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Industrial-strength empathy.

barbed rule


Claire Crowther
Solar Cruise
Shearsman Books 2020 | 72pp paperback | £9.95 $17.00

Martin Thom
Cloud: a coffee cantata
Equipage 2020 | 48pp pamphlet, edition of 160 | £5.00

Douglas Oliver
Islands of Voices: Selected Poems
Edited by Ian Brinton, with a preface by Joe Luna
Shearsman Books 2020 | 198pp paperback | £12.95  $22.00

barbed rule

Zoë Skoulding, Peter Philpott, Gareth Farmer, Alan Baker, Kelvin Corcoran, Maurice Scully, Martin Harrison, Robert Powell, Natalie Rees, Gëzim Hajdari, Molly Vogel, The Forward Book of Poetry 2021

barbed rule
THESE THREE BOOKS are all concerned with the desire to involve poetry with an urgent public discourse. For Claire Crowther, this is the extinction of the human species due to environmental deterioration; for Martin Thom, it is Britain’s eagerness to sell large quantities of weaponry to any nation on earth that will pay for it, whatever it intends to do with it; but for Douglas Oliver (who died in 2000), it was pretty well everything that’s wrong with the whole set-up, or the institutionalisation of unkindness.

The ultimate purpose here is the collaboration of science and art, although in the end, of course, poetry can only be its own purpose.

Solar Cruise1 Claire Crowther here.

enacts a union between two campaigns which implicate two major human faculties. One is the research in particle physics to develop a more efficient and productive source of energy directly from sunlight, in opposition to the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies, with the purpose of saving the human species from extinction. The second is the production of a modern poetry which is in harmony with this by engaging with it on a personal and emotional level and as a language resource which meets specifically the trials and successes of the scientific research and enounces them into the processes of poetry, resulting in a range of poetical writing determined by its engagement with the ups and downs of the research project. Its purpose is on the face of it to broadcast the same message about the urgency of the task, though not, obviously, to extend it to a mass of readers. The difficulties, both of the research itself and of persuading people of power to take it seriously, translate as intensification of the modernity of the text, its power of instant movement from one thought to the next, from echo to discovery, but it is never defeating. The ultimate purpose here is the collaboration of science and art, although in the end, of course, poetry can only be its own purpose.

This is not that kind of poetry which saves itself from accusation of irrelevance by attaching itself to a given cause, be it social or political or ecological, without actually contributing anything beyond approval, and bypassing any inhering problems, like good old-fashioned landscape description claimed as revolutionary ecology. The two disciplines are here much more intimately engaged with each other.

Claire Crowther’s partner is named in the acknowledgements to the book as Keith Barnham, and it takes very little Googling to find out that he is Emeritus Professor K.B., a particle physicist now engaged in photovoltaics (which, my dictionary tells me, is “the conversion of light into electricity using semiconducting materials that exhibit the photovoltaic effect”). “He is,” she says, “the subject of Solar Cruise.” In fact their entire relationship is built into the course of the book, cast as a narrative sequence of a cruise which is a conference of physicists, in which their story as a couple and both the nature of and the campaign for his research are united in one telling. This is where the poetry comes in, as a blending and unifying medium. It gets off to a swinging start, scooping up a glance at poetry’s vintage—

Once-powerful dock. Historic boat:
the S.S. Eschatology.
Sweet talk, run softly till the feast is over.

and setting a basic division among the passengers, who are all either physicists attending the conference or relevantly powerful persons, in broadly cultural terms—

So when an old solar physicist
stands up, in shrunken jeans, sandals,
and says, “All we need are extravert bosons,

streams of golden photons that will free
new current. Leave the Higgs to hide…”

Of course there is no
applause. Sir Olkincole shakes
a corporate, corporeal hand
among the suits.

But my old physicist’s emerald forest flourishes…

—”A Conference Dinner Takes the Future on Board”

The technical terms taken from the research (boson, photon, Higgs) are not complex meanings and are soon learned. There are some knotty passages of dense metaphor, but at least it is not surrealism, whose purpose lies in constructing and incorporating obstacles to transmission; it is formed as a way of uniting disparate vocabularies for practical purposes.

