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Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison is a professor of creative writing at Goldsmiths.

The Smell of Blood: Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison, 13 August 2020

‘All day​ it has rained,’ goes a poem written by Alun Lewis in 1941, while he was stationed with the Royal Engineers in Hampshire, ready for war but not yet called to action. It’s a poem about being bored and being grateful for the boredom since worse is to come. ‘We talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome.’ Beyond the humdrum detail – groundsheets,...

Poem: ‘Muntjac’

Blake Morrison, 4 June 2020

How would you feel if a muntjac walked in? Would you greet it as an exotic Or fret about it gnawing the fruit trees? Take your time: the answer will say as much About you as the shade of your nail polish.After that we can go on a cycle ride.I suggest you play safe and wear a helmet,But we’ll forget the hi-vis lycra –Last time it caused a panic at the pig...

‘This Mournable Body’

Blake Morrison, 7 May 2020

Early on​ in This Mournable Body, a skimpily dressed woman in ‘sky-high heels’ falls backwards onto muddy ground while trying to climb into a crowded Harare minibus. Nobody comes to her aid. Instead, she’s jeered at. Her offence is hubris, or what the crowd takes to be hubris: ‘Who does she think she is? Let her have it.’ Objects are thrown, misogynistic insults...

Walter Kempowski

Blake Morrison, 20 June 2019

Why has​ so little of Walter Kempowski’s work appeared in English? In Germany he published forty-odd books but only two of his novels were translated into English during his lifetime: Aus grosser Zeit (Days of Greatness) in 1978 and Hundstage (Dog Days – not to be confused with Günter Grass’s Hundejahre, Dog Years) ten years later. There was also a collection of...

The Marvellous Barbellion

Blake Morrison, 21 June 2018

Confessional writers​ stake everything on their truth-telling. ‘I have displayed myself as I was,’ Rousseau says, promising ‘a portrait in every way true to nature’, a claim echoed by W.N.P. Barbellion when he writes: ‘My journal keeps open house to every kind of happening in my soul.’ But Rousseau was guilty of certain economies and the last words of The...

The Impudence of Tony Harrison

Blake Morrison, 30 November 2017

If his English teacher hadn’t been so snootily discouraging, it’s unlikely that Tony Harrison would have gone on to write as much as he has: by my calculation, 13 plays, 11 films and twenty or more poetry collections and pamphlets, not to mention the essays and addresses assembled in Edith Hall’s edition of his selected prose. That teacher, commemorated but unnamed in the poem ‘Them & [uz]’, was so dismayed by Harrison’s ‘barbarian’ recital of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in a Northern working-class accent that he called a halt after only four words.

Fathers and Sons

Blake Morrison, 13 July 2016

All fathers​ are unknowable to their sons but some are more mysterious than others. The Victorian stereotype was a whiskered patriarch behind a study door, the son, barred from entry, tiptoeing past. Now the door is open, and the study has been converted to a playroom, and fathers are expected to be on hand. Even so, inaccessibility remains a dominant motif: the workaholic dad, out early...

Hobohemianism

Blake Morrison, 30 June 2011

According to W.H. Davies, tramps often buried surplus items of clothing or footwear by the side of the road, knowing they could retrieve them should they pass the same way again. In his second volume of autobiography, Later Days, published in 1925, Davies lists a few of his deposits: a shirt on the banks of the Mississippi, a pair of boots in the Allegheny mountains, a coat under rocks on...

Michael Frayn

Blake Morrison, 7 October 2010

Why is cricket so appealing to playwrights – English and Irish ones anyway? Samuel Beckett represented his university against Northants. Harold Pinter, who wrote wistfully of seeing Len Hutton in his prime, captained a team called the Gaieties XI. Simon Gray, David Hare and Ronald Harwood are or were known to be keen on the game, too. And Tom Stoppard, another follower, has a striking...

