The Perils of being a Poetry Critic

“Burdensome artistically, exhausting over time, damaging to one’s reputation, the source of rebuffs both private and professional … poetry reviewing is an enterprise only a few people do credibly or well”. So Mary Kinzie declared in a letter to Poetry magazine, around the time I stumbled onto this strange path of poetry reviewing, nearly a decade ago. It’s a nifty quotation, and one I’ve gone back to over the years. The hours are long, the rewards are poor, and your typical response is the indistinguishable silence of the indifferent, agreed and aggrieved. That, and the occasional feeling – after a ‘mixed’ or ‘negative’ review appears in print – that somewhere out there, your name is being scribbled in a black book. If you’re really lucky, the poet in question – or their partner, or colleagues, or friends – may even take to social media with brimming ire. (Poets are ‘the irritable race’, as Alice Fulton once quipped.) Why bother? Why on earth did I start penning these things?

Because I’d just begun to take my own poetry seriously, and thought of reviewing as an overlapping endeavour. A way of stretching and questioning my reading habits, honing a sense of what I thought poetry was capable of, how and why poets succeeded or failed in their poems, and what I wanted for my own. Because, during my final year as an undergrad, immersing myself in new poetry instead of studying the things I should have been, I came across some of the most witty, smart, engaged and engaging prose I’d read, in the form of electric, genuinely discerning pieces by the likes of Ian Hamilton, Michael Hofmann, Ian Sansom – reviews as memorable as a good poem. Because I studied literature and philosophy at university, mixing a propensity to debate and argue with a desire to do so in crafted, perceptive, entertaining, even downright infuriating writing. No doubt, too, because in a fit of youthful hubris, I fancied myself as one of Kinzie’s ‘few people’. With a love of language, an analytical mind, and an (ahem) argumentative bent, I might be halfway decent at the job. (How little I knew. Truth is, reviewing is an art form in and of itself. As with writing poems, getting any good is a lifetime’s work.) And because, increasingly and ever more importantly, I believe in the necessity, as Douglas Dunn puts it, of “an honest, descriptive, detailed, clarifying criticism”. It keeps poetry healthy, and it’s poetry’s weedkiller. “No good growth without good gardeners”.

In the end, though, the real peril of being a dedicated poetry reviewer isn’t occasionally upsetting folk – that happens to anyone who lives an honest life – or unwittingly shutting doors on yourself. It isn’t publically broadcasting your opinions in a way that might make you wince, years down the line. It isn’t even, as Michael Hofmann once said, the knowledge that “a lot of the articulacy and connections and the nerves that might have gone on poems, have gone on these pieces”, though that can be a sorry thought. The real peril is more of a threat: that you might graft to become as astute a critic as possible, and the worst warnings still turn out to be true: that the critical culture is forever losing ground to a fast-food one, and that cash prizes, administered by a process marred with conflicts of interest, are the endgame of literary reception. But then, even as I entertain these thoughts, I console myself: through whatever affliction or vocational derangement, it was me who fell into poetry reviewing, not the other way round. The poet in me has no choice but to write poems; so too, the critic and his criticism. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Or so I tell myself.

first published in New Walk magazine, issue #10, Spring/Summer 2015


         The Catch

For you, the catch wasn't something caught:
not word or contender, attention or fire.
Not the almost-missed train, or the sort
of wave surfers might wait an entire
lifetime for. Not the promise that leaves
the old man adrift for days, his boat
creaking, miles offshore. Nor what cleaves
the heart in two, that left your throat
parched and mute for taking pill
after yellow-green pill, the black-blue
taste the price you paid to kill
the two-parts sadness to one-part anger.
No. The catch was what you could never
let go. It's what you carried, and still do.


poem by Ben Wilkinson
from For Real (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2014)


"Hymns to intimacy": Andrew McMillan's Physical - review

‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight / of a boy and straining it from oneself?” In “Strongman”, Andrew McMillan takes his young nephew’s playful request to “benchpress him” like “his mother’s new lover can” as an imaginative springboard to some urgent personal and social concerns. It is typical of the poems in Physical. Adept at finding the surreal in the everyday, turning an ear to the lilt of conversation alongside serious (but rarely solipsistic) reflection, McMillan’s verse worries away at what it is to be human, to feel through both the flesh and our emotions, to lose and to love, but most of all, what it means to be a man. In his delicate, frank and piercing interrogations of maleness, this is a poet who looks to assess the state of modern masculinity. He does so in ways that few others currently writing are either willing or able to.