What follows is not so much a poem sequence as a collection of mostly short poems referring to a sequential narrative. Everything rests on the connection, which relates all particulars to each other and to the central message or theme, the concern for the planet. On the journey they meet, fall for each other, teach each other (about particle physics/ about poetry) act in harmony (he does an experiment / she writes a poem), argue and reach understanding, (he understands that a metaphor is a form of equation), establish the need for each other, plead their cause, face their contraries (“rapture” physicists entranced before the chimeric mystery of the first particle), fail to win over vested interests (dream of shipwreck)… Thus a variety of poetical strategies are deployed, among which both humour and lyric are valuable tools.

Sometimes she is obviously counting syllables (“he counts particles, I count syllables”), which often has a calming and smoothing effect, as here lyrically in the poem “Becalmed”—

Darklight, darklight,
we rest in you
we are not two

wherever dark
is light. Dark shines
on every line…

The difficulties arise when it comes to the counting, because there are so many words with an indeterminate number of syllables (such as “million”). Does the third line really have the four syllables required, or doesn’t this depend on who is saying it and at what speed? The “darklight” here is the production of electricity (invisible) from sunlight. It is also two lovers at rest in the middle of the night.

Solar Cruise is ‘a fascinating collection of inter-related poems operating in a common narrative…’

I would value this book principally as a fascinating collection of inter-related poems operating in a common narrative, particularly successful in engaging with scientific matter in passionate tones, but also sharing with the research the emotions of success and failure. It shows the confidence of a poetry which has gotten itself a subject worth having. But can it claim to be a necessity? How much did the science need the poetry, other than in personal and circumstantial terms? The message, about the planet, is vitally important, but poetry did not create it; it was already there in the science. The ensemble gains, of course, by a sense of authenticity as being factually true, which it would be difficult to deny, given only that a certain amount of theatre (mainly for satirical purposes) must be in the poet’s grasp for such an enterprise. But as far as poetry is concerned, it would not matter if it were fiction. The message would still be there, on the page, important in its own right, as it would in a scientific paper entirely without the intervention of poetry. What, then, is the actual linkage? Where is the point at which science and poetry become united? A poem such as “Aquarius”, in the middle of the book, seems to be acutely aware of the remaining distance between the two actors—

Our state room is polyphonic with Sorry
since experiments and poems
have not yet cooled the warming world.


….I see you
studying deserts,
calling to sense the sands…

And then, Aquarius,
you’ll save our age from us.

Would poetry ever begin to cool the warming world under its own power? Is not poetry’s pull towards the holistic (the voice of “us”) capable of hindering the process it is meant to be furthering? The substance of the book remains essentially personal, a fortuitous encounter with an unexpected harmony and all the hopes and doubts thus set into play.

MARTIN THOM’S CLOUD is a work which defies widespread assumptions about contemporary poetry, especially that it is definitively either accessible or difficult, and also that its techniques of language-use are themselves occulted statements in a cultural field, so that to use a sixteenth-century verse form is a statement of conservatism of some kind, or of all kinds. There’s no doubt that Cloud is difficult; to some it might be the most difficult poetry they’ve ever seen. But there are not just degrees of difficulty, there are also kinds. Cloud is a single long poem in a traditional verse form, but its purpose and content are entirely radical.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click twice.

This is the second essay by Thom of this kind, and indeed these two poems seem to be all he has written as a poet since the mid-1970s (he is otherwise a freelance historian and translator). The first, Fair, (2018) can be read in its entirety here in The Fortnightly Review. It is a continuous 11 pages in couplets narrating the poet’s attempts to reach and protest at the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair at ExCel London in 2017, with significant en-route encounters and discussions. Cloud narrates the same attempt to reach the same arms fair at the same place in 2019. It is on a larger scale, written in nine-line Spenserian stanzas – 140 of them – more complex in narrative, with more events, more remote topics, and uses the Dockland Light Railway as its transport. There is an obsession with coffee which is perhaps rather ambiguously felt, but the case against it is outright—

Justo Rufino Barrios we condemn, the Western thirst
For coffee, and primitive (or wild) accumulation.
With Carlos Marx and Rosa Luxemburgo we agree that first
Violence always shatters a pre-capitalist formation.
Cadastral sleights of hand there were, or violation
Of home and heart and field through alcohol that took
Us down to fincas nationales, and to desolation.
But the devil in this detail was Praetorian by the book
And militarized our ring of days until the mountain shook.2

The journey is very like Dante’s through the Inferno in which every encounter or exchange is followed by another, as if contributing to an accumulative compendium of harm. There is even a guide, Swedenborg replacing Virgil. But to consider these histories and topics you first have to identify them, which is where the difficulties come in.

