This is not quite my favourite Edward Thomas poem, but it’s probably his most famous, and maybe his most “Thomasian”. It shows his gift for counterposing the barest of statements – “It was late June”, “Someone cleared his throat” – with something rather stranger-sounding. Would anyone say “one afternoon / Of heat” rather than “one hot afternoon”? But would anyone argue that “one hot afternoon” is better? If the adjective “hot” rarely packs much of a punch, the noun “heat” still stirs the senses; you can feel it rise off the platform, off the page.
Then we have “Unwontedly”, which plays eye off against ear. For me, it’s homophonous with “unwantedly”, and to the audience at the poetry reading, that makes perfect sense. No one likes it when a train stops for no obvious reason; it’s a thing unwanted. But “unwontedly” – and for all I know Thomas may have made an aural distinction (unwohntedly?) – is a peculiar word, never used now, if it ever was. I suspect that it sounded old even in Thomas’ day. “The train was not wont to stop there” we might still say, but there’s something about “wont” that resists being applied to a machine. This range of timbre is widespread in Thomas’ poetry. He often sustains a fairly neutral tone before lurching back in time with an archaism, as in that flaccidly Georgian line here: “No whit less still and lonely fair”.
There are two other quintessentially Thomasian qualities to this poem. One is the furtiveness of the form. I first read “Adlestrop” in my AS Level English class, and nobody pointed out that it rhymed. I can easily believe that no one noticed. I certainly didn’t, and the reason is because Thomas’ rhythms work against his line breaks. He doesn’t go pounding to the end of a line; he rarely hits the rhyme hard. In the first stanza, “heat” absorbs some of the stress from “afternoon”; later “name” springs straight into “willows”. Thomas lived in an age of poets who wore their forms on their sleeves, like sergeant’s stripes, while the mechanics of his poetry often seem accidental, or better, organic. Thus “Adlestrop” approximates the rhythms – if not the vocabulary – of a real human voice.
But what really defines “Adlestrop” as a Thomas poem is its mystery. You can see the shimmering mirage generated by the “afternoon of heat”. Why has the train stopped there? No one seems to know; the throat-clearing smacks of embarrassment. We picture the terrible awkwardness among passengers when something out of the ordinary occurs: eyes are not met, words are not exchanged, everyone looks stiffly forward or down. If the poem is to be believed, train travel in Thomas’ day was not much more sociable than it is now. Even moving, trains are eerie things. The driver is unseen and almost always unheard. But there’s another mysterious person in the frame, or just out of it: who is the speaker speaking to? Who, and what, is he answering with that ‘Yes’?
The poem is a picture of stillness and tension in a haze of summer heat. And somehow, Thomas conjures that stillness with sharp, precise verbs. Most English writing, at some point or other, falls back on that dreadful, nasally -ing suffix, be they present participles, gerunds or continuous forms. “Adlestrop” doesn’t contain a single -ing. After the initial “I remember”, it has only the past simple: “drew”, “hissed”, “cleared”, “left” “came”, “saw”, “sang”. Sharp verbs, crisp as a winter’s morning; yet soft, apart from the always-sinister “hissed”. They don’t disturb the stillness; they slice straight through it.
What mars it, just a touch, is the last line. “Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” locate the poem in a way that it didn’t need; gives us a point of reference that checks the bewilderment. The reader isn’t meant to know the name “Adlestrop”; the speaker doesn’t seem to, when the train draws up. It’s like Porlock: one of those places whose fame rests solely on a work of literature, otherwise not quite of this world. Knowing that Adlestrop lies in Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire spoils – ever so slightly – the riddle.
Penelope Fitzgerald’s sixth novel Innocence (1986) concerns the Ridolfi, a family of quietly dignified, denuded Florentine aristos who trace their lineage back to the sixteenth century. It opens with the story behind “the Dwarfs”, a group of statues that crown the family residence, Villa Ricordanza. “Strictly speaking they are not dwarfs, but midgets…pathologically small, but quite in proportion”, and they bear witness to the grotesque, heartbreaking tale of the Ridolfi’s midget forebears who decided that their daughter Gemma should remain ignorant of her own smallness. Thus these early Ridolfi modified the villa’s architecture, employed only little people, and erected the statues. Eventually, the Count reasons that Gemma “would be better off if she were blind…And since there seemed no other way to stop her going up and down the wrong staircases, it would be better for her, surely, in the long run, if her legs were cut off at the knee.”
