Tag Archives: Poetry

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

Young Eliot

young eliot

Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land
By Robert Crawford
Jonathan Cape – £25.00

          Repeatedly he felt he had dried up as a poet, and feared he had wasted his                 life. Not marmoreal, but wounded and sometimes wounding, young T. S.                 Eliot may be imposingly erudite, but is also conflictedly human.

Hardly marmoreal, said parameters of intrinsic, erudite infliction, ought hardly be surprising within the acute context of literary analysis. For as recently written and edited by Sandie Byrne in the ‘Early Work’ of the (overtly informative) The Poetry of Ted Hughes (Palgrave Macmillan): ”A man is not only conscious of his prison, but his consciousness forms the very bars of his cell.” While such was undoubtedly the case with regards the Poet Laureate, it was also unquestionably so with that other resolute, complex, and most enigmatic of poets, T.S. Eliot.

A poet, who in the Introduction of Young Eliot – From St Louis to The Waste Land, is described as: ”the most remarkable immigrant poet in the English language but also the most influential and resounding poetic voice of the twentieth century.”

It is, suffice to say, nigh impossible to argue with the continuing trajectory of Eliot’s enormous influence and sublime sway within the world of poetry; but upon reading this wonderfully written and unbelievably well researched tomb of a biography by Robert Crawford, there’s no doubting the degree to which the immigrant, American poet, was a caged-in prisoner of his own (self-devised) shortcomings. Whether or not this is how Eliot was perceived throughout his actual lifetime or, how he actually was, Crawford makes abundantly clear from the very outset that what we’re about to read, will perhaps challenge and unapologetically differ from that of previous biographies: ”Presenting him as shy. Sometimes naïve and vulnerable, Young Eliot aims to unsettle common assumptions about this poet’s perceived coldness.”

Indeed it does – and it does so very well; although might this be partially due to the very invitation into the quintessential personalisation of Eliot’s early life – a facet of the book’s writing which, it has to be said, the author has accomplished exceedingly well.

As the title alone suggests, Crawford has ventured into such kaleidoscopic detail of the poet’s early childhood, that one cannot help but subliminally want to embrace young Tom. Reason being, it sometimes reads as if he were a soul searching protagonist within all the terse, tense temerity, of a well written novel: ”For years Tom’s mother was secretary of the Mission Free School of the Church of the Messiah. In that church building, admired for its architectural design by Boston’s Peabody sand Stearns, and for us its memorial stained-glass windows by Scottish artist Daniel Cottier, Tom sat, sang, prayed, worshipped, fidgeted and looked around. Under the great exposed roof-beams he saw biblical stories turned into stained-glass art: Christ as the sower, the good Samaritan, the wise and foolish virgins […]. Among generations of Unitarian Eliots, Tom grew up to be the one that got away. Yet an interest in the ‘primitive’ roots of religion, and in tracing religion to its earliest stages […] would be a continuing preoccupation. Tom was not reading theology in his cradle, but certainly imbibed it from childhood […]. Issues of faith and doubt were as inescapable as his own Christian name; a fondness for church buildings was something he carried from his childhood to his old age. St Louis Unitarianism gave him much to come to terms with. Eventually he felt he had been brought up in ‘a strong atmosphere of the most Liberal theology,’ but concluded in adulthood that soulful ‘Unitarianism is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity”’ (‘Hi, Kid, Let’s Dance’).

It’s no surprise that Robert Crawford is Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews, as well as a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. I feel compelled to mention this due to the veritable inspiration with which he has approached the writing of Young Eliot – the above quotation of which, is as assuredly pronounced as it is throughout much of this book’s 424 pages.

A fine example of this being the author’s all round compact, yet simultaneously dense assessment of Eliot’s idiosyncratically introspective approach to (and place within the gamut of) poetry in the eleventh chapter, ‘Observations’: […] Tom articulated a poetic credo. His work gave him a focus that let him go on when his private life was difficult: though the two could not be separated completely, he valued all the more the sense of shape, the mixture of intuition and form that dedication to verse might offer.”

