Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This article is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Anthony Barnett at Eighty (compiled by Caroline Clark)
There is a story to tell, a tell-tale
Caroline Clark
Anthony Barnett and I have been friends for almost eight years – since I moved back to my hometown of Lewes, where he has been living for some forty years. I wonder whether our paths would ever have crossed if it hadn’t been for an email from David Caddy asking whether I knew about a new journal called Snow lit rev issuing from this town. I immediately wrote to Anthony telling him about myself, in part how I had a special interest in Celan and Mandelstam, not knowing he had translated poems of theirs. Within twenty-four hours he had brought to my house on Mount Place, from his place on Mount Street, copies of his 300-plus page volume of translations and 600-plus page volume of poetry and the first issue of Snow lit rev.

I was peculiarly prepared for our first meeting a few days later: I had avoided ‘doing’ English literature at university having studied German and Russian and then Modern European Literature; I had spent all my twenties in Moscow, where I had imbibed a distinctly non-industry idea of the poet. In fact, I had got quite a culture shock moving back West, to Montreal, where writing was suddenly a career once again. And so I could most certainly ‘relate’ to this poet who felt out of place in the English cultural landscape and who was scathing of most directions UK publishing had taken.

Anthony Barnett is a poet, translator, essayist, publisher, typesetter, percussionist and historian of jazz violin. For this piece celebrating him at eighty I have written to those who know him and his work. I not only include, but am very grateful for, their responses, which shine much-needed light on his work.

Born in a blackout on 10th September 1941, he grew up in the suburbs of London. He worked in business for seven years, towards the end of which he moonlighted at Better Books off Charing Cross Road. He became fully employed both there and earlier at Zwemmers. In 1969 he moved to Denmark as a percussionist with John Tchi­cai and then Norway. During this time an early book, Poem About Music, was published by Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck press. Two years later, in 1975, he published Blood Flow. I’ll quote here from Peter Riley’s review covering the 2012 publication of Poems & and Translations and that is available to read on The Fortnightly Review site: ‘Blood Flow established his poetry because the sequence made sense of the modernistic, fragmented, writing he was already doing. The sense of occulted narrative made it possible for the small poems to echo and reverberate against each other within a conceptual theatre, and to offer the reader paths through the scattered instants.’

The review is indispensable to anyone wanting a deeper sense of the evolution of Anthony’s writing, but this description of an ‘occulted narrative’ in itself gives great insight into how the poems function: there is a sense of a story, drama, but stripped of autobiographical detail. The lack of the paraphrasable element – an aboutness – paired with an intense sense of drama characterises, in particular, the earlier work. This lack of an aboutness will always be found ‘difficult’, ‘impenetrable’, and even ‘hermetic’ by some. But perhaps the reader can let go of this craving for familiar fixtures and furnishings and go with the exploratory movement of language. Tony Frazer at Shearsman has commented that ‘Anthony Barnett is like no other poet of his generation, yet both his elliptical lyrics and his work in longer spans should be part of the current consensus of what constitutes our modern poetry.’

Returning to England in 1976 he studied for an MA in Theory and Practice of Literary Translation at the University of Essex. For his dissertation he translated the poems of the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas. One might think, as I used to, that the ability to speak and read a language fluently is a prerequisite to translating it. Indeed, Anthony does know Norwegian very well, but he has also translated poems from French (Supervielle, Giroux, Albiach, for example), German, Italian (Zanzotto in particular), Japanese, Russian and Swedish (Lagerkvist, Ekelöf, an essay by Dagerman). He does not speak all these languages; he sometimes works with the help of collaborators and literal translations, but the final poem is his work. His translation of Mandelstam’s long poem ‘Nashedshii podkovu’, ‘Whoever Has Found a Horseshoe’ (originally published in PNR in 1989 and recently up-dated in Long Poem Magazine), is, I had to admit, the best I’ve seen.

