Christopher Reid’s Elegiac Scattering

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“Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend; / nor even the jobsworth slob / with a slow sly scheme to rob / my darling of her mind / that I imagined; / just a tumour.”

-Christopher Reid, “The Unfinished”, from A Scattering

A Scattering by Christopher ReidChristopher Reid’s A Scattering is a moving tribute to his wife Lucinda, who died of cancer. A respected English poet recommended it to me after reading my piece contrasting Douglass Dunn and Donald Hall, both of whom also wrote elegies under very similar circumstances. In addition to fine poems, in this book I also found certain insights into how a culture grieves, and what it considers good art.

Whereas Douglass Dunn’s elegies take root in his working-class background, Reid signals his place in the upper class early on in the book when, on the island of Crete, he invokes “ghosts of old schoolmasters” whose lessons, in his mouth, have become, “scraps of misremembered Classical Greek.”

In The Daily Telegraph, a periodical more typically aligned with those who studied Classics as school, Tom Payne assessed, “It is a collection that defies criticism in two ways — first, because it feels wrong to pick over such poignant elegies, and also, because so many of these poems are impossible to fault.” What makes this book seem flawless to this particular slice of Britain — and especially when the topic is such a difficult one?

Two elements more common in American expressions of grief are entirely off limits to Reid: invoking religious faith, and outpouring emotion. Instead, educated fascination with the world, and particularly the natural world, takes the place of religion; and self-consciousness and self-deprecation take the place of emotive self-expression.
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Notes on Contemporary British Poetry

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The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, has been my field guide to better-known British poets, and a useful overview for me. Having mostly studied British poets dating from before the 18th century, and American poets since that time, I have been reading this book as eagerly as I have been reading the London A-Z map book (which is not faint praise; I am enthralled with maps of London).

For each poet, I have been jotting marginalia on my tube journey to work. I include these notes here, in a similar fashion to the notes I took on Modern American poets during my MFA degree. Unlike those notes, however, these are taken on a short sampling of work, as opposed to a whole book. I therefore intend them as starting points, not summaries.

In my notes I have also included broad designations of geographic origin, since to my outside ear a poet from Leeds and a poet from Northumberland have an auditory relationship to language more in common with each other than they do to a poet from Oxford (hence my coarse-grained designation “Northern England.”) I realize I may be missing out on subtle distinctions in language and even politics. But for now, I am concerned with puzzling out in general how these poems would sound read aloud by the authors themselves, and taking a first pass this broadly has been helpful.

Compiling in this way, I am particularly struck by the complete absence of Welsh and significant lack of Scottish poets from this volume, and the controversial inclusion of so many poets from Northern Ireland. I would be interested to hear who else you think should have made it into this book.

Here are my notes:
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