RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: October 2022

Betrayals by Ian Seed (Like This Press)

Betrayals by Ian Seed (Like This Press)

The fifteen short prose pieces in Betrayals delineate the story of a young English man living in northern Italy between Ivrea and Turin in the 1980s. The story is a follow-up and a rewriting of Italian Lessons (Like This Press, 2017) that has a different tone and is from a different perspective. Betrayals is a rethinking that meditates on the perception of relationships in a more personal way. The short prose pieces look like chapters that trace chronologically the Italian experience which is centred on the protagonist’s job as an English teacher in a high school and on his relationship with his Italian lover, Donatella.

     The relationship starts as an occasional encounter in a discotheque in an atmosphere of déjà-vu that mimics movies’ romantic scenes:

Her eyes caught mine; she smiled with a strange mixture of shyness and cheekiness. She held out her glass to me. I wasn’t sure I could believe my eyes. […] 

I took the glass from her hand, drank a sip, gave her the glass back. Was it my imagination or was she really leaning her face towards mine?

     They meet regularly at weekends and spend their time in bed ‘making love, sleeping, making love again.’ For the protagonist, falling in love with Donatella is like falling in love with Italy, with its blue summer sky and its strong coffee. Both Donatella and the protagonist are searching for self-discovery. Donatella works as an accountant but hates her job; she has artistic talents and is well-read but abandoned her dreams as she was aware that she would never have the opportunity to fulfil them. Her father died when she was a little girl and she could not go to university as she has to support her mother and her brother with her wages. The protagonist seems to have a more available future. He completed his university studies before moving to Italy and is free to approach life in a more open way. The Italian adventure seems to give him the answers to his yearnings, though it will soon reveal the incomprehensible side of love. His inexperience exposes his naivete but also triggers a reflection that will lead him to acquire a maturity of sorts. He relies on Donatella’s support as she helps him find a job and a flat, and she also pays the deposit. However, their relationship unexpectedly deteriorates as soon as his life seems to settle. She is trapped in her family, which depends on her, and he is trapped in a job that he cannot quit because he needs to pay the rent and give back to Donatella the money that she paid for the deposit. Their love-making sessions become less frequent and are not as idyllic as before. What can he make of it? Love seemed smooth and clear at first, but it has suddenly become a tangle of misunderstandings; it is elusive and delusive for no apparent reason. Why isn’t life like a Hollywood movie in which everything is finally explained and all ends well? Why are the pains of love so excruciating and unfathomable? The circumstances betray the genuine emotions the protagonist feels, revealing their illusory essence. Therefore, the title of the book not only refers to his cheating on Donatella but more widely to a condition of feeling betrayed that he experiences.

     When the protagonist occasionally has sex with women he encounters after the estrangement in his relationship with Donatella, he experiences a sense of displacement, a ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’, as Rimbaud would express it. However, the experience is not poetically dramatic, as it is in the French poet’s work. Instead, he wanders around without a direction, deciding not to choose what to do but to just let things happen to him, like in Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, though again the exceptional side of the experience is understated and there is no intention to set an example, as there is in Baudelaire’s work. Life flows effortlessly and is unjustified:

This is the first of several betrayals of Donatella since officially we are still together. On my wanderings around the city, chance encounters sometimes happen, and these sometimes lead to sex. They are the only thing that keeps me going. They become my raison d’être. That, and starting to read Italian literature in Italian. Here, I sense, there is a world to keep exploring for a long time to come.

