Skip to content

Cluster index: Anthony Howell

Sonnets for all tastes.

Anthony Howell: ‘Satire employing the heroic couplet reads simply as a throwback to the eighteenth century – even a writer as talented as Clive James cannot bring it off. The column of satirical couplets is just too much of a cliché. However, intricate formal patterns continue to intrigue poets, whether of a modernist or of a traditionalist persuasion, and the sonnet is enjoying a revival, but has it ever failed to secure its adherents?’

John Ashbery Was a Quiz Kid.

Anthony Howell; ‘Ashbery created intense little collages, and he was a collage in himself. Another artist he admired was Trevor Winkfield – also a poet – and British – whose iconic yet enigmatic paintings have disparate emblems in them which never quite collide, though they ought to; something one can understand the quiz kid responding to; the paintings are full of things which might mean, but do they? A feeling one can get when deep in Ashbery’s lines.’

The New Beauty.

Anthony Howell: ‘As an aesthetic ideal, wealth stimulates a veritable culture of prizes, breaking down the divide which has traditionally separated art from sport. It’s an ideal that stimulates competition and incites envy, isolating one creative from another and thus ensuring against revolution. Very neatly, the rebellious “tradition” of the salon des refusés has been annulled by the oligarchs. ‘

What are perversions?

Anthony Howell: ‘The text is appropriately supplied with examples from films, and Benvenuto makes interesting points about our propensity to seek out and happily identify with the perverse vicariously via fiction – drama and film enabling a catharsis similar to a positive outcome from analysis, though it appears that analysis has no obligation to come to a conclusion: one can go on seeing one’s analyst as one might any confessor. The devil ensures that temptation is an ongoing affair.’

Basil Bunting.

Anthony Howell: ‘Gone are the mannerisms of Bunting’s apprenticeship: the phrases reminiscent of the way Pound might conclude a snide portrait in Personae, the fusions of word with word that works for Gerald Manley Hopkins but not for the aspiring Northumbrian. Bunting denigrates form in the poem – harking back to an earlier versification crying/before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game – but his poem is nevertheless very finely crafted. The stone-mason’s chisel is a leitmotif accentuating this; indeed, the work, which Bunting describes as an autobiography, continually contrasts a sense of crafting with the sweetness of love-making. ‘

The longer line.

Anthony Howell: ‘The influence of the poème en prose can be felt, as if the block of its sentences were being chopped up simply for the intake of air, which is fair enough. And there is also an urge to bring poetry nearer to prose, especially the prose of exotic travel and lurid fiction. Jules Verne was very popular among the surrealists and a desire to emulate some of his effects was prevalent at the time of modernism’s debut.’

The mastery of the suicide bomber.

Anthony Howell: ‘It is evidence of a weakness in number. There aren’t that many conventional troops either, so the suicide bomber is called to put on a vest. Were this not the case, were there a glut of suicidal believers, surely there would have been 60 be-vested individuals engaged in the recent attacks, not six? The act may fill us with horror, but it’s nothing to the damage wreaked by Bomber Harris over Dresden, or to the damage, mainly collateral, caused by our jets, drones and missiles. We are dealing with gangs rather than armies, and we would be better served by treating eradication as a “police operation”, or a job for the commando elite of our armed forces.’


Anthony Howell: ‘[In Drummond] one senses an intellectual struggle, a willingness to attempt something new. Drummond should be recognised as a pioneer: a poet prepared to experiment in his day, who made the madrigal his own. He is far more than a footnote in criticism devoted to Milton or Jonson.’

The Poetry Book Fair’s (not so) free verse.

Anthony Howell; ‘The organisers — Chrissy Williams and Joey Connolly — have brought out a very useful programme and anthology that is well worth getting hold of since it lists all the publishers as well as providing a sample of what they print. The event was described as “an all-day bazaar, market, library, meeting place, performance venue, information resource and more, celebrating the vitality of contemporary poetry in the UK.”’

My part in the downfall of everything.

Anthony Howell: ‘Since its heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, satire as a poetic form has fallen out of fashion. Of course, in other fields, there are still plenty of satirists. Private Eye continues to mock the establishment and spill the beans on cheats. Stand-up comics ridicule our politicians and media stars. There are plenty of films, plays and musicals that deal in derision and the criticism of human pretensions, foibles and iniquity. The satirical vein is still very much in circulation. But poetry itself, the principle organ of mockery in Roman times, appears to have lost sight of this cutting tool with the advent of the romantics. Sincerity replaced wit as the yard stick in the nineteenth century, and resonance achieved through depth of feeling became a more urgent concern.’

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?’

Words ‘dreadful as the abortions of an angel’.

Anthony Howell: ‘I would identify this as “illuminated writing”. Readers may find it “over the top” (but that is what is being described). It’s as if Dylan Thomas were to find himself storming Hill 50. This might be thought an unfashionable, adjective-laden style these days, when writing such as Edith Sitwell’s is so often vilified (at least in “aware” poetry circles). But no one can take away from her poem “Still Falls the Rain” its right to be considered one of the great expressions about the suffering brought about by war (specifically the air raids of 1940). ‘

from ‘Silent Highway’.

From ‘Silent Highway’: For ancient Britons, if they could be found,
For bird-watchers, for birds, for water-violets…
He liked to talk to herons, being tall,
And waded here, and further up, at Brentford
Composing poems as he strode or strove…

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…’

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. ‘