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This review is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.

Cover of Selected Poems
Kevin GardnerRöntgen and Gutenberg

William Plomer, Selected Poems, ed. Neilson MacKay (Little Island Press) £14.99
In contrast with a prevailing activist poetics, William Plomer (1903–73) always cultivated a reserved and personal poetry: ‘Even now I keep / To a private path, as then I kept’ (‘A Radio Interview’). In response to global conflagration, he envisioned not carnage and despair but the endurance of ordinary life. Despite the spread of mechanistic social systems, he asserted the supremacy of love. Surrounded by modernist isolation, he infused the lyric with pastoral echoes. Individual alienation may have defined the twentieth century, but Plomer resisted the extremes of self-effacement and narcissism: throughout his poetry is a metaphysical affirmation of humanity and of the mysterious workings of the divine: ‘Everything sings / in snowy stillness, / in marble wonder, / in formal myth, / believed because / impossible’ (‘A Church in Bavaria’).

It is a hallmark of Plomer’s that in an age of extraordinary (and often frightening) technological development, he found poetry in such non-poetic materials. In ‘A Walk in Würzburg’, ambling where ‘Bombs broke the wigged Baroque’, the poet finds surprising resonance with Röntgen. Here the discoverer of the X-ray became the Gutenberg of his age: the man who ‘first saw right through the skin’, who could see without the violence of surgical exploration what was wrong with the patient. The poet must be just such a visionary: ‘We still need a ray / To coax the delicate wings from the commonplace husk / And detect why the horde we are destroys itself.’ Plomer’s poems strive for these optics.

‘Painted on Darkness’ – published here for the first time – is a neo-Platonic vision of ...


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