Inspiring form

I was very struck by this passage from an interview with Thom Gunn, quoted by Lisa McCabe on Twitter. It’s the most complete statement I’ve seen of something that I imagine will be dimly felt by everyone who tries to write seriously in a technically challenging way. Asked what the constriction of a pre-determined form pressed him (or one) to do, Gunn answered


It presses you to explore the subject. That’s the simple answer. It presses you to explore everything: the subject itself, your reactions to it, to explore language. There’s a fascinating thing that happens with the need … Continue Reading

Sean Borodale, Intimates – review

All the poems in Sean Borodale’s Intimates are about insects and, according to the cover blurb, all those described are found in and around the author’s house. Within this narrow, familiar space he sees a fabulously varied strangeness. Written with skill, originality and imaginative dedication by an author praised to the skies by eminent judges, it’s a book I expected to find compelling, as many people surely will. However, I personally read it with more respect than warmth or involvement.

Though they’re written in a highly wrought, bardic style and at a high pitch of intensity, I found most of the … Continue Reading

David Constantine, Belongings – review

If Glenday’s Selected Poems persistently look inwards, those of David Constantine’s Belongings are focused outwards, on the world around the poet. A short review can’t do justice to their range, seriousness, individuality or challenge. They pay extremely close attention to what in ‘Maps’ Constantine calls ‘the holy particulars’: individual people, animals, trees and events at specific times and in specific places. This is where he finds the solidity and significance he describes as ‘presence’. Sometimes they involve large, easily recognizable social issues, but the focus is always on the concrete and particular, not the abstract and general. Wider connections … Continue Reading

John Glenday, Selected Poems – review

John  Glenday’s Selected Poems adds nine pieces to a selection of work from his five previous books. It’s a small output for the time he’s been writing but a very fine one.

The main features of his work have been clear from the beginning: avoidance of rhetoric, meticulous craftsmanship, love of balanced forms, and skill in combining musical qualities with a conversational style. These features are integrally related to the way the ‘I’ of the poems seems to think and feel. His voice is quiet and measured, though what he says can be startling or disturbing. Even when directly addressing the … Continue Reading

The Barbarians Arrive Today C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan Jones – review

‘Traditore traduttore.’ All translations involve distortion, dilution or both, and good translations of great poetry tease us with the desire to get closer to the original than any one version can bring us. Evan Jones’s The Barbarians Arrive Today gives all the canonical poems and a large number of unpublished ones (Jones calls them ‘hidden’) in English translation only, together with nine prose pieces. It’s a valuable supplement to existing translations, for those who already know Cavafy, and a good point of entry for those who don’t. There are masterstrokes in it that throw a brighter light on particular poems … Continue Reading

Deborah Landau, Soft Targets – review


You can read my review of Soft Targets on the London Grip by clicking here.

Martyn Crucefix, Cargo of Limbs – review

Describing the attempts of refugees from war to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, Martyn Crucefix’s Cargo of Limbs is about borders in the most concrete, desperate and morally challenging way. He makes the current crisis resonate with Virgil’s epic story of the refugees from Troy by shaping it as a revision of part of Book 6 of the Aeneid, describing Aeneas’s journey to the underworld. You don’t need to know this background to understand the poem, but it adds a dimension if you do.

The poem itself consists of 60 unrhymed quatrains, many broken mid line by the asterisks that divide  … Continue Reading

Philip Gross, Between the Islands – review

The epigraph to Between the Islands is a quotation from Guillevic’s Carnac, ‘Nous n’avons de rivage, en vérité, / Ni toi, ni moi’: in John Montague’s translation, ‘We have no shore, really, / Neither you nor I’. This questioning of boundaries is followed by ‘Edge States’, three poems that seem to find them everywhere:

Sunlight, late
………………… the year, the edge
of winter. Light like stainless steel.
Just out of hearing,
…………………………..the ring
of its thin blades fencing with itself.
Light like glass
…………………….that, let fall
on water growing harder at the edge
of freezing,
……………….could break.

What makes that opening gripping … Continue Reading

Selima Hill, My Mother with a Beetle in her Hair – review


Selima Hill, My Mother with a Beetle in her Hair, Shoestring Press; 40pp, £6


You can find my review on the London Grip by clicking here.

Edmund Waller – a memory

It’s 1963 or 1964 in South Africa. I’m fourteen or fifteen. I’m standing in my father’s narrow, shabby and dusty study – feeling an acute sense of privilege and awe. This is his retreat, where he works away from the noise of family life and where he keeps his treasures – relics of his life in England, our childish drawings, our milk teeth. There are two crude, tight-packed bookshelves – one made of metal – and his greening academic gown with its moulting rabbit skin hood hangs on the door. There’s a pile of yellowing newspapers several feet deep in … Continue Reading