Craig Raine

A recitation of wrongs

In 1923, a Frenchman, Emile Coué, persuaded millions of Americans to finger a piece of string with exactly 20 knots. It was an exercise in auto-suggestion. At each knot of this secular rosary, the user intoned: ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ Sylvia Plath’s letters — until they implode on

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

Pablo Picasso in love and war

The decade 1933-43 was one of busy erotic multi-tasking by the deft and diminutive Pablo Picasso. It took him the best part of ten years to effect a separation from the reluctant Olga Khokhlova, his ex-ballerina wife, retired injured from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. Legal proceedings were triggered by her discovery of Picasso’s affair with

T.S. Eliot’s preoccupations in wartime Britain

In her essay ‘A House of One’s Own’, about Vanessa Bell, Janet Malcolm says memorably that Bloomsbury is a fiction, and that compared with letters and first-hand material, biography is like canned vegetables compared with fresh fruit. We read the letters of writers because they are informal, unguarded, unbuttoned, intimate and candid, revealing not only

Poems are the Duracell batteries of language, says Simon Armitage

Ezra Pound in ABC of Reading: ‘Dichten = condensare.’ Meaning poetry is intensification, ‘the most concentrated form of verbal expression’. Simon Armitage saying the same thing, memorably, genially, metaphorically, democratically: ‘How much power and force could be stored in — and retransmitted by — such compact shapes. Poems as the Duracell batteries of language.’ Both

Ladies’ man: Tom Stoppard’s love life revealed

Gilbert in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue ‘The Critic as Artist’: ‘Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.’ Not here. Hermione Lee’s immensely long Tom Stoppard: A Life is expert, engrossing, entertaining and sympathetic to its subject. At its heart is a writer steely in his determination to

As Lucian Freud’s fame increases his indiscretions multiply

Staying with Peregrine Eliot (later 10th Earl of St Germans) at Port Eliot in Cornwall, Lucian Freud remembered that the Eliots ‘ate off solid silver plate, even shepherd’s pie’. In 1968, Freud was having an affair with Perry’s wife Jacquetta. According to her, it was an addiction: ‘Completely hooked, a dreadful drug…’ After two turbulent

What made Lucian Freud so irresistible to women?

Amedeo Modigliani thought Nina Hamnett, muse, painter, memoirist, had ‘the best tits in Europe’. She fell 40 feet from a window and was impaled on the basement railings. Not suicide. She was peeing out of the window, the shared lodging-house lavatory being too distant. On her deathbed, her breathing was like a harmonica. The collector

Keeping it real | 4 July 2019

Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) was a member of the Nabis (the Prophets), a problematically loose agglomeration of painters, inspired by Gauguin and Émile Bernard, the school of Pont-Aven. Broadly speaking, this entailed an alleged allegiance to spirituality and anti-naturalistic flat colour. The Nabis — a secret group moniker —were heterogeneous, a broad church that seldom sang

‘Search me, squire’

I think everyone was a little nervous of Harold. Including Harold, sometimes. He was affable, warm, generous, impulsive — and unpredictable. Like his plays, where the hyper-banal surfaces — the synthetic memories and false nostalgia of Old Times, the aural drivel of Rose in The Room, the bogus familial warmth of The Homecoming — are

Searching high and low

In the Moderna Museet in Stockholm there is a sculpture by Katharina Fritsch, which references Chekhov’s famous story ‘Lady with a Dog’. It was part of a Jeff Koons mini-show. At the time (2014), I thought it was by Koons. The postcard disabused me. It shows a woman in unapologetic Barbara Cartland pink, with a

Keeping up with the Joneses

To bleak, boarded-up Margate — and a salt-and-vinegar wind that leaves my face looking like Andy Warhol’s botched 1958 nose-peel — to see Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ at Turner Contemporary. The exhibition has been organised by a group of local residents, who selected the exhibits, designed the layout, and wrote the exhibition texts. In

Sappho in America

We are gripped by gossip. Curiosity is a tenacious emotion. In her essay on Push Comes to Shove, the autobiography of the choreographer Twyla Tharp, Joan Acocella acknowledges this in an untroubled way. If you want to know what Baryshnikov was like in bed, she advises, look at p. 208 in a bookshop: ‘Tharp gives

Worthy, but wordy

Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality wryly depicts Goethe preparing for immortality — neatly laying out his life in Dichtung und Warheit and arranging for Johann Eckermann to record his conversation. He is, says Kundera, designing a handsome smoking jacket, posing for posterity. He wants to look his best. Then along comes the young Bettina von Arnim,

Boxing clever

Thirty years ago, Russell Davies wrote a weekly sporting column in the New Statesman. It proved unsustainable and was soon discontinued, but not before Davies had described a boxer ‘genuflecting through the ropes’ — an image I have coveted ever since. Boxing is ‘a standing challenge to [a writer’s] powers of description’, according to Carlo

The nature of genius

On 21 December 1945, Ezra Pound was confined to St Elizabeths hospital in Washington DC. He had broadcast for Rome Radio from 29 January 1942 to July 1943. To avoid his almost certain conviction for treason (and the death penalty visited on William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw), the superintendent Winfred Overholser testified that Pound was insane