Archive for the ‘poetica’ Category


Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope

26 January 2010

This review ended up being more brief than I was expecting it to be, but rather than attempt to pad it out for length I think it makes sense to leave it short.

Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope

In my review of British poet Wendy Cope’s 1986 collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, I mentioned that she has previously expressed a strong dislike of seeing her poems reproduced in full (or in significant part) on the Internet. Once again, I have no problem respecting those wishes, though it does make writing a full review a bit more difficult.

Serious Concerns, published in 1992, is in one sense a direct response to the reviewers and critics of her first poetry collection. Several of the poems address comments that were made about her work. The title poem, ‘Serious Concerns’, skewers a rather banal description of her poetry as being ‘witty’ and ‘unpretentious’ — Cope briefly ponders whether the most appropriate course of action is to try to compose poems that are less witty or more pretentious or both. Jason Strugnell, her literary creation who stands in for any number of contemporary male poets (from T.S. Eliot to Philip Larkin), makes a few appearances with examples of his latest works. But most of Cope’s poems in this collection are not so metafictional; most of them tend to look at relationships, exploring the initial heady feelings of falling in love or being in love, the struggles of trying to keep a difficult relationship going, and even the periods of desperation when it seems like loneliness and solitude are all that is left.

The poems in Serious Concerns usually end up being classified as ‘light verse’, a nebulous description that (as others have said) tends to raise more questions than it answers. Most of the subjects have a deep personal resonance, ranging from the frustrations often felt by the single person at Christmas-time to the uncertainty of what to do with the possessions of a recently deceased elderly loved one. They are indeed serious concerns, described with a seriousness that happens to be hidden or at least partially concealed by the verse. This kind of thought-provoking poetry is what Cope does best — which is what makes Serious Concerns both an excellent continuation of her first collection of poems and a fine selection of verse in its own right.


Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope

31 March 2009

This book jumped my review queue when I wasn’t looking, but I’m in relatively little position to complain about what gets written up and posted as long as something is.

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope

British poet Wendy Cope has quite strong feelings about finding her poems reproduced on the Internet. Whether or not this reviewer agrees with her is of little importance, but this particular review is not about to contradict her wishes on this matter. It’s something of a pity, though, because it is very difficult to explain why her poems are so enjoyable without being able to reproduce them for others to read. Nonetheless, enjoyable they are, so a brief review is certainly in order.

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis is one of Cope’s early poetry books, published in 1986, and takes its title from a dream that she once had — and short poem in which she mentions the dream, and adds that the dream itself didn’t make very good material for a poem but provided too good of a title to pass up. Many of the book’s poems are in a similarly irreverent vein, frequently parodying the style of other poets or making sly comments about contemporary attitudes toward poets and poetry. She turns T.S. Eliot inside out by reducing his erudite The Waste Land to a set of dry limericks and showing what ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ would have looked like under his pen, and uses her fictional poet Jason Strugnell (the underappreciated bard of Tulse Hill) to affectionately mock contemporary male poets like Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. Those who are familiar with these authors’ styles will particularly enjoy the send-up, but the poems themselves are cleverly done even without the additional context.

Her non-parody poems tend to focus on mundane matters, with the same level of sharp wit when it comes to the foibles of friendships and relationships. In one example, the poem ‘Giving Up Smoking’, the speaker states that the depth of his or her love for the audience is stronger than the desire to have a cigarette — clearly, a bold declaration of passion. Cope’s recently released Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems somewhat supplants the initial Faber & Faber edition of Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, but as an introduction to Cope’s verse this slim volume may still be worth acquiring in its own right.


Required Writing and Further Requirements by Philip Larkin

24 February 2009

Now that I’ve managed to get my hands on the first of these two connected books of pieces by British poet Philip Larkin, I can finally combine these two short reviews into a single post.

Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955–1982 by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin begins Required Writing by freely admitting that ‘I rarely accepted a literary asssignment without a sinking of the heart, nor finished it without an inordinate sense of relief’. It may seem an odd opening to this collection of various pieces written over nearly three decades as a poet, author, and jazz aficionado, but it illustrates the sort of disarming (or deliberately blunt, depending on how you regard it) honesty that forms a common, consistent theme across this selection of his works.