Along with his translations, Anthony also published under his Allardyce, Barnett imprint the first collected editions of J.H. Prynne, Douglas Oliver, Andrew Crozier, and Veronica Forrest-Thomson: publications which emphasised ‘[t]he enormous part played by Barnett in the promotion of both British and European poetry…’ (from Ian Brinton’s account on the Anthony Barnett archive held by Cambridge University Library).

From around the publication of Carp & Rubato with Invisible Books in 1995, his books often contain sections of longer line poems and sections of prose. His most recent book published this year is titled Book Paradise: Spillikins. Spillikins? You know – the game where you drop a handful of sticks and take turns picking them up one by one, trying not to disturb the others. With beautiful illustrations by Lucy Rose Cunningham, and a portrait photo by Sung Hee Jin (both of whom are contributors to Snow lit rev), the book is made of the lines that he has picked up, often with a sense of wonderment, along the way. With epigraphs from Gertrud Kolmar and Nelly Sachs and an end quote from Giuseppe Ungaretti – all of which speak of an inability to write, the lost word or words coming to an end – this book is written in now prose passages, now shorter lines of poetry. The prose lines speak of a sense of failure, inability, everydayness: ‘My blank thoughts work as a distraction. Worries. Quite enough. They don’t have to work particularly hard. /…/ There is still a story to tell, a tell-tale. Give me a break. You and your stories. I’m off for a walk in the wooded countryside.’ They stop and start, self-interrupt and peter out. The poem lines are free, surprising in their flight: ‘He does not die he sings / To hell with the subscript / Define and defy your beauty / You. You are picking up pieces. / If I am happy to have written one word. / Then, the end of a page. / Like a children’s game.’ This prose-failure vs. poetry-freedom dichotomy is of course not clear-cut. Things fall where they fall.

Anthony Barnett is a poet who over his six decades of publishing has said to hell with a lot of things. To hell with the taboo of publishing your own work. Being a master typesetter and maker of books he knows what he wants from a book, and often he is the only one who can do that in terms of typesetting and production, as evidenced in the Snow lit rev journal he and Ian Brinton edit.

Make no mistake, Anthony Barnett is the rarest of things: an English poet who is truly European and of the greater world. In sensibility he walks a kind of poetic via negativa: moving always against, resisting. Mandelstam, in his most dazzling of essays titled ‘Conversation on Dante’, describes the movement of a boat tacking against a headwind. In order to get somewhere there must be this movement against: the poetic word incorporates a movement towards concurrently with one against. This is the tack of Anthony Barnett’s poems; they are set in motion towards-against. If there were a dative case in the English language, it could be born here in this unrelenting resistance which gives us movement, exploration and engagement.


It’s almost an impossible task to sum Anthony up as he’s made many interventions across many different fields. But in each field that I’m aware of – poetry, translation, publishing, music – he has remained committed to opening up these fields not only to new insights but also to new voices and perspectives from which so many have learned and benefitted. He should be a cultural institution, but perhaps, more significantly, he remains a man on the wire without trajectory, destination or arrival.  At least, that’s how I continue to think of him.

Anthony Barnett is a one-off poet and a singular individual. He is ultra-obsessional, but that is a neutral term or perhaps compliment in my book, and in any case goes with the territory, if you look at his achievements as writer, publisher and polemicist. He is to be cherished for his manifold contributions to poetry, poetics and music. His freedom has been difficult and hard-won, but the impression is that he is free at last (to quote an American hero), which is a blessing.

From his very first book, Anthony Barnett’s world has been his own. A world, that is, of the mastery of a language. His eye and ear straightaway knew the exact weight of each syllable – as exact as it was deeply moving. He has never ceased to work this form and to define the present of the poem. Works like this are rare. (For example, to mention a few names: Celan, Oppen, Prynne.) They carry us and they take us into the veritable tearing of the act of writing.

