When I moved to London from New York City over a year ago, I approached the British poetry world with some hesitancy. Having been the programs director at the Poetry Society of America for five years and a professor of poetry at The New School for even more years, I was aware that I needed a break. And, anyway, I had moved here for love. Poetry could wait. Luckily for me, I married someone who loves poetry almost as much as I do (a medievalist, my husband is a scholar of Anglo Saxon and Middle English poetry, but he is happy to jump a few centuries forward to the present). So poetry didn’t have to wait long.
I began attending poetry events and reading Todd Swift’s blogzine and his blog on young British poets. And at the Poetry Cafe (the Poetry Society’s venue), I met with Martha Kapos, a fantastic poet who is an editor at Poetry London, which publishes the work of contemporary British poets and lists poetry events in London.
This week my medievalist and I attended a reading at King’s College by Irish poets Sinead Morrissey and Michael Longley. We had heard Morrissey read at the T.S. Eliot Prize Reading in the winter of 2010 – my first British poetry event. Her book Through the Square Window had been nominated for the Eliot prize, the most prestigious and financially generous poetry award in the United Kingdom. Attending a reading in a space named Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank of London beside the Thames made the 92nd St. Y seem like a café in a provincial town.
An unconscious and near brush with fame occurred at this event. I ran into Kathryn Maris (a wonderful expatriate American poet living in London) outside the bathroom who notified me that Valerie Eliot (the poet’s widow) had been in the bathroom at the same time as me. Although I was mildly intrigued by this, the truly astonishing moment of the evening was when Sinead Morrissey—petite, dark, with a quirky sense of humor and a voice sweet and grave—read her poem “Vanity Fair.” The poem is written from the point of view of Amelia Sedley, the earnest and simple-minded “goody-goody” who serves as a foil to the amoral Becky Sharp, the anti-herione of Thackery’s nineteenth-century novel. Morrissey’s poem takes the form of a letter to the constant, stable, and quietly passionate William Dobbin who loves and courts Amelia. Despite Dobbin’s love, she marries the cad George who had always treated her with meanness and neglect. George dies a couple of weeks into the Napoleonic wars. In the novel, after George’s death, Amelia writes a letter to Dobbin; he returns to her, and they marry. Thackery does not reveal the contents of the letter. Morrissey does. She excavates the novel’s psychology, unearthing Amelia’s words in her poem.
Morrissey’s epistolary poem is one of the most moving I have heard at a reading. The poet read from inside the poem—her connection to the language and rhythms, palpable; she was Amelia. The young woman in the poem makes a plea—intense and elegant—in a moment of rare unsentimental self-insight, the kind of revelation that is often found in great nineteenth-century English novels and rarely in contemporary literature. The poem’s tone balances humility and self-confidence, fervour and reticence, and a very British civility veiling a burning and regretful heart. It’s the letter we all want to write at least once in our lives: “come back. Like everything else we do / in our mingled, muddy lives, this letter is overdue. / Forgive me if my love arrives belatedly” (lines 37-39). A poem like this has the ability to change us, to ice-axe the frozen sea within us, to open up potential in our “muddy lives”, to lead to a dwelling in possibility before it’s too late, to make something happen.
I had never followed contemporary British poetry carefully before—perhaps my American snobbishness about the British interest in form was an obstacle. Before I moved to England, Saskia Hamilton had warned me that American poets sometimes do not open up to British poetry – we assume that traditional form is backwards. We have Walt Whitman! Why return to Wordsworth and Pope? But Saskia suggested that the contemporary poets in the UK bear the burden of the great British poets and struggle with that tradition in ways that American poets can learn to appreciate. I thought about Saskia’s warnings when I noticed that Morrissey wrote “Vanity Fair” in rhymed couplets. I only noticed the form after looking at the poem carefully: the rhymes are so organic that they sink into the page, the music from them vibrating with an invisible and unconscious grace.
At the King’s College reading this week, among several other delicately intellectual and ardent poems, Morrissey read the poem again. I expected her to. How could she not read it? Again, it moved us in the same way. After the reading, I spoke with her about the poem. And she said that writing it was a challenge for her because she so dislikes Amelia. Then how, I asked, did you manage to make her sound so appealing? Because, she replied, I have always been in love with William Dobbin.
Here is the poem:
I could begin by hoping you are well in England
(and I do!) now that the — th regiment has returned
to Chatham; or I could begin by telling you
that reports of worsening weather here are true;
that Georgie thinks you wicked and unkind
for leaving him; that your former servants pine;
or that father, though no better, is no worse, etc.
But this is not a weather-talk sort of letter.
It is after three. The whole house sleeps
(even Becky) and I am kept awake six weeks
by your crippling absence: an irony, I confess,
since for all your years of passionate presence
I failed to cherish you… Now that you’re gone,
Becky (and you were right about her all along)
keeps dreadful company: boorish men who jest
and drink and flirt and she isn’t in the slightest
shocked by any of it. I keep to my room.
I have placed the portrait of George face down
on the dresser. I have folded the gloves you left
in an innermost drawer, as though they were a gift.
Since you spoke of my incapacity for love
I have come to see how my own fierce widowhood
was a shell against the world, a kind of carapace
made up of pride, stupidity and cowardice,
a stay, if you will, against ‘the kind of attachment’
such as yours for me deserved. Poor shredded raiment—
for if it did not keep me warm, it kept me safe,
safe against you and safe against myself.
Last year, at the opera (it was Dido and Aeneas),
I wished to take your hand—in a sudden, artless,
harmless way that would not give you pause—
then didn’t. I think I must have sensed the charge
built up from a decade’s loving in your fingers
(though there you sat, as solid as an anchor)
and feared that touching it would knock me flat.
Now I’m scared I shall die without it.
Dear Dobbin, come back. Like everything else we do
in our mingled, muddy lives, this letter is overdue.
Forgive me if my love arrives belatedly,
but there is a ship can get you here by Friday
and, come all the rain in Christdendom,
I shall be waiting for you by the viewing platform.
Dearest William, put out to sea.
Yours, Amelia Sedley.
Wow! This poem made me cry! (And I’m a hardened 45 year old man). Thanks. PS: I’ve read her latest book and it’s just as good!