Most readers would prefer not to believe it, and Fitzgerald lets us turn aside if we so choose: “This story is not the one given out nowadays in the leaflet provided by the Azienda di Turismo”. But though the novel settles into a stiller, sadder key, this nauseous moment is not the last. One of the few non-Ridolfi characters is the angry young southern doctor Salvatore Rossi, who has left his native hole, Mazzata, to practise his trade in Florence. An early chapter flashes back to his ten-year-old self, accompanying his father on a pilgrimage to Antonio Gramsci, Comrade Nino, effectively a prisoner in Mussolini’s Rome. Gramsci’s body is decaying, his ideals are decayed: the former repels Salvatore, and the latter destroys his father. “On that afternoon he [Salvatore] decided that as soon as possible he would be emotionally dependent on no one.”
Thus Innocence arrives at the classic rom-com setup, the gamophobic bachelor whose non-marriage vows are upended by a singular woman. Yet the reader is hard-pressed to find much singular about Chiara Ridolfi, the half-American daughter of the wearily splendid Count Giancarlo Ridolfi – not really a count, “although the leaflet calls him that, because all titles were abolished in Italy after the Second World War”. It is 1955 and Giancarlo is wondering how to take his daughter’s news, namely that she is to wed Dr Rossi. Then we rewind to the moment when the couple met, a musical evening at the Teatro della Pergola:
Chiara gave the doctor her hand. ‘You enjoyed the Brahms?’ he asked. She looked at him politely, but in wonder. ‘Of course not.’ Perhaps we might agree about everything, Salvatore thought. No-one ever agrees with me, but she might…a young girl wearing a diamond necklace…as if she didn’t know how she had it on, and quite without the elegant gesture, the Grace Kelly gesture, of lightly touching the jewels with one hand. Perhaps this young woman didn’t know how to be elegant, or perhaps Grace Kelly didn’t. He felt deeply irritated. He had an intimation that he was lost.
Chiara’s candour gets through to Salvatore, who has no idea what to do with his furtive new emotions. When she tries to catch him after work, he bawls and screams her out of his practice; he takes a mistress and tries to shag his feelings away. Chiara, meanwhile, enlists her bulldozing English friend Lavinia ‘Barney’ Barnes to run as a go-between, and Barney pretty soon comes to the same conclusion as us. “I’m not at all sure that Cha ought to marry this man”, she tells Chiara’s silent farmhand cousin, Cesare.
When part 2 opens, however, Chiara and Salvatore are married. Fitzgerald cannily spares us the thaw, showing her magisterial instinct for scene-shifting. Innocence is a cinematic novel: some chapters run to ten pages, some to two paragraphs, never longer than they need to be. And it gets the Florentine detail absolutely right, without ever laying it on thick. ‘Why doesn’t Florence have a proper airport?’ Barney demands, still a valid question in 2021. Yet somehow Fitzgerald’s Florence feels older than 1955, almost Edwardian. The book strikes a similar note to Lampedusa’s The Leopard – they’re both wry, painful, gorgeous novels of fading glories, of old orders crumbling to modernity. Count Giancarlo Ridolfi shares some of Don Fabrizio’s magnificence; he just wears it much more lightly.
For Innocence has that quality of lightness that Italo Calvino thought a writer’s greatest possible virtue. It’s something to do with the prose, which punctures any character – usually Salvatore – who takes themselves too seriously. Of Salvatore’s pre-marital mistress:
This hair of Marta’s was somewhere between blonde and brown, a colour which, Marta’s sister continued, rapidly drove men mad. Franca claimed the right to say these things, presumably, by right of seniority and of possessing the experience of marriage, although it was pretty clear that Dr Rossi was not being driven mad in the least and that Franca’s experiences in the Empire style matrimonial bed were not very different from Marta’s in the top room.
The funniest line is never the punchline; it’s always tucked in somewhere before. It’s not “Franca’s experiences”, it’s the clause just prior to that. This is what I mean by the prose’s lightness: Fitzgerald never pauses in expectation of a laugh. The same is true of Salvatore’s walk along the river Arno with the even-tempered Dr Gentilini, also a non-native:
He glared at the umber-coloured river, sunk to its lowest point. ‘Note that it’s not much more than a gutter, this Arno of yours, a gutter between the hills.’ Gentilini, to whom this was addressed, replied that it wasn’t his Arno, and that in the Po valley they found it much cheaper and more practical to put up with the floods and give up prevention altogether. He himself would never have been able to start out on a medical career if it hadn’t been for the flood compensation his family received in 1924.