Anthony Barnett’s work is indebted to some yet beholden to none – a rare occurrence on any literary scene, and an important window onto his writing, translations, and research. His latest collection, Book Paradise: Spillikins, hints at this. Playfulness, if well-designed, will not be patterned after anything but chance, the child of distraction and thoughtfulness. Thus inventiveness feeds into, not on, curiosity. Perhaps the secret to being the most youthful poet at only 80.

My contacts with Anthony mainly concern music research. What I would like to point out is how helpful he is as a colleague. In my case this goes beyond discussing matters and sharing information. For far more than a decade now Anthony has proof-read dozens of my articles, often about matters which may be of little interest to him, in order to help me avoid language mistakes. It is a favour that I cannot return, even if we sometimes discuss subtleties in pieces of German literature, and he provides it not only with his enormous knowledge of language matters but also as if it were a pleasure. Few people are so kind.

Anthony’s poems and translations don’t repeat themselves formally or prosodically. He has a tactful ear and an always intelligent instinct for – in translation – mimetic solutions that correspond without replicating the pulses in the original poems. His own poems are likewise sure-footed and unexpected. He is a superb book designer and typographer, consummately contemporary because so deeply rooted in the best elements in the traditions he has chosen for nurture. He also has a ‘manifest integrity’ in the sense that he prefers to out foolishness rather than ignore it. I have benefited from this forthrightness. I believe he knows how good he is: very. Very.

I just fished out Fear and Misadventure/ Mud Settles. It reminds me of those days. It’s signed May 1977. We lived in a small black wooden clapboard cottage then on the Essex Marshes. Anthony had most probably driven over to give us the book. Sometimes he’d visit with Douglas Oliver who lived nearby. Other times he’d just turn up to have a chat, spend time and have a meal. He was studying at Essex at the time and we’d bump into each other on campus. Our conversations always touched on poetry and it would circulate through our lives. Through the years we’ve kept in touch through his books and publications. Sadly, we’ve only met up a few times since but Anthony was always as he was easy going, witty, mischievous and warm, and, of course, serious about poetry.

I’ve known Anthony and his work now for just on 53 years. My first pamphlet publication was shared with him and Nick Totton. I can’t imagine poetry without his exact and exacting presence, his doggedness, his unexpectedness, his rejection of untruth, and the austere light and beauty of his writing.

Anthony knows more about jazz violin than anyone else on earth, not just about the music but about its creators, and we are blessed that he shares it so generously and eloquently. He also makes music, as a unique percussionist, and with words. The title of his latest gem, Fallen from the Moon, refers to its subject, the hitherto totally obscure Juice Wilson, but it also fits its truly unique author.

Anthony was the first to publish my work, and he’s always been so generous to me. I met him at a poetry magazine fair in 2017. I was drawn to his table, the very uncluttered, simple & elegant covers (and to his Snow sweets!). And then his book Lithos caught my eye  –  ‘Lithos’ being ‘stone’ in Greek  –  and I asked him about it. It turns out that the Greek meaning was and wasn’t the meaning of his Lithos. Over time I learned that this seems to be true for how Anthony approaches language and the humour he finds in it. Always some hidden little puns or layers.

I’ve known Anthony since I was 15, when we met at poetry readings in Dulwich. As our lives have criss-crossed each other in the 57 years since, he has always supported my work, sometimes in very significant ways, and I have endeavoured to support him as well. His energy to make things happen, in poetry, music and other art forms, seems inexhaustible.

I would like to say how pleased I am that PN Review are celebrating Anthony’s enormous and unique contribution to poetry.

The Atlas upon whose mighty shoulders sits the earth-sized life and times of Stuff Smith . . . and Ray Perry and Eddie South. . . . We are grateful to our own Saint Antonio, bravo il mio genio.