     Eventually, Donatella realises he is cheating on her and a melodramatic scene follows in which she weeps and beats his chest with her fists at a bus stop, and he weeps too. The story sounds humorous, like in Commedia all’italiana, comedy in the Italian way. However, there is a pervading sense of a void, an atmosphere of being in limbo that is different from the hell evoked in Rimbaud’s and Baudelaire’s works and is nearer to Eugenio Montale’s collection of short prose pieces Farfalla di Dinard (The Butterfly of Dinard, 1956) in which the Italian poet expresses his disillusionment caused by misunderstandings in relationships and his visceral incapacity to grasp the reason for the different situations he encounters in life. In the end there is no answer and no meaning to our unforgivably misplaced beliefs and unabating faith in trying to make sense of our world and of our life. The protagonist survives the Italian experience, pays back the deposit money to Donatella and ‘cannot wait to go back to England’ with his wealth of unsettling experiences. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 30th October 2022

The Waste Land: a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

The Waste Land: a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

I love The Waste Land. My Dad, an engineer and aeronautical draughtsman who had retrained as a school teacher, was not a great reader of poetry, but he did like T.S. Eliot, and Eliot was one of the first poets I read for myself. I loved the incantatory nature of his writing, and the vivid imagery of the London, pub and river scenes in The Waste Land. Even studying the poem for English A Level didn’t put me off, although the pencilled translations and notes are still in the margins of my father’s copy of Eliot’s Collected Poems which I kept after he died.

Neither my own notes nor Eliot’s published ones do anything other than point elsewhere, offering a glossary of source materials, allusions and asides that doesn’t actually help understand or experience the poem, which I prefer to remain as a series of shifting scenes and episodes rooted in 20th Century London and Modernism. Others of Eliot’s poems work differently, and critical work that deconstructs or theologizes poems such as ‘Ash Wednesday’ or ‘The Four Quartets’ are more useful than those that impose a grand narrative on or reveal a hidden meaning in The Waste Land.

The title of Matthew Hollis’ book suggests that it offers a new approach to Eliot’s poem: I was intrigued by the notion of the biography of a poem rather than a poet. However, the subtitle is a misnomer; what we actually get is yet another sprawling biography of Ezra Pound, T.S. and Vivienne Eliot, and an account of their interactions with each other, publishers, writers, supporters, enemies and critics.

I’m really not sure what Hollis thinks his book is doing, or why he thinks Eliot’s interactions with the likes of the Bloomsbury Set are of particular interest. The book is often clunkily organised, with set scenes interspersed with both summative episodes and unwanted authorial commentary and scene setting. What are we to make of the fact that  ‘A hunter’s moon hung low over Margate’ (p. 290) or that ‘Pound took to life on the Left Bank’ (p. 278), or being told that ‘Something truly exceptional had taken place between Eliot, Pound and The Waste Land, something truly rare’ (p.362) ?

Pound’s editing and re-versioning of Eliot’s draft text is well-documented elsewhere, not least in the published volume of The Waste Land Facsimile, and much written about. I really don’t need Hollis to give me or the editing process his seal of approval! Better to look at versions of the text and think about how the language and form of the poems and overall sequence works, than offer banal context and vague approval.

There is, thankfully, some close reading and intelligent criticism on offer here, but not enough; time and time again we are returned to the geographical settings and (perceived or assumed) emotions of Eliot’s life, all too often in relationship to a revolving cast of characters whose biographical back stories are awkwardly dropped in for the reader before any action commences. The book made me dig out my copy of Kevin Jackson’s wonderful epistolic book Constellation of Genius, (Windmill Books, 2013) which wittily documents the international web of modernism, through the lives of artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, scientists and politicians throughout the year 1922.

I am glad The Waste Land continues to find readers and provoke new critical writing but, despite Hollis’ note that he has not drawn on previous biographies and has returned to original sources (and I am not accusing him of doing other than he claims), it mostly feels like an intelligent and thoughtful condensing and distillation of material that is already available. It’s engaging, mostly well-written stuff, but it needed to focus on the poem more, which surely is – along with other work by Eliot – what it’s all about? Pound gets it right in the 1966 quote which Hollis uses as one of the book’s epigraphs: ‘I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.’ 

Rupert Loydell 26th October 2022

Possibly a Pomegranate by Alwyn Marriage (Palewell Press)

Possibly a Pomegranate by Alwyn Marriage (Palewell Press)

The pomegranate with its abundant red seeds provides a perfect motif for these poems which are subtitled ‘A Celebration of Womanhood’ – a theme which Alwyn Marriage explores across different cultures through memory, creativity, and myth.