Salvatore is usually snarling like this, and few readers will root for him. Instead, it’s the tenderness between Chiara and Barney that glues the novel together, especially when the latter, who seems invulnerable, opens herself up to Cesare. She has met him twice before, most recently at Chiara’s wedding, where she helped him carry the overcome Signora Gentilini out back.
‘I’ll tell you what it is,’ said Barney. ‘It won’t take long, because I know exactly what I want to say. I’ve been thinking it over for some time. As far as I can see, all Italian men get married, unless they’re… Right, well, as far as you’re concerned, I’m prepared to marry you right away…Now I’m getting to the real point. I want you to listen to me carefully. I’m in love with you. I love you.’ ‘Yes,’ said Cesare.
When I consider how this little book Has followed me through nation states and schools, I marvel that it took the paths it took With student, teacher, and with all my fools. Collector’s Library, A6 pages gilded, John Taylor’s portrait ovalled onto cream, The unpaid, unplayed fourteen lines that Will did Are pinstriped to a publisher’s regime. The dustjackets that dust my jacket pocket Perform a changing of the paper guard, But every bookshelf, when I come to stock it, You haunt an affable familiar bard. Obituaries need writing, envois no: You’ll fall apart before I let you go.
I’ve owned this slim little book for nearly seven years, and it still has the paper price tag on the back: £3.99. Those were the days. I bought it after a night of undergrad boozing chez my friend Tristram, whose bookshelves I had combed in conspiracy with another friend, Thea. Thea pulled out this very edition of John Berryman – I remember being struck by the stack of shot glasses on the cover – and told me that I had to read him. The Dream Songs especially.
And though 58 Dream Songs (chosen from 385 of them) make up about three-fifths of the book, it was Berryman’s sonnets that I first latched on to. At this point in life I was devoted to poetic form, slavishly so, and that devotion struggled to find a place for The Dream Songs’ histogrammic six-line stanzas, sometimes rhymed and sometimes not. The sonnets attracted me by virtue of their shape – time was when everything I wrote was a sonnet – but they were sonnets with a voltage that I had rarely felt:
All we were going strong last night this time, the mots were flying & the frozen daiquiris were drowning, supine on the floor lay Lise listening to Schubert grievous and sublime, my head was frantic with a following rime: it was a good evening, an evening to please, I kissed her in the kitchen – ecstacies – among so much good we tamped down the crime.
The weather’s changing. This morning was cold, as I made for the grove, without expectation, some hundred sonnets in my pocket, old, to read her if she came. Presently the sun yellowed the pines & my lady came not in blue jeans & a sweater. I sat down and wrote.
For years I wished that the book gave me more than a tiny window onto Berryman’s sonnets (21 out of 115), but over time I have come to think Michael Hofmann’s selection near-faultless. It’s surpassed only by his introduction, possibly the finest poet-to-poet preface that I’ve ever read. Hofmann admits that “any selection of Berryman has, to some extent, to oppose itself to the worst tendencies of the poet. There will be a little denial in it, and a little false innocence”. Otherwise one gives too much space to Berryman’s most irresponsible speech-acts, like this:
The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business… being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer… I hope to be nearly crucified.
Berryman suffered the worst possible ordeal at the age of eleven, when he saw his father walk out into the garden and shoot himself in the head. The sins of the father did not die with him: instead, the son inherited the urge to self-destruct. This translated into alcoholism, the extra-marital affair chronicled in the sonnets, and finally his own suicide, when he jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi.
Those catastrophic tendencies find voice in the Dream Songs’ protagonist Henry, who comes and goes, twirling around Berryman’s own biographical trajectory. But whether writing about his own implosions or the implosions of others, Berryman usually resists (self-)pity, which of course makes him the more harrowing. TheDream Songs include a handful of elegies for Delmore Schwartz, the Brooklyn poet who crashed and burned and became an Adonian martyr figure among Berryman’s circle, inspiring the title character of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. In DreamSong 149, however, grief is “too astray [perhaps in the sense of ‘wild’] for tears”:
This world is becoming a place where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die? I don’t suppose in all them years a day went ever by without a loving thought for him. Welladay. In the brightness of his promise,
unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual blazing with insight, warm with gossip thro’ all our Harvard years when both of us were just becoming known I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref and grief too astray for tears.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news, that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone, in New York: he sang me a song ‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’ when he was young & gift-strong.