“The men are weeping in the gym / using the hand dryer to cover their sobs”, begins one grimly comic dissection of male anger and anxiety: “swearing that they feel / nothing when the muscle tears itself / from itself”. Sorry scenes of guys bulking themselves up with bicep curls and protein shakes, “swearing” under their breath, are related with an insider’s perspective; the poem manages to steer clear of sanctimony even as it gently mocks, speculating at the compensatory nature of such actions. Similarly, the frustrated imagination of an unhappily married man is powerfully envisaged in “Things Men Take”, though here the tone comes closer to judgment as it seeks to expose and provoke, wondering at “the man who takes the image / of the blond haired girl in the lowcut top”. The effect is immersive, and the poem makes for uncomfortable reading.

Alongside these portraits of a heterosexual, damaged masculinity as witnessed, Physical also explores what it is to be a gay man. Some of these poems are couched in symbolism – or rather, unpick the euphemistic manner in which the homoerotic has been historically conveyed. “Jacob with the Angel” relays the biblical tale of the Israelite’s evening wrestle with an unknown aggressor, conventionally viewed as an allegorical contest between the flesh and the spirit. While preserving this interpretation, McMillan also opts to see it literally: “it just happens”, the poem says, with justified insouciance and a kind of take-it-or-leave-it, get-over-it attitude: “the way the weather / or the stock market happens / tangling in the unpierced flesh of one another / grappling with the shifting question of each other’s bodies”. In reimagining an iconic religious scene as a chance sexual encounter between gay lovers, the poem is something of a manifesto, declaring a commitment to truths both figurative and literal, to depictions of the vulnerably carnal, and to preserving experience and making meaning through verse. As the narrator concludes of Jacob’s request for ink and paper: “he says writing something down / keeps it alive”.

In an age where poetic voice is often valorised above all else, it is worth praising the emotional force and cerebrally transformative capacities of a poet’s writing. Alongside the effortless scrutiny of the masculine, the way in which McMillan not only writes about the body, but actually writes the body itself, should be celebrated: I can’t think of any other poet who could make a poem about a trip to the urinals into a serio-comic hymn to intimacy that actually works, let alone close it with a confessional scene of sensual immediacy that moves and shocks. But since McMillan’s success with his imaginative materials seems particularly predicated on his poetic voice, it is worth noting that his unusual blend of influences – Mark Doty, John Riley and Geoff Hattersley – makes Physical one of the most distinctively voiced debuts since Simon Armitage’s Zoom! in 1989. Where many male poets have an uneasy relationship with their poetic forebears, attempting to best them in a kind of literary one-upmanship, McMillan falls asleep with his hero Thom Gunn on his bed, “night after night / open at the spine”.

The long poem at the centre of this collection, “Protest of the Physical”, is a tour de force in the true sense. Attempting to combine social observation with acknowledgement of various artistic debts, it is a jump-cutting song of love and hate to a post-industrial northern town, where the “lame arm of the crane circling / unstocked shelves of half built car park” is a metaphor for how “the day’s spent itself already”. But interwoven throughout is also a recurrent personal desire for escape: “I left you because man made fire / then carried / it across the plain”. Though the poem is similarly sprawling and sometimes overly scattergun, a contrast with Ginsberg’s “Howl” illustrates how McMillan yields a quieter music, for all his blend of vivid Bildungsroman and communal pulse-taking. In its ambition, however, it warrants the comparison.