The guiding theme is the arms trade and the impossibility of reconciling it with any civic virtues, figured in the entire journey…

Difficulty in poetry can be measured on a sliding scale between two extremes. One is where the language itself is so distorted , the syntax so violated, that no sense can be delivered through it; you have to seek sense under the language or intuitively invent a new kind of sense that doesn’t employ connectives and no word stands as what it is acknowledged to be. The other is where the difficulty is not syntactical at all but referential: it is what is referred to that is difficult, and this is what Thom does, as the poet is led through a whole series of encounters with persons and historical events which are essentially relevant to the themes of the poem, in fact definitive, but not easily identified by most readers. The guiding theme is the arms trade and the impossibility of reconciling it with any civic virtues, figured in the entire journey, but other themes are interlocked as all bearing upon the present dilemma: past conditions and events, especially massacres, colonialism, extinguished tribes and societies, capital, ideologies… These have to be specifically identified, resulting in a mass of names and terms which the poet cannot avoid because we live with, or protest against, their results, and without them it would be a romantic sunset. So the technique is at the extreme informational level, but not entirely, because it is also a poem and a considerable weight of emotion is carried on the enumeration of, mostly, large-scale harm and false understanding, and not only emotion but also gestural or rhetorical weightings, the music of protest. If anything this increases the difficulty, as a kind of grim perseverance, and sometimes glimpses of hope or of hopelessness (but not guilt: see Douglas Oliver, below) bring a musical quality into the text which moves emphases counter to the prosaic function and enables the rhythmic extenuations of the prosody (which, in-line, is more “romantic” than strict. ) This is why you are faced with lines like (chosen more or less at random) —

His Salvadoran compañera, haunted by La Matanza
Carl Sauer, Maya Deren (with her Bolex on the strand)
And with the Minotauramachie I survey the burning tasks

…and hundreds more (in fact 1,260 of them).

With the help of the web you can in most cases identify what is being referred to, or if not you ought to, and I think there will always be a pertinence, and a sense that these names must be named, for they are what happened and who acted, for good or ill. (“La Matanza” was a massacre in El Salvador in 1932 in which thousands, mostly workers in coffee plantations, were killed by the military.)

Parts will resist and refuse transparency. I have no idea why one episode is given over to Johann Jakob Bach (1682-1722, J.S.Bach’s elder brother, the least known and least productive of all the Bach musician clan, with one dubious attribution to his name) in connection with the battle of Poltova, Russia’s decisive victory over the Swedish Empire, 1709, which set in motion Russia’s dominance of Eastern and Northern Europe (currently on the march again). He is treated as a Turkish musician (he did spend some time in Constantinople) playing the zurna and baglama rather than the oboe and flute that he did actually play.

The ground covered in this journey across east London is immense and the references that need to be made include global histories of many kinds with emphasis on expropriation of human and material value (including coffee) by the use of massive force in despite of law and custom. There are extended passages of great elegance and righteousness, but I’ll end by quoting a footnote (there are footnotes) to show how the present tense always lurks on the horizon of these infernal travels whether currently engaged with the Arch of Titus, or The Dutch East India Company, or Northern Soul at the Wigan Casino, all of which figure significantly at various points. This is footnote 2, to the word “Dicey”:

The way by which protesters refer to the biennial DSEI Arms Fair, coincidentally shared by the jurist and constitutional theorist of the ‘rule of law’, A.V.Dicey. Rule of law – rechtsstaat – was challenged in the 1920s and 30s by jurists aligned with fascist movements, conceiving law to be the expression of ‘the will of the people’. A similar challenge to the legal underpinning of democratic process is being mounted at present.