The poem is studded with allusions to the greats. “Can Delmore die?” picks up Shakespeare’s “Can Fulvia die?” (Antony and Cleopatra), while “Harms & the child I sing” grotesquely inverts the opening three words of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Arms and the man I sing” (arma virumque cano). But the poem’s pathos plays along the language of dead platitudes: “I imagine you have heard the terrible news”. And “his promise” – at how many funerals has the inadequate word ‘promise’ been trotted out? Perhaps the saddest thing, which anyone who has read Humboldt’s Gift will recognise, is that Delmore died “miserably & alone”, deserted not only by his friends but also by his talent. “When he was young” he was “gift-strong”, but his gift, like Humboldt’s, abandoned him in later life. In the next Dream Song, #150, Berryman writes “I’d bleed to say his lovely work improved / but it is not so”.
For his part, Berryman pre-empted a similar decline by sabotaging his own poetic praxis. Love & Fame (1970) reads like a man who has given up trying to make sense of life and is content to laugh at it; certainly, he’s stopped trying to shape it to a real form – the book’s quatrains seem token, almost a mockery of the verse tradition. As one Dream Song says, “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand. / They are only meant to terrify and comfort”, a gloss that probably applies to most of the Berryman corpus. After all, what is there to understand in the opening ‘stanza’ of ‘First Night at Sea’?
I’m at a table with Canadians. He translates Villon. Villon! What Canadian could English make of those abject bravura laments? He says he’ll give me a copy.
But reading with the hindsight of an age when most poets are ‘prosey’ at one point or another, these poems have a power of their own. They involve some cognitive leaps that the reader can only hope to keep up with, but they speak with a plainness alien to much of Berryman’s oeuvre, not least the sonnets. No one could call them disciplined, and my recent purchase of Berryman’s Collected Poems (everything except TheDream Songs) has shown me how uneven his body of work is, an unevenness that Hofmann does a fine job of hiding. When you have access to all the sonnets, you realise that they’re riddled with ellipses, which in my view represents a failure of syntax. Indeed, most of Berryman’s poems smack of something unfinished, unconsummated; however astonishing they are, very few of them invite the word ‘perfect’. One that might, though, is Dream Song 145:
Also I love him: me he’s done no wrong for going on forty years – forgiveness time – I touch now his despair, he felt as bad as Whitman on his tower but he did not swim out with me or my brother as he threatened –
a powerful swimmer, to take one of us along as company in the defeat sublime, freezing my helpless mother: he only, very early in the morning, rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window and did what was needed.
I cannot read that wretched mind, so strong and so undone. I’ve always tried. I – I’m trying to forgive whose frantic passage, when he could not live an instant longer, in the summer dawn let Henry live on.
That brutal, tight-lipped terseness, “did what was needed”. And the compression – not “I’m trying to forgive him / whose frantic passage”; just “I’m trying to forgive / whose frantic passage”. No words more than necessary, as necessity is the argument that Berryman puts for his father, who “could not live an instant longer”. It relieves his father of the guilt of choice, perhaps so the son can lay the questions to rest. All attempts to “read that wretched mind” have failed, though “I’ve always tried”. Is there a poem more simple and devastating?
Well, maybe. Maybe the last poem in this little book:
Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts. Her having gone away in spirit from me. Hosts of regrets come and find me empty.
I don’t feel this will change. I don’t want any thing or person, familiar or strange. I don’t think I will sing
any more just now; ever. I must start to sit with a blind brow above an empty heart.
For years I steered clear of Henry James. My mother had long championed The Portrait of a Lady, which sounded rather too fey and effete, and looked rather too long. When I learned that he was John Banville’s, one of my favourite writers, favourite writer, I was disappointed. When I became hooked on Donna Leon’s series of Venetian murder mysteries, I instinctively sided with the unconvinced Commissario Brunetti who, however highly cultured, is not cultured as highly as his wife, a Jamesian scholar lovingly lavish with his epithet of ‘The Master’. My root prejudice probably went back to university and Ezra Pound’s needless defence of Dante: ‘For sheer dullness one reads Henry James, not the Inferno‘.
