Category Archives: Literary Criticism

Milosz – A Biography


Milosz – A Biography
By Andrzej Franaszek
Belknap/Harvard University Press – £25.95

There is too much talk about what poetry ought to be and too little about what poetry ought to be and too little about what it is. It is primarily a contradiction to nihilism. Like an apple in a Dutch painting […] because it refers to something that is particular. An author of rhyming introductory articles can be a fairly good poet for a while, because he uses his observations as resources, but he has to shout much louder… because this is the price for moving away into a desert of ideas. One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.

          Czeslaw Milosz (‘Poetry and Diadectics – 1951’)

What equipped him for his truth-telling role was the incomparable quality of his intellect and poetic skills, which enabled him to endure and, much later, process imaginatively experiences and sufferings which might well have destroyed a less driven individual.

          Seamus Heaney (Introduction)

In order not to kill himself, he sought any argument that could dissuade him from such an act, although the most important and hardest to pinpoint was something deep within him. Faith and piety? To be more precise, it was the belief that the world was not based on a void, that there was a higher authority which did not allow anything to occur by chance.

          Andrzej Franaszek
           (‘A Story of One Particular Suicide Case’)

What is it that drives a person to such incomparable lengths as to endure, and as a result, be capable of delivering occasional work that is (almost) beyond description? Beyond depiction? As Seamus Haney clearly states, perhaps its a mixture of acute gift and suffering.

But gift and suffering alone, do not necessarily make for terrific, enlightening and what’s more, in-depth writing. One need only ask Vladimir Nabakov, Ted Hughes or indeed W. H. Auden. All three of whom somehow, inadvertently subscribed to the ideological thinking of ”One real tree, one real droplet of dew, are enough to destroy him and reduce him to nothingness.”

It is just such open-wound-like, regal realisation on the part of Andrzej Franaszek, that accounts for this book being such a spell-binding and all round invigorating read. As Adam Zagajewski has since written: ”Franaszek is well suited to his subject.” To be sure, Milosz – A Biography might well be considered as being many things to many people; one being that it could nigh well be deemed a cleansing of the intellect…

Just one of the (many) reasons being – apart from the huge body of extraordinary work it traverses – is that Milosz, surely one of the most unquestionably important poets of the last century, simply bypassed all folly, all insincerity, all hypocrisy.

And if such weren’t enough to fully engage with both Milosz and Milosz – A Biography, then I really don’t know what is.

Once again, returning to Zagajewski: ”Franaszek’s outstanding biography of Czeslaw Milosz narrates one of the great lives of the twentieth century and does not shy away from recounting the more private side of the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats. Milosz was an artist who was also a political thinker, who stood in the centre of the ideological debates of his time, who was an incredibly industrious writer and on top of all this had a sublime gift for poetry:

My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this is a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen

(‘Diary of a Naturalist’)

When Zagajewski writes about the author not shying away from ”the poet’s loves, moods, victories, and defeats;” as much is rather evident within the fine selection of black and white photographs contained herein – where many a picture does indeed paint many a thousand words.

Each of these 470 pages (excluding Maps, Chronology, Notes, Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) lends the reader with a most refined window into one of the most understated, misunderstood, greatest of (Polish) poets to have ever graced the blank, yet seemingly troubled, page.

Edited and translated by Aleksandra and Michael Parker, I can honestly say that Milosz – A Biography opens many, many an invigorating and (already preordained) invigorated window.

David Marx


The Princeton Handbook of World Poetries


The Princeton Handbook of World of Poetries
By Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman
Princeton University Press – £27.95

Where to literally begin with regards reviewing this veritable tomb of a reference book, is anyone’s guess. With over a million words and more than one thousand entries, this latest edition of The Princeton Handbook of World Poetries may well evolve into becoming the most important reference book in anyone’s library; serious writers, novelists, short story tellers and those with a penchant for world language and poetry in particular.

Replete with a comprehensive synthesis of fully explained, requisite biographies and movements – and I’m not just talking the Confessional Poetry of say the ever great Allen Ginsberg, whose naked brilliance in Howl ‘’I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn,looking for an angry fix’’ (page 580); but also countless other explanations, such as the historical background behind that of a more dense approach like French Prosody, which, ‘’from the 16th to the 19th c., certain poets (i.e. the vers measures a l’antique) based on differences in syllabic duration […] failed because this system was too complicated and too unlike the established one (pages 203 – 206).

As a result, I’m hard pressed to think of anything remotely comparative; which, in and of itself, goes some way in partially substantiating why I wholeheartedly agree with the ringing endorsement of Classical Journal – who refer to these 693 pages as ‘’a reference work of distinction which all who work in the field of literary studies will find extremely useful if not, indeed, indispensable.’’