The theme of fruit is a constant in the collection. The title poem offers the fascinating suggestion that it may have been a pomegranate that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden but I was mostly intrigued by the background etymology that shows how the word malum, in Latin, is synonymous with both evil and apple – a confusion perpetuated by artists ‘down the ages’ who have given ‘flesh to the mythical fruit’ and displayed it as an apple in all its ‘juicy plumpness’.

These are the key words – ‘juicy plumpness’ – which reference birth and motherhood in Possibly a Pomegranate where women offer ‘breasts to infants’ and ‘feel/their life force flow’ (‘Saturday’s Child’). In the poem ‘Skin’ an infant that is ‘firm, plump, soft,’ snuggles up close to the narrator who inhales the ‘sweetness’ of the baby with its ‘perfume of a fig that’s ripe for eating.’

Poems in this collection describe growth, decline and renewal not only in womanhood but also in nature and its effect on emotions and knowledge. The poet considers ‘the mystery of life’ by discovering ‘the green heart/of the woods’ (‘Field Trip’), an experience which becomes visionary and mystical:


-of air

            still when I am still

            moving when

            my body moves

            -of forest floor

            deep pile of leaves

            echoed here 

            in carpet, soft

            receptacle for feet

            -of this mysterious

            collection of particles

            translated into skin and bones,

            warm flesh and hair

            that’s open to everything

            that surrounds me,

            that is in me

            that is me

            breathing a world

            into existence

The aspect of Possibly a Pomegranate that most appeals to me is Alwyn Marriage’s skill in weaving and telling stories.  In the title poem she claims that ‘our oldest stories sometimes hold/more truth than history’ and emphasises ‘the creative mind/of generations’ that devise explanations ‘for the way things are’. Two narratives I particularly enjoy in the collection are ‘Finger four’ and ‘The clue lies in the lady’s toe’. The first is a memory of a teenage love, a song-like poem where the girl and Jimmy the young boy are singing while they are fishing and the hook on his line draws blood from the fourth finger of the girl’s left hand, her ‘ring’ finger, and this becomes ‘a faint reminder of a Scottish boy/who though he sang so sweetly on a sunny day,/failed to catch any fish, or me.’

The lady’s toe poem was written after seeing the bronze statue of a king and queen on a Scottish hillside and wondering about ‘the different texture of the metal on/the king’s right knee’ which is so smooth. The humorous conclusion to the poem comes in the final stanzas where a sheep, like a pilgrim kissing a statue of the virgin Mary, ‘sidles up to the impassive king/and meditatively rubs her rump/against his knee.’

Possibly a Pomegranate offers a wide range of tonal effects from the joyful to the poignant, the amusing to the profound. Throughout it is the observation of details, both quirky and everyday, that intrigue and fascinate – details as small as cherry stones uncovered amongst ‘flint and rubble’ in what was once a small town garden. Evidence, says the narrator, that ‘at least one person/on a number of occasions in summers long ago/sat in this garden spitting cherry stones.’

Alwyn Marriage has written a varied and enchanting collection here. It is finely produced by Palewell Press.

Mandy Pannett 25th October 2022

Hy Brazil by Gerald Killingworth (Matador)

Hy Brazil by Gerald Killingworth (Matador)

Hy Brazil is an absorbing and compelling book written in the tradition of historical fantasy, which is an intriguing genre. The narrative is set in Elizabethan England, beginning in the year 1591, but the fantastic elements, which encompass two thirds of the novel, take place in a fabled realm inhabited by the elven folk, the phantom island of Hy Brazil supposedly in the Atlantic somewhere west of Ireland and marked on several maps of the time. Legends describe this Celtic Otherworld as cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years when it becomes visible. Always, however, it is supposed to be unreachable.