DOUGLAS OLIVER BELIEVED that the poet had not merely a right, but an obligation, to participate in protest against political and social wrongs and to do it in every poem, perhaps every phrase he/she produced and in his/her private presence, manner, and thoughts, including inarticulation and silence. It was a total possession of the person.

He strode into poetry in 1968 from journalism, fully armed with this sense of purpose, which was manifested prosodically in acts of drastic transgression and merging between public and private substance, “private” here involving not so much intimacy (which came later on a grand scale) as the inner involuntary movements of thought, producing a lot of syntax wrenched out of any logical clausal progression, for which he believed poetry was the best mode.

Hence some of his earliest poems are among his most difficult. His later self-editing suggests he recognised a problem here, but it was one which stayed with him to the end.

In his Preface to an earlier Selected Poems (New York 1996) he wrote—

I’ve tried to show that any political flaws in the public arena also reside in the “self” – in “myself” – and therefore inside the area of the poem-as-art too….

Thus a complete espousal of guilt as a positive act. It is difficult to believe that he meant this literally, but he did, including the poem as “therefore” a kind of written simulacrum or diagram of the self. This is not the same as subjectivity, which is the self seen by the self from a distance which may conceal its true nature more readily than reveal it. Powerlessness was no excuse, for as a “poet” you had your weapon in the poem.

The way this works out in poetical practice is that all gestures “outwards”, as he called it, towards addressing the public world in objective terms, are countered by, or, more often, merged with, an “inwards” movement, which is his own mental and physical experience, so that whatever image or thought occurs to him immediately, comes next, however masked and interruptive it may be. This can produce a tangled density in which the reader is repeatedly lost because its course is not easily sharable, and sometimes because it wilfully transgresses commonly agreed boundaries of relevance or decency, but once you grasp the process it can be richly rewarding. It also necessitates a poem of some length to work its way through these impediments to a helpful ending, and this substantiality is evidenced in concentrated, lyrical poems and, increasingly, in book-length works in verse, prose or both.

In 1967, the Olivers’ third child was a Down’s Syndrome boy, Tom, who died in 1969. The experience of living with him for a year followed by the turmoil of his death profoundly affected his father’s world-view and his poetry for ever after, as is clearly shown in this selection. A poem of 1968, “Mongol in the Woods”,3 begins—

My son’s eyes plead for expense I should otherwise
withhold. You’re around. I might as well
pay it for you, not to some future man. Testicles,
when the balls descend, but to the unheroic maker
in him. May I use the word imbecile? We’re in woods
where no-one can tell me not to. And
if we don’t laugh brutally at the mongol’s swollen tongue
that’s as if everyone were no longer
mysterious. I think of more drawn
into his iris than just vacancy
decorated with a gelid ruff. …

The reading experience here is constantly disrupted, as if an invitation to an articulated set of descriptions and thoughts is cancelled by the arrival of another Douglas Oliver who is not at all sure what he is saying, has not prepared anything, and says whatever comes into his head. So: unprepared metaphors (plead, expense, pay, maker, etc.); the baby as “he” then “you” then “he” again; the syntactical collapse after “descend”; the ambiguity of “no longer mysterious” (a desired result?); the clumsy lineation which casts doubt on “I think of more drawn”; and what exactly is the “gelid” (very cold, frozen – literally?) “ruff”? But more than all these wobbles and starts, it is the refusal of the discursive connective, so that instead of something amounting to “I think of my baby son’s undeveloped genitals” we just get the word “Testicles’” thrown in front of our path, without even a verb attached. This is as puzzling as the way the bare and functionless remark, “You’re around” floats up to no purpose.

Oliver knows what he is doing, which is to use the shaky rationality of modern poetry to represent a search for clarity and depth without reducing the content of experience.

It is obvious that these techniques give rise to questions, some of which could be answered and some not, but also that he knows what he is doing, which is to use the shaky rationality of modern poetry to represent a search for clarity and depth without reducing the content of experience. For all the oddity there is nothing haphazard or flippant about it; the sound and rhythm set it marching (or stumbling) towards its purpose, which is to record the total of his response to the baby, including things he would rather not have admitted to or would have preferred not to think of. The end of the poem brings the strongest of these lurking themes into the light: “Then Tom / will announce one day: ‘My father’s dead. You’re my father.’” It’s surely also obvious that if as reader you accept such an ambition, you can enter fully into the poem as a real and involving process without demanding a rational account of everything in sight.

