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A History of Modernist Poetry Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins (Cambridge University Press)

A History of Modernist Poetry  Ed. Alex Davis & Lee M. Jenkins  (Cambridge University Press)

I have rarely come across a readable, engaging and infectious introduction to the world of Modernist Poetry…until NOW.
The opening lines of this History set the scene:

“What, When, and Where was modernism? Is modernism a period or a paradigm, an era or a style? Is modernism solely the product of metropolitan modernity, or equally of local, even peripheral, spatialities? Is modernism an ‘international’ or even transnational phenomenon, or is it wedded to notions of cultural nationalism and regional identity?”

The questions are set out and the twenty-three chapters of this fine book attempt to answer them. A concern for placing modernism within an historical context leads the editors to wonder if it marked a moment of avant-garde rupture with its late nineteenth-century poetic antecedents or did it consist, instead, of “a reinflection and continuation of their preoccupations”.

“In what follows, modernist poetry is understood as having its roots in the fin de siècle even as it reflects and refracts the climate of the new century, as an affair of the city and imperial centre, and of what Scottish poet High MacDiarmid termed the ‘stony limits’ of the periphery; and as a variegated field of formal experiments, whether iconoclastic rejections of the past or embattled recuperations of it.”

There is an engaging directness of address in the editorial introduction and I found myself held by a contextual comment such as the difference between modernism and the broader “modern movement”:

“Both register the shock of the new in terms of content and push at the envelope of conventional form; nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between, for example, the Edwardian verse of John Masefield and the early poetry of Mina Loy.”

The point is made even clearer when one compares the representation of the First World War in David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) and the shell-shocked Georgianism of the lyric war poetry of Sassoon and Owen. Jones’s “mixed prose and verse narrative underpinned by the deep time of the mythical method common to many modernist works” is very different from the world addressed by J.H. Prynne in his unpublished lecture to the Edmund Blunden Society in 2009:

“In different ways each one of what we now can’t avoid calling war poets had to make do with traditional modes and genres of composition, as compellingly the default option. With so much of their cultural equipment at risk of destruction, they were deeply conservative in formal poetics, even as they experimented towards far limits in the expression of personal and ethical feeling…Pound, Eliot and Joyce defined major new initiatives, but the surviving war poets lapsed into survival. This stand-off stakes out the territory for literary antagonism and contest, between old-style cultural continuities and the progress of Modernism, both rooted in the modality of the English language but in the case of Eliot and Pound determined to break the mould of inherited practice, to fight free of suffocating influence from the past.”

It is little wonder that In Parenthesis was championed by Eliot sharing, as it did, a fragmentary presence heralded in different voices through whose tones of expression mythology provided a framework for contemporary analysis.
Rather than give a list of all 23 chapters in this new History I urge readers to look the details up on-line: this is probably the most important collection of essays on Modernism to appear for some time to come. What I can do is highlight two little delights, tasters as it were. Mark Scroggins wrote a biography of Zukofsky (Shoemaker Hoard, 2007) and it comes as little surprise that his chapter on ‘Objectivist Poets’ should be so clear in its purpose and details. Scroggins highlights the sense that whilst several writers saw their work published by The Objectivist Press (TO) “the poets now discussed as Objectivists never formed anything like a coherent movement”. He concludes his survey with the statement from Zukofsky who wrote that their interest resided “in the craft of poetry, NOT in a movement”. The final chapter of the History, this history, not where history ends(!), is written by Anthony Mellors whose Late Modernist Poetics, From Pound to Prynne (Manchester University Press, 2005) provides a major focus on Pound, Celan, Olson and Prynne. Mellors concludes his summing-up of A History of Modernist Poetry by quoting Allen Fisher who describes his own poetic strategy as a truth to materials which “involves slow decomposition, disruption of autobiographical voice through the use of many voices”. In response Mellors writes “The danger here is for multiplicity to become a new orthodoxy”. David Jones might well have been interested in this view of the future as well as the past when he opened his Preface to The Anathemata (1952) with the quotation from Nennius (or whoever composed the introductory matter to the Historia Brittonum):

“I have made a heap of all that I could find.”

