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Christopher Reid

Christopher Reid’s poetry is published by Faber. Katerina Brac is out in paperback.

Two Poems

Christopher Reid, 1 September 2005

Neddy and the Night Noises

Neddy Bumwhistle jolts awake in the dark. Insomnia’s big comic-strip exclamation mark twitches like defective neon above his head. At least he’s in the familiar slum of his own bed: no body beside him; nobody, perhaps, for miles around . . . But hang about, what’s that weird, squeaky-bedspring sound? He’s heard it before....

Poem: ‘Bollockshire’

Christopher Reid, 18 October 2001

You’ve zoomed through it often enough on the long grind north, the grim dash south –    why not take a break?    Slip off the motorway at any one of ten tangled junctions and poke your nose, without compunction,    into the unknown.    Get systematically lost. At the first absence of a signpost, opt for the least...

Poem: ‘Flies’

Christopher Reid, 24 May 2001

After Machado

Dear common flies, ubiquitous and greedy, how well you conjure up those times that have gone.

Old flies guzzling like bees in April, old flies launching raids on my new-born head.

Flies of my early homebound boredoms, those summer afternoons when I first learned to dream.

And in the hated classroom, flies that whizzed past as we hit out at them for love of their flight –

...

Poem: ‘A Perversion’

Christopher Reid, 10 January 1991

In the Proceedings of the Royal Institute of Anthropophagy (last year’s Spring number, page 132), there is a most unusual instance recorded of a man and woman who conspired to eat each other – and would have done so, had not the laws of nature prevented it. I heartily agree with the writer of the article who denounces the whole affair as a ‘flagrant travesty’, a...

Poem: ‘Your Biographer’

Christopher Reid, 26 July 1990

Inevitably your biographer is getting it all wrong.

His little screen recapitulates the few known facts.

With rapidly dabbing fingertips he coaxes a workable pattern, till

there it is – the truth at last! And you stand condemned

to centuries of ignominy, your well-polished plea unheard.

Lying doggo

Christopher Reid, 14 June 1990

Among her admirers, who tend to be wholehearted and fervent, the feeling is that Elizabeth Bishop has not yet received anything like her critical due. Things are improving – in the United States more rapidly than over here, where admission to the Pantheon seems as slow and grudging a process, and as prone to archaic shibboleths and mysterious blackballings, as election to a Pall Mall club. It is still possible to be told, by fairly intelligent readers, that her poems ‘lack form’, or that her diction is ‘flat’ and that her lines ‘don’t sing’, just as one still runs across the stubborn assertion that Matisse ‘can’t draw’. But this is getting less common.’

Great American Disaster

Christopher Reid, 8 December 1988

Joseph Brodsky’s new selection, To Urania, gets off to a troubled start with a 20-line poem that contains at least one grammatical slip and a sentence of baffling absurdity. The slip occurs in line four, where we meet the construction ‘dined with the-devil-knows-whom’ – an accusative that seems to me justified by neither the rule-book nor colloquial usage. The absurd sentence follows two lines later. ‘Twice have drowned,’ we read (the first person being understood), ‘thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ Eh? ‘Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.’ I see.’

Poetry Inc.

Christopher Reid, 18 September 1986

To read Donald Prater’s biography of Rilke in the hope of getting to know the poet in depth would be a tantalising exercise. Lack of information is not the problem. There is no shortage of documentary evidence available to the investigator and Prater has made full use of it. Rilke himself supplied his large share in letters of a princely egocentricity, upon which he appears to have lavished a formidable outlay of time and creative energy. Many of those who were personally acquainted with him, too, were scrupulous in setting down their impressions of a figure whose near-divine poetic status was taken for granted from an early date, while scholars and researchers have shown comparable zeal in the subsequent mopping-up campaign, until now it would seem we have all the facts we could reasonably ask for. Prater’s eight-page bibliography alone testifies to the abundance of secondary literary material generated by what was, after all, an oeuvre of modest size (if one leaves aside those letters) and a life whose most notable characteristics were a cultivated detachment from the surrounding world and a dismaying evasiveness in personal matters.

Poem: ‘Memres of Alfred Stoker’

Christopher Reid, 7 August 1986

firs born X mas day Yer 1885 in the same burer Waping

pa a way Ma not being by Trade merchent Sea man in forn parts: all so a precher on Land

i sow him Latter

4 of 9 not all Livig

a hard Thing Ma sad: mirs Pale a mid Wife in the back room bed rom Nor wod she got Thurgh when a ANGEL apperd over the JESUS pichire

which i got after it Savd my Life.

