Poetry

‘That little venal borough’: a poet’s jaundiced view of Aldeburgh

‘To talk about Crabbe is to talk about England,’ E.M. Forster declared in a radio broadcast in May 1941, but few people today talk about this Suffolk-born poet or indeed read him. This makes Frances Gibb’s slender but thorough account of George Crabbe’s life and work all the more welcome. In his time he was considered a leading, though controversial, figure, who wrote with stark realism about the spiritually and morally impoverished lives of East Anglian villagers and townspeople, in particular the inhabitants of the ‘little venal borough’ of Aldeburgh, where he was born in 1754 and spent an unhappy youth. After failing in his first career as an apothecary-surgeon,

Letters: Who’s responsible for Putin’s rise if not Russians?

Russian misrule Sir: Your editorial (‘Sanction Schroder’, 21 May) laments that western sanctions may be harming ordinary Russians, given that they too ‘are victims of Vladimir Putin’s corruption and misrule’. Yet who if not the Russian people themselves are more culpable for the rise of Putin? The unpalatable fact that both he and his assault on Ukraine still enjoy such considerable popular domestic support cannot be put down merely to his iron grip on the levers of coercion and propaganda. For most of the last century the Russian people have allowed themselves to be misruled and oppressed by a succession of malevolent tyrants and despots. There comes a point when

Is T.S. Eliot’s great aura fading?

For much of his life T.S. Eliot was surrounded by an aura of greatness: people accepted it, and behaved accordingly. That kind of consensus is not helpful for a writer or his works, as Eliot himself clearly saw, observing that nobody had ever written anything significant after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature – true at the time and mostly true since. His work is now in the position of Hamlet when he wrote a famous essay on the play: that the universal agreement of its greatness had hidden an understanding of its failures, its strangeness and what it couldn’t do. We take the greatness of Eliot’s poetry pretty much

Quietly devastating: Benediction reviewed

Terence Davies’s Benediction is a biopic of the first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon told with great feeling and tenderness. The result is quietly powerful, quietly devastating and, happily, is not afflicted by the usual clichés that afflict this genre. Sassoon never, for example, crumples what he’s just written and throws it across the room. For this we must be grateful, and are. The film juggles two timelines, with the young Siegfried played by Jack Lowden – once a rising star, it is probably now fair to say he has fully risen; he is wonderful here – and the old Siegfried played by Peter Capaldi. We only ever encounter the

The nightmare of making films about poets

Television and film are popular mediums. Poetry has never been popular. This is Sam Weller’s father in Pickwick Papers, when he discovers his son writing a valentine, alarmed it might be poetry: Poetry’s unnat’tral; no man ever talked poetry ’cept a beadle on boxin’ day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some o’ them low fellows; never let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. In 1994, I made a short film about Kipling. The director, Tony Cash, a man with a first-class Oxford degree in Russian, objected to a two-second reference to Aristotle’s ‘pity and terror’ in my script. ‘If you mention Aristotle, they [the TV audience] will

A pure original: the inventive genius of John Donne

Perhaps it was all because of his name. John Donne: for a poet this must have felt a little like destiny, and even in the most unlikely of moments he couldn’t resist making puns. He sat down to write a letter to the enraged father of the teenage girl he had just married in secret. A lesser man might have chosen to play this fairly straight, but not JD. ‘It is irremediably done,’ he wrote to his new father- in-law, and of course he spells it ‘donne’. His young bride’s family name was More; the jokes pretty much wrote themselves. The couple had 12 children and were, he later said,

Bono’s ‘poem’ was an insult to the craft of verse

Poet’, said Robert Frost, ‘is a praise-word’. So it is. That explains in part the unabashed delight with which Colm Tóibín, speaking in our current Book Club podcast, talks about publishing his fine first poetry collection Vinegar Hill – decades of international acclaim as a novelist notwithstanding. Poetry is a high-status artform, perhaps the highest. Yet unlike most other artforms, very many people seem to think of it as something that anyone can do. You wouldn’t expect to be able to write a symphony, or build a suspension bridge, or win Wimbledon, without many years of apprenticeship and intimate attention to the work of those who have excelled in those

