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This item is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.News & Notes
Shetland-based poet JEN HADFIELD was the winner of the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry earlier this month. The relative newcomer received the £15,000 prize for her second collection Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe) at a ceremony at London’s Skinners’ Hall on 12 January.
The evening was overshadowed, however, by the sad news that MICK IMLAH, who had been a favourite to win the prize, had died earlier that day after a long struggle with motor neurone disease. Poet, critic and editor, Imlah was born in 1956 and brought up near Glasgow and in Kent, and educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was editor of Poetry Review from 1983 to 1986 and in 1989 succeeded Andrew Motion as head of the Chatto and Windus poetry list. From 1992 until his death he was Poetry Editor at the Times Literary Supplement. In 2000 he edited The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse with Robert Crawford and made selections for Faber of the poems of Tennyson and Edwin Muir. Although his poems appeared in the pamphlet The Zoologist’s Bath (1982) and the anthologies Penguin New Poets 3 (1994) and Diehard (2006), until 2008 Imlah had only published one full collection: Birthmarks (1988) drew praise for its Browningesque monologues and secured him a place in the New Generation Poets promotion. In 2008 The Lost Leader (Faber) was rapturously received. An ambitious exploration of Scottishness and belonging, the book won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2008. Reviewing The Lost Leader in the Guardian (7 June 2008), Peter McDonald called it ‘a marvellous collection by any standards,’ observing in it ‘an overall coherence, strength and emotional depth seldom encountered in modern poetry collections.’
The Turkish government is to restore (very posthumously) the citizenship of the poet NAZIM HIKMET, it was announced in January. Hikmet, whose writing revolutionised Turkish verse in the 1930s, is considered Turkey’s greatest twentieth-century poet; his work has been translated into over fifty languages. After being prosecuted for his Communist politics and having his citizenship revoked in 1959, Hikmet spent years in jail in Turkey and died in exile in Moscow in 1963. Turkish artists and writers, including Nobel Prizewinning novelist Orhan Pamuk, have long cited Hikmet’s case as an example of their country’s oppression of dissenting intellectuals.
The poet and playwright ADRIAN MITCHELL died in December at the age of 76. Mitchell was the author of fifteen poetry books, from Out Loud in 1968 to Tell Me Lies, which will appear later this year from Bloodaxe. While early poems written at Oxford adhered to the disciplines of the Movement, his work soon abandoned such correctness in favour of angry, playful, tender, zany verse marked by strong political sentiments. His work is noted for its satire and its anti-war stance; one of his best-known poems, the rhyming and rhythmical ‘To Whom It May Concern’, is a protest against the Vietnam war. An instinctive pacifist and populist, despite his own considerable learning, Mitchell famously declared in the preface to his first volume, Poems (1964): ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’, a claim which has been vigorously disputed by John Hartley Williams and others. Besides poetry, Mitchell wrote prolifically for stage and television; in 1964 he adapted Peter Weiss’s The Marat/Sade for Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in 1971 Tyger, his play about Blake, appeared at the Olivier. He also worked as a journalist and wrote song lyrics and poems for children. At the StAnza Festival in 2008 he was to be seen carrying a large papier-mâché sunflower, an homage to Blake and an emblem of his incurable innocence of heart.
The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2009 for poetry in translation has issued a call for entries. Entrants are asked to translate a poem from any language, classical or modern, into English, by the closing date of Friday 22 May 2009. All winning entries will be published in a booklet and a selection will appear in The Times. Visit www.stephen-spender.org or email email@example.com for details and
The Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet W.D. SNODGRASS died in January at his home in rural New York State. He was 83. Intensely autobiographical in theme, Snodgrass’s poems pioneered a bold, direct poetic style in post-war America. Describing how he discovered his own poetic voice, he said: ‘I wanted to use a much more simple and direct kind of language, something that would be common without feeling worn out or used.’ He published his debut collection, Heart’s Needle, to great acclaim in 1959; the book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Robert Lowell, who had taught Snodgrass at the University of Iowa, called it a ‘breakthrough for modern poetry’. In an influential essay in The Nation, the critic M.L. Rosenthal labelled his poetic style ‘confessional’, thus identifying a new school of poetry in which he grouped Snodgrass with Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz and Anne Sexton, a former student of Snodgrass’s. Snodgrass himself disliked the ‘confessional’ label, however: it suggested sentimentality and excessive self-exposure. During the 1960s he broadened his thematic range to encompass religion, politics, art and the natural world. His controversial The Fuehrer Bunker (1977), a series of monologues about the last days of Hitler, came under attack for ‘humanising’ Nazi figures such as Joseph Goebbels and Eva Braun. Snodgrass wrote more than thirty books of poetry, criticism and translations (including the well-received Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems in 2006) and had a long academic career. He could be blunt in his advice to students, saying of poetry writing: ‘If you can be happy doing something else, do it. Everything pays better. Everything is more honestly rewarded. But if you’ve got to do it, then you’re a life-termer.’