Elsewhere there are poems that show McMillan’s extended gift for the comic, as in the brilliantly titled “The Fact We Almost Killed a Badger Is Incidental”. Conversely, “I.M.”, in which a bereaved electrician pulls out switch boxes that suddenly look like “intricate rooms in a doll’s house”, is as haunting as it is compassionate. Minutely observed, bold yet understated, moving and often profound in the same breath, Physical is a book everyone should read.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 5 September 2015


The Three Ages of Muldoon:
Paul Muldoon's One Thousand Things Worth Knowing - review

Back when The Poetry Review used to include caricatures, Paul Muldoon emerged from its pages as a rattlesnake. Sporting his trademark Dylan-esque barnet and NHS specs, his trickster’s tie wriggled from a hieroglyph-inscribed basket. The image sticks because it fits. For the past forty years Muldoon has danced to his own tune, snake charmer to slippery, sly, fun but also menacing poems, borne of precocious technical mastery and increasingly reckless imaginative abandon. Boyish wonder meets a cynical intelligence. Playfulness and seriousness blur to one and the same. In his best poems – and by now, the longevity of his 70s and 80s lyric masterpieces ‘Wind and Tree’, ‘Mules’, ‘Why Brownlee Left’, ‘Cuba’, ‘The Sightseers’ and ‘Quoof’ seem beyond sensible question – the rhyming panache and lexical grace lure you in. But so too do the brevity, the deceptive clarity, the eye-widening exactitude. Form and flawless execution jostle with a beady-eyed mischievousness and darkness, unpicking favoured discomfiting themes: death, disappearance, sex, divisions both personal and public, and the sense that our pursuit of meaning is, finally, a flawed and laughable quest, though not without reward.

One Thousand Things Worth Knowing is Muldoon’s twelfth collection. It arrives midway through the poet’s sixty-fourth year, a year following one that began with the passing of Seamus Heaney, champion to the wunderkind Muldoon, and from whom the once protégé now inherits the title of Ireland’s greatest living poet. In truth, though, followers of Muldoon the pied piper have been pushing for his promotion for a while. When Stephen Knight called him “the most significant English-language poet born since the Second World War”, echoing Tim Kendall’s similar pronouncements, he sounded a degree of cautious deference to the old master, but the claim was clear. Even the most astute, punctilious critics have reached for superlatives in praising this rara avis: “among discriminating readers of new poetry, no one’s stock is any higher” announced Michael Hofmann. The acclaim rings true. Muldoon really is as good as he seems.

Or rather, he was. Like one of his own hypnotic narrative poems, there are a couple of twists in the strange tale of Muldoon’s fecund career. Since the early Noughties and the publication of his hefty Poems 1968–1998, Muldoon’s work has usually been divided into two – what David Wheatley, with pious irreverence, labelled the ‘Muldoon Old Testament’ of New Weather (1973) to Quoof (1983), and the New Testament of Meeting the British (1987) to Hay (1998). Quoof was arguably the high point of the early style, a book of pellucid yet complex lyric poems that conveyed both the tragic farce and violent horror of sectarian conflict during the Northern Irish Troubles, in a style as comically parodic as it was coolly matter-of-fact. It marked out the postmodernist Muldoon from his more genteelly Modern predecessors, and gifted him passage to the US, specifically the ivory towers of Princeton. From there, the magic mushrooms first gathered in Quoof met the acid trip of ‘Something Else Again’, a mid-life mantra that exalted a poetics of wild connection-making, paving the way for the cultural stockpiling and myth-kitty raiding that finds its apogee in Madoc: A Mystery (1990) and Hay’s ‘The Bangle (Slight Return)’. The former, a reimagining of Coleridge and Southey’s thwarted ideal of an egalitarian utopia, is relayed from the perspective of a prisoner’s failing vision (geddit?) in the futuristic city of Unitel, with sections often randomly captioned after philosophers. Are we to take such bustling extempore as an opportunity for rewarding exegesis, or is Muldoon just taking the mick, leaving us high and dry, as he has confessed before, “in some corner at a terrible party, where I’ve nipped out through the bathroom window”? Whatever your verdict, there’s no denying such poems have earned an almost entirely academic audience. Schooled readers might think they’re in on the joke, that the red herrings of allusions and etymological conjecture are worth the price of entry, but to me, Madoc still looks like an overlong, winking yet all-too-literal illustration of the misguided search for “a moral for our times”, one that a younger Muldoon roundly mocked in ‘The Frog’. “What if I put him to my head / and squeezed it out of him?”

