Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

"Beyond the Lyric" by Fiona Sampson (Chatto and Windus, 2012)

I like books like this, where the author expresses opinions. She writes that "We're enjoying a period of tremendous richness and variety" (p.2). "Enjoying so many different kinds of poetry frees me from feeling I should be obedient, even to the tastes and types of the poets I most admire. ... The fine poet and editor Hugo Williams once said to me, 'You seem to like everything.' Which, as far as ways of writing go, is pretty much true" (p.7). To give a very rough idea of the selection, here's an ordered list of the poets whose index entries exceed 9 lines - Paterson 30, O'Brien 24, Oswald 21, Burnside 17, Padel 17, Porter 17, Shapcott 17, Stainer 16, Geoffrey Hill 16, Harsent 15, Harrison 14, Selima Hill 14, Robertson 13, Farley 13, Greenlaw 13, Armitage 13, Lomas 12, Petit 12, Craig Raine 11, MacSweeney 11, Jamie 11, Kay 11, Alvi 10, Duffy 10, Jenkins 10, Khalvati 10, Rollinson 10, Thwaite 10.

Books like this need some organising principle. "By observing poems and grouping them according to type, it identifies thirteen tendencies (or species) in contemporary British poetry" (p.8), though some people are missing, for reasons she provides

  • "This is a book of enthusiasms" (p.1)
  • "A few anomalous figures ... play a smaller part in this book than they rightly do in British poetry ... These significant, unusual figures include Anne Stevenson ... Most significantly of all, technically quieter poets ... have had to be omitted altogether" (p.9)
  • "Missing, too, are some of today's young poets ... Emerging poets, however brilliant, grow into their own poetics only gradually" (p.10)

Consequently, Gross, Lumsden, and Michael Hofmann aren't mentioned, and Moira Dooley only gets a sentence or two (though Vikram Seth's name appears a few times, and Anne Carson gets two mentions). She ends up being rather poet-centred. Of course, putting poets (rather than poems) into categories is asking for trouble, especially if some poets write poems that belong in various chapters. I think Andrew Duncan has attempted a classification too. I wouldn't be surprised if his classification conflates 10 of her classes and expands her "Post-Surrealism and Deep Play" and "The Exploded Lyric" sections into several categories.

She mentions class, feminism and immigrant issues but not gay issues at all. Technology and Performance barely gets a look-in - when they do, they're related to derogatory tendencies. She writes "When I started editing Poetry Review ... the poor quality of the critical writing appearing on my desk was a revelation ... The wider field of contemporary poetry also suffers from this failure to articulate what makes a poem good at what it does" (p.4). She attempts at times to articulate (I'm not always convinced), and there are paragraphs of close reading. The introductions to Oswald, Prynne, Ciaron Carson, and Burnside are useful, and she does mention some younger poets - Polley, Katherine Towers, Dunthorpe, Martinez de las Rivas, Ahren Warner, etc. Below are some samples of her views


  • "The Movement - led by Philip Larkin and including Kingsley Amis ... " (p.15) (did Larkin ever lead anything?). "Duffy has a strong claim to be the Movement's true heir" (p.122)
  • "Adcock is not alone in being courageous" (p.20)
  • "Today's influential dandies include Hugo Williams, Craig Raine, Glyn Maxwell and Jo Shapcott" (p.38). Is Hugo Williams influential?
  • "Shapcott's consistency makes her a steely exemplar of the virtues of stylish writing, but she is far from being the most recently emerged dandy in British poetry ... Picador ... issues a steady series of stylishly dandified collections" (p.56)
  • "it would be impossible to ignore [Les] Murray's influence, in particular on British poetry of the Eighties and Nineties" (p.170). Really?
  • "Carol Rumens is an unusual, important figure: a lyric thinker who happens to be a woman" (p.182)
  • "Unlike Selima Hill and Medbh McGuckian, J.H. Prynne is not, in effect, an abstract expressionist" (p.273)

Trends in UK poetry

  • On p.120 she identifies 2 stages of free verse's influence - first a release from inauthenticity; second (typified by Robin Robertson and Don Paterson) where the poetry "starts to develop techniques and conventions of its own"
  • "An unintended consequence of the recent interest in formalism - and perhaps, too, of the patronage system that can arise all too easily in a writing workshop culture - is the caution audible in some contemporary verse ... there are some striking echoes, in some of today's writing, of the Georgian moment in early twentieth-century verse. ... A century later, recalibration in the similarly overwhelming era of globalization has given us Don Paterson, and those of his peers who favour thrilling clarity over a loose and rather risky grandiosity. But it also seems to have left us with the oxymoronic concept of a cool poetry, limited in affect and range" (p.246)
  • "In this century a third moment in post-war radical poetics has arrived, and is characterized by a kind of 'automatic writing' that seems to mimic the generative capacity and quasi-autonomy of the digital realm. Poets, some of whom founded Reality Street and Equipage, and others who are associated with another independent press, Shearsman, are interested in 'gesture, 'trace' or 'text': in what we might call the outside of the poem, as it runs through a series of grammatical tasks or takes up space on the page, rather than in the possibility that it might in itself create readerly experience, evoke insight, give pleasure or even argue a case" (p.260) (maybe she doesn't like them? She's careful to display an appreciation of Prynne though - he's different)
  • "Showing the reader that some things ... really are inexpressible, this approach takes the evocation of mental processes as the basis of its poetics.// The British mainstream has not yet admitted women with similar ideas. The bully boys of the blogosphere, who call this kind of writing 'Burnside lite', simply assume a male poet is being imitated" (p.266)
  • "'Common sense', which confines thought and imagination to what is already familiar, has often demanded that British verse stick to a lyric, realist brief, and decried experiment as pretentious or obfuscatory", (p.76)
  • "Today, exploring and reviving strict form, Ciaran Carson, Mimi Khalvati and Don Paterson are leading the new formalism", p.228
  • "Modernism is undergoing a revival. Some of the most exciting, and very newest, poets emerging today seem to be searching for a poetic resource capable of responding to the limp-on-the-page work of many of today's performance poets … With some of our youngest fine poets prepared to risk originality and flair in the face of dull conformity, the outlook for British verse in the next couple of decades is newly, and markedly, improved" (p.206-7)

