Saturday, 8 September 2012



"Walter Scott has no business writing novels, particularly good ones" wrote Jane Austen on reading Waverley.

Thomas Hardy's first and last love was poetry - he said he only wrote novels because poetry didn't pay.

Some writers start off writing poetry and then renege on poetry and write only novels thereafter.  But other writers manage to achieve a creative symbiotic relationship bewteen the two genres.  Margaret Atwood is a good example.  Although she has said, self-deprecatingly, that she started off with poetry because it is short, she has proved herself to be a fine poet as well as an accomplished novelist.  The Door, her powerful 2007 collection, takes no hostages.

I'm reading the recently published Selected Poems of John Fowles (yes, he of The French Lieutenant's Woman).  I was surprised to discover that Fowles wrote poetry throughout his writing life.  "The prose did not soak up the poetry" writes Adam Thorpe in the introduction.

It's interesting that Adam Thorpe has selected and edited the poems because he too is both a poet and a novelist.  He's a writer I've only recently discovered, initially through his wonderful sixth collection Voluntary (2012).  I went on to read some of his earlier collections and then started on his first novel Ulverton.  It's one of those rare rich novels that makes me think I'm merely skimming the surface at the first reading.

Back to John Fowles.  The opening peom of the Selected is "Ars Poetica" which includes the lines

     "they should be like the
      little daily things kept
      in Doctor Johnson's house:
      his tea-bowl, stick, reading stand
      . . .
      so when you're dead and
      they read your collected
      they'll say:
      I see how he was".

The lines illustrate Fowles' view that if you really want to know a writer read his poetry, not his prose.

The Selected opens with the Apollo sequence of Greek poems, dating back to the time when John Fowles lived on the island of Spetsai ("Phraxos" in The Magus).  There's considerable variety in this sequence.  The satirical "Unasked" features an encounter with Mr Plutopoulos, with his Cadillacs and Picassos, and ends with the devastating unasked question.  "Shepherd" is a perfect character sketch of a man who went away to work in the capital but came back.  It ends:

     "Athens was good but lacked one thing:
      a silence in which a man could sing."

There is a Mycenae sequence (titles include "Cassandra", "Clytemnestra", "Choros", "Agamemnon").  Most of these poems are unpunctuated, strongly dependent on line and stanza breaks.

The longest section is a gathering of separate poems.  I read "The Experience" as an allegory of writing poety.  You do all the right things and nothing happens.  Inspiration does come but inconviently "at the start of a busy day".  It comes with "The wind.  And you stand / blinded till you are not blind." 

There are several love poems in Fowles' Selected, including "Within ten seconds" which you can read at
Finally there is a little cluster of translations, a reminder that John Fowles was a fine linguist.

The Selected Poems is beautifully produced by Flambard Press.  I am very impressed with the design and layout and it's on good paper with just the right print size and font.  The front cover with its simple serif lettering features an amazing photograph by Peter Wiles called "Cobb Storm".  I'm surprised the photographer survived the storm!  The whole of the back cover is taken up with  Carolyn Djanogly's moving portrait photograph of John Fowles.

But celebrating the publication of these poems is tinged with sadness.  This is the last volume from my publisher, Flambard Press, "one of the finest small publishers in the UK".

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