*

so i name Gabriel which you did not no why...

Here comes Amy

Christopher Reid, 17 April 1986

Amy Clampitt is a most spirited and exhilarating performer. An enormous appetite for observation and zeal to describe precisely what she has observed are transmitted through both the best and the least successful of her poems. ‘Gusto’ is the word that springs to mind – and not only because it was a term of the highest commendation with the senior American poet whom, in many superficial respects, she most closely resembles: Marianne Moore. One registers this quality, bracingly, through the singular rhythms which permeate her new collection, What the light was like, and which, in her verse, have come largely to take the place of orthodox prosody.’

Writing a book about it

Christopher Reid, 17 October 1985

The most successful pieces in Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems tend to be lists of one kind or another. He is best, too, when he has found something to celebrate. A poem such as ‘Praise of a Collie’, which enumerates the virtues of an admired sheep-dog, now dead, works well enough as a primitive catalogue. The fourth of its five three-line stanzas gives something of its flavour:

Sweet Dreams

Christopher Reid, 17 November 1983

‘I dislike the cult of dreams,’ Sarah Ferguson declares. ‘They should be secret things, and people who are always telling you of what they have dreamt irritate me. Nor do I like hearing psychological discussions between those who do not really know what they are talking about. There is something soft and messy about such people.’ Sarah Ferguson was previously quite unknown to me, but this passage from a book called A Guard Within (1973) is one of the 450 or so literary specimens to be found in this curious anthology.

John and Henry

Christopher Reid, 2 December 1982

When John Berryman’s first full-length collection of poems, The Dispossessed, was published in 1948, Yvor Winters wrote a notice of it for the Hudson Review. Here Winters drew attention to Berryman’s ‘disinclination to understand and discipline his emotions’, and went on to suggest: ‘Most of his poems appear to deal with a single all-inclusive topic: the desperate chaos, social, religious, philosophical and psychological, of modern life, and the corresponding chaos and desperation of John Berryman.’

Two Poems

Christopher Reid, 18 March 1982

Kawai’s Trilby

Cold comforts of a hotel room: the air-conditioning and fridge join forces for a chummy hum, barbershop-style. Poised on the edge of bed, I think how far I’ve come.

Two weeks ago we kissed goodbye. Now in a towerblock hotel in a strange land, I inventory the trappings of my pilgrim cell: bath, holy scriptures, a TV.

Outside my window, a huge sign flushes, then...

Pioneers

Christopher Reid, 3 September 1981

‘It is strange,’ Charles Tomlinson writes, ‘to have met the innovators of one’s time only when age had overtaken them.’ The innovators to whom he refers are those American poets – Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and others – whose work and moral example have been of importance to his own growth as a writer.

Poem: ‘Cambridgeport Christmas’

Christopher Reid, 3 September 1981

Ice aches and eases underfoot: a luscious pleasure for the solitary walker, where morning flings its shadows,

extravagant and pat, across playground and parking-lot. Cars are stunned by a Yuletide smother-love. Bushes weigh

their meted dollops, and the boxy clapboard churches are drenched and cleansed by a piquant light from the east. One for every block,

they favour a dapper domestic...

A Match for Macchu Picchu

Christopher Reid, 4 June 1981

John Felstiner’s Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu is an unusual, honest and enterprising book, but ultimately something of a disappointment. Its title suggests a book-lover’s pilgrimage, an intellectual adventure of the order of, say, The Quest for Corvo or The Road to Xanadu. A great deal of the pleasure it offers derives from the openness – rare in the academic field, where positions tend to be held with entrenched fervour – that the author permits in telling of his unique journey. Having said this, I have to declare that it is this very scrupulousness which makes Felstiner’s achievement at best a minor or compromised one.

Cage’s Cage

Christopher Reid, 7 August 1980

The writings and reported sayings of famous composers have a strange, but respectable, literary status. Their musical status is, of course, more doubtful, even where a great composer is concerned. The Stravinsky/Robert Craft dialogues provide a case in point: can these unlikely confections, stilted essays in what one might call the comedy of conversational manners, really be taken seriously? In a sense, yes, they can. Their rhetoric – an arch, Nabokovian, dictionary English, a formality about as ‘lifelike’ as the frigid give-and-take we find in Compton-Burnett, or in Valéry’s Dialogues – does have its persuasive power. For the while at any rate, we are transported to a pastoral domain where reminiscence, opinion, gossip and verbal playfulness are indulged for all they are worth.