The book is written in the first person by Edward Harry, and everything is perceived from his viewpoint. This is clearly stated in the Foreword which declares ‘I myself, Edward Harry, am the only begetter and so I shall be the first word in all the telling.’ The Prologue continues this assertion with the opening line ‘I was born I know not when; where and from what parents no soul has ever thought fit to inform me.’ The generalised name of ‘Boy’ soon irritates the child who insists of being called by the names of two great kings. This attitude is a key to Edward’s character as he reveals himself to be impetuous, impulsive, arrogant, a quick-witted character with a love of adventure, ambitious and self-seeking to the hilt as he ‘reached out for glory and the company of my betters.’ Edward Harry has a great many faults which frequently land him in trouble, but he is also honourable and principled, compassionate, loyal, and very likeable.

Early in the book, Edward becomes Secretary to Edmund Spenser, the poet, and I found this a fascinating section. The background is the imposition of rule by the English upon Ireland and the hardship and suffering this caused. The name of Spenser in Ireland is still one to be spoken with a curse. Edward Harry himself is proud of being English. His opinion on the situation is ‘That they (the Irish) had lost all their possessions no doubt followed because they were unfit to hold them.’ Spenser himself is presented as something of an enigma for ‘he seemed to be two men; the one quite willing to root out all Irishmen so that the other, the poet, could enjoy their countryside in peace.’

A subtle touch introduces the fantastic elements of Hy Brazil when Edward and his friend Calvagh are blown off course while at sea in a small boat and find themselves landing on the shores of the fabulous island, not knowing what adventures will befall them. ‘We were drawn,’ says Edward, ‘wherever the green line led, to the rainbow’s end, to the rim of the world, or perhaps to Hell.’ The situation, in fact, does develop into something resembling Hell for Hy Brazil is not a pretty, dream-like island with elves and fairies and sweet-talking animals but a place of brutality, violence and ongoing savagery and conflict.

Edward’s adventures are riveting and I, for one, relished the strangeness, the grotesques, and monstrosities and the ‘motley assemblage of oddities’ that creep into the novel under Gerald Killingworth’s brilliantly skilful and imaginative pen.

This is most definitely a book that once started is not to be put down. Hy Brazil is intended to be the first of a trilogy and I hope it will be. It is too good not to be continued. Every reader will want to know what happens next.

For further information and purchase of copies contact Gerald Killingworth at

Mandy Pannett 18th October 2022

Wrappings in Bespoke by Sanjeev Sethi (Hedgehog Press Poetry)

The poems in Sanjeev Sethi’s new collection explore feelings and troubling emotions and question relationships via complex reasoning and apparently cryptic language. Words, their enchanting sounds and ambiguous meanings, are the means to investigate who we are and our position in this world and can be used to make sense of what is around us. Sethi proposes a rethinking of being human and of our existence in this world using intentionally uncommon words and syntax. New possibilities are therefore envisaged that suggest different visions. Existential implications haunt the lines, proposing a wisdom of sorts: although it is provisional, it is always thought-provoking.

     Sartre’s concept of nothingness seems to be a reference point. In relationships we are tested and may fall into nothingness in an experience in which ‘existence precedes essence’, as Sartre claims. It is a process of growth and openness to the Other that jeopardises our self, but despite that it is still necessary. The essence of the self seems to be the goal of Sethi’s poetry, which is scrutinised in depth through language and all its complexities and surprising paradoxical aspects:


After the drill of social punctilios, when curtains are drawn, the blah

blah of bovarism lies peeled in those willing to eavesdrop on themselves.

The therapy of truth unveils its secrets: we know our lies better than all

the light there is. After a mortise level on laminate of life, it is meaningless

to tend to every kernel of truth. Attempts to amp this will only end in ache.

The key is to find your centre. If there were a panopticon edge to one’s script,

there wouldn’t be need for prophets. To be famed for clerihews is so meta.

Synesthesia bedrocks all impulse. What is the colour of your grief?

Pain isn’t proprietary, join the party.