This be the curse: Philip Larkin’s big problem

In matters of sex, Philip Larkin was late getting away. On his 23rd birthday, he wrote defeatedly to Kingsley Amis: ‘I really do not think it likely I shall ever get into the same bed as anyone again because it is so much trouble, almost as much trouble as standing for parliament.’ His 2014 biographer, James Booth, adds that Larkin was ‘still effectively a virgin… [and] Amis was puzzled that his friend failed to follow through his pursuit of sexual satisfaction’. There is no join-the-dots explanation for what Larkin called the ‘sex-fear and auto-erotic fantasies’ that beset him all his life. But in the centenary of his birth, it’s time

The making of a poet: Mother’s Boy, by Patrick Gale, reviewed

Charles Causley was a poet’s poet. Both Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin considered him the finest candidate for the laureateship, which Hughes later won. Now Patrick Gale has made him a novelist’s poet in this richly engaging fictionalised account of his early life. Mother’s Boy is bookended by two world wars: the first, in which Charles is born, and his father Charlie suffers the injuries that would lead to his premature death; the second, in which Charles, who had written schoolboy verse, ‘although poetry was not really his thing’, discovers his poetic voice while serving as a coder in the navy. The novel’s main subject is the intense, quasi-incestuous relationship

The delicate business of writing poetry

Living, as Clive James put it, under a life sentence, and having refused chemotherapy, I find I respond to the time issue in contradictory ways. On the one hand, I read avidly, almost as if I’ll be tested at some later date. I am morbidly well-informed on current affairs, the status of the old white male and the situation in Ukraine. I crawl through Lucretius and Horace in search of wisdom. On the other hand, I avoid my favourite filmic masterworks (Chinatown, On the Waterfront, The Remains of the Day, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) in favour of Secret Army, The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre and any 1950s thriller that

The National has become the graveyard of talent: Manor, at the Lyttelton, reviewed

Somewhere in the wilds of England a stately home is collapsing. Rising floodwaters threaten the foundations. Storms break over the leaking roofs. Inside, an argument rages between a snooty moron, Lady Diana, and her drunken Marxist husband who used to be rock star. This is the chaotic opening of Moira Buffini’s country-house drama Manor. The angry husband picks up a hunting rifle and blasts ornaments to smithereens. Then he chases his wife to the top of a staircase where she hits him with a candlestick. Once the fight ends, more commotion erupts as various groups of evacuees rush in through the front doors. Two women arrive from south London. They’re

How we rediscovered the charms of haiku

One of the more encouraging developments of the past year and a half has been the number of us who, instead of turning to drink, have been turning to haiku. Haiku hashtags have been popping up on social media since the start of the pandemic. It turns out that 17 syllables in that classic five-seven-five formation are just what we need when we’re trying to express how we feel about these unsettling times. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest have proved to be the perfect medium for this short-form poetry. Of course, the quality is mixed. Some of the hashtags attract efforts that are less ‘narrow road to deep north’

Homage to the greatest 18th-century poet you’ve never heard of

If you were to glance only briefly at the title of the Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s prose debut you might be forgiven for assuming that A Ghost in the Throat was a story about demonic possession — and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Demonic? No. Possession? Certainly. This spectral, arresting and at times disorientating autofiction is, most simply, the story of an author and her muse. But it isn’t just a story. Its fusion of historical biography, memoir and literary criticism makes it an intoxicating experiment in genre while also a heady and sensitive read. And that seems to be Ní Ghríofa’s modus operandi. As she sets out on

Spain vs Italy: who would win the wine Test?