Ian Brinton 4th April 2017

The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

Poetic Artifice Veronica Forrest-Thomson Edited by Gareth Farmer for Shearsman Books

Poetic Artifice  Veronica Forrest-Thomson  Edited by Gareth Farmer for Shearsman Books

Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Poetic Artifice, subtitled ‘A theory of twentieth-century poetry’, was published by Manchester University Press in 1978 and I bought my copy from a remaindered book-sale of University Press publications which was taking place at Austick’s in Leeds in May 1983. I seem to recall that I paid 50 pence for it. Nowadays I gather that copies of this hard-back first edition of what transpired to be a remarkable book are on sale for £60 and above. Thank goodness for Tony Frazer and Shearsman Books that can bring back into a public eye such a provocative and interesting survey of twentieth-century poetry at a price that is not prohibitive! And thank goodness for the expertise and dedication of Gareth Farmer who has edited this new edition of Poetic Artifice.

Farmer’s research-work on Forrest-Thomson, ‘Poetic Artifice and the Struggle with Forms’, contains one of the most clear and direct introductions to her world:

‘Throughout Poetic Artifice, Forrest-Thomson implies that the poem contains within itself a codified intent which it is a reader’s passive duty to identify. Her position is perhaps derived from the structuralist argument of Riffaterre who proposes the text’s self-sufficiency whereby, “the mythology we need for the text is entirely encoded in the words of text”. A reader need look no further than, as Riffaterre neatly puts it, the “necessary […] verbal artefacts” of the poem’s structure. In illustrating what she means by the function of the image-complex, for example, Forrest-Thomson describes the activity of interpreting the Shakespearean metaphor, “Out, out brief candle, / life’s but a walking shadow”. As she argues, a reader understands by the context of the passage that only certain features of candle are relevant (not that it’s waxy, but that it’s finite and frail). However, she also stresses that “the level of coherence” is “established by the lines” and that this “tells us that only certain features of empirical candles are relevant to the passage.”’

This statement concerning the ‘certain features’ of a candle in one of the most well-known of quotations from Macbeth appears in Forrest-Thomson’s own Preface to that 1978 M.U.P. edition of Poetic Artifice and, as Farmer points out, it illustrates what the author would later describe as the ‘latent intentionality of poetic language’.

Gareth Farmer opens this long overdue and most welcome republication of Forrest-Thomson’s theoretical stance in an engaging manner. He quotes from ‘an intriguing letter’ written by Forrest-Thomson to Paul Buck in July 1972 in which she says that she is in the middle of writing a book ‘centred on William Empson but very post-structuralist orientated, a sort of ars poetica…’. He then provides us with a very precise contextual picture: black-ink calligraphic handwriting, Forrest-Thomson’s typewriter on her desk in Flat 5, 17 West Road Cambridge, an audacious challenge to the claims of another poetic and critical Cambridge voice, that of William Empson. As Farmer puts it, ‘This 1972 letter affords us a window into a Cambridge literary world of the early 1970s’ and he provides us with a context within which to read this stimulating and energetic engagement with the art of reading poetry:

Poetic Artifice and Forrest-Thomson’s other writings from this time are useful historical documents registering shifts in literary-critical terminology, the type of questions being brought to bear on literary texts, as well as the role and function of language.’

Gareth Farmer’s serious academic interest in the work of Veronica Forrest-Thomson was evident when he edited some previously unpublished prose in Chicago Review 56 in the autumn of 2011. ‘His True Penelope Was Flaubert: Ezra Pound and Nineteenth-Century Poetry’ is a ‘condensed’ version of the project Forrest-Thomson was working on after Poetic Artifice. Those essays which Farmer edited in 2011 exist only in single versions and are clearly drafts of her application of poetic theory to nineteenth-century verse, something to which she alluded in the third chapter of Poetic Artifice:

‘One might say, in fact, that both the poetry Pound recognised, such as the Cantos, and the poetry he repudiated, such as early Canzoni, are relevant to our situation today. This matter must wait for another book, though, which will concern Pound, the ’Nineties, and the great fictionalisers, Tennyson, Swinburne, Rossetti, who lie behind them.’