     Compared to Sethi’s previous poetry, the poems in his latest collection are more concise and epigrammatic; they are more intellectual in some way, and the language is at the edge of experimentalism. Sethi lives in Mumbai; he is the author of seven books of poetry and has been widely published in reviews and magazines such as London MagazineThe Fortnightly ReviewStand MagazineDreich and many others. Sethi has been involved with the poetic process for fifty years and has been publishing seriously for the last 40 years. He is a voracious reader and posts his poems daily on his Instagram and Twitter accounts, though he joined social media less than a year ago. Sethi is therefore constantly immersed in poetry which is part of his essence and fuses with his everyday life.

     In this collection, the themes of love, solitude, loss, grief and old age are barely sketched in an existential journey in which only poetry seems to hold things together. Certainties and relationships have disintegrated, and everything is questioned in witty lines that cannot be made into illusions. The protagonist is alert and has a seemingly detached attitude that nevertheless conveys a wish to contribute in line with a compulsory instinct to share and connect to a wider world, which is what happens on social media. The reader needs to find the key to understanding this fascinating labyrinthine reasoning and to finally get immersed in the riveting rhythm of Sethi’s lines:


You and I are no scholars of horology,

but time wraps in bespoke. Detritus

blocks our way, deterring us from

zooming into a xyst. We don’t need

the descant of a dragoman. We know

it’s clock out on a timepiece that refuses

to ticktock. When fresh, we lacked the grace

to smell the flowers. Rearranging an old

bouquet is no way to rev it up.

     Reading Sethi is a challenging experience that entertains us but at the same time tests our beliefs and our capacities. The questions are open and the answers are not definite; they are an attempt to fill the emptiness, to make sense of the absurdities of life, to stay alive. The emphasis is on the process, not on the goal. It is a search for the right word, or the ‘absolute word’, as the Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti called it, the poetical word that might reveal a truth and give sense to our experience, reveal emotions and states of mind, and create realities. It is a journeying of the self and a meditation on life and being, on how to be and on what is important in life. There is no transcendental or spiritual allusion in this vision; everything seems to happen here and now in this flawed world that is dense with misunderstandings, conflicts, delusions and injustices. Sethi’s poems are an invitation to explore this perilous path leading towards an improbable conclusion that shifts every time we try to grasp it. This is a fascinating and stimulating collection of sharp poems that encompasses today’s anxieties and yearnings.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 16th October 2022

Four Winters by Jem Southam (Stanley / Barker)

Four Winters by Jem Southam (Stanley / Barker)

Four Winters is a book of mornings and mourning, of dawns and dusks, a collection of reflective colour photographs on the River Exe initiated by photographer Jem Southam’s need for a time and place to grieve for his brother, and the recognition that in finding this space he had also found the subject for his next body of work.

Southam’s images have always been quiet and intense, requiring viewers to spend time looking, just as he does with his camera. In Four Rivers’ often misty riverscapes we see light arriving or departing, swans and other birds awakening or settling down, the water bright or muddy, rippled, still or in flood. Sometimes dark and trees enclose us, at other times silver, pink or orange light illuminates a scene only just coming into being, hills, streams and vistas which are hardly there yet.

Soft tones of indescribable blues and greys contrast with the occasional autumnal yellow or brown, pale greens. Birds in formation fly by or cluster in protective groups, swans haul their weight into the sky, avian ghosts against mist or icy dew. This is primal stuff, wild and uncontrollable. Even a sometimes tamed and often inhabited and developed river, still shapes itself, changes the land it inhabits, ebbing and flowing through the seasons. I feel lucky to be shown the evidence of all this unknown world.

What Four Winters evidences is an ability to look and wonder, to provoke us to seeing and engaging, to look up from the page and begin to notice what is happening around us, however slowly or calmly, and celebrate that which is often hidden or ignored but remains around or beside us.

Rupert Loydell 15th October 2022

Tears in the Fence 76 is out!

Tears in the Fence 76 is out!

