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