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"Simple tokens of death": Salt by David Harsent - review

If poems are like other people’s photographs in which we recognise ourselves, David Harsent’s writing catches us at our most vulnerable, vicious and unnervingly visceral. Reading through his back catalogue gives you the measure of his oeuvre: A Violent Country, After Dark, Dreams of the Dead, Mr Punch, Night. Stalking through an often nightmarish territory of half-apprehended horror and bleakness, the narrators of his poems survey human fear and frailty against the backdrop of an elemental, unforgiving world. Like a scene from a Hitchcockian movie, the worst always seems to be held just out of shot, all the more present for its apparent absence. Redemption and absolution are rarely on offer. Harsent may have a beautiful technical facility for language, its measure, weight and texture, but the ends to which it is put are as black as a darkroom negative.

Salt is Harsent’s first collection since Fire Songs, winner of the 2014 TS Eliot prize. Its poems form a strange sequence of sorts, tho…
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Two new poems on Wild Court

Two new poems feature on Wild Court: one after a painting by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the other after spending a good deal of my life watching too much tennis.

You can read 'The Flower Carrier' and 'The Champion' here.

'The Nightingale': TLS Poem of the Week

My poem 'The Nightingale', a loose version after Paul Verlaine (1894-1896), is the Times Literary Supplement's Poem of the Week.

Wilkinson’s quatrains, too, have more room in them for emotional explanation than Verlaine’s terse couplets, which bite off each image and snap shut on any recollection of tenderness.
Read the full introduction by Andrew McCulloch, and the poem, here.

God speed

Duncan Hamilton
The life of Eric Liddell: from Olympic champion to modern martyr
372pp. Doubleday. £20.

The Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Eric Liddell is a rare example of a consummate sportsperson who transcended sport. Duncan Hamilton’s portrait of one of Britain’s greatest track athletes serves as an important reminder of sport’s true value at a time when athletics is marred by scandal, big money and loss of perspective.

Liddell will be familiar to many through the film Chariots of Fire (1981). He is perhaps better known for the race he refused to run – the 100 metre Olympic heat in Paris, 1924, on the principled grounds that his Christian faith forbade him to compete on the Sabbath – than for the 400 metre final of those same Games, in which he defied the doubters to earn a spectacular win. Born to Scottish missionary parents in China, Liddell had no sporting pedigree. He did, however, study at an English boarding school that forged an indomitable character, before …

The Trouble with Poetry: Billy Collins's Aimless Love - review

Dubbed the “most popular poet in America” by the New York Times, Billy Collins has won countless admirers for his chatty, witty, wholly dependable poetry. At pains to welcome the reader with avuncular charm, he writes lines that are more serious than they seem, though by how much, you’d be hard pressed to say. Wry and self-mocking, his favoured territory is the suburban everyday – a pop song stuck in your head; people-watching on public transport; a “perfect” spring day – though he is most at home striking a knowing and self-referential pose, “looking every inch the writer / right down to the little writer’s frown on my face”. ‘If This Were a Job I’d be Fired’, quips the title of one poem, its narrator swanning off having penned the most inconsequential of verses. Philip Larkin would have surely labelled him the “shit in the shuttered chateau”. But while some critics have called Collins a philistine, there is a productive quirkiness to his poems, finding surprise and profundity in unp…

Way More Than Luck in The Poetry Review

Jade Cuttle gives her verdict on Way More Than Luck in the latest issue of The Poetry Review, in a critical essay that takes in two other debuts: Richard Scott's Soho and Zaffar Kunial's Us.

It's clear that the love of the beautiful game extends to Wilkinson's poetics, for he embraces a variety of forms and modes of address. From formally dexterous sonnets and sestinas, to epistles and endearing confessionalism, this is a book that likes to keep the reader's on their toes. Something Wilkinson does well is navigate the dark abyss of clinical depression [...] from "going about / the tedium that strings our lives / together: paperchain people, / baskets lined under strip-lights" ('To David Foster Wallace'), to shivering over a beige Cornish pasty, "ticking over / before some godforsaken motorway service station" ('You Must Be Joking'), there is tenderness and touching honesty to be found in the darker moments he describes. For this …

"It's not what you think": Remembering John Ashbery (1927-2017)

As our new century has grown ever more peculiar and unpredictable, there has been something strangely reassuring about the arrival of a new book of poems by that impish treasure of American letters, John Ashbery. Ashbery didn’t quite publish a book every year in his final quarter century, but the past score have seen some 13 surface, a rate of productivity that would have made Paul Verlaine blush. Which would be great if – as we expect of our most celebrated 'experimental' poets – the abstract wordsmith were breaking new ground. But if the past couple of decades of reading Ashbery confirmed one thing, it’s that the late great man settled into a style so impressively self-parodic he almost looked like one of his legion of poetic imitators. Just as global warming becomes ever more physically manifest and unignorable, the creeping sense that, towards the end of his life, Ashbery was knocking out complete nonsense and passing it off as poetry simply because he could, is a concern …