This must be one of his oldest surviving poems, but exactly the same techniques of disruption can be found in some of his last. And indeed the much plainer hortatory manner of the big works that dominate his later output – ideological narratives and theses in prose and verse – was liable to muddling by the very same guilt-ridden anxiety that refused what he called “decency” in the short intense poems. It is a factor which makes it difficult sometimes to recommend him, which needs to be done, because there will always be those, otherwise sympathetic, who will not agree to his increasingly categorical and not always well-informed diatribes, particularly perhaps his insistence on the intervention of personal and sexual matter into works of public address. Basic unarguable priorities (women and race) came to dominate, quite rightly of course, but he himself occasionally showed discomfort at the programmatic inevitability which entered the writing. Ian Brinton selects judiciously from these behemoths, clearly wishing not to appear to censor anything.

Clarity was never his strong point, because he insisted on the legitimacy of his every thought and feeling on the occasion in question, positive or negative, transmissible or private, so they all come clattering in. The reading problems are not always solvable, and sometimes the disruptions overwhelm the discourse completely. Sometimes you wonder why it was necessary to attach such a “baroque” version of modern poetry, and suspect that something much simpler lay behind it, to which Oliver would, I think, often agree. The figure of Tom the baby arises again and again, especially in the first half of his output, referred to, visualised, and sometimes (in “The Diagram Poems”) taking the stage as bearer of messages of calm wisdom to the fraught author. After all the intense self- and world-questioning occasioned by the life and death of this child, Oliver explains, in his novel The Harmless Building published in 1973, in plain prose—

I should love to keep a mongol baby alive in my mind, an outgoingness and kindness, a lack of coherence, an area of almost no-harm like a clearing in the middle of harm.

This is exactly it, and all of it, and a bit of beautiful writing. Why was it not enough?

The only possible answer to that lies in the vast scope and moral tenacity of his later work, which no selected poems can hope to represent, with its book-length projects, satirical fictions, autobiographical contexts… But Ian Brinton makes a valiant bid,4 especially by including the whole of “The Infant and the Pearl”, a sequence of 102 stanzas forming a dream-poem in the metrics of the mediaeval poem Pearl in a journey through Thatcherised Britain (a likely precedent for Martin Thom’s Cloud).

Douglas Oliver saw himself as part of a grouping of poets with no identifying title (except sometimes “Cambridge”) most of whom have now died, and secondarily of a wider category of “experimental” poetry which now looks like something of a failed revolution. If among all these he seems to have become one who has retained little hold on the market — almost everything except the present book is out of print, even if still sometimes available online — I can only put this down to a growth of laziness in the act of reading poetry which has been actively encouraged from the top.


Poetry publications listed. This is more for information than critical appraisal, and the comments you do get might be more rambling than analytic. All are recommended as at least “interesting” for various reasons.

Zoë Skoulding, A Revolutionary Calendar. Shearsman Books 2020. 132pp paperback, £13.00

It is a common device among the more “innovative” poets to attach pieces of poetry in sequence to a pre-existing structure, or to alternate your pieces of poetry with pieces of a more prosaic, narrative or declaratory writing of your own. Zoë Skoulding attaches 360 strictly five-line poems to the names of the days in the French Republican Calendar of 1793 to 1805. By doing this she forces herself to be extremely concise so as to reach at least a sense of finality, of something recognised or discovered, in the disposition of all these unpunctuated but grammatically coherent addresses. The blurb (by Lyn Hejinian) makes claims for the development of a transformative utterance through the big sequence, but it seems to me that each five-line poem is a new beginning. It would be good to study this impressive book at length with this question in mind — which wins? The continuity or the fragmentation? For they are both there. Careful, “classical”, balanced, writing.

Peter Philpott, Telling the Beads. A Spiritual Year Book for Our Times. Great Works Editions 2020. 112pp paperback. £6.00 (A review of Philpott’s Wound Scar Memories, published in 2017, is here.)