HAROLD PINTER, the most influential playwright of his generation, died on Christmas Eve at the age of 78. His dramatic work earned him the Nobel Prize, but he also enjoyed parallel careers as actor, screenwriter, director and, latterly, political polemicist (he famously used his 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech to attack the invasion of Iraq). The least appreciated aspect of his oeuvre is undoubtedly his poetry, which he increasingly chose in later years as the medium through which to express his most intimate feelings and also his political outrage. Pinter was awarded the Wilfred Owen Award, bestowed biennially on a writer seen as continuing Owen’s tradition, for his 2003 pamphlet, WAR, and in a 2005 interview he announced that he was shifting his attention from plays to poetry. Direct, intimate, potent, sometimes confrontational, Pinter’s poetic range exceeded anti-war protest; some strong poems addressed his 2002 cancer diagnosis (‘Cancer Cells’, 2002) and celebrated his two great loves: that most English of sports (‘Cricket at Night’, 1995) and his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser (‘It Is Here (For A)’), written in 1990. Fourteen of Pinter’s poems selected by Fraser were published in The Tenth Muse: An Anthology, edited by Anthony Astbury (Carcanet, 2005). Fittingly, Pinter’s love poem to Fraser was read at his New Year’s Eve memorial service, with other verse chosen by Pinter, including Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ and Horatio’s eulogy for Hamlet: ‘Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
Denmark’s most original and mysterious modern poet INGER CHRISTENSEN died on 2 January in Copenhagen at the age of 73. She was the foremost poetic experimentalist of her generation. Renowned for her lyrical, philosophical, self-referential and exquisitely mathematical poetry, she was long discussed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Born in 1935 in the town of Vejle, on the eastern, Jutland coast of Denmark, Christensen won wide acclaim in her native country and across Europe for her fiction, drama, essays and children’s books. She is best known, however, for her six slim volumes of poetry, which span a forty-year period. Her collections include Lys (Light, 1962), Graes (Grass, 1963), Alfabet (1981) and her masterwork, Det (it). The latter is a rare book that on its publication in Denmark in 1969 was both critically acclaimed and instantly popular. Translated into many languages, this philosophical and political exploration of the nature of language, perception and reality went on to establish Christensen’s international reputation. Susanna Nied’s prize-winning translation of it was published by Carcanet in 2007. Christensen was a valued member of the Académie Européenne de poésie, attending its meetings all over Europe, smoking like an important factory, and reading in a wonderful, quiet, gruff voice, holding her hands and body very still.
A trove of early film clips of authors reading their own work has been miraculously published on YouTube. Go to http://www.youtube.com/user/poetryanimations to watch Poe, Whitman, Gurney, Tennyson, Emily Bronte, Mallarmé and many others: the words spill from their own moving lips.
A PNR reader remembers Derek Stanford: Derek Stanford, who died aged 90 in a Hove nursing home before Christmas, liked to describe himself as a man-of-letters, an ‘old gentleman of the Forties’ with a special interest in the 1890s. His obituarists in the Independent and the Guardian preferred to draw attention to the fact that in his early years he had been Muriel Spark’s lover, for which service he was rewarded by being portrayed in her autobiography as little better than a devil. With luck, though, it may be as a poet that Stanford will be best remembered. He was probably the last survivor of the self-styled English neo-Romantics who began publishing during the Second World War. But Stanford always stood at a slight angle to this or any other school, and his poems were appreciated by such different-minded critics as Geoffrey Grigson and G.S. Fraser. In 1980, reviewing in The Times his The Traveller Hears The Strange Machine: Selected Poems 1946-1979, the usually hard-to-please Robert Nye called him ‘ a minor poet’ but ‘within his limits, a very good one’. Nye went on; ‘Because Mr Stanford is quiet, because he subdues his thoughts and feelings to conventional verse forms, because he does not entertain or advertise any “profound” philosophical concerns, his is an easy voice to miss. Yet, once heard, it is not an easy voice to forget’. He quoted for instance lines from a haunting little poem about a nymphomaniac, entitled ‘The Lie-a-Wait’:
Across the folding counter, in the shop
they call the Gas Pavilion, stale with gas,
I heard those summer nomads shout
for Dolly Deathtrap - Dolly, Queen of
toast of the flanelled fops, the
Nye’s conclusion was that Stanford’s best work had ‘a curiously slangy and ironic edge, as if he was well aware of the absurdity of turning skilful verses in a loud and discordant century’. He compared him with Ernest Dowson, suggesting that Stanford had written ‘a few dozen lines quite likely to survive and give pleasure as long as English poetry is read, that’s all’. Stanford went on to edit many books, including an anthology of Dowson and other members of the Rhymers’ Club for Carcanet, but despite the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease he was also still writing his own poems up to within a few months of his end, the most memorable of them about Dolly Deathtrap figures that some have found to have a curious kinship with Muriel Spark.
This item is taken from PN Review 186, Volume 35 Number 4, March - April 2009.