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Index: Notes & Comment

Fear and loathing in the Royal Festival Hall.

Anthony Howell: ‘There is a lack of breadth that still dogs the selection process, I think as a direct result of prize-winners apotheosising into judges. In the end it all begins to feel samey. There are far too many “of”s – usually attached to death, love, or something equally gloomy, and so the poems not only feel samey, they feel doomy. Again and again we were urged to confront the death of a loved one or our own death. Surely there is more to poetry than a maudlin sense of nostalgia for those no longer with us?’

Montaigne’s ‘genial scepticism’.

Robert McHenry: ‘By actual guesswork I estimate that half of all reviews of volumes of essays take the time to discuss the etymology of the word “essay,” back through Middle French “essai” to the Latin exagium, landing always on the senses of “trial,” “test,” or “attempt.” They are not always clear about what it is that is being tried, tested, or attempted in any given essay. Even less clear is what they mean when they refer to any particular literary composition by that label.’

Poets once young — with books received.

Peter Riley: ‘Interviewed in 2008, Harwood said, “I think in your early work you have this drive and confidence, and then later on you’re looking more carefully, possibly, to get the words right, not to allow any foolishness, to make it just right — fine tuned.” This quality is present in the precariousness of his tentative scenes at the same time as the sense of an old and practised hand at work.’

Bigotry from birth.

Tom Zoellner: ‘The rest of the world now comprehends Rwanda as a post-genocide state alongside Germany — the very worst expressions of mankind’s fear-virus — but the basic causes of the violence are too-often left as a matter of conjecture as to how otherwise decent people can be reprogrammed to kill their neighbors. This luminous novel never mentions the genocide but deals with it sternly nonetheless. It explores terrain that previous characterizations of the violence have skirted: the “peaceful” slow boil right up to the moment of the first drawing of the knife, the time when fear of internal traitors germinated so gradually and under the cover of normal political jingoism that almost nobody outside Rwanda grew alarmed.’

The poet and the dictionary.

Alan Wall: ‘Geoffrey Hill’s poetic career has been mediated through his engagement with the dictionary. And that dictionary is first and foremost the OED. There is no greater dictionary in the world, and its making constitutes one of the great intellectual events of the twentieth century, though it started life in the nineteenth. There had never been anything like this before. Now the language itself has become the documented labyrinth of its own manifold meanings. Now history can be traced uttering itself thus and thus in one mutating word after another. The thought of a poet writing in English who would not grow excited turning the pages of the OED, or clicking on the electronic version, is so dismal that one wishes such a personage an even smaller readership than modern poets normally manage to acquire.’

Peter Dent’s ‘starmaps left for night’.

Harry Guest: ‘You are more on your own reading Peter Dent’s work than with perhaps any other contemporary poet. Yes, you are reminded of W.H.Graham’s pursuit of the sayable, but Dent, asking “what thought thinks about”, is in a curious way both more lucid and more elusive – or you may compare him with a novelist like Pinget who is simultaneously precise and baffling, although Dent with his “wish to find perfection in the incomplete” gives us recipes for complicity in his research. His admiration for Lorine Niedecker’s “eagerness to know and learn” is understandable and he shares her sense of wonder plus her intensely delicate focus on the immediate – in his case, red bars of an electric fire that “glow and hum” or a woodlouse “rolling up”.’

A ‘slanting view’ of Peter Redgrove.

Harry Guest; ‘He came
to my 21st birthday party bearing
a beautiful copy of Gilbert White’s
Natural History of Selborne
illustrated by Edmund New.’

The elegies of Susan Howe.

Jamie Robles: ‘Howe’s studies of genealogy run through both sides of her family, and are often placed, as in Frame Structures, one after the other. Howe offers another form of genealogy, however, one which is also elegiac but that lies apart from that of the lives and deaths of her family history: a genealogy of American women writers, who because of their gender have died a second death within history. Their lives and their spiritual passions — from the antinomian Ann Hutchinson to the poet Emily Dickinson — are embedded in Howe’s writing as she rediscovers and reorganizes these women’s thoughts, which were written during the formational years of New England up until the twentieth century. ‘

The ‘secular monk’ in the rue des Saints-Pères.

Richard Aldington: ‘…the very essence of Gourmont’s thought is that he placed himself quite apart from doctrines and parties. It was a Nietzschean effort to rise “beyond good and evil”. But this uncompromisingly individualist judgment does not necessarily reduce Gourmont to a minority of one. Inasmuch as every one of us is an individual, inasmuch as we exist more or less apart from collective bodies and opinions, Gourmont speaks to us. He speaks to us not as members of groups, not as citizens, but as individuals. He does not assert that he had anything valuable to tell us; he does not pretend to solve anyone’s problems, offers no panacea, makes no promises, cares nothing whether he is read or not, or, if read, whether anyone accepts or rejects his thought.’

Travel as it was — and as it can be.

Anthony Howell; ‘By embracing “a resolute digressiveness,” the texts often amount to something we are accustomed to find in French literature, and perhaps in the German of Jean Paul Richter, but less commonly in English – the prose poem. And so the writing, as much as the vista, may at times carry us away, and while some see being carried away as dubious, others embrace it and revel in the liberation…’

Anthony Rudolf’s literary Wunderkammer.

Harry Guest: ‘The important thing is that silent conversations is a gloriously entertaining and a most rewarding publication. To share the reading experiences of such a poet-scholar-translator-editor-critic is a rare privilege and this book is worthy to be spoken of in company with Montaigne’s Essays, Evelyn’s Diary and Stendhal’s Vie de Henry Brulard.’

The year-end bedside reading table

Anthony Howell: ‘What makes a poet readable? There cannot be a formulaic answer. This is the problem with the standard model so lauded by our Oxbridge elite – as anally compressed as Ian Hamilton, with a closed form, forever ruled by the dictates of significance and economy, and very tightly organised on the page. ‘

Poetry of the second person.

Peter Riley: ‘I think Peter Robinson and John Welsh have quite a lot in common, but handle it differently. With Welch again the reader more-or-less inhabits the poet, and within that persona is led through a lot of streets, rooms, hospitals and cemeteries, always with a problem in mind, a melancholy or a lingering dissatisfaction, a need for resolution, suffering from an “enormous pointlessness”. But we are led further, into different places: an art gallery, the inside of a book, a performance of Hamlet aboard a ship off Sierra Leone in 1607, an Asian estate in East London… and sometimes nowhere in particular. So we do not always know where we are, and do not always need to because some poems are securely based in a conceptual focus, and sometimes we do know, except that bits of the poem escape from time to time into some unknown language laboratory, but this happens less and less these days.’

Blogs, spurious and routine.

Merrit Moseley: ‘The three most common disciplines that go up to make successful method in Daily Rituals are: early rising (many of these people rose at dawn; Balzac got up at 1:00 a.m.; it isn’t clear when he woke up, but Mozart always had his hair done by 6:00 a.m.); napping—from Joan Miró’s difficult-to-imagine fifteen minute nap, through many one to two hour lie-downs, and even Jerzy Kosinski’s four-hour nap every afternoon; and—most important of all—walking. ‘

Martin Harrison: ‘pastoral’ without shrubs.

Peter Riley: ‘Martin Harrison’s poems are brilliant and remarkable meditations on moments of perception (or clusters of such moments) most of which take place in the Australian countryside, presumably the “orchard and vine-growing area” in which an earlier blurb says he lives for half the year. The poems have starting-points which are experiences rather than scenes – being somewhere and looking at something, often in a stillness such as dawn, often with a sense of solitude.’