In London, the weather is a gentle sashaying mockery. An Indian summer reminds us of the sullen apology of summer which we have just endured. Soon it will be winter, and ‘A cold coming we had of it’. As always, poetry is a respite. My first resort is usually Yeats. In English, no one except Shakespeare is better at turning language into music. I have probably apologised before now in these columns for using those ravaging Yeatsian lines which have become a cliché because they are so true, so powerful, such an epitome of the post-1914 world and its agonies. ‘The best lack all conviction / The worst are full

Contains moments of spellbinding banality: Radio 4’s The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed reviewed

The interview podcast is a genre immoderately drawn to gimmicks, as the logical space of possible formats is gradually exhausted. The interviewee, quite often themselves a podcaster, might be, for example, invited to noisily eat lunch while nominating their top-five deceased childhood pets. The theory is that fanciful formats encourage the interviewee to open up. Under such conditions, the interview itself can come to seem incidental to the main event, the atmosphere chummy, comfortable, back-scratching, but fundamentally uninterested: you do my interview, I’ll do yours, no real questions asked. The moderately fanciful premise of The Poet Laureate has Gone to his Shed sees the poet Simon Armitage solitary and at

Why shouldn’t we worship the NHS?

For obvious reasons, stocks in ex-editors of The Spectator are experiencing an all-time low. But my own complaint is with Nigel Lawson. Lawson may say it’s hardly his fault that his remark ‘The NHS is the closest thing the English people have to a religion’ has been appropriated ever since by anyone who thinks it’s a clinching argument for privatisation. Actually, it’s the opposite — a clinching argument for the present arrangements. I’ve had to make a lot of visits to hospitals in the past year, far more often than I’ve been to the theatre or the cinema. By force, I’ve seen a great deal of the NHS at first

A smart take on literary London: Dead Souls, by Sam Riviere, reviewed

Sam Riviere has established himself as a seriously good poet who doesn’t take himself too seriously: his first collection, 81 Austerities, opened with an account of how he blew all the arts funding money awarded him, and his second, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, is the only appearance of that august celebrity’s name in the distinguished Faber livery. Now we have his first ‘proper’ novel, following some experimental prose works. ‘Of course,’ as John Cheever wrote, ‘one never asks is it a novel? One asks is it interesting’, and Dead Souls is definitely interesting. It also fits the pattern of the poetry: this is a funny, even silly, but smart take on

Orcadian cadences: celebrating the reclusive poet George Mackay Brown

Few journalists can have conducted such a dismal interview as mine with George Mackay Brown in the summer of 1992. The Times had sent me to Orkney, and the night before we met I sat up in my B&B reading his poetry, spellbound. So much to ask him! But that first meeting was a disaster. Brown was so shy he answered my questions in monosyllables. After five minutes he sat back and rested his lantern jaw on long hands, silent. Seamus Heaney called Brown ‘the praise singer’. There was no singing that afternoon. But the next day I ran into Brown at Mass (he was that rare thing, an Orcadian

Laura Freeman

What does your wedding reading say about you?

Arts journalism, like crime, doesn’t pay. So I’ve been thinking of getting a side hustle. ‘You know about books and stuff,’ say friends who are getting married. ‘What should we have for our readings?’ If I can advise friends, why not strangers? By the laws of wedding economics — pick a number and add some noughts — I could make a marital mint. We’d start with a couple’s questionnaire. No good my offering Rainer Maria Rilke if they’re more of a Purple Ronnie pair. Then a consultation over Zoom, before proposing something old, something new, something sonnet, something haiku. It is, tentatively, wedding season again. Boris and Carrie kicked us

Virgil understood the great power of nature

‘Georgics’ are an ancient form of poetry about agriculture and the land. The term derives from Greek gê ‘land’ + ergon ‘work’ (cf. farmer George) and emphasises the necessity of working hard to counteract deprivation, build a nation and forge a civilised world. Virgil’s Georgics (29 bc) in four books are a supreme example of the genre and not without relevance to the modern ‘green’ agenda. Its opening outlines the subject matter: field crops and tilling the soil, viticulture, and the care and skill required to tend cows, sheep and bees. Virgil then calls on the gods to aid his task, and finally asks the young Octavian (soon to become