Poetry And… History

Poetry And… History

Event: ‘Poetry And… History’, with James Brookes and Roy Foster

Venue: King’s College Chapel, the Strand

Report by Robert Selby

The latest instalment of King’s College London’s free ‘Poetry And…’ series, held in the university’s magnificent Renaissance Revivalist chapel on the Strand, paired poetry with history.

A large audience was treated to a triple bill: poet James Brookes read some of his work; Oxford Professor of Irish History, Roy Foster, placed the poetry of W.B. Yeats in historical context; and a new online poetry journal, Wild Court, was launched. Ruth Padel, Poetry Fellow at King’s, chaired and introduced.

Brookes commenced the evening by reading a quotation from the late historian F.S.L. Lyons. The revolutionary period in Ireland, Lyons wrote, was ‘an anarchy which forbade not just the unity of territories but the unity of being, an anarchy which sprang from the collision within a small but intimate island of seemingly irreconcilable cultures, unable to live together or live apart, caught inextricably in the web of their tragedies here.’

To Brookes that ‘small but intimate island’ could just as well mean Britain now and in the past, as anyone will know who has read his Dylan Thomas Prize-shortlisted debut collection Sins of the Leopard (Salt, 2012). Brookes proceeded to read, among others, his poems Those Iscariot Motions (‘we’re Albion come to its great confusion’), Bonfire Night (appropriate, given the date), and the angry Parliament (about the 2011 riots).



Poet James Brookes at King’s College Chapel

Brookes said he ‘worries about, or worries at’ the commonly-held idea of history as continuity. He believes there has been throughout history enough ‘recrudescence’ – a recurrence of something after a long period of its quiescence – to tell us that ‘there’s something about history where, just when you feel safe with it, it will come back at you’. By way of an example, he then read The English Sweats, his poem about a medical recrudescence: the ‘sweating sickness’ that devastated England recurrently in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Roy Foster, author of the two-volume authorised biography of W.B. Yeats, began by saying that Yeats, too, dissented from the idea of history as continuity: ‘For him history was dislocations, and wounding, and being hurt by history, which I think is perhaps specifically and inevitably an Irish take. In Ireland history is politics and politics is history, and that’s how you have to read Yeats. But he makes history his own and in so doing transforms it.’

Foster guided the audience masterfully through Yeats’s poetry surrounding the Irish Civil War, reciting some of the poems from memory. Ancestral Houses, for instance, is for Foster about the ‘inseparability of greatness and achievement with bitterness and violence, which I think informs some of Yeats’s most remarkable poetry in the great age of dislocation after World War One.’

Foster described September 1913 as Yeats’s ‘atonement’ for his previously-held belief in the extant existence of a platonic, romantic Ireland, a belief destroyed by his immersion in Dublin’s ‘small-time political world’. That poem’s counterpoint, Easter, 1916, written after the Easter Rising restored Yeats’s belief, is an ‘expiation in many ways for his previous cynicism’: Foster did not read it – because of its length and because ‘we will all get very tired of it over the next year’.

Wild Court


‘Yeats, too, dissented from the idea of history as continuity.’

Padel rounded off the evening by announcing the launch of Wild Court, a new online poetry journal based in the English Department at King’s. The website takes its name from a road opposite the department on Kingsway that was once an Irish rookery, and boasts an extensive advisory board of poets, writers and critics drawn from around the world.

Wild Court aims to publish essays and opinion pieces on poetry and promises to be driven by the enthusiasms of its invited contributors, rather than focused solely on poetry that is contemporary or high-profile. The website went live on Bonfire Night with essays on, among others, Anne Carson, Dorothea Lasky, Toby Martinez de las Rivas, Czesław Miłosz, Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik and Danish poet Christel Wiinblad – each accompanied by an illustration from artist Sophia Jones.

Padel paid tribute to Wild Court’s founder and editor, Declan Ryan, a Faber New Poet: ‘The poetry community is a strange, bubbling cauldron of different connections and is says a lot for Declan that people trust him so much to give them their work. He’s built up a backlog of trust among the young and the old over five years; it’s a wonderful thing and we’re very lucky to have it.’

By Robert Selby

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