A Commentary on ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’


In 2013 I went to Oxford to see Kate Kilalea read at the launch of Bloodaxe’s anthology Dear World and Everyone In It. She wore round glasses that made a heavy noise when she put them on a chair. Of the few people on many empty seats, there seemed more poets waiting nervously to read than people there just to listen, which I took as indicative of poetry generally, although I’m not sure this is the problem it’s made out to be. I felt conspicuous, as if my part as audience carried unspoken responsibilities, more weighty considering we were few. I gripped my notebook, as if writing things down would help, as if it would account for me and turn the moment to some purpose, as if it would placate that hot, pricking question which rises again audible from the background at such moments: what am I doing here?

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Maggie Smith’s Good Bones

In 2015 the population of the US included ~73,783,981 children. There were 1,093 murders of children in that year. The poem would perhaps be more accurate to say:

For every 67,506 loved children, there is a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake.

When the poem says the world is “at least half terrible”, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is at least 0.0014% terrible.

I don’t have any data for violence against birds.

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RIP @williamempson

In 2012 I created a Twitter account in the name of William Empson (@williamempson), mostly in a fit of enthusiasm that his work should be seen by all (having spent some time at university writing about him). Not that his great reputation needs my promotion or care, but I feel generally that his poetry deserves as much esteem as his criticism enjoys. Like his prose, his poetry is idiosyncratic such that it has, now nearly a century from its composition, had to stand on its own or not at all; it is too knotty and esoteric to appeal to formalists, and too formal and often grand for the experimental to claim as their own. Helpfully, though, its concision and density favours the brevity of a tweet.

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Criticism as obsession

On his blog, the poet David Clarke described part of the strange business of reviewing poetry:

This means reading, re-reading, a fair amount of travelling around with the book in your bag or walking about the house with it under your arm.

Writing criticism involves a strange reading, as Clarke describes: not just reading, not re-reading, but staying with the book even thereafter, coming back and back to it, holding on with begrudged compulsion. It’s completely odd behaviour, in that all the normal reasons for reading a book are exceeded or depleted, and yet the book is still there, needing to be read again and again to keep it from fading. Its capacity to thrill or excite, to surprise or repulse, are gone, and, if they’re required to account for themselves, must be pulled up and reanimated. The ridges and furrows of the text, its form and features, are exaggerated with each repetition, swelling it all out of proportion.

Insight is hard. Writing is hard. Expressing something useful from the monster you’ve made of the book is hard, and harder especially when you suspect you may, even so, have something to say.  During composition often one’s own critical writing feels at best impoverished and at worse a sham. You return, then, to the book, again. It becomes a grim obsession, akin to the madness of expecting different results from doing the same thing. The glimmer of any fleeting idea you thought you might have becomes a trap, and so you’re  stuck there with only the book for company, like cellmates.

You chase and then lose your train of thought, like this. You call an end out of impatience, like this.