual / that I am confused,” Gunn reflects. But it’s the lack of confusion – the clarity and orderliness – that really strikes you. He reports as if from a war front, like an Owen or Sassoon, offering anthems for doomed youth. But he doesn’t allow pity to disrupt his couplets and quatrains. “The friends surrounding me fall sick, grown thin / And drop away,” he writes. “Their deaths have left me less defined.” But his poetry keeps its shape and definition: he owes it to those friends to commemorate them with love and dignity. That tension between passion and constraint – which Gunn maintained right up till his death in 2004 – still sends shivers down the spine.

Read ‘Well Dennis O’Grady’, a poem from The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn

Gillian Clarke on Mean Time by Carol Ann Duffy, 1993


It was all there, already, in 1993: the energy of the syntax, the let and go of the iambs, the ear and eye for detail which so precisely captures a time, a place, a class. It is poetry driven by the fizz of being alive, the language bold and slangy. Yet we’re stopped in the headlong rush of words by the punctuation of a perfectly observed detail, a sudden tenderness – the saucer of rain in the garden, and the onion, “a moon in brown paper”, “the careful undressing of love”. And those clipped, sometimes aggressive last lines: “Fuck off. / Worship”. And “The taste of soap”.

Mean Time gave us some of Carol Ann Duffy’s best-known poems: “Valentine”, quoted above, “Havisham”, poems of childhood such as “Litany”, “Stafford Afternoons” and the loving, lovely poem for her mother, “Before You Were Mine”. Here are poems of her child self, the secretive teenage language of her adolescent self, the private shiver of new love, and outspoken adult love, as in “Disgrace”, all voicing her own and therefore the reader’s experience. Here too is her talent for classically iambic rhythms: a perfectly tuned, broken beat that sounds in ordinary speech to this day, and out of which Duffy makes great poetry. Daringly, after so much brash, bold language, the book concludes with a poem that has become one of the nation’s favourites, a perfect sonnet, “Prayer”. The poem and the book end thus: “Darkness outside. Inside the radio’s prayer. / Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.” This worthy winner stays in the mind, as poetry should.
Read ‘Mean Time’, a poem from Mean Time by Carol Ann Duffy

John Fuller on Harm by Alan Jenkins, 1994

Prizes encourage a firework metaphor of fame that distracts from the maturing of talent. Alan Jenkins’s achievement is in one sense classically starry: the launch with In the Hot-House (1988), soaring with Greenheart (1990) and bursting with the Forward-winning Harm (1994). Harm was a timely winner. It significantly mines the new vein of confessionalism available to poets schooled in the Lowell/Hamilton mode who had moved into a postmodernist playfulness. Jenkins explores self-abasement in a fictive world, with cock-and-bull adventures, dream-poems and Muldoonian rhyming (“Studebaker”/”rutabaga”) but also takes a circumstantial journey into remembered lust, shame and regret. The classic Jenkins scenario is the love-loss for which he has only himself to blame (“Houseboy”, “Bathtimes”). His poetry is what all poetry should be, the surprising and beautiful organisation of things that life has disorganised: “Missing, believed lost, five feet four-and-a-half / of warm girl, of freckled skin and sulky laugh / and blood on the sheets and ash on the pillow / with the smell of bacon eggs and lubricant …” (“Missing”)

The Drift (2000) and A Shorter Life (2005) consolidated the bright display, developing other themes of family guilt, childhood and the cruelty at the heart of thoughtlessness. And earlier this year the wonderful Hardyesque “Death of the Moth” was published. Certainly no falling off. The consistency and deepening of Jenkins’s achievement would be well served by a Collected: its resourceful variety now needs to be seen in extended form.

Read ‘Thirty Five’, a poem from Harm by Alan Jenkins

Paul Farley on Ghost Train by Sean O’Brien, 1995

A few months ago, I was giving a poetry reading in a small town in Norway with Stig Inge Bjørnebye (ex-Liverpool left back), sipping fiery aquavit. Which sounds like the staging of a notional Sean O’Brien poem. I’d taken an actual one with me, about football, that I thought they’d enjoy. They did. Flying home, I had a chance to rediscover the book this poem appeared in – Ghost Train – somewhere over the North Sea.

