'Deaths of the Poets', by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts - Review

By Motion, Andrew | The Spectator, February 11, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Deaths of the Poets', by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts - Review


Motion, Andrew, The Spectator


In Deaths of the Poets two living examples of the species, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, retail the closing moments of close on 30 poetical lives, ranging from Thomas Chatterton to Robert Frost, Lord Byron to Rosemary Tonks, John Clare to Thom Gunn. Why? Because they feel the influence on 'our' generation (Farley was born in 1965 and Symmons Roberts in 1963) of the 'confessional' American poets, several of whom cast a solemn glamour over their calling by killing themselves -- John

Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. Because they think that a shrinking appetite for poetry itself, and an unflagging curiosity about the most dramatic elements in poet's biographies (of which death must count as one), is bound to turn the end of a life into a 'lens' through which we view everything that came before it. And because they suppose that there's an 'association between poets and mortality', since a lot of people think if poets are any good they must be 'doomed' -- not to mention melancholy, drunken, lascivious and incapable of tying their own shoelaces.

All these notions have their interest, but it has to be said they don't inevitably shed much light on anyone's work. And as Farley and Symmons Roberts also say, it's perfectly easy to create an alternative image of the poetic past, by listing all the long-lived and lucid poets who, however they might have experienced difficulties and feared death, insisted on clinging to life and reason. Larkin made the point memorably, as Farley and Symmons Roberts allow: 'Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy,' he said, 'it's the big, sane boys who get the medals. The object of writing is to show life as it is, and if you don't see it like that you're in trouble, not life.'

To put all this another way: Deaths of the Poets is no less interesting as an idea than a book on poets and some other aspect of their existence -- childhood, say. But while Farley and Symmons are good at telling (pretty familiar) stories, they're hampered by the weakness of their founding arguments, and by their reluctance to follow up on them.

To take one instance among many: after quoting an excellent remark that Nadine Gordimer made to Christopher Hitchens --' a serious person should try to write posthumously' -- they miss the chance to discuss how writers' sense of mortality might provoke them to devise ways of taking aim at eternity over the heads of the present. In a book more deeply concerned with poetry itself, this might have led them in turn to discuss the whole notion of how poets treat 'contemporary subjects' in their work. And then to consider ideas about the death of the author that we associate with Roland Barthes. …

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