Tears in the Fence 76, 208 pp, is now available at and features poetry, prose poetry, multilingual poetry, fiction and flash fiction by David Annwn, Charles Wilkinson, Lydia Harris, Jane Robinson, Daragh Breen, L.Kiew, Valerie Bridge, Sarah Watkinson, Poonam Jain, Helen Scadding, Alan Baker, Paul Marshall, Peter Dent, Andrew Henon, Mohammad Razai, Jennie Byrne, Luke Emmett, Mark Goodwin, Eleanor Rees, Sophie Segura, Robin Walter, Jill Eulalie Dawson, Rachael Clyne, Wendy Clayton, Mike McNamara, Diana Powell, Simon Jenner, Rodney Wood, Janet Hancock, Hannah Linden, Elizabeth McClaire Roberts, Michael Henry, Alan Dent, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Birgitta Bellême, Melanie Ann Vance, Mary Michaels, Huw Gwynn-Jones, Mike Duggan and John Kinsella, from Metaphysics.

The critical section consists of Joanna Nissel’s Editorial, Mark Prendergast in Conversation with Abigail Chabitnoy, Sam Warren-Miell on the British Right’s world of poetry, Robert Hampson on Nothing is being suppressed by Andrew Duncan, Barbara Bridger on Maria Stadnicka, Aidan Semmens on Jeremy Hilton, Barbara Bridger on Sarona Abuake,  Kathleen McPhilemy on Giles Goodland, Sarah Watkinson on Steve Ely, Alan Baker on Lila Matsumoto, Kathy Miles on John Freeman, Marcus Slease on Chrissy Williams, Carla Scarano on the Poetry of Ian Seed, Vicky Grut on Wendy Erskine, Olivia Tuck on Victoria Kennefick, Andrew Duncan on Khaled Hakim, Graham Harthill on Gerry Loose, Siân Thomas on Pnina Shinebourne, Mandy Pannett on Caroline Maldonado, Paul Matthews on Kay Syrad, Norman Jope on Paul Celan translated by Joan Boase-Beier, Kiran Bhat on Rishi Dastidar, Guy Russell on Derek Gromadzki, Rupert Loydell and Steve Waling in Correspondence, Morag Kiziewicz ‘s Electric Blue 11 and Notes On Contributors .

David Caddy 14th October 2022

The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems Volume One 1927-39 and Poems Volume Two 1940 -1973 (Princeton University Press)

The Complete Works of WH Auden: Poems Volume One 1927-39 and Poems Volume Two 1940 -1973 (Princeton University Press)

Everybody knows a poem or two by W.H. Auden. There’s ‘Night Mail’ and its train rhythms written for an Associated British Picture Corporation film about the GPO back in 1936; what’s often known as ‘Funeral Blues’, movingly declaimed by John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral; perhaps ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’ (‘About suffering they were never wrong’) or the untitled poem which begins ‘Lay your sleeping head my love’.

Everybody knows what Auden looked like in old age, too: a man with a wonderful craggy landscape of a face, often with a cigarette in his hand, usually dressed in a crumpled suit. Everybody knows he was gay, and that he was a 1930s poet who was part of an outspoken and militant group of writers responding to what Auden, in his poem ‘1st September, 1939’, called ‘a low dishonest decade’, where ‘Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth’. And a lot of people know he moved to the USA in 1940 and later joined the Episcopal church there.

Everyone knows something about or by Auden, and everyone had a different route into his work. For me, apart from the odd poem in school textbooks, it was buying a hardback copy of his final book, Thank You, Fog, in a remainder bookshop on Oxford Street, where it kept company with copies of Slow Dancer magazine, and poetry books by Brian Patten and Francis Berry (all of which I also purchased). 

Thank You, Fog , whose laconic ‘final poems’ I am still very fond of, especially the title poem, was later joined on my shelves by a well-thumbed copy of Faber’s 1979 Selected Poems. Well-thumbed by others, not by me, as I was busy chasing what at the time seemed like more exciting and innovative work by the likes of Robert Creeley, Kenneth Patchen, e.e. cummings, Peter Redgrove and Adrian Mitchell. But before too long a good friend of mine would prompt a return to Auden’s writing.