Had I forgotten the excitement of reading O’Brien in 1995? Perhaps subsequent work had occluded it: the two collections that followed Ghost Train were also strong; Downriver (2001) and The Drowned Book (2007) also won the Forward Best Collection prize. Reading this book again, I remembered how I’d sensed this secret history of the everyday being opened up, and being drawn to that dimension of his work. He was unmistakeable, entirely distinct even then, but there was definitely a faint background buzz of other writers whose work had ignited his: Douglas Dunn, Peter Didsbury, Roy Fisher.

Since Ghost Train, his work’s become part of the landscape, admired for its formal and imaginative confidence, by turns witty, angry, bold, virtuosic, audacious even. But on that plane I was reminded that this is also a writer with great resources of delicacy and mystery. I think of O’Brien as a poet of echoing corridors and northern rain and estuaries, of sidings and fireweed, in-between places and waiting and the silences that go on without us, of an England in its long afterwards, and what he once described as “the blue light and derelict happiness.”
Read ‘Revenants’, a poem from Ghost Train by Sean O’BrienRead ‘Indian Summer’, a poem from Downriver by Sean O’BrienRead ‘Eating the Salmon of Knowledge from Tins’, from The Drowned Book by Sean O’Brien

Alan Hollinghurst on Stones and Fires by John Fuller, 1996

John Fuller could justly have won the Forward in a number of other years, but Stones and Fires was an especially rich and involving collection. Much of it is elegiac in tone – opening with a poem in memory of the Oxford historian Angus Macintyre, killed in a motor accident, and closing with the wonderful “Star-Gazing”, an extended nocturnal reflection on mortality, grief and our place in the universe. Roy Fuller, the poet’s poet father, had died in 1991, and “A Cuclshoc”, though not strictly an elegy, is a heartbreaking record of two separations: the grieving poet finds a letter about a shuttlecock written to his father, absent in the Navy, when he was a small boy – “laborious sentences / With all their childish feeling and now with all / My later tears. I HOP YOU WILL COM BACK SOON // SO WE CAN HAVE SOME FUN.” The lobbed shuttlecock itself “glints / With the stitching of the angels, buoyant in the light, / Never falling.” Alongside such pieces Fuller set quite different things that showed him at the full stretch of his versatility – surreal experiments, a menacing blues on the brands of barbed wire, cryptic poems in prose. And luminous, humorous poems on Corsica, an island explored ever more hauntingly in several subsequent collections.

Read ‘Detective Story’, a poem from Stones and Fire by John Fuller

Kate Clanchy on The Marble Fly by Jamie McKendrick, 1997


The Marble Fly in question is carved, “a shade larger than lifesize / and much stiller than life and harder” on a wall relief in Pompeii. It is just one of a series of peculiar objects, from the skull of a Xhosa warrior, complete with bullethole, to the tiny spring from the inside of a biro, which Jamie McKendrick lifts and holds to the light in this spaciously paced but densely packed collection. The poems have diffident openings, self-deprecating endings, and, in the middle, tidal waves and centuries of violence. Somehow, the objects, and the poet, survive the disaster and carry on existing, modestly surprised.

This is a book like a cabinet of curiosities, one with fold-out shelves and a battered exterior. The agave plant and banana boat bristle from its pages as cleanly as they ever did, but you can’t buy the actual blue and black book with its modest, dated fly image any more. I cherish mine. It may even be worth something, for this collection was one of the last productions of OUP’s poetry list, a ship which went down, in true McKendrick style, sometime ago for reasons no one can now remember, in a year that began “with baleful auguries” and ended “fraught with the fear of war”.
Read ‘Gainful Employment’, a poem from The Marble Fly by Jamie McKendrick

Jeanette Winterson on Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, 1998

A poem is a practical act of memory. When most memory is outsourced to hard drive and smartphone, the poem releases in the reader a private memory-store, prompted but not prescribed by the poem. This is a relief. Ted Hughes’s love affair with Sylvia Plath began with poetry and at the end of his life he took it back there. Birthday Letters was a supreme act of memory – faithful in the way that memory must be – in that it is partly invented. Hughes, the steady observer of the real, understood the quantum rule that the observer acts upon/alters what is observed, even if the observer is unobserved. That is exactly what happens in Hughes’s first famous poem “The Thought-Fox” (1957). In Birthday Letters, remembering Sylvia becomes the opposite of the dismembering of Sylvia that happened after her death; the poet parcelled out to satisfy a hunger for wreck, victim, blame, martyr. Pieces of Sylvia Plath fed rumour and gossip from the second of her suicide.