Furthermore, the final chapter, ‘The Waste Land,’ sheds pertinent light on Eliot’s more than profound and trusting relationship with Ezra Pound: ”Accepting Pound’s brilliant suggestion, Tom remained the author and final shaper of his work. Pound’s editing was highly ethical: he cut material, leaving only Tom’s best words to stand, but did not interpolate words of his own. He was sharpening rather than inventing or adding. This editor of genius was vital to The Waste Land […].”

This altogether excellent overview of T. S. Eliot’s early years, addresses and tackles head on, the varied complexities of both the man himself and the majestic, powerful poetry that remains his legacy.

As such, what more could anyone ask for? An eye-opener of a great book.

David Marx

The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood



The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood

By Hilda Sheehan

Cultured Llama – £8.00

Such is the altogether coquettish charm, if not persuasion of many of these poems; it’s of the utmost importance to retain a crystalline understanding of their initial substance and meaning. Reason being, while The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood may well meander amid many a majestic metaphor of love’n’lust’n’all things in between (‘suspended sweetness,’ ‘a regimented tango, ‘a place to frame a holiday’), it is the slightly darker side of Hilda Sheehan’s poetry that surely, instinctively, resonates with the most critical clarity.

No doubt Leland Bardwell – who recently pronounced Sheehan’s work as: ”that wicked twist […] that I love… a difficult lift out of obsolete poetic seriousness” – would wholeheartedly disagree. Even if suave and succinct subjectivity does have a lot to answer for.

After all, one man’s T.S. Eliot is another (white van) man’s Arthur Mullard.

As such, these poems, like most things in life, do need to be kept in tenacious perspective. For as observant and mildly entertaining as something like ‘Oh Asda!’ invariably is:

suppressed, stacked baskets,
gagged by dusters sold on shelf 13.
We feed our young expired values,


In a bag for life grows numb,
knowing no one,
not even man, can face this trauma


Brain cells jump jelly bean-high
he’s strapped
in the trolly

it’s such lingering poignancy as that found in ‘Dan,’ which so coherently stings.

While simultaneously reeking havoc amid the complacent cacophony of the beige bollocks of the everyday, said poem is a tender thunderbolt of literary, social delight:

Dan walked my way home,
had black teeth and fleas,
told me he saw a flasher once,
I said it was probably God
trying to tell him something


Then he kissed me,
a kiss that crippled me,
folded my spine,
sucked out my heart.

I heard he jumped
from twenty floors,
bones like pick-up sticks.

With her second book Frances and Martine about to be published (through the Chicago based publishers, Dancing Girl Press) here’s hoping the likes of ‘Dan’ will once again rear it’s all too prophetic head – as it’s not often the trajectory of such sociological observation is so quintessentially bequeathed.

David Marx

What W.H. Auden Can Do For You

What WH Auden Can Do For You

What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
By Alexander McCall Smith
Princeton University Press – £13.95

”The moral certainties of the Left are comfortable for those who feel themselves rejected, and a sexual nonconformist might well find such circles welcoming […]. Those moral certainties also offer a new you.”

The above quote, taken from the fifth chapter (‘The Poet as Voyager’) of this altogether rather splendid read, certainly makes one think – while instantly bequeathing the reader with an abundance of political, as well as philosophical food for thought. As such, one of the fundamental attractions of What W. H. Auden Can Do For You lies just as much in the author himself, as it does the all looming and continuing trajectory of his subject.

By way of appealing to those interested in Alexander McCall Smith as a novelist and Auden as one of the greatest poets of our time (at the same time), these twelve chapters are, if nothing else, a charming account of how a relationship between a budding writer and his colossus of an influence, can, over many years, come to bountiful fruition.