Diary: On the Independent on Sunday 

Blake Morrison, 27 May 1993

There is nothing like the threatened demise of a newspaper to bring out a journalist’s sentimentality. The disclosure, some weeks ago, that the 201-year-old Observer was to be sold, and might disappear, was the occasion for some stirring comment about the paper, both from people who properly respect its liberal traditions and from people who have spent years talking it down. In the event the Observer was bought not by Newspaper Publishing plc, which intended to merge the title with the Independent on Sunday, but by the Guardian, which will keep it going.

Sex’n’Love

Blake Morrison, 21 February 1991

How much do love and sex have in common? Not enough, it seems, for them to appear together in anthologies, which increasingly cater either for the sentimental or the pornographic market. We need not be surprised by this. Men, at any rate, have often maintained that sexual intercourse may occur without any undue engagement of the emotions, just as love need not hinder the serious business of living and working and getting on. And nowadays a wing of the feminist movement wishes to make similar protestations of disengagement on behalf of women, who have paid a high price for emotional (and economic) servitude. Yet there is something peculiarly English and Victorian, something repressed rather than liberated, about wishing to separate the two, as if the ambiguities of words like ‘desire’ and ‘love-making’ did not exist.

Every three years

Blake Morrison, 3 March 1988

Now that poetry has been brought into the marketplace, and publishers have discovered how to make a modest profit from it, and now that publication outlets can be found in any good-sized store, so productivity levels in British poetry have increased dramatically. Most poets these days publish a new collection of thirty or forty poems every three or four years; some are more industrious than even that. Paul Durcan’s Going home to Russia, coming two years after The Berlin Wall Café contains 48 poems; Peter Redgrove’s In the Hall of the Saurians, one year after its predecessor, has 34; Norman MacCaig’s Voice-over, three years on from his Collected Poems, has 58; Cat’s Whisker by Philip Gross (three years on) 41; Jouissance by William Scammell (two years) 38; Disbelief by John Ash (three years) 55; Ken Smith’s Wormwood, a collection of poems written during a spell as a writer in residence in Wormwood Scrubs (one year), 30. The justification for such work-rates, beyond the economics of scraping a living and the PR requirement of keeping a high profile, is that you have to write the bad poems in order to write the good. But do you have to put the mediocre ones in hard covers? The example of Larkin and Eliot, severe critics of their own work, seems alien to our Thatcherite enterprise culture, where Creative Writing Fellowships have created a new breed of eager-beaver writing fellows and where everyone must be seen to be hustling their product up and down (but mainly down) the country.

Poem: ‘Whinny Moor’

Blake Morrison, 2 April 1987

Old people will tell you that after death the soul passes over Whinny-moore, a place full of whins and brambles, and … would be met by an old man carrying a huge bundle of boots; and if among these could be found a pair which the bare-footed soul had given away during life, the old man gave them to the soul to protect its feet whilst crossing the thorny moor.

Richard Blakeborough,

Poem: ‘On Sizewell Beach’

Blake Morrison, 18 December 1986

There are four beach huts, numbered 13 to 16, Each with net curtains and a lock. Who owns them, what happened to the first twelve, Whether there are plans for further building: There’s no one here today to help with such enquiries, The café closed up for the winter, No cars or buses in the PAY AND DISPLAY. The offshore rig is like a titan’s diving-board. I’ve heard the...

Tales of Hofmann

Blake Morrison, 20 November 1986

The acrimony in Michael Hofmann’s book is that of a son towards his father. Like a family photograph album, the sequence ‘My Father’s House’ records the son’s growth from childhood to manhood, and the father’s from early to late middle age: each poem denotes some new phase, and usually low point, in the relationship. The father’s absences and absent-mindedness, his tempers, adulteries and workaholism, his patronising of his wife and children – these sins and omissions are meticulously totted up. No physical detail is spared: with the peeled senses of adolescence, we smell the father’s ‘salami breath’, observe the ‘bleak anal pleats’ under his eyes and the ‘red band of eczema’ across his chest, hear him chewing and snorting his way through meals. The son, with his ‘thin, witty, inaudible voice’, seems a pale shadow beside him, the usual fate of sons in filial accounts of this kind: it is almost incidentally that we learn of his education in an English public school (his parents return to Germany) and of assorted part-time jobs in his teens. His mother appears small and shrewish, Gertrude to a Morel not a Claudius, in awe of her husband’s animal cunning; the son takes her side and does the necessary (‘It’s up to me to be the man of the house’), but she is allowed only two poems to voice her own complaints. It is left to her son to do most of the accusing:’

Poem: ‘Straw-Burning’

Blake Morrison, 9 October 1986

Was it thrup or thrip, your word for the thunderflies that came off the cornfield with the paddlesteaming combine, like wafted ashes

sticking to our bodies and warning us of this: the yellowing page set alight at one corner, the burning of straw.