It was brave of Hughes to make public what had been private – the yearly conversation on the anniversary of her death. Time is not an arrow. Poetry disarms the clichés. Birthday Letters disarmed the commonplaces of death and loss. Love – and language – survive.
Read ‘Epiphany’, a poem from Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

Daljit Nagra on My Life Asleep by Jo Shapcott, 1999

Shapcott is as rare as Eliot, Larkin or Bishop: each collection is long awaited and each poem has the weight of a novel with a unique unearthly mood. In “Motherland”, she says, “I am blue, bluer than water / I am nothing”; her personality is as diffuse and as uprooted as Bishop’s. This nothingness echoes the objective correlative of Eliot and enables Shapcott’s transmutation. She becomes in turn Thetis, cheetah, mad cow, quark (yes, quark!) and Mrs Noah, among others.

Coming to My Life Asleep, the reader may find the kind of horror that begets laughter as in Charles Simic or Goya, but they may also find the earned celebratory tone of Czesław Miłosz. Some of the poems seem to take their licence from Plath’s mushrooms, though Shapcott’s speakers are much livelier and weirder. Shapcott has the quotidian concerns of Larkin, as in a recipe poem about “Mandrake Pie”. The mandrake is best pulled at dawn, for the “double root / [is] said to have grown from seeds of murderers put to death”. Here we are given a gothic twist to dramatise a woman’s maddening servitude. Sometimes the poems feel as though they could be from the routines and imaginings of the unhinged subject of Charlotte Mew’s great poem “The Farmer’s Bride”.

Shapcott renews us by giving a fresh and affectionate perspective on the world. Consider her thoughts on the northern lights: “I have stolen / some of the light which drenches you this midnight / to wish you all the islands in the world / and every one a different kind of peace.”
Read ‘My Life Asleep’, a poem from My Life Asleep by Jo Shapcott

Don Paterson on Conjure by Michael Donaghy, 2000

When Conjure won the Forward, it was quickly declared to be “a genuinely popular choice”. This, for once, was true – though mostly because people found it difficult to begrudge Donaghy anything. His was a civilising influence on our excitable little constituency, and he was the first to remind us that all so-called “poetry wars” were really a knife-fight in a phone box. (Lord, have we missed him recently.) His poetry served much the same function. Through his example, our own poems took more pride in their appearance, showed greater respect for the reader, and understood the value of good humour. But Donaghy’s great gift was his ability to forge a poetic language where thought was indivisible from feeling.

Donaghy was a slow worker, and really only wrote one book, which he published in instalments. There were no particularly noticeable developments of either technique or subject matter; the former had always been seamless enough to be largely invisible, and his interests were so eclectic, nothing so base as a “theme” would ever emerge anyway. Conjure is the third part of the glorious tetralogy that ended with the posthumous Safest a few years later. It has eight or 10 poems that are among his very best: “Caliban’s Books”, “Haunts”, “Our Life Stories”, “Black Ice and Rain” … All accomplish the Donaghy trick of hitting you simultaneously in the solar plexus and between the eyes; every rereading reveals an unsuspected layer of complexity, allusion and – I realise belatedly – moral subtlety. “Tears” is short enough to quote in full, which is the only way one should ever quote these marvellous poems: “Tears / are shed, and every day / workers recover / the bloated cadavers / of lovers or lover / who drown in cars this way. / And they crowbar the door / and ordinary stories pour, / furl, crash, and spill downhill – / as water will – not orient, / nor sparkling, but still”.
Read ‘Caliban’s Books’, a poem from Conjure by Michael Donaghy

