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This article is taken from PN Review 135, Volume 27 Number 1, September - October 2000.

Shelf Lives: 13: James Reeves Peter Scupham

Close to the complex fabric of their world
        The small beasts live, who shun
The spaces where the huge ones bellow, fight,
        And snore in the sun.

How admirable the modest and the frugal,
        The small, the neat, the furtive.
How troublesome the mammoths of the world,
        Gross and assertive.

Happy should we live in the interstices
        Of a declining age,
Even while the impudent masters of decision
        Trample and rage.

So the conclusory stanzas of James Reeves's 'Bestiary', from his 1949 collection, The Imprisoned Sea. A hostage to fortune, indeed, but allowing for the dubiety of that contribution to the Poetry of Retirement in the last stanza and the touch of schoolmasterishness in the moralising, the poem shows why Reeves is still valued by a few, but remains largely unconsidered, unacknowledged, undiscussed. There are many reasons for this, and though he did not write a new preface for his final Heinemann Collected Poems 1929-1974, his introductory piece for the 1960 Collected is disarmingly honest about his sense that the 'nightmare of sensationalism, violence, hysteria and threatened destruction which presses in on us as we read the news removes all relevance and meaning from the only kind of poetry I can write'. One thinks of Jane Austen's ironic but firm disclaimers, her inches of ivory, and Reeves's own certainty that his own poetry had to be 'rooted in the particular and the immediate'; ...


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