In referring to the tracking down of some of Forrest-Thomson’s unreferenced quotations in her work Gareth Farmer again arouses our interest and intriguingly directs us to the Dame Ninette de Valois epigraph to the book’s second chapter:

‘I knew from talking to Jonathan Culler that Forrest-Thomson had been fascinated by ballet when they had met and had been attending classes in Cambridge. I had attributed this to the influence of Mallarmé and Baudelaire, but the concentration on form, perfection and mastery in the quotation also belies her restless pursuit and fetish of pure form. Indeed, the presence of the balletic body in Forrest-Thomson’s theory and work is a demonstration of both perfection and imperfection—the notion of pure and controlled form occurs at the same time as the presence of an irreconcilable body, gangly, impure, imperfect and never able to attain the perfection to which it strives. The ballet dancer reaching for perfect form, striving to control the unwilling and ever-impure contours of the body, is a figure which describes Forrest-Thomson’s own struggling aesthetics.’

The conclusion to Gareth Farmer’s major editorial work reflects not only the pleasure of having discovered the above aspect of Forrest-Thomson’s ‘ever-engaging and surprising’ critical focus but also contains an invitation to others ‘to find more and to let me know.’ Congratulations to the Farmer-Frazer partnership!

Ian Brinton 17th November 2016

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan)

I am no great reader of theoretical approaches to poetry but the name of the author of this one suggested something rather more exciting. I wasn’t disappointed! Of course when I first thought about reading this recent publication the well-worn quotation from Creeley to Olson about ‘form is never more than an extension of content’ sprang to mind. I have lived with this phrase for years and have often associated it in my mind with that early line from Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’

What I like about this new book by Robert Sheppard is the way in which I am taken back to the poems themselves (or the prose in the case of Veronica Forrest-Thomson) with that clear sense of what is at stake,

‘…the agency of form: how it extends, reveals or – in my terms – enacts, enfolds, and becomes content.’

This book is about how we read poetry and it is refreshing to hear Sheppard say that ‘form’ cannot be held any longer ‘to be a simple opposite to content, a vase containing water, or even a cloud permeated with moisture.’ As a former school-master I am delighted to read the reference to Wallace Stevens’s wry note ‘The poem is the poem, not its paraphrase’. That quotation itself should be given to all teachers of poetry to pin up in their classrooms!
There are chapters in this book dealing with, amongst many others, Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, Rosemarie Waldrop, Geraldine Monk, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths and Barry MacSweeney. There is a chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ and it reads as if Sheppard had his copy to hand of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks, translated by Hoyt Rogers with its terrific afterword about the French poet and the ‘Art of Translation’. Paraphrasing Mallarmé Rogers suggested that translations are not made with images , but with words, and goes on to refer to a letter sent him by Bonnefoy in which the focus is on the French word “bateau” which corresponds well with “boat”. In his poetry Bonnefoy often used the word “barque” but an English equivalent (“bark” or “barque”) simply won’t do since the word is far more unusual in our language. When Rogers settled for the word “boat” he recognised that the French “barque” was evocative because, as Bonnefoy put it, ‘between the consonants the vowel forms the same dark hollow we see in a boat between the curved planks of the prow and the stern’. In his translation Rogers settled for “boat” which itself has an accumulated lyric connotation through a precedent such as The Prelude with its episode of the stolen boat. In this chapter on ‘Translation as Transformation’ Robert Sheppard looks at the practice of rendering poetry from one language into another in terms of a textual engagement, a reading, a response to the original and suggests that ‘Poetry is what is found in translation, as we shall see’.
It was a delight to see a chapter on what I find the bizarre but intriguing world of Stefan Themerson, a world ‘like that of Lewis Carroll…in which logic and poetry wrestle’. In considering the building of cathedrals Themerson writes:

