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The heart of standing is you cannot fly

Frank Kermode: Empson and Obscurity

22 June 2000
The Complete Poems of William Empson 
edited by John Haffenden.
Allen Lane, 410 pp., £30, April 2000, 0 7139 9287 5
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... Empson has been dead these 16 years, and although his voice was often recorded it now seems difficult to describe it. JohnHaffenden says he had one voice for poetry and another for prose. Empson himself thought ‘the reader should throw himself into the verse, and not do it with “reserved” English good taste.’ The best ...


Ian Hamilton: It's a size thing

19 September 1985
... builds his career on manipulating gossip ought not to be surprised if his deathbed is wired for sound. A relief, then, to turn from all this deranged big-talk to some sturdy English self-effacement. JohnHaffenden is steadily becoming the closest we have to a domestic version of the Mansos and Grobels. He has already published a book of earnest conversations with a dozen or so poets and this month he ...

John​ and Henry

Christopher Reid

2 December 1982
The Life of John​ Berryman 
by John Haffenden.
Routledge, 451 pp., £15, September 1982, 0 7100 9216 4
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Poets in their Youth: A Memoir 
by Eileen Simpson.
Faber, 272 pp., £10.95, September 1982, 0 571 11925 5
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... 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 ...

The Savage Life

Frank Kermode: The Adventures of William Empson

19 May 2005
William Empson: Vol. I: Among the Mandarins 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 695 pp., £30, April 2005, 0 19 927659 5
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... JohnHaffenden opens the proceedings with a long extract from one of Empson’s letters and goes on to provide a leisurely commentary on it, so, even if you hadn’t noticed the bulk of the book, you’d sense ...

Glittering Fiend

Ian Hamilton: John​ Berryman

9 December 1999
Berryman's Shakespeare 
edited by John Haffenden.
Farrar, Straus, 396 pp., $35, February 1999, 0 374 11205 3
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John​ Berryman’s Personal Library: A Catalogue 
by Richard Kelly.
Lang, 433 pp., £39, March 1999, 0 8204 3998 3
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... In one of John Berryman’s more lucid dream songs (No. 364), there is amusing reference to the reading habits of Henry, the song sequence’s screwed up protagonist: O Henry in his youth read many things he ...

Best Things

Alan Hollinghurst

20 August 1981
Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John​ Haffenden 
Faber, 189 pp., £7.50, June 1981, 0 571 11689 2Show More
A Free Translation 
by Craig Raine.
Salamander, 29 pp., £4.50, June 1981, 0 907540 02 3
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A German Requiem 
by James Fenton.
Salamander, 9 pp., £1.50, January 1981, 0 907540 00 7
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Caviare at the Funeral 
by Louis Simpson.
Oxford, 89 pp., £4.50, April 1981, 0 19 211943 5
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... freedom, but practice in self-projection can be used just as effectively as by the interviewed politician to put over a position with no time, at the time, to think. One does not know to what extent Haffenden has edited out the false starts and inelegances of ordinary speech to produce this published text of his interviews (different texts of several of which have appeared previously), but certainly a ...
3 May 2017
... in which a person is ‘neither conscious nor not conscious’. We can’t know from his criticism or his poems, though, that while in the East he chased up images of Buddha with what his biographer JohnHaffenden calls ‘a learned amateur interest amounting to an obsession’. The offhand phrase about Marvell is a bit of English disguise: camouflaged passion rather than easy generality. Empson ...


Frank Kermode: Remembering William Empson

16 November 2006
William Empson. Vol. II: Against the Christians 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 797 pp., £30, November 2006, 0 19 927660 9
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... him unfit for military service, and so, almost inevitably, he found himself in mid-1940 working for the BBC, first in the Monitoring Service, later in the Chinese section of the Overseas Service. Haffenden’s huge second volume begins there, and it is clear at once that his industry and love of Empson and Empsoniana have not diminished. He gives an interestingly detailed account of the BBC at war ...