Which brings us to what I’d like to suggest as the third age of Muldoon: the apocrypha to the two Testaments, which seems to bear the stylistic signature but far too little of the earlier understated brilliance, enough to make it suspect. In this often manic hall of mirrors where language and trivia run about, cartoon-like, to a soundtrack of canned laughter and the odd sentimental tune, things seem mainly to go from bad to worse, albeit by the perilously high standards of the Muldoon glory days. Starting with Horse Latitudes (2006) – though sparing at least the magnificent, witty, heartfelt ‘Sillyhow Stride’, a paean to Muldoon’s mother and sister, and his musician friend Warren Zevon, all of who battled with cancer – we arrive via 2010’s Maggot at this new collection.

I’ve taken this review as opportunity for a detailed appraisal of the Muldoon back catalogue for three reasons. First, because I’d wager that anyone not wholly conversant with his poetry’s trajectory would struggle to make head or tail of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing; second, because I honestly can’t find anything like those earlier poems to amaze or admire in this new stuff; and third, because Paul Muldoon so rarely gets to any kind of point in this book I thought I’d briefly grant myself similar license. The collection opens with ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’, a 10-page piece in memory of Seamus Heaney, originally commissioned by Durham Book Festival. Adopting the legend of the eponymous Northumbrian saint, whose famous piety and diligence afforded him a Doctor Doolittle-like rapport with God’s creatures, Muldoon invokes some loose metaphorical comparisons with the late great poet. So far, so good. Until, that is, Muldoon’s hyperactive mind, limitless love of arcana, and growing distaste for anything so memorable as argument or cohesion drown the whole thing out with, it seems, whatever popped into his head while writing:

The way to preserve a hide is not by working into it Irish moss or casein

but the very brains
of the very beast that was erstwhile so comfortable in its skin.
Irish monasticism may well derive from Egypt.
We don’t discount the doings of the Desert Fox
any more than Lil Langtry’s shenanigans with Prince
Louise of Battenberg. The 1920s vogue for sequins
began with Tutenkhamen. Five wise virgins

– and so on (and on and on). If there is substance here – and surely there must be in an elegy for a departed mentor – the poem bombards you with so much disparate intellectual litter, you can’t hope to sift through it all to find it. Some will say this lack of any point is the point, that confusion is king, but when it sets the scene for an entire book, and when Muldoon has been up to this sort of zaniness for at least a decade, it all becomes rather mundane and forgettable. “When I glance / from my hotel window”, our poet observes, “even I discern / a possibility / I might too readily have spurned”. Surely not. Still, there’s always the trivia. Did you know that Roman women “let // their hair grow right down to their waists / for twisting into skeins” for catapults? What connects ‘Barrage Balloons, Buck Alec, Bird Flu, and You’? “Arthritis is to psoriasis as Portugal is to …”? “Wait. Isn’t arthritis to psoriasis as Brazil is to Portugal?”

As Muldoon merrily loses his way in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, in overblown tour de force after tour de force, letting his brilliant mind and unrivalled ability with rhyme, form and syntax too often overwhelm the hope of poetry occurring, there is the sense that the genuine alchemist of our times has become content to produce fool’s gold. But then you can hardly blame him. Only one or two poets in any generation will ever know what it’s like to be so gifted that technique, capacity and sheer panache come to implode on themselves. The epigraph to ‘The Firing Squad’ is an excerpt from a letter by Robert Frost, dated 1916, in which he confesses that “the poet in me died nearly ten years ago”. Telling, you might think. There are many timeless Muldoon poems worth knowing, inside out and off by heart. But, for me, none of the like are in this volume.

review by Ben Wilkinson

first published in The Poetry Review