From the very first entry of African Poetry (‘’With the end of the colonial period and the advance of literacy and higher education in Africa came a rapid efflorescence of Af. poetry written in Eng […] ’’) to the very last entry of Zulu Poetry (which, apart from being broken down into the three sections of Verse Structure, Early Zulu Poets and Post-Apartheid Era; informs us that: ‘’Zulu traditional poems, esp. praise poems, are composed in lines that are based on the stresses resulting from the meaning of the line and its natural and punctuated pauses. Intonation is important in Zulu praise poems because Zulu is a tonal lang., like most Af. Langs., and it is difficult to apply to Eng.’’); there’s a regal realisation, along with a quintessential understanding, that we are in good, reliable and erudite hands.

With more than 165 authoritative entries, which expand upon recent developments in poetries (including cognitive poetics, electronic poetry and poetry slams) an array of movements (everything from Sumerian to Sanskrit to Slavic)) and related topics; this mighty reference book also contains an exceedingly broad international coverage – including articles on the poetries of more than one hundred and ten nations, languages and regions (such as English, Scottish, Welsh, Celtic and Cornish poetry).

Furthermore, there is expanded upon coverage of the poetry from non-Western, developing worlds, which, apart from the very brief example given above, includes further African poetry, along with numerous works from Latin America, East and South Asia as well as Eastern European nations.

All, or at least most of which, is aligned with considerable cross-referencing. The latter of which is particularly pertinent in relation to the numerous updated biographies.

Ever since its first publication, The Princeton Handbook of World Poetries has oft been referred to as the ultimate, authoritative reference with regards the study of world poetry. With its menagerie of terms, concepts, schools, movements and international tradition(s), contained herein is an almost one-of-kind reference book.

It’s so good – it makes for interesting and stimulating reading in its own right; and there really aren’t many reference books one can say that about!

David Marx

The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and The City


The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and The City
Edited by Jeremy Tambling
Palgrave Macmillan – £29.80

     So let us not place any particular value on the city’s name. Like all big cities it was made up of irregularity, change, forward spurts, failures to keep step, collisions of objects and interests, punctuated by unfathomable silences; made up of pathways and untrodden ways, of one great rhythmic beat as well as the chronic discord and mutual displacement of all its contending rhythms.

     Robert Musil
     The Man Without Qualities

     […] sometimes, in his room or on the pavement, the world seemed to him a strange labyrinth even when the streets were straight and the walls were square; a chaos which made him feel that something in him should be able to understand it, divide it, focus it.

     Richard Wright
     Native Son

    The principal figures were two black men. One of them, of medium height, had his hands tied, his eyes cast down, bronze-coloured skin, and a rope tied around his neck. The end of the rope was in the hands of another black man. This one was looking straight ahead, and his colour was uniformly jet black. He was bearing the curiosity of the crowd with pose. When the paper had been read the procession continued on along the Rua dos Ourives. It was coming from jail…

     Machado de Assis
     Quincas Borba

It’s only when you read a colossal and cultured, well researched and undeniably informative book such as this, that you realise just how great (certain) cities are. They’re almost living things. They live and breath and soar and deny and are so many things to so many people. What was it Noel Coward once said: ”I don’t know what London’s coming to – the higher the buildings the lower the morals.”

Indeed, morality and the city, don’t necessarily make for the of best bed fellows. Whereas literature and the city, could be considered something of a svelte symposium; the sort of which, many would profess to having been made in (the city of ) heaven itself. Wherever that is? Which is where this tumultuous tomb of literary prowess comes unto its own.

Clocking in at 798 pages (excluding Volume Editor’s Introduction and Acknowledgements, Further Reading, Author Index, Index of Cities, Countries, Places) this outrageously in depth analysis on the subject of literature and cities, is as quintessentially complex as it is emphatically considered – which could well be a first.
And if not a first, then it really is an outstanding second.

As the above opening three quotes (on the cities of Vienna, Chicago and Rio de Janeiro) perhaps exemplify, The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and The City is a masterful collection of exactly what it says on the cover – from all around the world.

Divided into seven prime parts (‘The City on Theory,’ ‘European Cities,’ ‘North American Cities,’ ‘Latin American Cities,’ ‘African Cities,’ ‘Asian Cities’ and ‘Urban Themes’), the book fundamentally addresses what effect on literature the various great cities around the world have (intrinsically) had. While in some instances – Dublin, Paris and New York for instance – the other way around: what effect on cities literature has had. For as Scott McCracken, Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature at Queen Mary University of London has written: ”The relationship between literature and the city is a Gordian knot, that becomes more tangled the more the critic tries to unpick it. Rather than slicing through it, this ambitious collection of essays instead catalogues its dimensions, ranging far beyond the familiar studies of European and American cities into Latin America, Africa, and Asia. With essays on Brasilia, Lagos, Beirut, and Tokyo, as well as Lisbon and Vienna, the result is a fascinating, almost encyclopedic, account of urban literature on a scale that no one else has yet attempted.”