We can see the flames rushing towards us like a lynch-mob, blood in their eye, tarring and furring,

until the churn and swirl of the ploughed...

Poem: ‘The Kiss’

Blake Morrison, 22 May 1986

His Buick was too wide and didn’t slow, Our wing-mirrors kissing in a Suffolk lane, No sweat, not worth the exchange of addresses.

High from the rainchecking satellites England’s like a gun set on a table, Still smoking, waiting to be loaded again.

Dialect does it

Blake Morrison, 5 December 1985

Poetry written in dialect seems to be undergoing a resurgence. Tony Harrison has made extensive use of Northern idioms. Tom Paulin has been busy raiding Ulster (and, I suspect, Scottish) dictionaries. Craig Raine has produced a manifesto, ‘Babylonish Dialects’, on dialect’s behalf. And several of the books under review here – by Scots, Welshmen and British West Indians – cannot be read without the glossaries which they thoughtfully provide. Such a resurgence may have a socio-political motive: at a time when the Government is imposing ‘centrality’, dialect is a way of fighting local corners, a way for the regions to remind the capital that they are no longer speaking the same language. In other poets, dialect stems simply from a frustration with standard English, which – by keeping a civil tongue in its head – is felt not to get enough said. Whatever the motives, poetry in dialect appears to go against the modern grain: against Imagism, which was also imagisme, a café society for the exiled, a glut or polyglut of purified observations recognising no race or creed; against the Esperanto of Thirties poetry with its depiction of a world struggle between Communism and Fascism; against the Fifties Movement school, which was provincial but not regional, scornful of ‘Lallans mongers’ and ‘Welsh valley babblers’ alike. But the underlying assumptions that Modernism and Europeanism look (progressively) to the future, while dialect and nationalism are (retrogressively) infatuated with the past, don’t square up with 20th-century practice. Lawrence and Joyce held onto their roots even in exile, and there was always MacDiarmid, whose ‘Gairmscoile’ stands the Modernist argument on its head:’

The ‘Red Death’ had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal ...

Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’

I were just cleaning up streets our kid. Just cleaning up streets.

Peter Sutcliffe to his brother Carl: Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son by Gordon Burn

Ower...

Poem: ‘Pomagne’

Blake Morrison, 24 January 1985

‘Be careful not to spill it when it pops. He’d bloody crucify me if he caught us.’

We had taken months to get to this, our first kiss a meeting of stalagmite

and stalactite. The slow drip of courtship: her friend, June, interceding with letters,

the intimate struggle each Friday under the Plaza’s girder of light.

But here we were at last, drinking Pomagne in her...

Poem: ‘Xerox’

Blake Morrison, 6 December 1984

They come each evening like virgins to a well: the girls queuing for the xerox-machine, braceleted and earmarked, shapely as pitchers in their stretch Levis or wraparound shirts, sylphs from the typing-pool bearing the forms of their masters, the chilly boardroom gods.

