French Poetry from Medieval to Modern Times review – warm humanity, brave choices

Editor Patrick McGuinness has assembled a rich and wide-ranging anthology that shows the strong links between French and English

‘Il faut être absolument moderne,” wrote Rimbaud: we must be absolutely modern. Has there been a foreign-language tradition more influential to modern English poetry than French? From WB Yeats’s symbolist beginnings to Ezra Pound and TS Eliot’s discovery of Jules Laforgue and Tristan Corbière, from Gertrude Stein’s cubist prose poems to Frank O’Hara carrying a Pierre Reverdy book in his pocket, 20th-century Anglophone poetry offers strong evidence for Wallace Stevens’s claim that “French and English constitute a single language”.

Patrick McGuinness, who is among the most Gallic (or, strictly speaking, Belgian) of modern British poets, has assembled a careful yet copious anthology, demonstrating just how close the two traditions are. Handily pocket-sized, this is not the book for great tracts of the Roman de la Rose ...

Unreconciled by Michel Houellebecq review – perfectly suited to the age of Trump

Laughter is in short supply in this collection from France’s great satirist and contrarian Having missed out on the 1930s, Michel Houellebecq is perfectly suited to the age of Trump. The war of ideologies, religious fundamentalism and sexual dystopia are well-worn Houellebecq themes, but under them like an ostinato runs the death of western liberalism: the full Spenglerian decline. As he explains in “A Last Stand Against the Free Market”, “We reject liberal ideology for failing to show the way, or a route to reconciliation between the individual and his fellow beings.” As snappy aperçus go (and bear in mind, that’s a line of poetry), it’s not quite “We must love one another or die”. Long-windedness, however, is the least of Houellebecq’s problems. The poems collected in Unreconciled tack between rhythmical grumbles about the state of the world and more straightforwardly sensory epiphanies, Baudelairean ennui permitting. Most are untitled, ...

New Selected Poems by Derek Mahon review – lyrics of crystalline wonder

A diptych of early and late work displays a consistency of skill and wit across 40 years Your ashes will not stir, even on this high ground,” wrote the young Derek Mahon in “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, his elegy for Louis MacNeice, “all we may ask of you we have.” Ashes may not stir, but poems can and do: Mahon’s elegy is now titled “Carrowdore” and the elegant summation of the dead poet’s work has become “Soon the biographies / and buried poems will begin to appear.” Mahon’s first selected poems was in 1979, since when he has published two further selected poems and two collected poems, revising and deleting work as he goes. A biography has appeared too, Stephen Enniss’s After the Titanic, with its share of “buried poems”. “A great disorder is an order,” writes Wallace Stevens in “Connoisseur of Chaos”. For the sake ...

Sam Gardiner obituary

Hard-hitting but witty Northern Irish poetSam Gardiner, who has died aged 79, was a distinguished member of the generation of Northern Irish poets that also included Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. While Mahon traded Protestant Ulster for visions of exotic elsewheres, Gardiner was adept at uncovering his sceptical humanist visions closer to home. In his poem Protestant Windows, winner of the 1993 National Poetry Competition, he transplants the violence of the Reformation to a quiet suburban close. Arguing with some PVC window salesmen, a defender of the sash-cord window (introduced by King Billy, he claims) is martyred when the window descends unexpectedly on his head, leaving him “reel[ing] /towards eternity”. Continue reading...

The Poems of TS Eliot: The Annotated Text review – a monumental achievement

Eliot went from starchy student to Nobel laureate who could pack out baseball stadiums on an American tour. This landmark study provides the background to a groundbreaking body of work

Buying an edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Florence as a student, I was struck by its resemblance to the flood lines marked on the side of buildings to commemorate the great flood of 1966: sometimes the footnotes would creep almost all the way to the top of the page, leaving only one or two lines of actual text. Had Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue adopted footnotes rather than endnotes in their remarkable edition of TS Eliot’s poems, whole pages of apparatus would surge by with barely a line of verse in sight. Volume one contains 346 pages of poems to 965 of commentary. In the second volume, notes follow text on a poem-by-poem basis, but their combined 290 pages is ...