The fact that it hasn’t really been attempted (that I know of), is what initially makes this book so attractive to begin with; as rather than having to assimilate and collate all the varying information on cities and literature – a veritable nightmare surely? – it’s all here. In one book.

And if not all, then a hell of a lot; much of which is derived from that of a fascinating premise: ”Where writing has aimed at forging a national unity (the ‘imagined community’), the city has often been seen as dysfunctional to that, because it either challenges a national consensus or is felt to be in the hands of western investors, who treat city and country as a cash cow and ignore its specificities. Some cities have not produced writing which has been translated, or gone beyond its immediate circumstances, perhaps out of the sense that ‘literature’ itself is an imperial conception, conferring on some, but not all, exploitative culture capital.”

This is in itself, an overtly interesting premise from which one could fully embark on an entirely new form of investigation: the idea that literature is an imperial concept. As literature is (also) clearly based on the assumption that we can all read and write; which, during the varying times of discovery, wasn’t always the case.
Still isn’t.

Herein lies just one aspect of what accounts for The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and The City being such a wide, inspired and at times, very varied read. That the contributors themselves stem from an assortment of backgrounds, clearly has some bearing as to why such is the case.

That said, there is a rich tapestry of depth running throughout this stunning book, that, for anyone remotely interested in literature and/or cities, comes both highly and regally recommended.

David Marx

Early Auden, Later Auden


Early Auden, Later Auden –
A Critical Biography
By Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press – £27.95

Auden wrote that ”In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth.

     (‘Introduction to Early Auden’)

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.


They say that in times of complete darkness, only poetry will suffice. And so far as poetry is concerned, I do sometimes wonder if only W. H. Auden will suffice.

Reason being, his vision and literal vortex, not to mention overt considered contextualisation, appear to evidently know no poetic parameters. No parameters that is, in the (true) sense in which we have been conditioned to understand, and occasionally embrace them. For sure, there are the two Dylans along with T. S. Eliot and a further array of stunning poets – far too many to mention here – although I do feel Auden stands somewhat alone.

Alone within a distinguished gambit of prime, idiosyncratic invention.

A thinking that the author of Early Auden, Later Auden – A Critical Biography, Edward Mendelson, appears to (wholeheartedly?) subscribe to: ”During the first twelve years of his career, the years that are the subject of this book, Auden made the difficult passage from a private poetry to a public one, from apparent formal disorder to manifest artifice, and from lonely severity to a community of meaning.”

Said ”community of meaning” and the analysis thereof, being both the centrifugal focus and adroitness of this simply sublime critical study.

To be sure, an exceedingly well considered and more than comprehensive study, I’m probably not alone in believing it will lead the way. Something the The New York Times writer, Christopher Lehman-Haupt already substantiates when he writes: ”It’s a wealth of intelligent, knowledge and insight that Mendelson… brings to this study… With his array of interpretive tools, he solves for the first time the notorious obscurities of Auden’s earliest work.”

An early work, which in ‘The Exiled Word,’ the author clarifies as being ”for intense love affairs that end quickly; the later poems are for marriage.”

To my mind, so much of Auden’s work touched on so many integral issues. He was never afraid to hold back; in subject matter, as well as in style, imagery and definition.
Indeed, he shot from the hip and wrote from the heart.
And what more could one possibly ask from a poet?

Qualities, that surely could on occasion, become a little overwhelming for the uninitiated. Qualities, which these 817 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) are fully prepared to divulge by way of the poet being at the eventual vanguard of an assimilation of possible influence and writing styles: ”While other styles of writing seemed content to rest on the sad margins of a conventional past, modernism alone seemed to look toward a difficult and inexorable future. Its procession of landmarks stands as imposingly now as it did then: 1920 saw the publication of Women in Love; 1921, Yeats’s Four Plays for Dancers; 1922, The Waste Land and Ulysses; 1923, Birds, Beasts and Flowers; 1925, A Draft of XVI Cantos and Eliot’s Poems 1909-1925; 1926, Personae; 1927, To the Lighthouse; 1928, Anna Livia Plurabelle and The Tower. And in 1927 – 28 Auden wrote the first of the intensely modernist verse he gathered in his 1930 Poems. For a young poet whose early ambition was to write the great poems of his generation, there seemed no turning back.”

