All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Settling on cobblestones, lying chest-high in a field or ‘slushing to silver’, snow permeates The Home Child, Liz Berry’s fictionalised account of the youth of her orphaned great-aunt Eliza Showell, one of many thousands of poor British children sent to Canada between 1860 and 1960 to work as indentured farm labourers and domestic servants. Evoking […]

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Poets Against Putin

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The day after Putin invaded Ukraine, a Russian friend wrote to me that she was feeling something she had never felt, or expected to feel, in her life. She was, she said, feeling the fear, horror, guilt and shame that a decent German would have felt in September 1939.

There is nothing new about the brutality of war. Nevertheless, there are respects in which

Orpheus in Ireland

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Since Seamus Heaney’s death in 2013, the map of contemporary poetry appears to have undergone significant changes. It remains to be seen which of them will endure, but one thing we might regret is the fact that some younger poets, often so caught up in the work of their peers and the immediate priorities of […]

Compile, O Muse

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Poetry used to be a central component of national identity. Gerard Manley Hopkins likened a great poem by an Englishman to a great battle won by English soldiers. The English were ‘pre-eminently a poetical nation’, declared a 20th-century Oxford Professor of Poetry. ‘The only poetical literature which could compare with that of England was the […]

Home Truths

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Hannah Sullivan’s poetry is exceptional in the specificity and candour with which it draws on autobiography and retrospection. Was It for This, the follow-up to her T S Eliot Prize-winning debut, Three Poems, is a second instalment of life writing, its title pointedly taken from the opening of Wordsworth’s two-book version of The Prelude. In […]

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Late Style

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The expression ‘late flowering’ when applied to poets (or artists in general) usually means a creative release brought about by a combination of fully mastered technique, a new sense of freedom, a recklessness even, once the individual’s reputation has been established. In our day, Geoffrey Hill must be the great example, along with J H […]

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Poems of the Underground

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Who are we? Where do we come from? Who or what were the people, the land, the gods who made us? These questions have perplexed and haunted us ever since human beings evolved. One of the heartlands of our understanding of Upper Palaeolithic man is the southwest of France – more precisely, the courses of the Vézère, Dordogne, Lot and Aveyron and their

Town & Country

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In Ephemeron (Jonathan Cape 128pp £12), Fiona Benson’s capacity for capturing bodily sympathy in verse manifests as something like a superpower. In the opening series, ‘Insect Love Songs’, that power turns what could have been a dutiful eco-commission into something far more sensuous. In ‘Boarding-School Tales’, a sequence of poems revisiting the passions and deprivations […]

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Let Them Eat Cake

Posted on by David Gelber

The poems in Selima Hill’s Men Who Feed Pigeons are between two and twelve lines in length – typically they are four – and are about men but rarely about pigeons. In the opening section, alphabetically arranged, from ‘The Anaesthetist’ down to ‘The Uncle’, they take the form of small self-contained narratives. Poems like ‘The […]

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The Voice of Time Itself

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A century ago this summer, Walter de la Mare arrived by train in Dorchester to meet Thomas Hardy. The two had been in correspondence since Hardy had written to introduce himself three years before. Hardy told de la Mare that he had been clearing out a cupboard when he had come across the latter’s generous review […]

Among the Drinkers of Ink

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Across these collections, by four poets born within six years of each other (one, Christopher Reid, has even written a poem on the subject of ‘Boomers’), certain preoccupations seem to recur: an interest in travel and migrations; a sharp awareness of the environment and the damage it has suffered; and an interest in ‘lateness’ and […]

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Pro-Sex, Anti-Stalin

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Few people – perhaps only Friedrich von Schiller and Alexander Pushkin – have achieved, like Robert Conquest, distinction as both historians and poets. Conquest’s reputation as a poet was highest in the mid-1940s and 1950s, when his name was spoken in conjunction with Philip Larkin’s and T S Eliot’s and he was hailed as Thomas […]

Seine & Sensibility

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1920, Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem catapulted its author onto the literary scene. Published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and heralded by the former as ‘a very obscure, indecent, and brilliant poem’, Paris takes the postwar French capital as its setting, making reference to the peace conference held in the city in 1919. Long, […]

Ever Upward

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Cropping the hesitant pen name ‘Incertus’, under which the young Seamus Heaney published his first attempts at poetry, Roy Foster titles the opening chapter of his study of Heaney ‘Certus’. Foster is keen to stress, for all Heaney’s shows of diffidence, how firmly on his way he was from the outset, and how fuelled by […]

Comrade, Shed No Tears

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Asked to name their favourite poems about the Second World War, many English or American readers of poetry would flounder. A few might mention Keith Douglas, Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht, or Hamish Henderson’s vivid, thoughtful poems about the North African campaign. Many might reply that the best poetry was written by civilians, citing T […]

Privacy Was an Obsession

Posted on by David Gelber

Elizabeth Bishop’s life, forever moving from place to place, unhappy in love, struggling with depression and alcoholism even when she was already recognised as one of America’s finest poets, has all the ingredients necessary for a sensational biography. How pleasing, therefore, to report that this is an ‘oral biography’, still an unusual form, in which […]


Posted on by Tom Fleming

Some years ago, when I was working in a tree-nursery, an ex-detective-inspector weeding alongside said he would like to give me some old magazines he had found in his attic. These turned out to be seven editions of Poetry London, from the early ‘40s, in mint condition. Never having heard of the magazine, I was […]

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Free the Verse

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

British poets have never been comfortable with vers libre in the way American poets are; we still consider it to be somehow improper, and, with the exception of Lawrence, there has been no-one here with the stature of, say, William Carlos Williams or Alan Ginsberg, both of whom firmly rejected traditional forms of verse patterning. […]

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Innocence & Experience

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The exuberant Manuel Vilas writes about ‘the nightmare of being alive, the happy nightmare of a much-loved life’, as he puts it in ‘Rosaries, Flick-Knives’, a funny and disturbing poem that tells of a visit he made to Lourdes in July 1998. While there, he buys a ‘cheap and jazzy rosary’ and a flick knife […]

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Interview: Clive James

Posted on by David Gelber

On the day, Other Passports, Poems 1958-1985 was published, Clive James was up early doing his stuff on TV-am. ‘Well, Clive James,’ purred Anne Diamond. ‘You’ve written a book of poetry!’ Embarrassed, she said it in a mock-posh accent: peh-tray. The professional funny man seems to have a problem with the more serious side of […]

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