But it was in my last year as a student that a dear musicologist friend of mine lent me The Turn of the Screw, which he had read on account of the opera that his favourite composer, Britten, had made from it. This looked more appealing than The Portrait of a Lady: it was shorter, for one thing, and the blurb was enticingly gothic. Elliott gave it to me with a glowing review, having read it in one wintry, nocturnal, fireside sitting. At the moment of reaching ‘the part with the ghost’, he had looked up, caught his reflection in the dark window, and spilled his whisky with fright. I told my mother about this new borrowing. ‘I hate The Turn of the Screw,’ she said. ‘The only Henry James worth reading is The Portrait of a Lady.’
It’s strange how memories twine themselves around the most convenient chronology. Even now I have to remind myself that The Turn of the Screw was not the first Henry James that I read. It was the first Henry James that I had, on my bookshelves, but there it remained for a good eighteen months while I, for once the educator rather than the educated, spent a year teaching English in Ravenna, a small city about a hundred miles down the road from Venice. As with every Italian town there was a Via Mazzini, but Ravenna’s appeared to be semi-officially known as the Via dei Poeti for its dozen or so panels, which sported quotations from not only the poets but also from the artists, novelists, popes and psychiatrists who had spent time in the place and had had something to say about it. There was T. S. Eliot and his French poem ‘Lune de Miel’; there was Oscar Wilde and his early prizewinner ‘Ravenna’; there was a postcard from Klimt and appreciative grunts from Freud. And there was Henry James and a few lines from his essay on the city, which one can find collected into his Italian Hours: ‘For Ravenna, however, I had nothing but smiles – grave, reflective, philosophic smiles, I hasten to add’, just in case we suspected him of outright, vulgar happiness.
But it was not until the following April that I read more than this panel. It was The Aspern Papers, a novella similar in brevity to The Turn of the Screw, and it was divided over my journey back to Northumberland for the Easter holidays, which began on the gorgeous Apennine line from Faenza to Florence and finished on the ungorgeous one from Leeds to Newcastle. Between the two there was a flight, on which I recall reading nothing. I probably would not have completed The Aspern Papers that day had I not fought with my then-fidanzata soon after landing. We sat on the train in silence, side by side, I with The Aspern Papers, she with an Italian translation of Daisy Miller. The frostiness between us was entirely Jamesian, but I feel that his characters would have oiled it over with strained, elegant civilities.
The Aspern Papers, then, was (or were) my introduction to Henry James. I loved it. But unusually for any book of mine, still more so for one so beloved, I do not remember where it came from. I can point to the provenance of most of the volumes on my shelves. This one was second-hand, from the beautiful old Penguin range with the bone-coloured backs and spines and the oval frame around the title. I have no recollection of buying it; why would I have bought it, with my avowed, uninformed denial of The Master’s mastery? I can see myself seduced by the edition, its slightness, its synopsis, its Venetian setting and its story of a hallowed poet’s prying biographer, scrupling at nothing to prise the surviving letters from the aged innamorata, certainly not at preying on the confidence and marital hopes of her niece. Yes, I can see myself falling for that. I am certain that I did not go out to Ravenna with The Aspern Papers, yet I had them with me when I took that train to Florence. I must date it, then, to the Christmas holidays of 2016-17, probably as a stocking-filler; I cannot imagine having found it on the foreign-language shelves of any of Ravenna’s bookshops, still less having forgotten such a find.
As much as I loved The Aspern Papers, I waited maybe another six months before finally picking up The Turn of the Screw at around the same time as belatedly reading another nasty, lurid, poisonous little tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Reinstalled in my family home in Northumberland, which I watched over with my parents at work and my brother at university, my thoughts had taken a turn for the dark; perhaps I saw the frame of Bly in my own rural residence. Still the taper burned slow: it was not until a year later, now living and working in Florence, that the Jamesian impulse fully seized me. The brother got me The Ambassadors for my birthday; I meanwhile snatched up every two-euro second-hand copy that I could find in the Paperback Exchange. Some I had vaguely heard of, such as The Wings of the Dove; some not at all, like The Awkward Age and Roderick Hudson, his first novel. Each time I returned to the shop there seemed to be a new one, sneaked into the box beneath the shelves. It was as if someone was drip-feeding them to me.