‘its tower
is the thought
of its buttresses’

An example of how Robert Sheppard prompts the reader into thinking closely about the poetry being read can be exemplified by the provocative consideration of Paul Batchelor’s Bloodaxe anthology of essays, Reading Barry MacSweeney (2013) and MacSweeney’s 1997 Bloodaxe publication, The Book of Demons where

‘…readers face two models of poesis, each of which may be seen doubly. The ‘Pearl’ poems, focused upon the figure of a mute young girl as reported by the suffering ‘Bar’, are either read as rich post-Wordsworthian pastoral or as sentimental bucolic. The second half of the volume, the contrasting ‘The Book of Demons’, is read either as the self-indulgent mythologizing of an alcoholic about alcoholism, or as evidence of MacSweeney’s deep, raw honesty about dependency and its attendant psychological horrors.’

Robert Sheppard’s book is one to keep dipping into: it prompts you to want to go back to sources whilst at the same time it offers advice about how to read poetry. It is no mere accident that the first chapter should look closely at Veronica Forrest-Thomson, the critic whose question was always ‘how do poems work’. Referring to the posthumous collection from 1976, On the Periphery, the question for Sheppard remains ‘how will the poems be made?’

Ian Brinton 21st October 2016

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Asa Benveniste & Trigram Press (Shearsman Books)

I Heard It Through The Grapevine: Asa Benveniste & Trigram Press (Shearsman Books)

As with the best contextual histories Jeremy Reed’s account of the Trigram Press and of Asa Benveniste’s poetry has a clear narrative quality to it. As readers we are drawn into the world of the ‘submerged cult’ which ‘takes as its resources a US-inflected tone’:

‘…an image-packed line as individual as any you’ll get in the blue transitioning air-miles of seventies trans-Atlantic poetry.’

Reed highlights for us the way in which Benveniste’s poetry ‘involves the real work of making language physical’ and he relates this most naturally to the poet’s acute awareness of the world of printing. The story of Trigram Press, based at 148 King’s Cross Road, London WC1 is told with an energy and sense of mystery that draws us in as we confront the mainstream British poetry of the post-1950s which Reed sees as ‘obdurately resistant to US experimentation via Black Mountain and the O’Hara / Ashbery bouncy New York influence’ which was feeding energies into the subcultures ‘like pop, sex, drugs, and the whole urban streetwise dynamic that was the signposting of modern life, and the breaking-up of formal poetics into edgier reconfigurated patterns.’

Towards the end of this lively little book we have a Trigram Press Bibliography and it is now possible to see how the world of Anselm Hollo and Tom Raworth moves towards an interest in George Barker and J.H. Prynne as At Thugarton Church is published in 1969 and Prynne’s News of Warring Clans appears in 1977 alongside two of Zukofsky’s “A” poems.

This volume contains a sequence of Jeremy Reed’s own poems about Asa Benveniste as well as the latter’s 1980 short essay ‘Language: Enemy, Pursuit’. In addition it contains Benveniste’s sequence Edge which appeared from Joe Di Maggio in 1975 and a further essay by Reed which is not a biography of Asa Benveniste and Trigram Press ‘but a personally selective mapping of significantly great aspects of both’. In the twenty pages of this section we read of Barry MacSweeney’s Odes, which ‘triggered a socially dissident and subversive thrust to the Trigram quota’, and how Ed Dorn recommended Benveniste to publish Prynne’s News of Warring Clans, ‘as a partial concession to the Cambridge curators of language-poetry’ which Benveniste preferred to call ‘wallpaper’.

One of the attractive elements of this book is the way Jeremy Reed talks about the importance of poetry as well as his own immense debt to this maverick man-in-black:

‘Even today I test what I write against his imagined approval or disapproval. If it isn’t weird enough then push it out further to the edge and saturate the image. Always write like you’re inventing tomorrow, that’s my reason for doing poetry, unlike mainstream poets who are frozen into a largely redundant past.’