Turning back?
If anything, Auden always looked readily to the future, as if, from a literary perspective at least, it couldn’t come quick enough.

One need only read some of the poetry written throughout the various stages of his life:

There head falls forward, fatigued at evening,
And dreams of home,
Waving from window, spread of welcome,
Kissing of wife under single sheet;
But waking sees
Bird-flocks nameless to him, through doorway
Of new men making another love.

(‘The Wanderer’)

Each lover has some theory of his own
About the difference between the ache
Of being with his love, and being alone.

Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.


Our present, meanwhile, is about
Our business here and abroad:
A boy is whipped in a cell,
An old woman is bustled out
Of the house she loved so well;
Both whimper and are ignored.

(An early draft of ‘A Walk After Dark’)

With the Early Auden split into two parts (entitled ‘The Border and the Group’ and ‘The Two Worlds’) along with the Later Auden into three parts (‘Vision and After,’ ‘The Flesh We Are’ and ‘Territorial’), the actual whole follows the major evolution of the poet’s thought process. Thereby offering a comparison of Auden’s various views at the various junctures throughout his lifetime.

With penetrating insight, the author re-evaluates Auden’s early ideas, methods and personal transition(s) as reflected in the many poems, manuscripts and private papers.

Early Auden, Later Auden – A Critical Biography, also goes on to link the numerous changes in the poet’s intellectual, emotional and religious experience, by way of his ever evolving public persona. Thus enabling readers to confront head-on, Auden’s personal struggles with the self, and the trajectory of fame; not to mention the means by which these internal conflicts were oft reflected in his writing. Especially in later years.

That Edward Mendelson is the literary executor of the Estate of W. H. Auden, and is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, it should come as absolutely no surprise that these thirty-three chapters account for a book that is resolutely more inspired than the actual word inspired itself.

Let it be said that so far as literary criticism is concerned, Early Auden, Later Auden is going to take some beating.

David Marx

C.K. Williams on Whitman


C.K. Williams on Whitman
Princeton University Press

But which of us isn’t a similar jerry-built motion machine? Which of us doesn’t sometimes feel that we’re weird pop-ups of impulses, ambitions, desires, and dreams? But we don’t live in poems, even those of us who are poets; unlike Whitman, we plunge into our poems, but then we emerge: we are the makers of our poems – Whitman’s poems made him; he existed in them in a way he existed nowhere else.

Whether Marc Chagall or Jimi Hendrix. Sylvia Plath or Tom Waits – ought not a similar persuasion be applied to most true artists who essentially live both inside of and with their art? It’s hard to think of any of these artists, including Walt Whitman, in any other way, which, to varying degrees, is exactly what this fine little pocket book addresses.

That C.K. Williams on Whitman is deeply entrenched within the parameters of (fine) poetry, most certainly helps it along its way; and is therefore, all the more readable for it. As Robert Pinsky has written: ”This is the exuberant, true book of a poet, of two poets: a personal, illuminating, and beautiful demonstration of the truest reading.”

That it most definitely is.

From such musicality as:

The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and
shouted jokes and pelts of snowball…

to such colourful and kaleidoscopic revelation as: ”Just reading it, the brilliance of the moments of inspiration are like raw synaptic explosions, like flashbulbs going off in the brain, in the mind: pop, pop, pop. The images, the ideas, the visions, the insights, the proclamations, the stacks of brilliant verbal conjunctions, the musical inventiveness and uniqueness: one after the other, again and again, in a form that reveals them naked, unmodulated, undimmed by any apparent resort to the traditional resources of poetic artfulness.”

Phew., as a lover of poetry and the occasional analysis thereof: what more could one ask for?

David Marx

Everyday Stories


Everyday Stories
By Rachel Bowlby
Oxford University Press – £14.99

As the promotional material puts it: ‘Have you thought about how much of life goes missing from your memory? Many fantastic and special moments become blurred together after a while and it feels like life just rushes by, too fast for us to grasp,’ ‘Every moment is worth keeping,’ the publicity says at another point.

The above train of thought becomes ever increasingly evident as the years do indeed seem to hurtle by.

As John Lennon once sang: ‘So this is Christmas/And what what you done?/Another year over/And a new one just begun.”

Such a lyric, just like many sections of this book, might well jolt many a reader, or in Lennon’s case, listener, into the grim realisation that the older one gets, the shorter the years invariably become. Although such sociological pronouncement has been addressed by many a writer over the years, who, by way of their own submission, has had to wrestle with many a trajctorial overload of pristine truth(s).

