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Deaths of the Po­ets

Paul Far­ley and Michael Sym­mons Roberts (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)

In Edge­lands, the au­thors ex­plored patches of Eng­land caught be­tween town and coun­try. Their new book opens in an auc­tion room and is more of an in­doors and international af­fair, ‘about places and the charge we feel (or don’t) for their as­so­ci­a­tions with a writer’. But what might have been mor­bid or merely aca­demic be­comes an ex­hil­a­rat­ingly cu­rated col­lec­tion of the best po­etry anec­dotes.

The au­thors—po­ets them­selves—ev­i­dently en­joy their pil­grim­ages and are un­afraid of the ir­rev­er­ent quip, but well in­formed and ask­ing shrewd ques­tions, such as ‘can we ac­tu­ally quote a sin­gle line by this poet whose deathbed we are vis­it­ing?’.

First is the no­to­ri­ous ‘teenage forger’ Thomas Chat­ter­ton, born on one of Bris­tol’s ‘edge­lands’, re­mem­bered less for his writ­ings than for Henry Wal­lis’s paint­ing of his pre­ma­ture death. Then comes Keats, ‘an ad­mirer of Chat­ter­ton’ and, be­fore we know it, we’re in a new York bar with Dy­lan Thomas, on a bridge in Min­neapo­lis wait­ing for John Ber­ry­man (the head­line was ‘Moon­struck Man Leaps to His Death’), or at Sylvia Plath’s last ad­dress in Primrose Hill dur­ing that win­ter of 1963 (‘we both re­mem­ber older peo­ple talk­ing about it with a kind of hush and awe’).

The au­thors re­late how, one mild novem­ber, the con­tem­po­rary poet Hugo Wil­liams found a street near his home snow­bound—‘he’d stum­bled upon the lo­ca­tion shoot for Sylvia’. This ex­cel­lent vol­ume is threaded with such un­ex­pected sto­ries, the kind that one poet tells to an­other.

Other sad tales will be fa­mil­iar—about Lord By­ron, Emily Dickinson, John Clare, cer­tain war po­ets, W. H. Au­den in a Vi­en­nese hotel, Louis Mac­ne­ice down a pot­hole, Thom Gunn among his drugs, Robert Low­ell in a taxi, 84-year-old Mar­i­anne Moore af­ter throw­ing the ball to start the Yan­kees’ sea­son and, of course, Philip Larkin in Hull, ‘go­ing to the in­evitable’. But, in­vari­ably, the au­thors take us beyond the Blue Plaques and fa­mous last words, freely as­so­ci­at­ing, spec­u­lat­ing, in­form­ing and al­ways en­ter­tain­ing us. John Green­ing

Henry Wal­lis’s The Death of Chat­ter­ton. Chat­ter­ton was ar­guably bet­ter known for this paint­ing than his writ­ing

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