Larkin was exempt from service in World War II because of his poor eyesight, so he was able to finish his degree at Oxford University at a time when many of his contemporaries were on active military service or working in war industries or the Civil Service. He all but stumbled into his first library job as the ‘single-handed and untrained’ librarian-caretaker at a small public library in Shropshire, and then moved on to become an assistant librarian at University College, Leicester. Required Writing opens with several autobiographical pieces in which Larkin ruminates on his experiences in these first library positions, along with short introductions to his novel Jill and his poetry collection The North Ship, which reflect on the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of these early works. But Required Writing mostly consists of review pieces of specific books or jazz records, along with several general pieces written for occasions such as the announcement of the 1977 Booker Prize. One or two of his general pieces have particular relevance many years later, such as an opening lecture which criticises the British literary establishment’s seeming lack of interest in preserving the manuscripts or collected papers of its greatest living authors and writers. Yet the book is best read as its title suggests: these pieces were requested or required of their author at one point or another, and Larkin brought them together in a single volume in the hope that doing so would make it less likely that his words would be quoted out of context in the future.

On the whole, Larkin makes no secret of his particular tastes as a reviewer. In Required Writing, he often refers to the unholy trinity of ‘Parker, Pound, and Picasso’ as examples of what he most dislikes about ‘modern’ art, literature, and music — ‘it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure’. He rails against what he regards as the narrow-minded, snobbish idea that one cannot properly understand what is good or beautiful or skilfully done about modern music or modern art unless one is a ‘musician’ or an ‘artist’. Small wonder, then, that on several occasions he expresses his fondness for the poetry of John Betjeman precisely because Betjeman is ‘a poet for whom the modern poetic revolution simply has not taken place’. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Larkin’s preferences or prejudices is of little importance, on the whole — Required Writing simply presents his opinions as one reviewer amongst many, with his biases generally unconcealed, and leaves it open to the reader to decide how to regard them.

Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952–1985 by Philip Larkin (edited by Anthony Thwaite)

Further Requirements is the second collection of Larkin’s prose writings, a posthumous compilation put together by Larkin editor and biography Anthony Thwaite from Larkin left death. As Larkin himself wrote, ‘The journalism of a major writer can be revealing. It shows his talent encountering the world outside his own imagination; we learn what he is prepared to write about, and what other people hope he will write about.’ Appropriately, much of the material in Further Requirements is drawn from Larkin’s written and broadcast journalism, beginning with a collection of transcripts from Larkin’s interviews and broadcasts, mostly from the BBC’s Third Programme (now Radio 3) or from Radio 4. Featured broadcasts include Larkin’s appearance on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1976, a response to a birthday tribute in which he chooses ‘The Explosion’ as a personal favourite among the poems he wrote, and more short pieces about his love of jazz music.

The rest of the compilation, about 60 percent all told, consists of reviews that Larkin wrote for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and other literary periodicals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the reviews are of books of poetry, many of which were written by poets who have since faded into semi-obscurity. More than one review again shows Larkin’s fondness for Betjeman’s poetry and its general rejection of the modernist style of arts and literature that Larkin particularly disliked. The general impression one gets from the selections included in Further Requirements is that of Larkin’s sheer determination to write about ordinary things and ordinary people — and there are times when this sentiment becomes a little repetitive to read about, if only because the book brings together in one closely-packed volume a number of pieces that were otherwise spread out over many years. All the same, Further Requirements is a fine counterpoint to Larkin’s own selection of poetry and prose writings. (Readers who are interested in more Larkin-alia would do well to look for the edited collection of his letters, also compiled by Anthony Thwaite.)


Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite

17 August 2008

I meant to post this on Tuesday, but as I’ve been getting slightly behind in my planned review-writing schedule I decided to give myself a little breathing room. I’m also trying to figure out some way to celebrate the first anniversary of this book review blog, which is coming up in a matter of days. In the meantime, though, here’s this review of an enjoyable poetry collection.

Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (edited by Anthony Thwaite)

A few years ago, after doing some research in the special collections at the University of Hull, I decided to pick up an edition of Philip Larkin‘s collected poems. Larkin spent much of his working life as a librarian at Hull, and during his time there he wrote most of the poetry for which he would become known. The volume in question is the Faber edition edited by Anthony Thwaite, one of Larkin’s literary executors — according to his introduction, the selection has been made to reflect the maturation of the poet’s writing style and craft over the years. (Or that’s what he says, at least.) But even for those who are unfamiliar with the nuances of Larkin’s writing style, this collection is an excellent selection of poetry from a very powerful writer, no matter how mundane (or titillating) the themes he chooses to observe.