Calendric, alternating, purposeful, but nothing remotely strict or “classical” in it. All that is clear is that the linear aspect is based on the Anglo-Saxon calendar of the Reverend Bede, and we get clipped and sometimes broken-up pieces of poetry or mock-lyric between chunks of the prose which bears the weight of the enterprise as a day-by-day account. (with a lot of very un-experimental pictures). This is a strange kind of prose. It seems to claim its subject and its modernity in a version of the spoken dialect thick with exhortations, appeals, shouting and swearing and heterogeneous chatter. I feel he is trying to entice the reader and cajole us into subscribing to his theme, which, he says, is an attack on “materialism and rationalism” as well as “poisonous stupid literalism or feeble woolly abstract idealism.” But some parts are more optimistic than this.

Gareth Farmer, Strategic Forms: or, 74 Questions, 92 solutions. Privately published in Bedford by ABBA Press. A5 118pp, photocopied, stapled into hand-written paper covers.

Gareth Farmer in his first section (“74 Questions”) attaches his pieces of poetry to a list of books he has read, or should have, as free-formed, disconnected utterances of many different kinds but with a feeling of prose address behind them. The readings were predominantly academic and theoretical but could add up to a typical library of a serious student of culture and philosophy on the left side of things in the last 40 years or so including the diversions. The “96 Solutions” are unattached pieces of some variety broadly related to the intellectual climate of the book. The production is home-made, such as some of us used to do in our youths, including those staples which just will not go properly through so many pages and end up writhing in the margin.

Zoë Skoulding, The Celestial Set-up. Oystercatcher Press 2020. 34pp pamphlet.

More of a this and that collection than the Calendar, including a fine and substantial poem “After Apollinaire” which I can’t find a trace of in the Oevres Poétiques.

Alan Baker, A Journal of Enlightened Panic. Shoestring Press 2020. 28pp pamphlet. £6.00.

Getting poems to grow out of specific connections and occasions: poets, artists, his mother, himself at a distance… With tenacity.

Kelvin Corcoran and David Rees, Orpheus Assymetric. Oystercatcher Press 2020. 24pp pamphlet. £5.00

Orpheus’ decapitated head floats downstream to the sea still singing, but now it is the song of the drowned orphans, which goes: forget Phlebas and the five fathoms, the words did not save them. “…written in correspondence with the pictures included here by the artist David Rees…”

Maurice Scully, Things That Happen. Shearsman Books 2020. 612pp paperback. £20.00.

Compendial edition of the work which has engaged Scully for the last 25 years, previously issued in five books, which are here checked, revised, and extended. Absolute Scully.

Kenneth Keating. A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the poetry of Maurice Scully, edited by Kenneth Keating. Shearsman Books 2020. 216pp paperback, £17.00

Irish and American scholars busily and circumspectly appraising the works. Viewed from UK, I find the insistence on the mainstream/experimental division with its categorical descriptions and judgments, anti-lyric etc., rather fusty. Scully is one of the most lyrical of contemporary poets.

Martin Harrison, The Kangaroo Farm. Shearsman books, 2nd edition 2020. 82pp paperback, £10.00 (A needful reprint. The first edition reviewed here in the Fortnightly.)

Robert Powell, Notes from a Border River. With art, pictorial and design elements by Jan-Erik Andersson, Eileen Hutton and Joe Gilmore. AmosLAB (The Finnish Institute London) 2020. 40pp pamphlet.

Documentation of a multi-genre project concerning borders enacted at the bridge over the Finn at Cady, Northern Ireland, culminating in a set of ten poems. Fine quality pamphlet production. Linked to a video on — and, conveniently, here (inset left).

Natalie Rees, Low Tide. Calder Valley Poetry 2020. 36pp pamphlet, £8.70 inc. UK p+p (

Anecdotal but not naïvely, fresh and resourceful poems, facing the immediate as it is currently experienced by a young Irish woman with evangelical parents. A range of manners, some of them the scatterings-of-phrases kind. I can’t do better than point out that that the use of the word “fuck” is perfectly pure and free from expletive or aggressive tones. I think this is what D.H. Lawrence called “chaste”.

