John Greening, Vapour Trails: Reviews and Essays on Poetry (Shoestring Press, 2020)
William Empson, reviewing books by several critics for The Sewanee Review in 1955, noted, ‘The practice of making a book out of old magazine articles might seem scraping the barrel rather, but … it seems sensible enough in all of them.’ Empson, who became something of a posthumous master of the art, was certainly correct in thinking the practice sensible, though with a good critic it is hardly scraping the barrel.
Take John Greening’s new book Vapour Trails, which collects a number of reviews from the TLS over the years, as well as ‘fully-fledged essays’ on poets and their work written for other literary magazines and sundry other pieces. It adds up to a stimulating, modestly comprehensive view of British and Irish poetry written in the twentieth century.
The book is organized into three sections: articles on individual works or careers (‘Varieties of Englishness’), then on poets from Scotland, Wales and Ireland (‘Across Borders’). I should add that this includes interesting work on Americans poets: Lowell and Bishop, Berryman and Sexton, Clampitt, and Merrill. (Greening’s understanding of how Lowell worship has passed to Bishop – an argument which generally sets my teeth on edge – shows a patient, intelligent understanding generally lacking among the more vociferous of Bishop’s adherents.) Then there are personal essays and thoughts about ‘A Place for Writing’. Greening’s occasional technical comments – muted for the reader’s benefit – highlight something of a poet’s craft without having ...
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