John Kinsella on Max Is Missing by Peter Porter, 2002


Max Is Missing is a vibrant, philosophically flexible reinvention of poetic persona that takes Porter’s renowned wit, and knowledge of European history and cultural arts, further into his varied equivocations over the meaning of Nature (with a capital N). Porter’s comparisons come down to moments or examples of human achievement and failure. He brings the “urban mind” into confrontation with any “Wordsworthian” tendencies that might raise their head, if with irony. Max offers room for animals, not only as poetic device, but also as creatures in themselves, even if the forces of existence weigh them down. Porter’s confrontation of Nature’s contradictions comes out of a Hardyesque fatalism more than an epiphany. His world is both God-filled and Godless; when God does appear it is often with a bleakly indifferent supremacy. While the classical wrestles with the modern (so often found wanting), there’s a lightness that retains satirical depth while inviting familiarity, gossip among the hard-edged reasoning, and the ability to poke fun at himself and his subject: “We who would probably want to remake / or at least tidy up Tracey Emin’s bed”. There are a handful of poems on Australian subjects. “Duetting with Dorothea”, referring to the author of one of Australia’s best-known (though least “great”) poems, laments: “Instead I saw a landscape / Lit up by inner doubt.” And in a colonised space, this is surely a legitimate stance for a non-indigenous Australian. One should always have doubt.
Read ‘Last Words’, a poem from Max Is Missing by Peter Porter


Kathleen Jamie on Breaking News by Ciaran Carson, 2003


I loved Breaking News because of all the white space, because the poems were sculpted out of silence. It’s not a quiet book, however: it’s about war and terror. The loud painting on the cover – Géricault’s The Blacksmith‘s Signboardsets out the book’s concerns. Géricault and Goya could be considered the war photographers of their day, and both feature in Breaking News, because war and its wastes are ever with us.

Carson’s interest in the Crimean war in particular was quickened because many streets in his native Belfast are named after Crimean battles, so the book refers back and forth, from Belfast to Balaclava with surveillance helicopters, bomb alerts and the wretched warhorses. The poised spare poems, many with just one word to a line, are perfect, and take their bearings from William Carlos Williams (imagine his Red Wheelbarrow abandoned on a battlefield) – a debt Carson acknowledges.

But he can’t resist opulent language for long. The closing section of the book is called “The War Correspondent”, and this, as Carson’s notes say, owes much to the Anglo-Irish journalist William Howard Russell, whose vivid dispatches shaped attitudes to the Crimean war. In a remarkable series Carson’s skilled work with line and rhythm turns those dispatches, sometimes verbatim, into poems of richness and depth. It’s a book that bears witness to horrors past and present, and shows that poetry inhabits our streets and newspapers, and that in talking about the disasters of war one can still call upon language which is now clean and bone-like, now rich and honeyed.
Read Gallipoli, a poem from Breaking News by Ciaran Carson


Jo Shapcott on The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie, 2004


I first read The Tree House when it came out in the autumn of 2004. I dived into poem after poem, thrilled: it was one of those books that announces a change in the temperature and direction of poetry, a real breakthough on behalf of the whole art. It is not only that the poems teem with living things and are fresh and delicate, beautifully made. Or that their sound world, enhanced by Jamie’s deft use of Scots in some poems, is a treat for the ear. The Tree House looks again at the way humans live in and with nature; how the natural world penetrates thought; how we understand and react to living things. The poems explore the human contradiction of feeling separate from nature but actually being part of it. More than that, they are both profound and oddly practical in proposing how we might make our way through the world. Perception, a morality of looking, is part of it: “what could one do but watch” asks the narrator in “The Basking Shark”. One of my (many) favourite poems, “Flight of Birds”, is elegiac, a tone which threads through the book and which is all too appropriate in the face of our destructive impact on the Earth. “We’ve humiliated living creatures,” says the narrator. She goes on to ask, almost tentatively, “might we yet prevail / upon wren, water rail, tiny anointed goldcrest / to remain within our sentience in this, / the only world?” I remain grateful for this book; in awe.
Read ‘Flight of Birds’, a poem from The Tree House by Kathleen Jamie

John Burnside on Legion by David Harsent, 2005


When I read poetry, I am looking for a world that I could never have imagined for myself. A worldview, a sensibility, that begins by seeming strange, even alien, but ends up leading me, sometimes reluctantly, into a suddenly familiar territory of ancient memories and repressed dreams. This is the territory where Blake receives his visions of Albion, but also where Baudelaire lurks in the smoky, perfumed shadows; Wallace Stevens pursues the as-if of the supreme fiction; Marianne Moore builds her astonishing menageries and imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Though, as Mandelstam says, we should not compare – “the living are beyond comparison” – I’d have no hesitation in adding David Harsent to that list, for his is probably the richest, most seductive and, at the same time, most rigorous imagination working in English poetry today, and Legion is a tour de force of subtle music, unsettling imagery, unmatched formal agility and a worldview that is, by turns, a joy or a terror to share.