With admiration, your pal, DAVE SOLDIER

Blood Flow and A marriage have such a hesitancy about them, they’re so charged, like the interior is shelled out and furtive, but alive. Poem About Music is I still think absolutely genius, so self-effacing, so generous, so rigorous. It feels really peerless. I feel like the conditions of its composition depend on Anthony’s concept that improvisation = music & poetry = composition, and that the two worlds can’t meet. But then from that (quite austere) delimiting, this joyous, really volatile, but controlled text emerges. It’s one of the only poems I can think of that feels fully justified.

We crossed paths thanks to his wonderful translation of Des Forêts’ Poems of Samuel Wood. I do not know any other publisher, poet and translator as genially critical and perfectionist as he is. I am really glad that he’s part of my life, not only because of his knowledge, also because he has become a very good friend.

AB’s English is always alive to other languages, partly translating such echoes through itself. I published his translation of Alain Delahaye (The Lost One) which also has an AB illustration, and I regard him as the finest English translator of Zanzotto. More broadly, he is able to transmit music from one texture to another through the paradoxes and ambiguities essential to any particular language which he is so sensitive to. In those terms, Snow represents an eventful literary assemblage with its visually fascinating musical scores, art-work and photographs threading their way through poets either in translation or working with an array of variant Englishes, sometimes as a second language.

Happy Birthday, Anthony, a cherished poet and prose writer who never procrastinates, your translations robe ineffable truths.

Anthony Barnett is a man of unconditional hospitality.  It dictates his total commitment to friendship beyond language barriers and cultural boundaries, as much as his direct (i.e. never behind their back) attacks on his foes including those who relinquish communication.  It also commands his forensic search in his music research and never-ending pursuit of musicality, image and le mot juste in his poetry. What is clear, as all his friends know, is his unparalleled sincerity. He always ‘approaches’ you, with genuine curiosity and compassion, to be with you.

It is too easy to equate Anthony’s poetry with the snowy aesthetic of the volumes in which it has been issued. His more recent writing is poised between serenity and disquiet: the apparently sheer surface of a text proves to be riven with disconcerting fissures, while an extended meditation is contained within the intricately hollowed substance of what seems at first glance to be a casual daybook entry.

I first came across Anthony Barnett’s poetry properly while reviewing regularly for PN Review many years ago. I had been sent, along with a number of other books of poetry, the sequence, or constellation, of about forty brief poems, none more than eight lines long, entitled Little Stars and Straw Breasts. It was quite unlike anything I had come across before – in its improvisatory form, its subtle eroticism, and its anguish; in the way brief, surprising lines as well as cunningly juxtaposed words struck sparks off each other; and in the acute sensitivity to the qualities of vowels and consonants that it displayed.

There are people one admires for a single kind of accomplishment, others whose contributions cross boundaries among fields that are intimately related but have been artificially separated. Anthony Barnett reminds us that the poet’s responsibility to the work extends to its publication. His books’ unfailing elegance and lucidity in appearance make a promise that his writing fulfils. Too many poets seem indifferent to the physical and visual dimension of their publications. Anthony’s work is a reproach to such laxity.

As poet and publisher for the past fifty years Anthony Barnett has ploughed a solitary furrow, unerringly straight and hauntingly evocative across the field of English poetry. That furrow owes little to a notion of landscape or cityscape as it is conceived within the confines of much British poetry over the last half-century and as both editor and poet he has always stood on the side of the island which faces the Continent. His sense of clarity and space was what prompted J.H. Prynne to assert that ‘You have the word lodged in the ear’s labyrinth like a little pebble within that delicate fluid, otolith which sways to the sound passing over it.’

I like to think of Anthony Barnett as a collector of strays. I think he has an uncanny ability to recognize something stray-like in the artists and works and memories (and typefaces, for that matter) he discovers and assembles. As a consequence, every time an issue of Snow comes out, it’s as though we’ve all been invited to a multinational dinner party of strays, tenderly orchestrated by a host (who finds meaning in even the seating plan) whose talent to collect is matched only by his generosity to give.

This article is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Further Reading: - Caroline Clark Report by... (1) Poems by... (2) Review by... (1) Review of... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image