Referring to Benveniste’s work as a publisher we are offered a picture of the late sixties which includes both Cape Goliard and Fulcrum Press. For my own money I would most certainly add Ferry Press to this list. After all, Andrew Crozier’s early productions made significant attempts to bridge that pond between the US and little England when he published Fielding Dawson and Stephen Jonas along with John James, Jeremy Prynne and Chris Torrance. In 1966 Ferry Press was responsible for Jonas’s Transmutations with its drawings by Black Mountain artist Basil King and introduction by John Wieners.

Perhaps I should conclude this short review by quoting from one of the many delights to be found in this short book:

Statement from Trigram 1969 catalogue

‘The writers and artists whose books have been published under the Trigram imprint appear to work in acute conditions of exile, living and thinking on the edges of society, some outside their own countries, others within, hallucinated by a series of mental doorways. In common, they have striven for an individual voice that in any circumstance has to be heard. No artist can do more or should do any less than that.’

Ian Brinton 4th March 2016

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

It may seem strange that I should be writing this review since a few lines of my blurb appear on the back of the book itself. However, the point of the review is that it enables me to say more about why I think that this highly intelligent book is one of the best accounts of Prynne’s oeuvre that I have read for some considerable time. It also gives me space to explain why I should think this!

Within the network, the weave, of Prynne’s language there is a compassionate sense of Humanity and a lament for the distortions of language and self-delusion which enable the Human to become soiled by his most basic aspirations. Hall’s comment on ‘Refuse Collection’, that terrifying glimpse into the atrocities of the Second Gulf War, refers to the poem’s elegiac quality which is ‘linked to the pastoral elegy by establishing spatial locations that are unified with ceremonial mourning’:

‘The use of the pastoral elegy establishes connections with the poem Acrylic Tips, as well as ‘Es Lebe der König’, where the elegiac is a feature associated with landscape constructions.’

There is a movement to and from within this book and individual chapters centre upon different texts while never losing sight of how the accumulation of reference builds up into a glimpse of the extraordinary range of Prynne’s work and recognition of the profoundly integrated nature of his poetry. After the first chapter on the Celan poem from Brass we are moved on to a close examination of News of Warring Clans, Bands Around the Throat, Acrylic Tips. The last thirty pages then focus upon that language of ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem which should stand among the most powerful War poems ever written.

Matthew Hall is very good in directing us to the backgrounds, the heritage, the traditions within which Prynne writes. In the introduction he refers to the importance of Keats as a presence lurking behind some of the lines in that poem Prynne wrote immediately after hearing of the death of Paul Celan, ‘Es Lebe der König’, published in the 1971 collection Brass. Hall directs us to look at how, in the second stanza, Prynne’s ten lines mimic ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and how Prynne’s line ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ reverberates off Keats’s line ‘That I might drink and leave the world unseen’. Prynne’s poetry is well-known for its buried resources, its incorporation of his own reading, and one has only to recall the use of Dickens in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ or the words of Lear in the opening lines of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ to recognise the wholeness of a life dedicated to reading, teaching and writing.

The first chapter of Matthew Hall’s book is devoted then to looking in close detail at the way in which that intensely important early poem actively investigates the ‘sense of alienation in the postwar world’. According to a letter sent by Prynne to Anthony Barnett that poem (for Paul Celan 1920-1970) was written on the same night that he heard of Celan’s suicide ‘from a Frenchman here in the city, long before it was reported in the Press’. It was not published until December of the following year.

It has been excellent to read some accounts in this book of the importance of music and its influence in ‘informing the poetic structure and technical operation of Prynne’s poetry’:

‘Throughout Prynne’s poetic oeuvre, music is represented and interrogated for signifying ontological sustenance. The reliance of ‘Es Lebe der König’ on the fugal pattern informs the technical and thematic orientation of the poem, by creating fidelity to the event of Celan’s death and evincing the role of ideology in perpetuating the Holocaust’s inescapable cycle of violence.’