I often recommend, to friends, students and outsiders fresh to English poetry, the haunting, beautiful and deeply unsettling “Ghost Archaeology” as an example of the best of what is happening in contemporary writing. As close as any finished thing comes to perfection, this is work of subtle, yet gently insistent musicality, compassionate in the true sense of the word and, as it reaches its eerie closing lines, deeply humane in its vision. This is poetry of utter integrity that, for the attentive reader, can make the world, if not a better, then at least a truer place.
Read ‘Arena’, a poem from Legion by David Harsent

David Harsent on Swithering by Robin Robertson, 2006


Robin Robertson’s vision is compelling, dark, unmistakeable. In Swithering, the developmental side of vision is everywhere evident: two poems that take Strindberg as their subject are subtly referential in their narrative continuity; “Ghost of a Garden” and “A Seagull Murmur” come at personal loss in different ways, though both have about them a sort of steely tenderness; and “Selkie” finds a new aspect in a later poem, “At Roane Head”, which won the Forward Best Single Poem prize in 2009.

For me, though, the most telling linkage in the book comes with the two approaches to the Acteon myth: a brilliantly turned version of Ovid, and a broken narrative titled “Acteon: The Early Years”. In the former, the story of Acteon’s transformation by Artemis and the terror and savagery of his death is given in tense, flexible free verse. The poem as a whole, but especially the passage that describes the hunt, is unrelenting and fierce and almost filmic in its intensity. The latter seems to me one of the most affecting poems Robertson has written – but also unrelenting, also fierce. The way it converts the Acteon narrative to its own purpose – a haunting and painful form of unrequited love informing a loss of innocence – is unsparing and unforgiving. I hope I might provoke readers to go to the poem if I say that the moment of bitter resolution in the final section is both startling and deeply moving.
Read ‘A Seagull Murmur’, a poem from Swithering by Robin Robertson

Andrew Motion on The Lost Leader by Mick Imlah, 2008


The Lost Leader was Mick Imlah‘s second collection: it came out 20 years after his first, Birthmarks, and a few months before his death from motor neurone disease. The tragedy of that early death still feels so intense, it’s difficult to read The Lost Leader without feeling our responses to the poems are in various ways pointed and shaped by our knowledge that they are the last Imlah wrote. He is not au fond a Keatsian poet, but his legacy is tinged with a Keatsian pathos.

Imlah’s first book had shown in some parts an aptitude for ventriloquism (especially of 19th-century voices), and in others for a beautifully calm form of documentary lyricism; in his later work both these things are refined in the service of a loosely structured narrative that gives “the matter of Scotland”. Sometimes the concentration is on major historical figures such as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Sometimes it is on out-of-the-way things. In every case the forms are ingenious but sturdy, while the voice that delivers them is soaked in the tradition, but utterly original.

In later parts of the book, Imlah looks more directly at his personal history. For first-time readers, these are likely to seem the most welcoming – especially the very witty but tender poems to his wife, and those about his children and contemporaries. In one of these, the elegy for his university friend Stephen Boyd (like Imlah himself, a keen rugby player), he says “sport matters / Because it does not matter”. In a qualified sense, this assertion takes us close to the heart of everything Imlah achieved as a writer. He is absolutely serious, and often concerned with grave subjects, but entirely without self- importance. The Lost Leader was certainly the best poetry book published in 2008; one of the best poetry books of the new century, in fact.

