From Chatterton’s Pre-Raphaelite demise to Keats’ death warrant in a smudge of arterial blood; from Dylan Thomas’s eighteen straight whiskies to Sylvia Plath’s desperate suicide in the gas oven of her Primrose Hill kitchen or John Berryman’s leap from a bridge onto the frozen Mississippi, the deaths of poets have often cast a backward shadow on their work.
The post-Romantic myth of the dissolute drunken poet – exemplified by Thomas and made iconic by his death in New York – has fatally skewed the image of poets in our culture. Novelists can be stable, savvy, politically adept and in control, but poets should be melancholic, doomed and self-destructive. Is this just a myth, or is there some essential truth behind it: that great poems only come when a poet's life is pushed right to an emotional knife-edge of acceptability, safety, security? What is the price of poetry?
In this book, two contemporary poets undertake a series of journeys – across Britain, America and Europe – to the death places of poets of the past, in part as pilgrims, honouring inspirational writers, but also as investigators, interrogating the myth. The result is a book that is, in turn, enlightening and provocative, eye-wateringly funny and powerfully moving.
Winner of the 2013 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection
Winner of the 2013 Costa Poetry Award
Shortlisted for the 2013 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize
Shortlisted for the 2015 Portico Prize
Michael Symmons Roberts’ sixth – and most ambitious collection to date – takes its name from the ancient trade in powders, chemicals, salts and dyes, paints and cures. These poems offer a similarly potent and sensory multiplicity, unified through the formal constraint of 150 poems of 15 lines.
Like the medieval psalters echoed in its title, this collection contains both the sacred and profane. Here are hymns of praise and lamentation, songs of wonder and despair, journeying effortlessly through physical and metaphysical landscapes, from financial markets and urban sprawl to deserts and dark nights of the soul.
From an encomium to a karaoke booth to a conjuration of an inverse Antarctica, this collection is a compelling, powerful search for meaning, truth and falsehood. But, as ever in Roberts’ work – notably the Whitbread Award-winning Corpus – this search is rooted in the tangible world, leavened by wit, contradiction, tenderness and sensuality.
This is Roberts’ most expansive writing yet: mystical, philosophical, earthy and elegiac. Drysalter sings of the world’s unceasing ability to surprise, and the shock and dislocation of catching your own life unawares.
The wilderness is much closer than you think. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, unacknowledged: the edgelands - those familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside - have become the great wild places on our doorsteps.
In the same way the Romantic writers taught us to look at hills, lakes and rivers, poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write about mobile masts and gravel pits, business parks and landfill sites, taking the reader on a journey to marvel at these richly mysterious, forgotten regions in our midst.
Edgelands forms a critique of what we value as 'wild', and allows our allotments, railways, motorways, wasteland and water a presence in the world, and a strange beauty all of their own.
In his first two collections - Soft Keys and Raising Sparks - Michael Symmons Roberts established himself as a lyric and dramatic poet with metaphysical concerns. In this new collection, those concerns are as strong as ever, but rooted in a specific place and time.
These poems describe the personal and public rise and fall of Greenham Common. The public story, as one of the most contentious missile bases of the cold war, ended with fences removed, buildings demolished, the base returned to common land. The private history emerges from the poet's own experience, as an adolescent living a mile away from Greenham Common at the height of its powers. That third community of locals - not the USAF or the peace camps - is finally given a voice in Burning Babylon.
This is war poetry, but from an undeclared war in which battle lines were unclear, secrecy was an obsession, and threat was the chief weapon. At the heart of it all was that real and mythic gated city - the base - which was both a key part of the poet's childhood landscape, and the prime nuclear target in Britain. This image of a huge, occult and lethal power latent behind wire in the middle of England has haunted the minds of a generation - just as the poems in this book will resonate long after it is laid aside.
When Corpus won the Whitbread Poetry Award, the judges described it as 'an outstanding, perfectly weighted collection that inspires meditation on the nature of the soul...reading it feels like making an exciting discovery and coming back to an acknowledged classic all at once.' Michael Symmons Roberts' first book, Soft Keys, was the original and most exciting discovery of all.
