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Up Late: Poems

Up Late: Poems

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Her greatness—and she is one of the finest poets writing today—is due, in no small part, to her intransigence. Many of her poems are great in the same way. The child’s anger and resentment at his parents in, say, Firstborn and Ararat becomes Telemachus’ anger and resentment against Penelope and Odysseus in Meadowlands. The poems are franked with the distinct impress of a personality. Publisher Ithys Press is unrepentant, saying, “The book was conceived not as a commercial venture but as a carefully crafted tribute to a rather different Joyce, the family man and grandfather.” And being “gay in spite of it” is what affirms Yeats’s “gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” his “Lapis Lazuli” Chinamen whose “ancient, glittering eyes are gay.” Astonishingly fluent, Auden could write poems of immense power that take their subject matter head-on. When it came to love poems, more circumspection was needed, but using the second-person pronoun licensed a direct approach of sorts: “Lay your sleeping head, my love.” Though he later became famous for lines that have the feel of diagnostic epigrams (“We must love one another or die”) or generalizing maxims (“About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters”), the early poems are necessarily oblique, and this vital hedging and coding gives rise to a new style. “Audenesque” came to mean minatory, knowing, allusive, densely enigmatic. Behind that approach lies also a very English irony, a refusal to stand entirely foursquare behind the thing being said, a tone that allows some play within it. And play, for Auden, created a space where he could exist in his complexities.

D. No, I have discovered the origin of life. Fourteen months I hesitated before I concluded this diagnosis. I received the morning star for this. My head will be left at death for clever medical analysis. The laugh will be gone and the microbe in command. Still, whatever Mendelson thought then, he has now given us everything, or almost everything. (A final volume, Personal Writings: Selected Letters, Journals, and Poems Written for Friends, is forthcoming.) It’s been an astonishing act of literary scholarship and personal dedication on Mendelson’s part, and readers the world over should be thankful for it.

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The Wild Iris is a lasting achievement, a beautifully weighted collection of human strangeness and human suffering. The “words washed clean” (William Carlos Williams) and the acute truths meet in a cycle of poems that stand with the best of anyone’s work. I find this classification entertaining and illuminating, but I think it needs elaboration. Are there not artists, for example, who, precisely because they can perceive no unifying hedgehog principle governing the flux of experience, are aesthetically all the more hedgehog, imposing in their art the unity they cannot find in life?

He says he had been sensible enough with his lawyer's income to buy a four-bedroom house in Dalston, London, specifically so he could let out three bedrooms, which allowed him to live and write in the fourth. He was then offered a visiting fellowship at Harvard, where Smith was already teaching, and where he prepared his first poetry collection, To a Fault (Faber, 2005), and debut novel, Utterly Monkey (Fourth Estate, 2005). There is power in this work, though personally I find it too naked, too direct. The revelations are intimate, but of the speaker’s personality, and too often the poems don’t discover revelations for themselves, in their syntax or form, as before, but instead simply recount a clarity achieved in psychoanalysis: The geographical freedom entails an epistemological one. She is anonymous, she starts again—the new life. Even the family poems of The Seven Ages have fresh perspectives, and see things from, say, the sister’s point of view: Shortlisted alongside Sy-Quia were Rifqa by Mohammed El-Kurd, The English Summer by Holly Hopkins, Some Integrity by Padraig Regan, and Bless the Daughter Raised by a Voice in Her Head by Warsan Shire.

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Mónica Parle, co-executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation, the charity which runs the Forward Prizes, added: “We are incredibly proud of this year’s shortlist: it represents such a strong mix of known names and new talent, and perfectly embodies our aims at Forward, to champion the diverse scope of contemporary poetry published in the UK and Ireland. Mendelson reproduces some of Auden’s explanatory diagrams to Isherwood—for example, about his ars poetica, The Sea and the Mirror—though he doesn’t include the extraordinary “comprehensive chart” of antitheses Auden constructed while teaching at Swarthmore and writing The Sea and the Mirror, which can be found in Later Auden. ↩ asked me why I didn’t include his essay on Romeo and Juliet, and I simply shook my head no, as a slightly nervous way of saying I didn’t think it equaled the rest. At this, he beamed at me, and I realized he was delighted that I didn’t think everything he wrote was worthy to be engraved in gold.



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