After a conversation with Christian Wiman, who was editor of Poetry(Chicago) at the time, I wrote the first instalment of a "poetry notebook" in 2006, with only a vague idea that a collection of such instalments might one day add up to a full-sized book. I saw myself adding the occasional sheaf of notes more or less forever, as a kind of incidental activity. But after I fell ill in early 2010 it became clear to me that the note form I had chosen as a caprice had now become compulsory. Owing to a shortage of breath, extended critical pieces seemed no longer possible; but since I had more ideas than ever, the short critical piece, or even the mere paragraph, was a way of getting things said about the subject that has always mattered to me most. My main reason for getting them said was that I had been thinking about poetry all my life, and it was time to sum up. but one of the conclusions that I had long ago reached was that a poem should be something that could be spoken about clearly, even if it wasn't clear in itself. Poets might be abstruse if they wished, but their critics should not. So I worked hard to say things plainly, and I hope this little book reflects that aim. I also took care to be as entertaining as possible, but that was common courtesy. A poem, when it works, is the essence of verbal excitement. To be boring about it is inexcusable. One of the links below leads to the sheaf of chapters from Poetry (Chicago) that were already on this site, but there is a lot more in the book, including a swathe of linking material in which I do what I can to make coherent sense of a subject which necessarily exists only as a swarm of glittering fragments, like the stars.
The Blaze of Obscurity
Though it always courts tedium to be precise about numbers, in this case the statistics tell a story. The fifth volume of my unreliable memoirs, The Blaze of Obscurity, covering my years in television between 1982 and 2000, had a publication date (October 7, 2009)
timed to coincide with my 70th birthday. It would have been a pretty good stratagem for saying “not dead yet” if the book had not been sent to join a full fifty other brand-new showbiz autobiographies released for the Christmas season. So there I was, toe to toe with Alan Titchmarsh, and neck and neck with Katie Price if I was very lucky. In fact the only advantages I had over the latter candidate were (a) I wrote my book myself, and (b) my breasts were real. But with the help, perhaps, of a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week serialisation, my latest offering escaped instant burial, and even attracted some serious reviews, which I proudly append – proudly because, against all likelihood, I actually try to make this apparently frivolous form a vehicle for what little wisdom I might have managed to acquire.
The Revolt of the Pendulum
My seventh collection of miscellaneous essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, came out from Picador in May 2009. Its constituent pieces were mainly written to meet commissions from various periodicals in the UK, the US and Australia after I published Cultural Amnesia in 2007, although some of them were written while that book was still in the works. Apart from the out-and-out cultural essays on such figures as Karl Kraus, Kingsley Amis, Camille Paglia, Philip Roth, A.D. Hope and Leni Riefenstahl, there are sheaves of much smaller pieces arising from my activities in show business and the web. One of two of the book's early critics took exception to these reports from my workshop, and managed to convince themselves that self-agrandisement was the book's main emphasis. I don't think they were right, but I have included their reviews in the list of accompanying links, just in case they know better than I do..
Angels Over Elsinore
The follow-up collection to The Book of My Enemy (Collected Verse 1958-2003), the relatively slim volume Angels over Elsinore (Collected Verse 2003-2008) was published in Britain in late 2008 by Picador. The volume contains all the poems I published in various periodicals between 2003 and 2008. I was grateful to have the advice of Picador’s poetry editor, Don Paterson, who chose the running order. The book received some thoughtful reviews, which can be reached here through the links provided. What gratified me most, however, was that it provided a handy text for stand-up performance, thereby helping to express my conviction that a poem should be something that can be recited in the first instance, and have its general drift understood even if the readers want to go back later and check on the details. Since they might buy the book in order to do so, the lucky author can win twice.
My first book of verse to be published in America, Opal Sunset is a selection from poems written during the fifty years between 1958 and 2008. About half the poems in the book previously appeared in The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958-2003. The other half had not yet appeared in volume form when Opal Sunset was published in New York by Norton in September 2008, although some of them were already scheduled to appear in a new collection, Angels Over Elsinore, to be published in Britain in November 2008 by Picador. The American poetry market is very resistant to invasion by foreigners from unknown countries, so I was glad to find that Opal Sunset was noticed by such publications as The New York Times Book Review and The Village Voice. A British edition of Opal Sunset is scheduled to be published by Picador in 2009.
In April 2007, Cultural Amnesia was published in the USA, and since May 2007 it has been available in the UK, Australia and the Republic of Ireland. Four years of work went into the text — basically it is what I was doing after I vanished from the small screen in 2001 — so I was glad to see that bits and pieces of the finished product were being published in the UK, in the US and in my homeland, Australia. Finalising the manuscript would not have been possible without my editors at Norton. It might seem a pity to break pieces off their finished work, but I think the integrity of their concentrated effort can only stand revealed more clearly. The most comprehensive set of excerpts was run by Slate online magazine, based in New York. (See link on right). Under the guiding hand of Meghan O'Rourke, the first excerpt appeared in the afternoon of February 5, EST, marked with the name of the subject, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. 24 more excerpts followed — a sumptuous aggregate which will still represent only a small fraction of a large book.