Golden Boy

Denis Donoghue

22 December 1983
W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage 
edited by John Haffenden.
Routledge, 535 pp., £19.95, September 1983, 0 7100 9350 0
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Auden: A Carnival of Intellect 
by Edward Callan.
Oxford, 299 pp., £12.50, August 1983, 0 19 503168 7
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Drawn from the Life: A Memoir 
by Robert Medley.
Faber, 251 pp., £12.50, November 1983, 0 571 13043 7
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... proposed, largely accounted for the reception of The Orators when it appeared in May 1932. By the end of that year, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Geoffrey Grigson, Michael Roberts, Bonamy Dobrée, John Hayward and Graham Greene had nominated Auden as the new voice. The six odes and the epilogue of The Orators, Greene said, justified Auden’s ‘being named in the same breath as Lawrence’. But ...

As a returning lord

John​ Lanchester

7 May 1987
Einstein’s Monsters 
by Martin Amis.
Cape, 127 pp., £5.95, April 1987, 0 224 02435 3
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... and, of course, if they are still alive – I must find my wife and children and I must kill them. Amis’s most obvious assets as a writer are his ear (‘When you’re writing,’ he told JohnHaffenden, in an exchange published in Novelists in Interview, ‘you run it through your mind until your tuning-fork is still’) and his energy. In the quoted paragraph, both are as they always were; the ...

Wild Bill

Stephen Greenblatt

20 October 1994
Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. II 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Cambridge, 292 pp., £35, May 1994, 0 521 44044 0
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... in spirits that were neither angels nor devils but something in between: he called them ‘Middle Spirits’. Empson’s fullest exploration of this subject remained unfinished. The editor, JohnHaffenden, has stitched together the various drafts that he left behind and has given the somewhat unwieldy result the title ‘The Spirits of the Dream’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck meets a fairy ...

No reason for not asking

Adam Phillips: Empson’s War on God

3 August 2006
Selected Letters of William Empson 
edited by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 729 pp., £40, March 2006, 0 19 928684 1
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... literature coerced assent instead of opening argument – was the very thing that troubled Empson. Indeed, the thing Empson seems to have been most at odds with himself about was conflict. So when John Wain praises Empson’s poetry in his book Professing Poetry, Empson replies: ‘I feel it is very discerning praise, so it is at least sympathetic; and the best I can do by way of thanks is to say ...

The Queen and I

William Empson and John Haffenden

26 November 1987
... On 27 October 1954 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the University of Sheffield in order to inaugurate its Jubilee Session. No other reigning sovereign had visited the principal university buildings since King Edward VII opened them in 1905. Six months before the Queen’s visit, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.M. Whittaker, put to his recently-appointed Professor of English Literature ...

Cold Feet

Frank Kermode

22 July 1993
Essays on Renaissance Literature. Vol. I: Donne and the New Philosophy 
by William Empson, edited by John Haffenden.
Cambridge, 296 pp., £35, March 1993, 0 521 44043 2
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William Empson: The Critical Achievement 
edited by Chistopher Norris and Nigel Mapp.
Cambridge, 319 pp., £35, March 1993, 0 521 35386 6
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... firmly that Empson was a great critic, but have to regard as wasteful his advocacy, over many years, of an eccentric view of Donne. To understand that view, here documented in full and supported by JohnHaffenden’s conscientious and adulatory commentary, one point at least is essential. Empson found it all but impossible to believe that any intelligent and honest person could be a Christian. A lot ...
27 September 1990
Collected Poems, 1937-1971 
by John​ Berryman, edited by Charles Thornbury.
Faber, 348 pp., £17.50, February 1990, 0 571 14317 2
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The Dream Songs 
by John​ Berryman.
Faber, 427 pp., £17.50, February 1990, 0 571 14318 0
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Poems 1959-1979 
by Frederick Seidel.
Knopf, 112 pp., $19.95, November 1989, 0 394 58021 4
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These Days 
by Frederick Seidel.
Knopf, 50 pp., $18.95, October 1989, 0 394 58022 2
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A Scottish Assembly 
by Robert Crawford.
Chatto, 64 pp., £5.99, April 1990, 0 7011 3595 6
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... re more concerned with their interest in a subject, and the manner which conveys that interest, than in the subject itself. A poet’s earliest efforts are usually marred by self-consciousness and John Berryman’s are no exception to the rule. For most poets, however, finding a distinct and convincing voice is, at least in part, a process of shedding unwanted affectations and exaggerated self ...

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