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This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

on John Birtwhistle
The Craftsman’s Gift
Hugh Haughton
Poetry in the age of Instagram is sometimes hard to distinguish from Publicity, with Keats’s ‘blushful Hippocrene’ too often found cheek-by-jowl beside unblushing Hype, as one hungry generation of poets sets about treading earlier generations down. Nevertheless, Auden was right to say poetry survives in the valley of its saying, and the best poets, whether or not they are in the limelight, are in it for the long haul.

John Birtwhistle, with a major new collection out this year, is one of these. The title of Birtwhistle’s first book The Conversion to Oil of the Lots Road London Transport Power Station (1972) hovers between the functional and the ironic – a bit like Craig Raine’s later Electrification of the Soviet Union (1986). The same might be said of the title of his opera libretto for David Blake entitled The Plumber’s Gift (1989). Both these low-profile titles foreground the functional and a commitment to what might seem the ‘unpoetic’. In fact, the first poem in his first collection is called ‘Village Carpentry’, and speaks of a blade ‘held in hand and mind and eye’, going on to reflect on social inequality in terms of the material used for coffins, with ‘heavy oak’ used ‘for the parish wealth’ and ‘elm and linseed for the poor’. Another of these finely honed poems, ‘Arromanches’, weighs a recent death against those of the Normandy landings, reflecting on the art of commemoration: ‘Each remorse locked down with stone, / by precision of death’s landscape / a line is ruled of named and ...

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