— London, July 2007
Most of the books described below are still in print, or else, if the presses have stopped, the stock is not yet exhausted. The American selection As of This Writing is all the way out of print at the moment, but it can be found fairly easily at discount prices.
North Face of Soho
Covering my role in the sweep of history from the late sixties to the early eighties, the fourth volume of my unreliable memoirs, North Face of Soho, came out in hardback from Picador in late 2006. For the first time, I went on the road with a one-man show based on a specific book, and I did 32 one-night stands around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, reading less and less from the book all the way as I piled on more and more incidental commentary. But something like the full text was read out for a Picador talking book on CDs and I also recited extensive excerpts for a BBC radio serialisation. There will be a paperback in June 2007. At the moment I have one more volume of autobiography planned, to cover my television years from 1982 to the millennium, but if I don't get the chance to complete that one, there are enough valedictory notes in North Face to provide suitable texts at the funeral.
The Meaning of Recognition
My sixth collection of essays, The Meaning of Recognition came out from Picador in hardback in 2005, and in paperback in late 2006. The opening title essay began its life as a lecture given in response to my being awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature in 2003, and the long closing essay "Save Us from Celebrity" was first delivered as a lecture to the Australian Commercial Radio Conference in 2004. Sandwiched in between, the numerical majority of pieces in the book were, however, commissioned as magazine and newspaper articles in the normal way, and even today I continue to accept such work with a view to putting it all together in book form when the time is ripe.
The Book of My Enemy
Following Other Passports, published in 1986, The Book of My Enemy was the second, much-expanded version of my Collected Verse, comprising all the work that I wished to keep from 1958 right through until 2003, including the complete text of Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage. Usually it is wise to cultivate an aversion to blowing one's own trumpet, but when it comes to verse, the occasional unsolicited bugle solo from oneself is sometimes the only supporting music available, so I don't mind saying that this volume did quite good business for a book of poetry. It was a Poetry Book Society choice and got some heart-warming reviews — as a lady of a certain age might be congratulated on her pose for a nude calendar — but even more unusual were the statistics. It ran through five printings in hardback and is still going in paperback, both in Britain and Australia. I gave a performance from the book at the Cheltenham Festival. All the poems I have written since this book was published can be found under the "Poems" link on the Text homepage.
As Of This Writing
The first American "best of" selection from my critical writings, First Reactions, was published by Knopf in 1980, at the kind invitation of Robert Gottlieb, before he moved on to edit the New Yorker. But this second anthology, having a much longer span of work to choose from, is the more substantial volume. Published in 2003, As of This Writing is billed as "The Essential Essays, 1968-2002", a subtitle which some critics thought a bit steep. The selection of articles was undertaken by my editor at Norton, Robert Weil, but specially written postscripts were added at my own discretion. The complete manuscript was given all the care and resources of a distinguished publishing house, whose technicians were particularly lavish in supplying the plush thin paper that only the Americans can nowadays seem to get hold of. The result was a book which even today I can't open without experiencing all over again the thrill of being published for the first time.
A British version of the "best of" format, Reliable Essays came out in hardback from Picador in 2001, and in paperback a year later. The selection was done by Picador's then chief editor, Peter Straus, with my approval, although it was my own idea to include the two pieces yoked under the title "Mrs T in China", because I thought the prevailing solemnity could use some gingering up. Some of the postscripts were written specially for the occasion: my first excursion in a form which was later to become habitual. The introduction was kindly supplied by Julian Barnes.
Even As We Speak
Along with my "best of" Reliable Essays, Picador honoured me in 2001 by publishing a fifth collection of recent essays, Even As We Speak. This book showed the immediate benefits of a drastic scaling down of my television production activities after the sale of our Watchmaker company. I had more time to undertake such long pieces as a review of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The piece, commissioned by Tina Brown for the New Yorker, was one of several ideas on her part that I was glad about in retrospect, although the work was taxing at the time. I had also begun to pay far more attention to Australian literature and politics, in an effort, as it were, to see where I had been. This book, which still shows up in first-hand bookshops, is looked upon fondly by it author as a representative work of his immediate pre-retirement period, in which the vigour of a barely contained late midlife crisis is tamed by the wisdom of early decrepitude.
Again the offspring of Picador's generosity, Always Unreliable came out as a hefty paperback in 2001, and in the smaller format the following year. Small was something the book had to work hard at being, because it combined all of the first three volumes of my autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England and May Week Was in June. The same assemblage had been tried before, by Jonathan Cape, in a cardboard-covered compendium that I didn't much like the look of. The Picador version got it right, and for a book of 500 plus pages it has had a surprising success on the beach in summer. The first volume of the trilogy, Unreliable Memoirs, remains in print as a separate book, having gone through, in the course of a quarter of a century, more than sixty-five printings in its paperback format alone. Doing a lot to pay for the groceries, that one little book has thus validated the advice of the grizzled record company executive to all his aspiring writers of serious songs: Get a hit if you can.