Tropical Storms

Blake Morrison, 6 September 1984

Johnson’s Imlac, urging that the poet neglect the ‘minuter discriminations’ of the tulip leaf in favour of ‘general properties’, has been unpopular for two hundred years, never more so than now, when it is believed that accumulated tiny detail – thinginess – vouches for a poem’ s authenticity. But Imlac also argues, apparently contradicting himself, that ‘to a poet nothing can be useless,’ that he ‘must know many languages and many sciences’ and through his command of botany, zoology, astronomy, politics, ethics and so on become a ‘legislator of mankind’. This is familiar enough for us to see that there is no contradiction: our own version is that the poet be learned but wear his learning lightly, that he know more than he lets on. We expect the poet to know in a general way that his physics are Einsteinian, so that (like Imlac crossing deserts and mountains for ‘images and resemblances’) he may draw if he wishes on a language of atoms, anti-matter and black holes – but not, like Empson in ‘Doctrinal Point’, to cite individual physicists such as Heviside and Eddington. We may ask for ‘scientific precision’ in poetry but we don’t want displays of scientific knowledge any more than Johnson did: these will earn the epithet ‘cerebral’. Poems of Science, an anthology of seven centuries of scientific verse (from Anon on the structure of the cosmos – ‘as appel the eorthe is round’ – to John Updike on cosmic gall), is therefore fighting a lost battle. The editors make out a brave case for the similarity of poet and scientist (‘the starting-point for both of their activities is the imagination’), dispute old distinctions between ‘fact’ and ‘feeling’, and think it important for poets to keep abreast of scientific advance. But then comes their selection. Donne is there, not for those compasses in ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’, but to expound the new philosophy in ‘An Anatomy of the World’; Empson is there to haggle a doctrinal point rather than let it go. That’s science for you.–

Poem: ‘A Child in Winter’

Blake Morrison, 1 December 1983

Where is the man who does not feel his heart softened ... [by] these so helpless and so perfectly innocent little creatures?

Cobbett

When the trees have given up snowberries come into their own, winter grapes, albino settlers of the dark.

With their milky blobs they lined our doorstep that November dusk we swung your basket

up the gravel-path and home. Child Moses, prince of the...

Poem: ‘Noblesse Oblige’

Blake Morrison, 7 July 1983

Quels bons bras, quelle belle heure me rendront      cette région d’où viennent mes sommeils?

Rimbaud

This is the excitement that ends in pain. Dark names stretch for you from their seedbed, Bronze statesmen harangue the crowded squares. All week you’ve driven round the capital In a blacked-out Volvo, testing the way. What is this new air,...

Fenton makes a hit

Blake Morrison, 10 January 1983

No one can have been more surprised than James Fenton that In Memory of War turned out to be one of the most acclaimed books of 1982. A year ago, used to being told by reviewers that he was a ‘difficult’, even ‘esoteric’ poet, it looked as if he had decided that small publishers and little magazines were the most appropriate place for his work. Although as a political columnist and foreign correspondent with the New Statesman and Guardian, filing copy from Cambodia, West Germany and Westminster, he had built up a modest reputation and following in the 1970s, this did nothing to unburden him of the thousand copies of his first book of poetry, Terminal Moraine (1972), many of which lay throughout the decade in the basement of his publishers, Secker and Warburg: that is where I picked up my copy, and Fenton eventually bought up the unsold stock himself, believing (rightly) that he’d make a better job of disseminating it. His next publication, the pamphlet ‘A Vacant Possession’ (1978), was slimmer and more difficult to get hold of still. And even occupying the position of theatre critic of the Sunday Times, with ‘over a million readers every week’, didn’t do much, initially, to help Fenton with The Memory of War, published by his brother Tom at the small Salamander Press: there were advance orders of only 200 and at the end of September, three months after publication, the book had sold a mere 569 copies. But then in early December several writers, nominated it as their ‘book of the year’, almost a thousand copies were sold in a week, and Penguin bought the paperback rights. Not for ages has ‘difficult’ poetry been known to achieve such commercial success.

Poem: ‘The Grange Boy’

Blake Morrison, 30 December 1982

Horse-chestnuts thudded to the lawn each autumn. Their spiked husks were like medieval clubs, Porcupines, unexploded shells. But if You waited long enough they gave themselves up – Brown pups, a cow opening its sad eye, The shine of the dining-room table.

We were famous for horse-chestnuts. Boys From the milltown would ring at our door asking Could they gather conkers and I’d to...

