In the Critics this week

Alwyn W Turner on Daleks, Fiona Sampson on British poetry and poems by John Burnside and Samuel Beckett.

“Running through every fascist movement is a thread of comic absurdity, providing a counter-point to the violence and hatred that predominate,” writes David Shariatmadari in his review of Daniel Pick’s The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts. “Hess’s treatment by British doctors after an extraordinary solo flight from Germany in 1941 forms the kernel of Daniel Pick’s study of attempts to apply psychoanalytic theory to the phenomenon of Nazism.” “Here was no great supply of military intelligence but a man beset by delusions and hypochondria” who offered “the chance to explore the psychological underpinnings of the movement.” Yet these attempts to “analyse the German people as a whole did little further the Allies’ understanding of their enemy and less to affect the course of conflict. They contributed far more to intellectual debates about the limits of psychoanalysis and its proper applications.” “The question of whether psychoanalysis at a distance can ever be meaningful is a fascinating one” and Shariatmadari finds “Pick’s description of this reckoning the most interesting part of the book after the sections on Hess.” He concludes that this is “a meticulous work of history and an impressive achievement”, though it’s “hard not to feel disappointment that, for the layperson at least, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind makes for a rather desiccated read.”

The comic absurdity of fascism can also be detected in Doctor Who baddies the Daleks. In his "Critic at large" essay, Alwyn W Turner traces the roots of the Daleks to the Cardiff air raids of 1941m during which a young Terry Nation spent many nights “sheltering from the Luffwaffe’s bombs on his own, reading adventure stories.” Twenty-three years later he was commissioned to write a script for the nascent Doctor Who. “Perhaps it was the pace of the writing that enabled him so effectively to tap into subconscious fears,” Turner writes, and to create in the Daleks “a science-fiction incarnation of the Nazis”. By 1964 “Dalekmania was the only serious rival to Beatlemania”, and “as Doctor Who starts gearing up for its 50th anniversary year, it’s no great shock to find the Daleks revived once more to launch the new series.” By Doctor Who’s revival in 2005,  “the Daleks fed a new nostalgia”; “in 1964, the sight of Daleks in London had drawn on fears of Nazi occupation; now it evoked the swinging Sixties”. Stripped of the “doom-laden associations” of the Nazis and neutron bombs, the “Daleks have fallen out of favour . . . seen by some as limited and simplistic . . .  they’re also a bit embarrassing.” Yet “still they can’t be written out of Dr Who, because children continue to fall for them.”

The curious absence of the Nazis also figure in the life of Miriam Gross, whose memoir, An Almost English Life, John Sutherland finds to be a “short book” that “has the quality of a long conversation with a very interesting woman.” As a child, Gross's family “barely escaped the clutches of Hitler”. Yet “her parents were determined their daughter should not be brought up a ‘German’” and “was in her late teens before she was aware that something called the Holocaust had even happened.” She grew up anglicised by her education at Dartington, “a rather zany commune devoted to art, beauty and spiritual freedom” and graduated “a sophisticated adolescent, adept at French kissing (and French)” and “formidably well read”. After studying at Oxford she “drifted into the London literary world”, which “was not at the time open to all talents – particularly female talent”. Sutherland finds “Gross is better at demonstrating her qualities as a higher journalist than describing them. Pride of place goes to the literary interviews she did for the Observer.” “These interviews would adapt into wonderful radio plays. One would be tempted to say that they, alone, make the book worth buying – if it weren’t that the rest of it is.”

The examination of life stories is continued in Daniel Swift's review of D T Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, which he finds to be “a model biography, traditionally conceived.” “Wallace is almost as entertaining and moving to read about as he is to read. Yet it is precisely because this biography is so good at what it narrowly does that it is also an oddly misguided project, missing the point of the writer it so diligently tracks.” “Wallace’s great concern was to catch, in language, life. He wrote about the point at which experience meets its verbal expression, where story meets life.” Now that Wallace is dead, “what remains – and what remains most moving – is the spectacle of care. 'It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies,' he told an interviewer, 'in be[ing] willing to die in order to move the reader, somehow.'" “In the end, he arranged the pages of his final novel into neat piles in his office, so that his wife would find them and so that others might be able to make sense of them, and he hanged himself.”

The suicide of another influential literary figure, in this case Slyvia Plath, is subject of Last Letter by Ted Hughes which the New Statesman published “to immense international interest” in 2010. In her introduction to our poetry special, Sophie Elmhirst shows how, since its earliest days, the New Statesman has been a staunch supporter of poetry, leading Edward Hyams, editor of a 1963 anthology of writing in the NS, to claim that its pages has been the home to “the early work of almost every poet to make a name since 1913”.

In an accompanying opinion piece, Fiona Sampson explains how her book Beyond the Lyric was driven by her dismay that “even arts journalists scarcely seemed aware that today’s British poetry is world-class.” “Poetry is flowering and expanding . . . yet it receives strangely little attention.” “So what is it that comes between today’s British poetry and its readers? One reason our verse is such a well-kept secret is that we lack robust, engaged critical practise.” So Sampson wrote Beyond the Lyric, in which she “set out to map the main poem-making strategies available to poets today. I found 13 fundamental visions of what a poem is and how it works. These range from using strict metre as a poetic motor to building verse on myth, from dandified re-workings of realism to postmodernity’s exploded lyricism.” “This way of mapping suggests how wide-ranging British poetry is.”

Sampson's piece is followed by poems by Samuel Beckett, James Lasdun, Rachael Boast, Azfa Ali and John Burnside.

Laugh if you like, but in 1963 Daleks channelled subconscious fears as SF incarnations of the Nazis (Image: Getty)
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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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