Virginia Woolf comes to mind, whose own work is unsurprisingly brought to bear in Everyday Stories, where Rachel Bowlby quotes extensively near the beginning of the eighth chapter, ‘An Ordinary Mind on an Ordinary Day’: ”Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this.’ Examine, for a moment, an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there […].

Like the 176 pages of this book as a whole (excluding Series Introduction, Bibliography and Index), much can, and ought to be gleaned from the above words; primarily that we need to endeavour to enjoy each and every moment. That is, before the ”evanescent or engraved […] everyday sharpness of steel” ceases to truly mean anything – just like it has for so many people.

So next time you decide to linger on your mobile phone for forty minutes or so – merely surfing amid the disposable wank sensation of atomic nothingness – think again.

Better still, read this thought provoking book.

David Marx

The Essential Goethe


The Essential Goethe
Edited by Matthew Bell
Princeton University Press – £27.95

He was committed to empirical observation, but he disliked the mental and physical apparatus that accompanied science: contrived experimental conditions, doctrinaire theoretical models, and arid mathematical methods, as he saw them. His allergy to the formal scientific method limited his progress but also inspired some of his more interesting ideas.

The above, rather like much of this inviting and at times, complex anthology of one of Europe’s most influential thinkers and writers, reads like a modern day assimilation of the most acute comprehension. It’s as if Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, perhaps the most profound artist of the German Romantic period, were waxing lyrical only yesterday – for such is the translation, not to mention the interpretation of (t)his vast body of work.

And what an unquestionably vast, cohesive and pertinent body of work it continues to remain. As given its sheer dexterity and enormity, is what fundamentally accounts for the work itself successfully alluding to the fact that The Essential Goethe is a one-off.

A one-off, definitive representation like no other.

One of the prime reasons being, it provides English language readers with easier access than ever before, to the widest range of work by ”one of the greatest writers in world history.” Amid these 1007 pages, Goethe’s work as a poet, a playwright, a novelist and an autobiographer, is more than confidently and comprehensively revisited by Matthew Bell – himself a Professor of German and Comparative Literature at King’s College, London, whose previous books include Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology and Melancholia: The Western Malady.

As he has written in the book’s Introduction: ” The volume has been produced first and foremost with the general reader in mind, though we hope it will also prove useful for students of European and comparative literature, where Goethe is an important but often inaccessible figure. Readers will find many of Goethe’s canonical works here.”

Indeed, from ‘Selected Poems’ to the Shakespearianesque Egmont (translated by Michael Hamburger), from Faust. A Tragedy (translated by John R. Williams) to the second of Goethe’s novels, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; from ‘On Literature and Art’ (which includes ‘Shakespeare: A Tribute (1771),’ ‘Simple Imitation, Manner, Style (1789),’ ‘Response to a Literary Rabble-Rouser (1795),’ ‘Winckelmann and His Age (1805)’) to ‘On Philosophy and Science’ (which among others, includes ‘A ‘Study on Spinoza (c. 1785),’ ‘Observation on Morphology in General (c. 1795),’ ‘The Influence of Modern Philosophy (1817),’ ‘Colours in the Sky (1817-20),’ ‘Problems (1823),’ ‘Analysis and Synthesis (c. 1829)’ and ‘A More Intense Chemical Activity in Primordial Matter (1826)’); this utterly breath-taking appreciation, can only be described as something to behold, appreciate and what’s more, be inspired by.

Where else might one read: ”For all that he abhorred chaos, he knew it could be creative. For an opponent of the revolution, he invested a remarkable amount of creative energy into trying to come to terms with it. What alienated Goethe most from his fellow Germans was the advent of Napoleon, whom Goethe admired and the young generation of German nationalists demonized. But Goethe had long since abandoned any thoughts of German nationhood or even a unified national culture. After Italy, Europe and the wider world mattered more to him.”

Whether ‘drunk on exaltation’ or ‘brimming [with] tears’ amid ‘the mordant storm,’ the Frankfurt-Am-Main born Goethe, was a both a poet and a philosopher of pristine brilliance and, given the era, urgency; a facet I believe the opening quote of this review rather substantiates.

There again: ”Like his father, Goethe took academic study and scholarship very seriously, and both were avid art collectors. Goethe was well read in art history and aesthetics, philosophy, theology, and science. He firmly believed that any creative work, even the very direct and life-orientated poetry that is one of his hallmarks, had to be informed by ideas from these fields; in this broad sense he was a determinedly philosophical writer. This is the Goethe whom the reader will meet in these pages: a lover, a thinker, a scholar, a practical man, a controversialist, a writer of very diverse moods and urges.”

David Marx