Molly Vogel, Florilegium. Shearsman Books 2020. 126pp paperback.

This inhabits a distinct Anglo-American poetical culture based in what has been called the “pastoral” side of Modernism. It focuses on flowers, linked out to a carefully selected fund of lore and literature, seeming to propose a shared ethic of beauty as total recompense, but with marked limits. Three sets of finely crafted poems followed by a “glossary” of flower names which traces them to the works of authorities, so as to build up a sense of a whole foundational thesis. Ruskin but not Marx; Swinburne and Tennyson but not Browning; Keats but none of his contemporaries; Wittgenstein (of course); Stevens but not Thomas; Dickinson but not Whitman; Ashbery but not Harwood; HD, Zukofsky, Stein, but nobody resembling Ginsberg or O’Hara; nineteenth-century American, and twentieth-century British material both thin on the ground. And how can you announce “The Evening Primrose” and keep Clare out? Nothing too urban, nothing too threatening. This is a very interesting and accomplished collection, not least in its structure, and needs to be thought about in terms of implication in relation to a refused total. It exemplifies a nest of contemporary transatlantic culture insisting on optimism but not engaged with the public world, which is now well established (possibly as a counter to such as Hannah Sullivan, q.v.). Of course the particular figures will change all the time and all I’m doing is trying to recognise familiar symptoms from the book’s references, but I think there is a sense of a kind of aestheticist solidarity.

Gëzim Hajdari, Bitter Grass, translated by Ian Seed. Shearsman Books 2020. Bilingual text. 78pp paperback, £10.00. (five poems from the same translator differing in some details are here in the Fortnightly)

Written originally in Albanian in 1976, a protest at compulsory happiness. Duly suppressed. Translated into Italian by the author in 1999. Now, in a translation by Ian Seed, perhaps a reaffirmation of the bitterness of living, with a regained pride in the strength of rurality.

The Forward Book of Poetry 2021. Bookmark 2020. 150pp paperback, £10.00

A rather bad year. It’s not just the appointed shortlisted, it’s also the 50 or so “Highly Commended Poems 2020” (commended by whom, one wonders — another poetry expert lurking behind a wall?) Where, for instance, are all the winners, commended, and promoted poets of recent years? Where is Zaffar Kunial? Where is Kei Miller? Where is Vahni Capildeo? Where is Sandeep Parmar? Where is Denise Riley? Where is Laura Potts? Aren’t they writing highly commendable poems any more? How long is this coronation meant to last? Then by chance your eyes fall on page 82—

Snow fell from heaven while Aneurin Bevan
Thought to spawn the NHS. Mother had drunk
her Guinness bottles on prescription nonetheless.
Snow fell cold and soft on field and croft.
Snow fell on Halliwell. Snow drifted into window
and an even swell. Snow overwhelmed the mill,
the mine, the railway line. The world was frozen
in a shell of economic standstill. Snow blown over
Smithills Moor and Winter Hill had heaped against
the hospital, up to the window-sill.
Such beauty thrills that still receptacle,
the unborn soul…

Doesn’t the breath deepen? Aren’t you drawn into somewhere more dynamic than life’s little ironies? Where, as far as those responsible for this merry-go-round are concerned, has Michael Haslam been for the past 50 years?

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2015.  A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.


  1. An archive of work by Claire Crowther previously published in The Fortnightly Review is here
  2. The references here are  mainly Guatemalan, as in a number of other episodes.  Finca is the Spanish for farm but with nationales refers to a claim to alleviate global local poverty through a  microfinancial structure based in USA which lends very small amounts to individual entrepreneurs in places like Haiti.  I’m not sure that I’ve got this right.
  3. A footnote in a 1996 printing indicates Oliver’s awareness of the possibly offensive use of the word “mongol”, which he retains because it was the standard term in 1968 and thus historically significant.
  4. The only works I would lament the loss of are in the cave of suicession (1974) a mixed genre allegory of a separate, dark space that the self needs in order  to make its mistakes and to repent them; some representation of The Video House of Fame (2003) and some particular poems such as “Bonis Avibus”. But the selection of shorter poems could have been doubled without strain.

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