It is as the author of Early Auden and Later Auden, Edward Mendelson has written: ”This is not only a convincing account of W.H. Auden’s poetry and life. It is also a self-portrait of McCall Smith himself and a testimony to the wisdom and courage he has found in Auden’s poems. This is a valuable and memorable book.” Valuable, might I add, because of some of the brave and open, yet quasi-contentious consideration throughout: ”[…] Auden has been taken to task for trying to be too clever, for using words for effect and without real regard to their meaning, and for being juvenile. There are other charges against him: in particular, he was famously criticized by the poet Philip Larkin for turning his back on political and social engagement in favour of the self-indulgent and the frivolous – a criticism that has lingered and is still occasionally encountered” (‘Love Illuminates Again’). And Memorable, because of some of the book’s many astounding declarations of common-sense: ”Understanding helps us deal with most threats, and seeking to understand must be our first response to evil, just as it is to anything else with which we have to deal. But there will be limits to our understanding, as Auden points out in ”If I Could Tell You.” Some things, we come to learn, just are” (‘If I Could Tell You I Would Let You Know’).

Entertainingly dense yet poetically informative, I found What W.H. Auden Can Do For You a more than inspiring read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone remotely interested in poetics and the sometimes shameful ways of the world.

David Marx

Orphan Hours


Orphan Hours
By Stanley Plumly
Norton – £10.99

                                                       A kind of mix herself of opera and brothel.
                                                                                                                                       Umberto D.

(Luckily) once again, there’s something potentially real about good, instinctive poetry. It stands up to be counted in defence of its own. It stands up to be either misused, misread or abused. Whatever.

But more importantly, it fundamentally remains.

With the possible exception of really great, honest music, the right poetry pretty much remains and connects like no other medium. Within a mere few words, it can reveal, bequeath, suggest as well as inspire and destroy. And Arthur Plumly’s Orphan Hours is no exception. As is mentioned in The Dallas Morning News: ”Plumly is a master of tone. His ‘I’ is not noisy, not flashy, not there to steal the show. The ‘I’ of his poems is intent on something other than self: bird, tree, leaf… Each poem invites you.”

Indeed they do. You might not always want to home in on what they have in mind, mind; but your invited nevertheless. For instance, a poem such as ‘Sitting Alone in the Middle of the Night,’ which at some time or another we’ve all done, brings those harrowing moments of foregone conclusion to the very fore of the everyday:

and he’d be sitting there in a kind of outline,
Nothing would be said, since there was nothing to say.
He was dying, he was turning into stone. The little
I could see I could see already how much heavier
he made the air, heavy enough over the days that
you could feel in the house the pull of the earth.

Such is both the gravitas and the gravity of the writing, not to mention the imagery, that the reader is very much compelled to accept what’s written at face, or should I say, word value. As we’ve all been to the places herein. Although to relive the nightmare to the extent as to share such literary poignancy, is an altogether different matter.

This is just one of the many reasons which accounts for this collection of fifty poems being as stately, powerful and unforgettable as they are. From ”the lottery of dead” to the ”missing link along the chain of being” (‘The Day of the Failure in Saigon’); from ”catheter to conversation” to ”my mother a machine until I had to choose to turn it off” (‘Orphan Hours’), these poems are without doubt, some of the most achingly heartfelt I’ve read in a long, long time.

David Marx

Salute The Word


Salute The Word
By Professor M.R. Ali
Matador – £9.99

Salute the Word isn’t at all – from a literary perspective at least – what it purports to be. And with such a quasi-powerful, all encompassing title, I was at least expecting to be somewhat touched, if not moved.

But when a poem comes replete with such an appalling, cumbersome title as ‘The Cucumber Epic’ – I absolutely kid thee not – then all (wrongly assumed) foregone assumptions are to be belittled beyond belief.

Were there to have been even the slightest hint of alliteration such as that of the last three words (belittled beyond belief), then this book might have been marginally acceptable. As is, its so tempestuously frustrating, and dare I say it, inadvertently jocular, I wasn’t sure whether to take it to the limit, take it on the chin or (remotely) take it seriously.