The poems in Soft Keys engage in a search for meaning and order in the everyday and in the extraordinary - a locust officer tracking swarms in an African desert, a hobbyist building a replica of the world out of matchsticks, a chance encounter with the French mystic Simone Weil playing video games in a Torquay arcade... Richly inventive, and written in a wide diversity of poetic forms, Soft Keys looks for those places and moments where the curtain between earth and heaven is thinnest; it was a powerful, arresting debut and the beginning of a remarkable career.
As Les Murray said at the time: 'Like Nijinsky, he can leap into the air and stay there. You can reach up and feel the thump of the stage finely persisting in an ankle bone. Roberts is a poet for the new, chastened, unenforcing age of faith that has just dawned.'
In a country recovering from a brutal and divisive civil war, a young boy, Jamie, is knocked off his bike and dies in a city street. His father agrees to allow one of Jamie's lungs to be removed and flown over the border for a transplant.
As the night unfolds and the plane travels across the war-ravaged country, we see the drama from three different perspectives: the father, grieving for the son he perhaps never knew well enough; the lung's recipient, an old man fighting for breath; and in the turbulent sky between them, the young pilot who is closest to Jamie - or at least to his breath, his spirit, his voice.
The poems in Michael Symmons Roberts's fifth collection move in a world riven by violence and betrayal, between nations and individuals. As ever, this is a metaphysical poetry rooted in physical detail - but the bodies here are displaced, disguised, in need of rescue. A man in a fox suit prowls the woods afraid of meeting true foxes, while a vixen dressed as a man moves among the powerful at society soirées. God no longer 'walks in his garden in the cool of the day', but drives through a damaged city in the small hours. At the same time a couple celebrate armistice with an act of love in an anonymous hotel room.
As the judges of the Whitbread Prize noted, Roberts' poetry 'inspires profound meditation on the nature of the soul, the body, the stars and the heart - and sparks revelation.' Roberts is a poet of unusual range and dexterity, fascinated by faith and science, by the physical and the transcendental, and with this new book he confirms his position as a truly original, and thrillingly gifted, lyric poet.
When a teenage couple are found murdered in their car, a boy called Adam Sligo is the only suspect. The letter A is found blazoned on the wall at the murder scene and is soon followed, around town, by the other letters of the alphabet, each immaculately painted in red. What do the letters mean? Is Sligo playing games with the police? Or putting a spell on the town?
Perry Scholes is mixed up in all this from the start: a man haunted by cars and death - and photographic images of both. He trawls the motorways and edgelands listening to police radio, getting to the car-crash or the crime scene before them. He makes a living selling these shots to the papers. He is the one who spots the painted letters, and begins to document their appearances.
As the town is paralysed by fear and paranoia, a vigilante cult emerges, arming itself for the battle against evil. Perry finds himself trapped in a nightmare. A killer is at large, and the alphabetical messages he leaves seem to be personal messages for him.
Corpus - Michael Symmons Roberts' Whitbread-Prize winning fourth collection - centres around the body. Mystical, philosophical and erotic, the bodies in these poems move between different worlds - life and after-life, death and resurrection - encountering pathologists' blades, geneticists' maps and the wounds of love and war.
Equally at ease with scripture (Jacob wrestling the Angel in 'Choreography') and science ('Mapping the Genome'), these poems are a thrilling blend of modern and ancient wisdom, a profound and lyrical exploration of the mysteries of the body:' So the martyrs took the lamb./ It tasted rich, steeped in essence/ Of anchovy. They picked it clean/ And found within, a goose, its pink/ Beak in the lamb's mouth like a tongue.' Ranging effortlessly between the physical extremes of death - from putrefaction to purification - and life - drought and flood, hunger and satiation - the poems in Corpus speak most movingly of 'living the half-life between two elements', of what it is to be unique and luminously alive.
Michael Symmons Roberts was born in Preston, Lancashire in 1963. He has published six collections of poetry and received a number of accolades including the Forward Prize, the Costa Poetry Award and the Whitbread Poetry Prize. As a librettist, his work has been performed in concert halls and opera houses around the world. An award-winning broadcaster and dramatist, he has published two novels, and is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.