Of course, there is a world of difference between reading and collecting, and James understood the perils of the second mania. He understood how one can be possessed with the desire to possess, simply for possession’s sake. We see it in The Outcry, which I bought in a booksale at the Harold Acton Library on the Arno’s south bank: an American with a bottomless chequebook tussles with an English lord for an heirloomed portrait, which over the course of the novel spikes and falls in value depending on the identity of the supposed artist. It is beneath Beckenridge Bender to pay anything less than a huge, headline-grabbing sum, and it is beneath Lord Theign – who desperately needs it – to accept any at all. Never does James give us any details about the portrait itself, its dimensions, its medium, its uniquities, for none of that is of the least interest to either party. All that matters is the having.
The first mania only compounds the second. Starting with The Ambassadors would put many a reader off for life, but since beginning with The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and Roderick Hudson, I have battled through subsequent longueurs in search of the chills I have come to presume. The Jamesian world is a labyrinth, and characters you’ve met before glide through the passages: the sculptor Gloriani, for instance, a major player in the Rome of Roderick Hudson and a guest at a number of Parisian socials in The Ambassadors. My current desideratum, meanwhile, is a lesser-known novel named after the Princess Casamassima, née Christina Light, Roderick Hudson‘s bored, self-loathing siren.
Were it by any other writer, I would search for that Princess among the Amazons. But all of my Jamesian buys have been occasional, none premeditated, and if Henry James has infected me with the acquisitiveness that rules so many of his characters, he has also infected me with the desire that rules almost all of them: to do things properly. The Beckenridge Bender of the twenty-first century would log into eBay, locate a first edition of book and bid ten times its asking price, blowing all rivals out of the market. But the breadline has necessarily attuned my sympathies more to the impoverished Lord Theign, who affects indifference to the point of…well, that you’ll see when you read it. Like him, I shall feign insouciance and bide my time until I should cross paths with The Princess Casamassima, as Roderick Hudson does, ultimately and fatally, in the unlikeliest of places.
How to Grow Your Own Poem is a title well chosen. It pops the myth of ex nihilo creation, which as Kate Clanchy repeats throughout the book, is not how people write poetry. It invokes Keats – if poetry does not come like leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all – and it puts poetry right in the ecosystem, a breathing and pulsing kingdom of life. If the poet, the title implies, gives words the care and nourishment that a gardener gives their garden, a poem will naturally result.
Clanchy believes in composing poetry as ‘a fundamental human activity…something we need to do and of which, even more than dance and music, we are deprived in the modern world.’ Hence the ‘Permission to Write’ sections, intermittent pages of sedative prose to help the reader/writer bypass their personal ‘shit detector’, as Hemingway called it but Clanchy doesn’t. Generally, though, there is very little holding forth across the book’s seven chapters, which share a broadly similar structure. Here’s a poem; here’s what it’s doing; here’s a prompt; now it’s your turn. The exemplars come from poets alive, dead and undiscovered, as Clanchy’s own students, some of them not yet into their teens, see their work set alongside the Audens, Duffys and Armitages. The comparison is often to their credit.
The cues and exercises in How to Grow Your Own Poem tap into the primal, rhythmic impulse in all of us, the urge to shout and chant while stomping a foot. One of the first tasks revolves around Edwin Morgan’s ‘A View of Things’:
what I love about dormice is their size what I hate about rain is its smear what I love about the Bratach Gorm is its unflappability…
When Morgan’s finished, it’s ‘Your Turn’, a fixture in every chapter. Clanchy has her reader use Morgan’s poem as an ‘ion engine’, while ‘making sure that all your details are real and concrete and come from your own experience’. She then shows us how her sixteen-year-old student Han Sun Nkumu responded:
…What I love about long drives is stopping for coffee What I hate about love is that it is undeniable What I love about love is that there is no maths involved
After which we might wonder who really should have been the Scottish Makar.
How to Grow Your Own Poem is without doubt the ‘practical book’ that Clanchy wanted. But if she puts admirable trust in the student-poet’s ear, she stakes very little on their boredom threshold, fighting almost pathologically shy of verse mechanics. Her advice generally holds for all poets, whether unestablished or establishment: it is always worth being reminded that ‘poems have plots’. But the poet in love with their craft, the poet who could talk about poetry’s cogs and tunings all day, will be disappointed by a subchapter called ‘Couplet Island’ in which Rumi is translated into distichs without rhyme or repeated rhythm: hardly couplets. When Clanchy does broach the term ‘iambic’ she questionably explains it as ‘limping’, and declines to scan a single iambic line to illustrate her point.
