Jo Shapcott, Her Book – 1

Wow! I’ve just reread Jo Shapcott’s Her Book: Poems 1988 – 1998. What a generous, exciting collection it is.

I say “collection” but of course it’s really a selection from three earlier books. Although it seems to me that it’s in Phrase Book that she really takes off, Shapcott’s huge gifts and utter distinctiveness are already clear in Electroplating the Baby. Take this from “Lies” (which you can read as a whole at  if you don’t have Her Book or Electroplating the Baby):

In reality, sheep are brave, enlightened
and sassy. They are walking clouds
and like clouds have forgotten
how to jump.

In reality” – what chutzpah! One thing I love about Shapcott’s writing is the imaginative exuberance with which it creates fantasy worlds. Another is how grounded in this world it remains, how brilliantly and continuously it exploits tensions between poles of fantasy and everyday perception so that they become like two ice dancers spinning together, throwing each other in the air, whirling each other on outstretched arms. There’s a wonderful excitement and imaginative dynamism in the way she keeps the two revolving round each other and in the speed with which ideas evolve and emotions change (like the shift from the positive, assertive first sentence through the ethereal dreaminess of “walking clouds” to the ruefulness of “forgotten how to jump”). When I called her imagination “exuberant”, I was thinking of things like the sheer gratuitous abundance of “brave, enlightened / and sassy”, but hairpin bend control in these shifts and swerves of thought is just as important, and so is precision in the detail of the imaginative collisions – like that between “walking” and “clouds”.

Perhaps my favourite poem in this first collection is “Saving String”, which unfortunately I can’t find on the internet. Division into stanzas makes each of its lines feel like a series of quick springy steps. Here, generosity in the sense of a gratuitous abundance of imagination and wit is supplemented by generosity of a different kind, an embracing, humorous joy in the sheer absurdity of the eccentric or lunatic she’s created so unforgettably in the poem and in the warm, indiscriminate way people’s hearts go out to him in a wonderful parody of crowd emotion. It’s an extremely funny poem. I nearly wrote that it was unjudging, and in a sense this seems to me to be true – certainly no judgement is stated – but I also think it would be misleading. Shapcott has her own sharpness. Our knowledge of the world outside the poem presses in on it from all directions. In the last stanza the very absence of criticism of the character at the heart of the poem suddenly expands into a devastating implicit critique of an unjust society:

Old fashioned rhetoric
of Chiltern Hills and gentlemen’s
clubs which allows protected characters
to potter in safety and wind string,
a brew of order and avarice
which says I have this and this
but never enough string.

Whirling round each other there, you have the sheer funniness of the image of the old buffer pottering and winding string, the implicit contrast between his protected status and others’ harsh exposure, the hint that society is ruled by and for the benefit of “gentlemen’s clubs” of the rich and well connected, the way “all of us” fall in with this, and the final bathos of “never enough string” to make sure that the poem never settles into a single point of view or message.

Shapcott’s technical skill and imaginative inventiveness are put to remarkably entertaining use from the beginning of Her Book, but I think the reason why I’ve reread it with such pleasure and with such a constantly renewed sense of discovery and surprise over the last twelve years is that her poems embrace the world so eagerly and respond to it in with such subtlety and in such various ways.

There’s a wonderful photo of a young Shapcott laughing her head off and apparently rolling a chair in her lap which seems to me to catch the wild humour of her early poetry. Looking for it I found this site, where she says a lot in a few words about how she felt when writing:


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