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The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The scope of this quite modestly pitched book of reviews and essays is actually quite considerable, it takes in quite a wide compass in a relatively unassuming way in some 440 pages. Robinson has authors he likes, but he is not into score taking or arguing canonically. I suppose this could have been called a collected or selected prose. But Robinson is not the kind to hammer his points, there’s a considerable openness here to many varieties of poetic expression. 

So the book is bold but lacking in ostentation, which makes a curious combination of assertion and humility. There are a great many reviews here and I’d say they’re all pretty insightful, and the final section is given over to some autobiographical essays. Among things to prioritise are perhaps, a vicar’s son,  Robinson’s 18 years of living and teaching in Japan. Also with considerable candour he discusses his surgery for a benign brain tumour, certainly a life changing experience.

There are actually some 55 pieces here, composed ‘over the last forty years’ (p7), so this in a sense a bit of a summa. But again, Robinson does not seem like someone with an axe to grind. The book is in five parts, beginning with British poets, then Americans, then a more retrospective note in Part 3 and on to more perhaps minor or esoteric pieces in Part 4, and memoirs to close. 

The title is from Marianne Moore,- ‘happy that Art, admired in general,/ is always actually personal’. Again that air of no grand claims. A number of very prominent poets get reviewed here, and the sense is of a close, rather than judgmental engagement, again little sense of what betters or words of a delineated evaluation. Robinson is an appreciative reader quite evidently. I thought perhaps the most indicative piece was on the American poet John Matthias, which is in Part 2, where Robinson reiterates the Marianne Moore quote.

Actually placing the memoirs at the end gives the book a wholly different tone, personal, indeed. What we might be lacking is a sense of an ethos, where what we get instead are, oh, here are some things I liked. Is literature of much help in making a way in the world. There’s a little bit of a sense of drift, ie we like these things, but we make no claims for them. There is a lack of taking position. One might find for example no address to such canonical figures as Hughes, Plath or Heaney. And modernism is acknowledged but we do not get wholly behind it.

This might tend to suggest that the book turns into a sort of miscellany, a grab bag. Here is Robinson for instance discussing Lee Harwood, about whom he is quite favourable,-

‘Presenting himself as a nice person and not afraid or ashamed of weakness, Harwood is frequently candid about the ironies and contradictions that have arisen with his projects.’ (p277)

Well one might think this is somewhere Robinson is coming from also.

Given that, a strength of the book is its wide range. We get, for instance, commentary on Peter Riley, John James, Roy Fisher, Bunting, Elizabeth Bishop and a good many more. Yet also that sense of being without sharp or precise delineation. Equally no or little sense of schools and where we are placed with them, although Robinson is certainly aware of the Movement, rather more than he is of the British Poetry Revival or the Cambridge school. The ‘personal art’ coinage is certainly a plus, and this sense that the introspect must figure, all to the good.

I get the sense I suppose that the book as a whole tends to come out as a sort of personal memoir rather than any positioning alignment regards schools or stylistic tendencies. And it is certainly an engaging read, that personal inflection keeps it well clear of academic journalese. 

The effect is perhaps of an odd sort of softening; the cover design is colourful but quite mild, lacking any jagged edges, red, yellow, green and peach. I suppose I’m of the view that this chimes most with the John Matthias, perhaps a relatively underestimated critic and commentator.

The back cover blurb says ‘an essential guide to the poetry that has shaped and fed the imagination of a distinctive and original poet.’ Now this strikes me as about right. Peter Robinson surely is an original. And again no wider claims; perhaps this is indicative of a certain catholicity. 

That said I think this is a very welcome instance of publication. While no partisan, Robinson has obviously read and appreciated widely, and there are many cues here to pick up on some of the authors discussed. Interested readers might wish to refer back to Robinson’s Selected or Collected.

But here am I thinking about all those things he didn’t say. There is assuredly candour and a welcoming sense, but it is not quite a position statement or a guide book. But there is a lot here, reflecting many years of reading and writing. It’s a satisfying book filled with many an insightful reflection on the present condition of poetry.

Clark Allison 13th November 2021

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