Thursday, January 20, 2005


I've been reading Miscanthus, a newly published survey-anthology of the post-1975 writings of the poet, publisher and musicologist Anthony Barnett. The 250-page selection - mostly of poetry - is published by Shearsman Books, and edited by the French literary critic and scholar Xavier Kalck.

As Kalck points out in his introduction, Barnett's poems are small-scale ventures, deliberately so in their intention of avoiding what Kalck calls "large verse" - which "might grow sententious and, for the poet, to versify is too often to falsify." Yet the space encompassed and travelled by the poems is a wide one, spanning not only the inner dimensions of private thoughts and dreams, but also the outer ones of relationships and history and time. A quoted paragraph in a recent poem 'And When I Sleep' talks of a stylistic aim of "trying to approach Basho's silences" with a sensibility that "seems closer to Issa's irony", and this could be taken as characteristic of Barnett's style as a whole. Some of the most fascinating poems in the volume are to be found in this later section, with its ghostly tribute to Nelly Sachs (after photographing her Stockholm apartment-museum, the poet's camera turned out to be empty of film), and its invocations of Samuel Beckett and the Holy Land. But many earlier collections are anthologized here, such as North, North, I Said, No, Wait A Minute, South, Oh, I Don't Know (148 Political Poems), which includes the enigmatic

The bear
more than a century
passed in day
dreams and incubi

Barnett, who in addition to writing his own work has also translated and published a large selection of European and Scandinavian poetry, can in some ways only marginally be considered a "British" poet - in a way, the cover illustration of his narrative Lisa Lisa, with its upside-down satellite photo of the British Isles, sums up the approach to his homeland that this original yet in some sense exiled author has adopted. Miscanthus, representing three decades of his work, gives us a further chance of becoming acquainted with his curious, nomadic vision, which though sometimes opaque is always intently focused.

Anthony Barnett's website is here.

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