Read ‘Maren’, a poem from The Lost Leader by Mick Imlah

Ian Duhig on Rain by Don Paterson, 2009


Paterson is one of the essential contemporary poets of these islands; formally accomplished and inventive with a pitch-perfect musician’s ear. His work has never been short of that playful ingenuity so ubiquitous a feature of modern poets’ lockers – and of which modern readers sometimes weary. Rain, for me, moved his writing beyond “all the craft and clever-clever” (the charge levelled against himself in his earlier Landing Light), and the reasons for this were brutally clear: it wasn’t a matter of technical development – rhymes are unshowy here, rhythms depressed – but the acquisition of pain. The “clever-clever” is still occasionally present, as in his techno-geekfest “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze”, but the author of God’s Gift to Women always knew he wasn’t, and throughout the doubting, self-interrogating collection, poems of heartbreak are made from fragments of hearts other than Paterson’s: “‘You’re saying that because / the bed’s a light-year wide, or might as well be, / I’m even lonelier than I thought I was …'” (“The Day”). His earlier sex poems would detumesce beside those here on parenthood or, crushingly, abortive parenthood (in “The Swing”). Haunted by loss, Rain is dedicated to the memory of Paterson’s great friend, that other fine poet Mike Donaghy, dedicatee of its longest poem “Phantom”, where Donaghy’s ghost admits “I loved the living but I hated life”, painfully true of many poets’ self-regarding attachments. One critic wrote that Rain‘s success restores faith in prizes. Perhaps, but it’s a book of broken faiths.

Read ‘The Swing’, a poem from Rain by Don Paterson

Nick Laird on Human Chain by Seamus Heaney, 2010


In Kuno Meyer‘s translation of the ninth-century Triads of Ireland, “the three glories of speech” are rendered as “steadiness, wisdom, brevity”, and that trinity might serve as a précis for Heaney’s work. Human Chain, though, sees that Heaney steadiness, the sense of balance and endurance, undercut by a new tenor of instability and uncertainty: the poems were written after a mild stroke Heaney suffered in 2006 and, while not comfortless, they come to doubt “the solid ground”: “As I age and blank on names, / As my uncertainty on stairs / Is more and more the lightheadedness // Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging, / As the memorable bottoms out / Into the irretrievable, // It’s not that I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.”

Heaney’s late style has gravitated towards the relaxed line, and there’s a conversational freshness to these pieces. The vernacular idiom is mixed with the lapidary though, just as the poems integrate the local with the classical. Meditating on mortality makes time contract and bend; gaps between the past and present disappear as death begins to press its pattern over every life. These poems, which include many great elegies to friends, move “among shades and shadows stirring on the brink”, ghostly parents and grandparents and first loves.

Human Chain is Heaney’s Book of the Dead, and sits easily among his finest collections. Though revolving around sadness and loss, the book continually finds the energy and imagery to make looking over the last threshold possible. In his elegy for David Hammond , Heaney sees himself at his friend’s open door: “I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger, / Intruder almost, wanting to take flight // Yet well aware that here there was no danger, / Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming / Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar // On an overgrown airfield in late summer.”
Read ‘Had I not been awake’, a poem from Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Fiona Sampson on Black Cat Bone by John Burnside, 2011


John Burnside creates a world of tones and shifting, shifty meanings that’s not quite like anywhere else. But it resembles the secret, often rather shameful, world of our own hopes and fears. This is particularly true of his poetry, which frequently evokes the dreamlike sensation of blundering through a landscape that is on the brink of offering him, or us, an extraordinary revelation.

The evocation itself, though, is done with exceptional subtlety. Black Cat Bone, Burnside’s 12th collection, brings together his narrative and musical gifts in a way that echoes and develops all that has come before. In the long opening poem, “The Fair Chase”, part ballad and part folk tale, the protagonist is a sort of holy fool, “flycatcher, dreamer, dolt, / companion to no one, / alone in a havoc of signs”, who follows the hunting traditions of family and community, and “becomes / the thing he kills”. This kind of transubstantiation isn’t new in Burnside’s work. His characteristic chain-link imagery passes images forward to create whole landscapes. But, here, that dream logic echoes a kind of “phantom narrative” in other poems, such as “Faith” and “Notes Towards an Ending”, which seem to tell stories from the world of relationships – but don’t do anything quite so reductive.

And all this in Burnside’s extraordinary music. His long sentences, his tumbling scenes and details, add something quite new to the English lyric tradition: the chance to riff, a kind of trance-like rapture. It’s for this sound, as much as for his wild delicacy, that Burnside evokes such passionate admiration.

Read ‘Notes Towards an Ending’, a poem from Black Cat Bone by John Burnside, Thursday 6 October 2011


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