Boyd Tonkin: Words that allow us to stare grief in the face

Share
Related Topics

In a culture warier than ever of poetry in public places, it looks as if elegies can still take you through the grandest entrances. During the late 1990s, the Whitbread book of the year award (forerunner of the Costas, before beer gave way to coffee) went four times in succession to volumes of verse: two by Seamus Heaney, two by Ted Hughes.

In 1998, the last collection of original poems to take the cross-category final prize proved to be Ted Hughes's ecstatic, tormented swansong for his first wife Sylvia Plath, Birthday Letters. (Heaney won the next round with his version of Beowulf.)

Then, for a decade, poetry languished on the margins, muscled out of the limelight by fiction and the odd heavyweight biography. Now A Scattering, Christopher Reid's four sequences of elegiac poems about his late wife Lucinda, have prevailed. At the beginnings and the ends of life, a verse-averse society still opts to honour poetry. In the busy middle passages, it tends to vanish. But for now the "necessary footnote" (as Reid puts it) of the words that mark his loss – or our losses – will reach many more readers than before.

Understated, elliptical, rising quietly through its stages of memory and mourning into a controlled intensity, A Scattering glows with a restrained passion. It brings the dead woman back into ever-changing focus not as a saint or icon but a scattily enthusiastic shape-shifter, someone whose fluctuating moods and masks calls for an equally flexible verse.

Reid never quite drops the playful, paradoxical wit of his former work. He came to prominence in the early 1980s after his first collections, Arcadia and Pea Soup, had marked him as, along with Craig Raine, one of the so-called "Martian" poets who looked down on blundering humanity with a sardonic, almost extraterrestrial eye. In some ways A Scattering could not sound more different, with its steady attention to the universal truths of bereavement. The Martian has indeed fallen to earth. But his poetry still makes it strange, stands apart – and so lets us look such grief in the face.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are looking for a Qualified C...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

Year 1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 1 Primary Supply Teachers ne...

Early Years Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Early Years supply teachers neede...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits