Category Archives: Close Readings

Close Reading: An Education in Silence

The longer I spend in poetry’s experimental borderlands in pursuit of linguistic monsters and verbal wizardry, the greater the importance of making regular visits back to the lyric mainstream to remember that skilled, nuanced, exciting poems aren’t the sole preserve of any single tradition. Here’s a wonderful dramatic monologue from Jessica Traynor’s collection Liffey Swim, reproduced here by kind permission of the author. Continue reading

Close Reading: Snowclone Detritus

Over the past few years Peter Hughes has been publishing versions of Petrarch’s sonnets in concentrated pamphlet-sized bundles from a range of different small presses. I’ve been immersed in these for several weeks now with increasing enjoyment and admiration. I took Snowclone Detritus (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2013) on a recent work trip to America and had already decided to post a close reading of one of the poems when, yesterday morning, the just-published complete collection from Reality Street, Quite Frankly: After Petrarch’s Sonnets, dropped through the letterbox as the first installment of the 2015 Reality Street supporter scheme. Continue reading

Close Reading: Words at Sea

Andrew McNeillie’s latest collection, Winter Moorings, was published a little over a week ago, and for my money is his strongest since the Forward-shortlisted Nevermore. The new collection takes risks with form and subject matter, including a number of successful longer pieces that riff on older poetic models (the discursive “By Ferry, Foot and Fate” tugs towards the late eighteenth century, while the experimental voice-play “An English Airman’s Death Recalled” dances elegantly and eloquently around the early radio dramas of MacNeice and Dylan Thomas). But today I want to look at one of the shorter pieces, reproduced below by kind permission of the author. Continue reading

Future Remnants: Frances Leviston’s “Reconstruction”

Radio 4 introduced me to Frances Leviston’s work in early 2008. Over the course of a week The Today Programme were broadcasting a poem per day from each of the TS Eliot prize shortlist. After three lines of Leviston’s “I Resolve to Live Chastely” I’d resolved to buy her book. It was an extraordinary poem, and Public Dream was one of the poetic highlights of 2007/8 – a debut that could more than hold its own against a strong TS Eliot shortlist including Sean O’Brien’s The Drowned Book and Fiona Sampson’s Common Prayer. Later that year I met my wife for the first time; we both owned a copy of Public Dream and spent one of our earliest dinners together enthusing about how good it is. Continue reading

Close Reading: Catullus 51 / Obsession

Before too long in any discussion about translating poetry, it’s a fair bet that someone will either misquote the Italian “traduttore, traditore” (“translator, betrayer”) or misappropriate Robert Frost’s aphorism that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Both these phrases have survived in the meme-pool because there’s truth in them; but if we apply them too rigidly then we’ll miss two other important truths: that in poetic translation (as opposed to a literal crib) the original is really the stimulus for making a new poem; and that in a sense all poetry is translation (something that will have to be unpacked in a future post). Continue reading

Close Reading: A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

One of the joys of close reading is that it allows us to look at a poem as words on the page, unencumbered by any received wisdom about its “themes” or “interpretation”. Sometimes this can lead us in surprising directions.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal (William Wordsworth, 1798)

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years. Continue reading

Close Reading: Leda and the Swan

Looking in detail at how a poem achieves its effects (either out of copyright or with the author’s permission).

This week I want to look at a sonnet close up. And if you want to see how a sonnet works – what the form can be made to do when you pass a few thousand volts through it – there aren’t many examples as taut and disturbing as this one.

Leda and the Swan (W.B. Yeats, 1924)

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. Continue reading