Poem: ‘Charnel’

Christopher Reid, 19 June 1980

God’s clownish, tumbling bells bang out their Sunday-morning scales with rabble-rousing eloquence. But what of the sad, cramped hells, we know lie hidden hereabouts? Minded by corpulent nymphets with wings and frowns, in reticence they guard their deeply-embedded doubts.

A mawkish exercise, but one that everyone enjoys – to step about this cluttered suburb like a daytime ghost. We...

Consequences

Christopher Reid, 15 May 1980

The Parisian Surrealists appear to have taken their games-playing very seriously. Ritual imitations of the creative act – involving the practice of automatic writing, a deep faith in the value of mere accident, and the contrivance of jokey juxtapositions – formed a vital part of their programme. One favourite exercise was called le cadavre exquis. In reality, this was not much different from the ancient parlour-game of ‘consequences’, but in surreality it had a sacramental importance. A number of artists would contribute to the production of a single picture: the first might, for instance, draw the head of a figure, fold the paper and then pass it on to a colleague, who must add the torso, fold the paper – and so on. In the end, the page would be uncrumpled to reveal that most prized of Surrealistic fetishes, the collective work of art.

Poem: ‘A Disaffected Old Man’

Christopher Reid, 6 March 1980

The spider in her hanging theatre; the patient villainy of cats: the afternoon foretells disaster, now we have time to sit and watch.

Outdoors, lulled by the sun, I berce the sticky brandy in my glass and contemplate the apple-tree, that writhes like a family history.

My grandchildren are playing cricket with a beachball and tennis-racket. My ancient wife sits on my left. Leaning, we kiss with...

Excellent Enigmas

Christopher Reid, 24 January 1980

Doubts, prevarications, velleities, different kinds of inability to act: these are the overt themes of many of the poems in John Fuller’s inventive new volume. The title, Lies and Secrets, does not belong to any one poem, but is a warning that no statement found in the book should be relied on either for straightforwardness or for a disclosure of the whole truth. Stories are narrated by characters who may be cagey, volatile, fanciful, captious, even self-deceiving. In the past, John Fuller has been a cunning contriver of riddles on a small scale, but here the design is grander. The verse is protean and the reader, like Neoptolemos, must grapple with fickle forms until the plain truth stands revealed.

Letter
Why the gratuitous ‘self’ in Ian Sansom’s allusion (LRB, 7 March) to ‘what is clearly and self-consciously a re-establishing of what Faber is calling its “American Connection" ’? What is so ‘modish’ about the ‘modern art’ which appears on the covers of the books in question – widely different and, I should have thought, rather off-beat...
Letter

Scotch Corner

9 July 1992

It was cheering to read Diana Hendry’s character reference for W.S. Graham (Letters, 6 August), and to learn that she admires the poems too. She should be pleased that Faber and Faber will be publishing a new Graham title next January, Aimed at Nobody, a collection of previously unpublished poems assembled by Margaret Blackwood and Robin Skelton. There are no plans yet For a Complete Poems, but...

Ted Hughes and the Hare

Tom Paulin, 29 November 2007

Between leaving school and going to Cambridge, Ted Hughes did his National Service in the RAF. Writing from RAF West Kirby, in the Wirral, to a friend, Edna Wholey, in 1949 –...

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Ringmaster

John Redmond, 28 November 1996

Born at the end of the Seventies and in decline at the beginning of the Eighties, Martianism, as a movement in British poetry, was shortlived, and as a descriptive term, misleading. Largely the...

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Christ’s Teeth

C.K. Stead, 10 October 1991

‘Dates, dates are of the essence; and it will be found that I date quite exactly the breakdown of the imaginative exploit of the Cantos: between the completion of the late sequence called...

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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)...

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Decorations and Contingencies

John Bayley, 16 September 1982

Decoration in poetry traditionally has a purpose: to embellish the story of the Faerie Queene or of Venus and Adonis, to ornament with appropriate curlicues the exposition of order and harmony in...

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A Martian School of two or more

James Fenton, 6 December 1979

Craig Raine’s second collection follows swiftly upon his first, The Onion, Memory (1978). It is as if the poet had been waiting impatiently over us, while we picked ourselves up off the...

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