The English Auden, which was subtitled Poems, Essays & Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939 felt like a subversive text when my friend enthused about it, prompting me to buy my own copy. The Orators included (and still does) prose poems, graphics, list poems and journal entries. Elsewhere in The English Auden were songs, speeches, radio talks and essays: ‘Problems of Education’, ‘How to Be Masters of the Machine’, ‘Psychology and Art Today’ and a thorough and extensive, multi-sectioned one on ‘Writing’. The book opened with some kind of drama script, ‘a charade’ called ‘Paid on Both Sides’.

One of the things this opened up to me, apart from some different ways to think about poetic forms and what could or might be regarded as poetrywas a wider context for writing itself, that poetry could be political, sociological, provocative, declamatory, subversive and playful. Or as ‘XXV’ in the sonnet sequence In Time of War puts it, ‘Nothing is given: we must find our law’, ending 14 lines later with the brief summary ‘We learn to pity and rebel.’

Many of the poems gathered up in The English Auden are given a wider context there, as part of an exploration of England and ‘The English’ in the decade leading up to World War 2. ‘Lay your sleeping head my love’ reads differently when it shares a cover with the contents of The Orators, as does the elegiac ‘Stop all the clocks’. They are moments of love and mourning whilst the poet is part of a nation ‘Wandering lost upon the mountains of our choice’, a people who ‘dream of a part / In the glorious balls of the future’ but ‘are articled to error’ and ‘live in freedom by necessity’. (In Time of War, ‘XXVII’)

Although in some ways Auden was conservative (small c), writing a (poetic) ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, engaging with Greek myths and other historical stories, and sometimes seemingly rooted in a traditional view of England and the English, he was also a radical, with the ups and downs of the 1930s leading him to question and critique many cultural assumptions and social hierarchies, often through the lens of communism. WW2 would also encourage poetry which engaged with years of violence, sacrifice, patriotism, political posturing and post-war triumphalism. Auden, of course, was safe in the United States, criticized by many not only for fleeing as war broke out, but also his seeming abandonment of the political left and his adoption of, or conversion to, Christianity.

Princeton University Press’ Complete Works of W.H. Auden editions are beautiful critical editions of his writing, with the two-volume Collected Poems having been preceded by two books of Dramatic Writings, and six of prose. The first volume of poetry contains 808 pages (540 of poems including juvenilia, school poems and  abandoned poems, the rest ‘Textual Notes’) whilst the second clocks in at just over 1100 pages: over 700 pages of poems, followed by five appendices and textual notes.

I can’t pretend to have read all the 1200+ pages of poetry, let alone the additional material, but I have dipped in and out, revisiting work I know or half-know, and reading poems I have never seen or even heard of before. It’s accomplished and impressive work, and the notes are informative and interesting in the way academic footnotes often are, pointing out variations and versions, possible meanings or allusions, and offering context and understanding to facilitate informed reading.

Auden is not an occasional poet, nor does he prove the (in my opinion, wrongheaded and incorrect) theory that even good poets only produce a few memorable poems. This is an amazing body of work, composed by a writer who wrote his way through life, always thinking and paying attention. Some of it feels dated in the way it romanticizes life, or alludes to the kind of ideas and literary canon we have now mostly disregarded, but it is also a poetry written in response to the changing world of the 20th Century, documenting and questioning, always willing to challenge and engage with the contemporary. 

I keep returning to Volume I, where the voice is less settled, the poetry more surprising and unexpected, although there is also plenty of intriguing and thoughtful work in Volume II. Sometimes, however, this is nestled between more playful and slight verses, such as the 60 poems of ‘Academic Graffiti’. Here’s ’53’ in its entirety:

     Thomas the Rhymer
     Was probably a social climber:
     He should have known Fairy Queens
     Were beyond his means.

Witty? Yes, but not the stuff authorial reputations are made of. That will remain because of those Selected Poems many of us know, the more declamatory and experimental work from the 1930s, and the sheer mass of intelligent, thoughtful and analytical writing produced by Auden. Writers write, and Auden did. What wonderful stuff it is.

Rupert Loydell  5th October 2022

%d bloggers like this: