It Goes With the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet, By Elaine Feinstein: Book review

A vivid evocation of a life dedicated to poetry and writing

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The Independent Culture

All of Elaine Feinstein's grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Odessa to the North of England in the 1890s. Her childhood was spent in Leicester, where she "preferred the dramatic life I found in books to my own safe home". After the Second World War, her cabinet-maker dad's middle-class fortunes declined, so Elaine was overjoyed when she became the first Wyggeston Grammar School student to read English at Cambridge.

Soon after graduating in 1952 she met Arnold Feinstein, the son of an embittered out-of-work Stepney tailor. Elaine lived for the following half-century with Arnold, a brilliant and humorous but temperamental chemist and molecular biologist.

The memoirs end with Arnold's death after 260 pages that keep revisiting the conflicts between life, literature and science. Elaine concludes that, "for all my eccentric dedication to a writing life, I haven't seriously harmed my three sons. I'm not so sure about my marriage. My desire to make poems and stories was as intense as any adultery".

The phases of this prolific literary career are chronicled vividly, from schoolgirl passions for DH Lawrence, GM Hopkins and Keats, to sieving through the controversies in which Cambridge English studies were then enmeshed, to editing, in 1959, both Cambridge Opinion and the poetry magazine Prospect. Elaine used these as "a conduit for an American avant-garde not yet known in England… and several of them as Jewish as I was, outsiders, but ebullient, unfrightened figures" – Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and Denise Levertov.

She was excited by their frequent "absence of punctuation, and line endings which suggested the pauses of thinking aloud". Elaine's first book, In A Green Eye (1966), developed this, directly transcribing her impeccably lyrical speech rhythms.

But her transatlantic allegiances were replaced from the late 1960s by more intimately personal preoccupations with recently deceased Russian poets: Anna Akhmatova, Bella Akhmadulina, Joseph Brodsky and Marina Tsvetaeva. Elaine empathised most closely with the latter and devoted painstaking years to translating Tsvetaeva and writing her biography.

A solicitor Elaine nearly married early on reappeared at a reading she gave in Jerusalem. After she signed some books for him and his wife, he asked: "Didn't they all have unhappy lives, these Russian women poets?" As Elaine "looked at the couple in front of me, I guessed this was intended to remind me of the joys of an ordinary life. So I nodded: 'It goes with the territory'."