Beach Poets

Blake Morrison, 16 September 1982

A more sophisticated version of Larkin’s cry ‘Foreign poetry? No!’ is the belief that the poetry of certain parts of the world (Eastern Europe, for example) is intrinsically more interesting than that of other parts. This isn’t only a matter of some countries being thought politically more dramatic, and therefore poetically more absorbing, than others, nor of the Teutonic going down better here than the Latin. There is also the matter of climate, and the custom the British have of treating all points south as places of leisure and relaxation which for fifty weeks of the year can scarcely be said to exist at all. According to this view, the poetry associated with Mediterranean and Caribbean countries must always be off the literary map: one can expect very little from books with titles like The Fortunate Traveller (Derek Walcott), Sun Poem (Edward Kamau Brathwaite), Aegean Islands (Bernard Spencer) and Sun the First (Odysseus Elytis).

Labouring

Blake Morrison, 1 April 1982

There are grounds for thinking Tony Harrison the first genuine working-class poet England has produced this century. Of course, poets from D.H. Lawrence to Craig Raine can boast a proletarian background, but their poetry isn’t usually interested in doing so – not at its most characteristic and not to an extent that would make the term ‘working-class poet’ a useful one. Other poets have written of working-class ‘subjects’ (by which is usually meant the view from the factory floor) and have furthered working-class aspirations (by which is usually meant socialism), but most of them have been haut bourgeois – Stephen Spender writing of cogs, driving-belts and the beauty of labour – lacking first-hand knowledge of the material they deal in. Douglas Dunn, impeccably proletarian and Left-inclining, once wrote memorably about a backstreet in Hull – but he, it turns out, is Scottish. And D.J. Enright’s vivid account of a working-class childhood, The Terrible Shears, is really more prose documentary than poem. Remarkably, in an age that was supposed to see the flourishing of working-class writing, Harrison seems to have the field to himself.

Poem: ‘The Renunciation’

Blake Morrison, 20 November 1980

Our lives were wasted but we never knew. There was such work to be done: the watch-chains And factories, the papers to sign In the study. Surrounded by brass How could we see what we amounted to – A glint of eyes as headlights swept away?

In a cot on the lawn lies my nephew, Whose name I can’t remember – the strands Of family thinner each year, though we Are here again,...

Letter

Tony Harrison

1 April 1982

Blake Morrison writes: I have yet to see a Michael Horovitz letter (and I have seen many) which does not reel off at least a score of names which are said to prove the existence of some renaissance in contemporary British poetry. The names vary from week to week, but the ones cited here do little to persuade me that I was wrong in singling out Tony Harrison. For this is an issue of quality rather than...

Blake Morrison

Thomas Jones, 7 September 2000

Towards the end of And When Did You Last See your Father? (1993), Blake Morrison says:Stand them up against grief, and even the greatest poems, the greatest paintings, the greatest novels...

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Boxes of Tissues

Hilary Mantel, 6 March 1997

Blake Morrison begins his account of the murder of James Bulger with a delicate diversion into the story of the Children’s Crusade. The year 1212: at Saint-Denis, a boy of 12 begins to...

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The Synaptic Years

Jenny Diski, 24 June 1993

It’s a race against time, but, as this century totters to its close, we might, in the final few years, catch up with the arithmetic and discover that it’s the 20th century we’ve...

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Martian Arts

Jonathan Raban, 23 July 1987

In 1972 the final issue of Ian Hamilton’s Review was given over to a symposium on ‘The State of Poetry’. Only fifteen years on, it has the flavour of a yellowed historical...

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Players, please

Jonathan Bate, 6 December 1984

The Great War was the war of the great war poets. Was ‘the war to end all wars’ also the war to end all war poetry? The best part of Jon Stallworthy’s introduction to his Oxford...

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Social Arrangements

John Bayley, 30 December 1982

‘New’ poetry can mean two things. When Ezra Pound said ‘make it new’ he was willing the advent of Modernism, the birth of a consciousness transformed by the...

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Moments

Marilyn Butler, 2 September 1982

It is a current preoccupation on the Left, more fashionable now among many students of English than Post-Structuralism, that English Literature as an academic subject is a conspiracy of the...

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It seemed to be happening only yesterday, but Blake Morrison was born in 1950, and for him the Movement is something you have to work on in a library. So it suddenly comes to seem rather remote,...

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