Might I add that this was acutely substantiated by the following:

That is why I preferred
To be called gherkin the pickle
So that I could tickle
The daughter of the fickle
And when I saw mother hen
Then I could giggle.
With acidity,
I gained respectability

Not that I’ve anything against cucumbers mind, but please…

To be fair, Professor M.R. Ali’s love of poetry began in Kerbala, Iraq, the place of his birth; so a lot of what he has written may well have been lost in translation. But surely not all of what he has written?

I’ve read and very much appreciated numerous works of international poetry, but this unfortunately, has to be one fo the weakest collections I’ve ever come across. Which just leaves me to say that Ali really isn’t doing himself any favours.

He ought to either find a far better translator, find something harrowing or tender or real to write about, or salute a lot more of his own imagination.

David Marx

Thomas Hardy – The Poems


Thomas Hardy – The Poems
By Gillian Steinberg
Palgrave Macmillan – £16.99

”W.H. Auden, who claims Hardy as one of his favourite poets and earliest literary influences, writes, ”What I valued most in Hardy, then, as I still do, was his hawk’s vision, his way of looking at life from a very great height… To see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history, life on earth, the stars, gives one both humility and self-confidence.””

                                                         (from the Chapter, ‘War and its Casualties’)

It’s always a more than rewarding pleasure to read all about the work of one’s favourite authors, especially when the actual reading entails discovering and finding out oodles of things one didn’t already know.

Such is most definitely, if not didactically the case with regards this most well researched and analytical of book’s by Gillian Steinberg. Not that I’ve read many analytical texts on Thomas Hardy, particularly when it comes to his poetry; yet Thomas Hardy – The Poems, most decidedly piqued the partially subliminal stasis of a dusty knowledge learned many moons ago.

In fact it has done so to such a degree, I now feel compelled to go ahead and re-read a number of his works. So to describe this book as thematically inspiring and a pleasure to read is, perhaps, selling it a little short. Reason being, those already familiar with Hardy’s work are surely well versed in the mighty influential and intentional depth-charge of his humanity. I for one, was alerted to this very issue from the very first minute I started reading the brilliant Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a sublime tango of literary poignant pathos, if ever there was one.

Yet to have one’s investment in such deeply held thinking succinctly reiterated, is, as mentioned, just a small measure of this book’s potentially long-standing inspiration.

There are a number examples of said reiteration scattered throughout these 218 pages, although one of my favourite’s is where (in the Concluding Discussion of ‘Poet as Storyteller’) Steinberg writes: ”Hardy the storyteller is not a common voyeur but someone who wants to understand others and offer momentary windows into their lives. By voicing the concerns and telling the stories of the voiceless, he finds fundamental humanity in each of his characters. The pathos of his often powerless, unfortunate, or mistreated characters emphasizes the many ways that they are trapped in their lives and their locations, but they are seldom treated patronizingly or with condescension. Instead, the tragedies that beset them are not particularly different from those that Hardy believes beset everyone, and their experiences only differ from those of more empowered characters in their details, not in the depth of their feelings.”

Covering and dissecting nearly all aspects of Hardy’s poetry – from the aforesaid ‘Poet as Storyteller’ to his nigh infatuation with ‘Ghosts,’ from the opening quote of ‘War and its Casualties’ to ‘God, Man, and the Natural World, Thomas Hardy – The Poems covers a very wide terrain of exceedingly well considered analysis.

To be sure, the Analysing Texts series is ”dedicated to one clear belief: that we can all enjoy, understand and analyse literature for ourselves, provided we know how to do it.”

If nothing else, this book not only provides us with the ”know how,” it most resoundingly provides us with the relentlessly colourful, if not heartfelt luminosity, of who I consider to be one of Britain’s finest ever writers and poets. Suffice to say, this remains somewhat subjective when, in ‘Critical Views,’ the authoress states: ”From beginning to end the poetry of Thomas Hardy is the very voice of pessimism, but it is the pessimism of Shakespeare’s tragedies, a pessimism so profound that it goes down to the depths where constructions begins.” Either way, this most readable of books most certainly stands its analytical ground, thus making it both refreshing and a pleasure to read.

David Marx