Poetry in general

  • "The exhausted workshop forms of pantoum, villanelle and the palindrome verse, heavily reliant on repetition, add no formal 'charge' but simply prolong the text" (p.228)
  • "While poetry avoids what's too casually generic in favour of the resonant specific, it nevertheless aims to echo as universally as possible. The paradox is that a poet must rely on his or her own sensibility to test that resonance" (p.173)
  • "The formal poem ... has to exist entire in the mind's eye for the complete form to be experienced ... It means that, in formal verse, ideas can be directly expressed" (p.241)


  • In Shapcott's "'cut through/ her shyness like a crusader'. These sounds are economically organized. Vowels sink, between the alliterative snip of the c's, into a matching ou/y/e, before rising to the high a that is the crux of 'crusader'" (p.54)
  • "After all, ramparts always 'crumble', and all believers are 'true'; the Straits of Gibraltar have long been known at 'pitiless'. This is a poet who has settled into her own skin and no longer has anything to prove" (p.86) (of Sarah Maguire. Faint praise?)


She ends the book with a section in praise of networking, though she doesn't go into details - no sociology of influence. In particular she doesn't point out how some younger poets are grouping together - online and via Mentoring, Anthologies, and Creative Writing opportunities. The book mentions some connections that are not always obvious.

  • "Farley['s poetry is] ... related to Rollinson's, Kay's and Duffy's" (p.135)
  • "Porter's primary heir is indeed Sean O'Brien" (p.170). Other protégés of Peter Porter include Gwyneth Lewis (p.176) and Duhig (p.199). Porter was "an early mentor" of Szirtes.
  • "Robertson's preference for symbolic consistency is also apparent in the poets he edits" (p.149)
  • "Perhaps, it has taken so long for a group of poets directly influenced by Burnside's work to appear because the project of joining multiple impulses to each other, rather than focusing on a single principle as lyric has largely done, is profoundly thorough-going ... Whatever the reason, it is very new poets like Maitreyabandhu and Kim Moore, poets of light touch like Janet Sutherland, and the secular visionaries A.A. Marcoff, Alan Stubbs and David Briggs, whose work most distinctively exhibits the kind of scope - in theme, flexibility of image and movement of thought - Burnside permits" (p.254)
  • "Recognizable by its unusually rangy scale and wide, synthesizing intelligence, the expanded lyric often enters contemporary verse speaking with an Australian accent; although I suspect that British practitioners, certainly of the established middle generation, may see themselves as more influenced by a varied North American pantheon that include Robert Hass, Anne Carson, Kay Ryan and Jorie Graham", p.247

Other Reviews

  • Joe Kennedy (Oxonian Review) - the best outcome of this overview’s publication would not be the reader’s sharing in a "story of pleasures taken", but a metacritical inquiry of Levesonian dimensions into why such a moribund poetics has come to enjoy a virtually absolute hegemony in contemporary Britain.
  • Tom Payne (Telegraph)
  • David Wheatley (Tower Poetry) - Seldom can a critical book have got off to quite as bad a start as Beyond the Lyric does
  • Bill Greenwell (Independent)
  • David Kennedy (Stride)
  • William Wootten (TLS)

In "Tears in the fence" (No 57 Summer 2013) the ever-readable Andrew Duncan makes some worthwhile points

  • Clearly a great deal of good poetry has been written by individuals within the 40 poets on NewGen and NextGen, and we are willing to spend time on a project which treats the centre of those poets as the centre of its view, even if evaluation or criticism are not part of the cargo (p.111)
  • The idea of a map involves shared space. It places poets in relation to each other and must select technical features to be the dimensions of the map - its north and south. This must be very provocative to poets - who like to see themselves as autonomous and perfect, even if they habitually place everyone else in a shared space. Location at one, any, single point must irritate people who see themselves as present over whole areas where that spot is not. Poets like to think of the world as something that fits inside their poems, rather than vice versa (p.112)
  • Her particular approach makes each poet, successively, the very centre of the prose text being written. Functions like comparison and perspective are largely not carried out. ... Sampson's faithfulness to individual texts is like travelling by candlelight, a terrain of handkerchief-sized plots, snug in low visibility. This is the opposite of a map that puts local patches together in one set of uniform relations. ... The greatest virtues of the book are liked to not making a map and not going beyond the lyric (p.114-5)

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