Included in this book are poems that appeared in the different collections published in Larkin’s lifetime — The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, High Windows — and other pieces of juvenelia and uncollected works. The poems for which Larkin is most famous certainly appear, including the oddly lilting ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me) / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP’), the stark ‘MCMXIV‘ with its echoes of the world before the Great War, and his decidedly anti-nostalgic ‘I Remember, I Remember’. In short, this collected edition is a good compact version of Larkin’s best-known works, illustrating his particular blend of frankness and introspection about life in postwar Britain.


Piers the Ploughman by William Langland

5 August 2008

For some time now, this book has been on my list of things that I ‘ought’ to read — not out of any particular obligation, but because I felt that if several of my favourite authors (for instance, C.S. Lewis) have read and enjoyed this book, I might as well see what the fuss was all about. So I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago, and finished the review for it a few days ago.

Piers the Ploughman by William Langland (Penguin Classics 1966 edition, translated by J.F. Goodridge)

Most anyone who works with literature written before the age of the printing press is well aware of the difficulties that come with studying fragile and often fragmentary primary texts. The epic poem Beowulf, for instance, survives only on a single manuscript dating from around AD 1000, and other handcopied works have fared even less well against the tests of time. Yet even for works where a number of copies or pieces of the same work exist, minute (and occasionally major) differences between each fragment further add to the challenge of studying a text. In English literature, one particularly complicated text dates from the later part of the 1300s, around the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A long allegorical poem written by little-known cleric William Langland, Piers Ploughman is a complex, multilayed commentary on the social, political, and moral state of England in the 14th century. About 50 or so manuscripts of this poem are known to exist, with three semi-definitive versions known the A, B, and C texts. Yet scholars are still sifting through what little is known about this poem, studying both the text and the different ways in which later generations regarded Langland’s pointed criticisms of the state of affairs in England in his day.

As a allegory, Piers Ploughman is told as a series of dream-visions experienced by the narrator, who is shown wandering through the Malvern Hills in what is now modern-day Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Periodically, he falls asleep and dreams vividly of a world where virtues and vices walk alongside men and women, encouraging them to be good and pious or tempting them to be false and wicked. Conscience and Reason, among others, are often beside the dreamer to teach him about good moral behaviour and help him avoid the traps of Fraud, Flattery, Worldly Wisdom, and their kind. The central figure in the dreamer’s visions, however, is a ploughman named Piers, a Christ-figure who provides a model for the narrator and others to follow. (The ploughman figure, an idealised image of the honest labourer, is a key component of a particular tradition of other politically charged ‘plowman writings‘ that date from around the same time as Langland’s work.) As the narrator wanders between the dreaming and waking world in search of the elusive Piers, he reflects on the evils he encounters, focusing particularly on the greed and corruption that have weakened the Church and her clergy, and ponders what is likely to happen to men’s souls in these dark and uncertain times.

This particular edition (Penguin Classics, 1966) contains a translation of the B-text of the poem (the best-known text) into modern English prose, as well as a introduction written by the translator, J.F. Goodridge. Goodridge explains in the introduction that he decided against trying to force a modern-English rhyme scheme out of the Middle English alliterative verse, instead attempting to keep as much of the sense of the original as possible. In addition, Goodridge’s comprehensive footnotes draw on the research and writings of other scholars to highlight particular themes and allegorical styles that Langland used in his work, and provide citation information for the numerous quotes from the Bible that are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. This translation is by no means a ‘dumbing down’ of the work; for those who are not at all familiar with the style and structure of Middle English, Goodridge’s edition presents Langland’s classic Middle English poem in a solid, basic format that does its best to be accessible and easy to read. And even though there may be newer translations of the poem with more recent scholarship, this version seems to be worth examining nonetheless as an example of the kind of effort that is required to work with such a dense and often obscure piece of literature.