Thus How to Grow Your Own Poem diametrically opposes Stephen Fry’s TheOde Less Travelled, where poetic form is treated with crusading zeal and bouncing nerdery. Quite apart from delighting verse mechanophiles with the expected Frydian brio, the latter makes for a more recognisable read than Clanchy, who eschews such passé units as the paragraph. This often sinks her into the annoying habit of hitting enter before each new sentence, but sometimes it makes a point. ‘It often helps me to think of the white space as enormous. / As all of time and all of space. / Infinitely big, and very cold. / My sentence is a moon buggy across endless frost’. And so on. It’s another example of Clanchy giving us an example. How to Grow at least makes us think seriously about the difference between poetry and prose, a difference that can be reduced to nothing so facile as formatting.
As a primer, the book is still a little too primary school, appealing to our poetic impulse but to none of our curiosity. It makes no apologies for its classroom origins, however, and in the classroom it will find its true calling. We can riff on Morgan’s listicle at home, finding all sorts of weird reasons behind our loves and hates, but our poem will feel incomplete until we share it with someone else. Composing poetry may be a private activity, but Clanchy never lets us forget that it always demands an audience.
Last month, Rupert Christiansen stepped down from his role as the Telegraph‘s opera critic. This sent me back to his 2002 book, The Faber Pocket Guide to Opera, from which I am never very far very often. I can pinpoint where and when I got hold of most of my second-handers, but this one eludes me. It feels like it’s been a long and faithful companion. And though an updated version was published in 2014, it’s the original that I have to hand.
Unless there was some terrible falling off in the intervening twelve years, I can recommend the later edition as warmly as the first. For opera hacks like me, The Faber Guide is an enormous boon. Plot sketches, performance biographies and ‘What to listen for’ in 264 operas somehow fit into a genuinely (jacket) pocket-sized format, without scrunching good prose into mere bullet points. Christiansen writes in a no-nonsense, unthreatening way, presuming no musical knowledge (his own, he admits, is ‘frankly A-level’) and appealing even to dramaturgs and theatre-lovers with no particular operatic bent. ‘Like Hamlet, there is something about Don Giovanni that doesn’t quite add up, and this is perhaps why there are so few satisfying productions of the opera’. Woah…
All opera lovers, I think, have to possess a keen sense (and tolerance) of the absurd. It’s a precondition of the art form, and it’s one that Christiansen brings out with the driest of wits. The first performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo made use of four castrati employed by the Mantovan court, but ‘Orfeo, also a castrato, was borrowed from the Grand Duke of Tuscany.’ Yet although he enjoys opera’s more farcical aspects as much as the next person, the dramatic voltage of his prose leaves his reader in no doubt about the stakes involved. Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is a role that ‘no singer has ever found easy…the nearest it gets to [a show-stopping aria] contains a killer high C that has embarrassingly floored several great names.’ In opera, Christiansen never lets us forget, the sublime and the ridiculous are rarely more than a semitone apart.
The book contains a regrettable lack of operas by women, less Christiansen’s fault than the fault of historical conditions. Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs does a sterling job of habilitating women composers whom we ought to know better; but even her subjects mostly confined themselves to solo and chamber music. Few were the theatres willing to pit their resources in a woman’s work; the Vienna State Opera staged its first female-authored opera in 2019. But one feels that Christiansen might have made more of an effort (and to be fair, he may well have used the 2014 edition to do so). The omission of Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Sofa (1957), which scandalised audiences with the first onstage sex scene in opera’s history, represents the book’s chief disappointment. And it seems that at the time of its writing, frighteningly few opera houses had even let women take the directorial reins.
It’s a touch of complacency in a book that is clearly the work of an independent mind. Christiansen never gives the impression of spouting a consensus. He has the critic’s sine qua non, fearlessness. It might be easy to rubbish a ‘glib and tendentious’ production that turns Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron into ‘a tired corporate businessman and his sleek spin-doctor’, but he also dares to be underwhelmed by some of Jonathan Miller’s work. If he uses the word ‘kitsch’ once or twice two often, it’s because productions of so many operas traditionally laid themselves open to the charge. All in all, it’s a cracking read. With the theatres closed, I hope that The Faber Pocket Guide is coming down from the shelves and coming into its own, as company for the armchair opera-goer.