Throughout this highly readable book we are left in no doubt as to the importance of Prynne’s poetry and I am reminded that in 1972 the Cambridge poet was deeply involved in reading early work by the French contemporary André du Bouchet. It seems just, perhaps, to end on a short quotation from one of du Bouchet’s Notebooks in which he commented upon the ‘Readable Poet’:

‘Poetry—this miracle—
the secret on the surface: what is most secret, unique, or so you’d assume, in broad daylight, and circulated through this ordinary language—as though it could only become aware of its secret through this public measure—man.’

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2016

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice Xavier Kalck Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

Muted Strings: A Study of Louis MacNeice  Xavier Kalck  Presses Universitaires de France—Cned 2015 www.cned.fr

A close friend of mine used to herald the onset of winter each year with a re-reading of MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’. There always seemed to me to be something apt, a string plucked with a tone of melancholy leisure, about the opening of that fine poem:

‘Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall…’

A little like the taste of an almond cake, lying beneath the burned parts, in the opening pages of Proust, MacNeice’s rhythms brought to mind those shadows ‘on the perfect lawn’ that were the ‘shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wicker-chair near the low table on which the tea had been served’ some forty miles from London in Henry James’s most famous novel about how an archer’s aim had been brought low by a genius for upholstery. This is a world of muted strings and Xavier Kalck’s title for his book about MacNeice’s posthumous collection of poems, The Burning Perch, has been chosen with great care:

‘Muted Strings draws attention especially to the dynamic that exists in MacNeice’s poems from The Burning Perch between muting as a means to soften the tune of the song, and muting as a symptom of the deadening of the song.’

This delightful little introduction to the late poetry of Louis MacNeice clearly adheres to a formula and is aimed at students who are going to write essays and dissertations on the volume of poems published in September 1963, some ten days after the poet’s death. With a quietly unassuming sense of dignity Xavier Kalck, who lectures in American literature at the Sorbonne, tells me that the whole affair is rather standard although ‘I hope there was room enough for some small measure of originality’. There certainly is!

I had a good feeling about this book when a review copy arrived quite recently. This feeling was partly based upon my awareness of the careful attention Xavier Kalck had given to the poetry of Anthony Barnett, whose Shearsman Selected Poems he introduced ten years ago. In that introduction he had written

‘The origin of poetry, much like that of language itself, is a matter of the poet dealing with whatever origin he finds, finding out when and how it resists, letting the poem originate its own resistance, a language pared down to its first poetics.’

Given that focus it was no surprise when I opened up this little introduction to MacNeice to discover a quotation from Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (1938): ‘However much is known about the poet, the poem remains a thing distinct from him’. I was cheered by the knowledge that this book, however much it may adhere to a formula, would focus upon the poetry itself and therefore introduce readers to the ‘formal gymnastics’ of a poem ‘rather than psychological or biographical concerns’.

The opening poem in The Burning Perch is preoccupied with space and time. ‘Soap Suds’ presents a circular movement and Kalck quotes from Peter McDonald’s criticism of the poem before going on to suggest some subtle new approaches:

‘In terms of imagery, visual and otherwise, the poem resolves into an expanding (or contracting) series of circular figures: the soap, the ball, the globes, the gong, the hoops, and finally again the ball and the soap. The circular movement of the poem itself brings the reader back to the adult hands of the beginning.’ (MacDonald)

‘The pattern is unquestionably relevant. We are told the speaker visited the house with the lawn “when he was eight” (1), and mathematically, the return visit doubles that time into sixteen lines. However, the lines do not only pick up speed as they stretch within this highly circular poem. To put it tautologically, the linearity of the lines works against, as much as in accordance with, the overall cyclical pattern. The length of the lines conveys the distance that separates the childhood recollection from the speaker’s present.’ (Kalck)

Perhaps the real quality of this little book is that it takes one back, again and again, to the text itself and by looking with such care at Louis MacNeice’s last volume of poems one is compelled to recognize how good this poet is.

Ian Brinton 21st December 2015

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