Regeneration by Pat Barker

29 July 2008

I first read this book about two years ago, around the time when the British Ministry of Defence was seeking pardons for 300 British soldiers who were shot for military offences, including cowardice and desertion, during World War I. This particular book was a recommendation from a friend who suggested it after I posted a review of Siegfried Sassoon’s collected poems. I am very, very hard to satisfy when it comes to historical fiction…which is why it makes me quite glad to say that I will suggest this book to anyone with even a smidgen of interest in a fictional perspective on actual historical events.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

In 1917, decorated war hero and published poet Siegfried Sassoon sent a letter to his commanding officer, denouncing the war. The letter caused a sensation at the time, as Sassoon’s words were reprinted in the press and even read out in Parliament. As a result of his protest — and to allow his superiors to avoid the high-profile court-martial that would have certainly happened otherwise — Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh to be treated for shell-shock. Pat Barker’s story picks up there, for Regeneration focuses on Sassoon’s time at the hospital and his treatment by the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers. But while Sassoon’s story forms the framework of the novel, Regeneration explores several of the issues that burned the memory of the Great War into the minds of an entire generation: how men coped (or could not cope) with the horrific sights they had seen in the trenches, how the war changed lives and altered priorities, and how the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder as we know it today was only just beginning to be understood by those who suffered from it and those who treated it.

There are many kinds of sickness — physical, mental, and emotional — in Regeneration. Setting the story in what is essentially a mental hospital allows Barker to show several sides of the war that is not often considered, especially in the context of the time period. Early psychiatric treatments for shell-shock, as it was known then, were primitive at best and downright cruel at worst, and many of the therapies and treatments that are now considered standard practice for PTSD sufferers were considered radical and even nonsensical by the medical standards of the day. The theme of emasculation (by mental illness or through actual physical injury) haunts the minds of the male characters. Concerns over homosexuality and effeminate behaviour crop up constantly throughout the book, nearly always tied into the idea of the manly valour of warfare and the repression of one’s emotions during wartime. (Sassoon was known to be part of a literary circle that included Oscar Wilde’s close friend Robbie Ross, and the friendship formed at Craiglockhart between Sassoon and poet Wilfred Owen is thought by some scholars to have had an effect on the homoerotic elements that were to appear in Owen’s published work.) Barker does an excellent job of letting the characters speak for themselves, as they develop the most important themes almost of their own accord.

Regeneration is the first part of a three-part series, continued in The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road. Of the three, Regeneration is the book set most firmly in historical events; according to other reviews I have read, the other two books continue the story in the same context and time period but do not cleave so closely to factual occurrences. Regeneration leaves off as an Army medical board clears Sassoon to return to the front, but that ending by no means wraps up the entire story that Barker begins to tell. And even though I have not yet had a chance to look into the rest of the triology, the overarching story seemed well-told and interesting enough to make it worth seeing through until the end.


Collected Poems by John Betjeman

9 March 2008

I ended up rewriting this review from scratch…which was hardly a loss, as it meant I had a much better chance to go back and revisit some of my favourites out of this collection.

Collected Poems by John Betjeman

John Betjeman (1906-1984) is one of those poets whose works are either loved or loathed. I’m fond of many of his poems, but I can see how other people would find them twee or overly sentimental — they tend to call upon a romanticised version of an England of the past, redolent of Ovaltine at bedtime and bicycles on country lanes and salt-stained lodging houses along the seaside. But there’s a faded sort of sadness to many of his poems, a sense that even this romantic past is seldom as lovely as we would like it be.

I believe that Betjeman himself spoke of his Collected Poems as being more ‘verse’ than ‘poetry’, and it is not difficult to see why. He has an ear for rhythm and rhyme that at times is more suited to a music hall than a formal poetry recitation, often bordering on outright doggerel. His personal tastes come through quite clearly, as in this excerpt from ‘May-Day Song for North Oxford’ which highlights his longstanding dislike of former tutor C.S. Lewis:

Oh! well-bound Wells and Bridges! Oh! earnest ethical search!
For the wide high-table
λογος of St. C.S. Lewis’s Church!
This diamond-eyed Spring morning my soul soars up the slope
Of a right good rough-cast buttress on the housewall of my hope.

Betjeman’s distaste for redevelopment and modern planning show up in many poems in this collection, such as his semi-notorious call for ‘friendly bombs’ to fall on Slough and his sharp parodies of young executives and bureaucrats. Yet mixed in with the doses of vitriol are some of his brighter poems, such as the bouncing joy of ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’, and more sombre pieces like ‘Devonshire Street W.1’. The Collected Poems show off the range of Betjeman’s work, the silly and the sad together, and provide a fine single volume of most of the best-known poems of this popular Poet Laureate.

On my recent research trip, I stopped by the newly renovated St Pancras Station to take a photograph of the Betjeman statue that has a place of honour inside the station hall. Betjeman fought to preserve the station from being torn down in the mid-1960s, and the statue attempts to capture him, with a heavy bag in hand and his coat caught in the breeze from a passing train, as he stops to look up at the great vaulted ceiling of the station. I think my photograph came out rather nicely.


Collected Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

4 December 2007

Still going back through reviews I’ve written previously, this time with another book of collected poems.

Collected Poems by Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon’s name, in many respects, is synonymous with the concept of ‘war poetry’. Sassoon, along with Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves and several other fellow poets, wrote about the experiences of soldiers in what would become known as the First World War (or it would be, by the time we realised that we might as well start numbering our massively devastating all-encompassing military conflicts). The Collected Poems hasn’t really changed since Faber and Faber brought out their first edition of it about forty years ago, but even after so long it is good to have this collection of the best examples of Sassoon’s lyrical, plain-spoken poetry.

It’s interesting to read Sassoon’s poetry and see how the writing style and source material changes and develops over the years, because the change seems to me to be a fairly noticeable one. His earliest pre-war poems are heavily sunk in a pastoral kind of Romanticism, as in paens to Nature like ‘The Old Hunstman‘, and even his early war poems are not truly free of the Romantic influence. Most, though not all, of his later poems lost much of this pastoral innocence. The Collected Poems also contains quite a few of Sassoon’s sharply satirical writings on subjects as diverse as the diary of a deceased ambassador (‘The visionless officialized fatuity/That once kept Europe safe for Perpetuity‘) and his own fumbling attempts to reconcile his socialist leanings to his well-off background:

‘What do you know?’ exclaim my fellow-diners
(Peeling their plovers’ eggs or lifting glasses
Of mellowed Château Rentier from the table),
‘What do you know about the working classes?’

Yet it is for his war poetry and the immediate post-war poetry that Sassoon is most likely to be remembered. The Collected Poems pull together the works of a poet whose works always seem to have some resonance, no matter what the current political situation happens to be.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.


Collected Poems 1945-1990 and Collected Later Poems 1980-2000 by R.S. Thomas

19 October 2007

A good friend of mine initially piqued my interest in the poetry of R.S. Thomas, but I never seemed to be able to find a copy of his works when I was looking for one. Yet in one of those happy coincidences that seem to happen most often when I’m book shopping, I was poking through the poetry shelves in Daunt Books when a minor book landslide nearly sent several volumes toppling onto my head. After a moment’s flailing, I stemmed the book-fall…and the book I ended up using to hold back the deluge was the collected poems of R.S. Thomas. I couldn’t just leave it on the shelf after all that, could I?

Collected Poems 1945-1990 and Collected Later Poems 1980-2000 by R.S. Thomas

Ronald Stuart Thomas was a Welsh clergyman who spent his working life in a number of rural parishes, and much of his poetry centres on religion, rural Wales, and the exploration of Welsh national and cultural identity. He was a fervent proponent of the Welsh language and Welsh culture, not least because he grew up speaking English and regretted the fact that he only came to learn Welsh as an adult. His outspoken views occasionally sparked controversy, most notably when he publically praised the arsonists who destroyed English holiday-homes in Wales in the 1980s. And there is a good deal of anger and resentment in his poetry, as well as frustration and sadness, as shown for example in the opening lines of ‘The Old Language’:

England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger to my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune?

It borders on cliche to describe his writing style as ‘flinty’ or ‘bitter’, but it’s a very apt description. The crisply lyrical quality of his poetry makes it wonderful to recite aloud, and its memorable sound and images even inspired a bit of gentle parody by another excellent Welsh poet, Harri Webb. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but I think parody runs a close second at times.

The first Collected Poems isn’t the complete corpus of Thomas’s work. His Collected Later Poems covers his last five collections of poetry, and also includes several poems and fragments that he had written but not published before his death in 2000. There are a few points that bear mentioning with regard to this second collection. ‘The Echoes Return Slow’, the first section of the book, is an autobiography done in short snatches of stream-of-consciousness prose followed by brief poems. These later poems seem to have a more religious turn than those from his earlier collection. Most of the poems have a strongly Christian theme, musings on man’s relationship with God and how to make sense of religion and faith in a world where both are often tested. Compared to the first collection, there are certainly fewer rants (so to speak) about the decline of Wales and Welsh culture and language. And though I enjoy Thomas’s writing style, with its alternating crisp tones and slow, languid musings, I have to say that I prefer the poems of the first collection. Thomas’s poetic voice comes through more strongly, I think, in his writings about the Welsh people. But both volumes are collections of moving and thought-provoking poems by a very remarkable poet, and I’m glad I have a nice compact collection of his work.