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Death Comes For The Poets by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams – review

19 March 2013

10:00 AM

19 March 2013

10:00 AM

Death Comes For The Poets is an unliterary book with a highly literary subject. It’s usually done the other way around: exquisite quodrilogies about American car salesmen; towering works about bored wives in French villages. Here we have a thriller, but one written by two eminent contemporary poets in which poets are murdered in correspondent ways to their work. A man who wrote a collection called Stray gets torn apart by dogs. A womaniser who writes about oceans gets lured to his watery death by a beautiful woman. Is the murderer jealous of these poets’ reputations? or is somebody trying to create much needed publicity for the art? Luckily, there is a suitably well-read sleuth on hand – Victor Priest: celebrity art detective, expert on literary forgeries and poet manqué. While investigating these murders he also finds the time to acquire lost Kafka manuscripts and a translation of Dante by T.S. Eliot. Other props of the genre are similarly versified: even the creepy parrot knows a bit of Heinrich Heine.

As is the case with contemporary poetry, the audience for this novel will predominantly be people who write contemporary poetry. If you’re one of these you may recognise the character types: the pentameter stickler; the jaunty stoner; the dour, one-time activist; the vivacious woman who the previous types respect; the new-agey woman they don’t; the ‘regional’ poet. In keeping with satiric traditions, names are fully loaded – Damian Krapp, Amelia Quirk and Melinda (‘Miss’) Speling. Then there are the gossipy gripes: the rivalries and bad food at residential courses; rejection letters; Arts Council bureaucracy and jargon (‘traditional traditions,’ ‘new media,’); there being no such thing as free verse…

The collaborative authorship could have been problematic for continuity but characters rarely live long enough to need to be consistent. A new poet is the focus of every other chapter and will most likely be dead by the end of it. There are some wonderful observations: Fergus Diver, multi-prizewinning heavyweight, food critic for the Observer and first to die, worries after a poetry reading that ‘if he wasn’t careful, [he’d] end up paying for his drink.’ The book is very funny indeed, but it will undoubtedly be funniest for poets.

The first and cleverest in-joke is tucked into the dedication, which is to the memory of hoax poet Ern Malley. Malley was invented by two young sceptics to dupe the editor of an Australian modernist poetry magazine. They wrote Malley’s body of work in one day using a concise Shakespeare, words selected randomly from a dictionary and a book of bad rhymes. The editor, Max Harris, hailed Malley as a genius, and when the hoax was outed and his magazine folded he nonetheless insisted that it made no difference to the quality of the work. The hoaxers had opened themselves up to inspiration and inadvertently produced a masterpiece. Poets such as John Ashbery have since championed Malley’s poetry. To read his cycle The Darkening Ecliptic (yes, I know) is to see moments of brilliance skilfully spoiled. There is a hilarious, initiated sort of pleasure to be had in recognising where and why they are bad, but what is most amusing is the fact they are near misses of Modernism.

Malley makes further cameos in Death Comes For The Poets: he shakes hands with one of the murdered poets in a framed photograph, there is a prize named after him, and his spirit hovers over the talented badness of the characters’ own poetry, which appears intermittently throughout the text and in an appendix. These pitch-perfect travesties are the best thing in the book. Sometimes they’re almost great, but voided by a single perfectly placed adverb or tasteless inversion of syntax; sometimes they’re outrageously bad from start to finish.

The prose is also self-consciously tacky, but it’s difficult to gauge the extent it wants to be bad. It must be a relief for these poets, whose job is to squeeze the last drop of sense from every word, to be working in a medium which theoretically isn’t as fastidious. The book becomes a holiday from consideredness. Fingers ‘drum’ on steering wheels; people ‘rummage’ in cupboards; a character’s voice ‘held an ironic inflection.’

But, as the authors prove with their pastiches of contemporary poetry, effective parody is down to formal understanding. Because they don’t trust the medium of prose, or want to master it, they can rarely make it behave exactly as they want. The dialogue is most revealing, which is sometimes pleasingly mannered (‘Did you see von Zitzewitz’s latest haiku in The Independent?’ / ‘Saw it, Laurie. Just didn’t have time to read it all.’) but more often remains cosy filler (‘Would you like an Armagnac, Van? This is a 1954 vintage?’/ ‘You know me, Victor. Pour away’).

Depending on the reader, the book has the ability to spoil its own secrets. If you’ve the most rudimentary knowledge of Shakespeare you won’t be able to help ‘getting’ one of the twists before the second of about thirteen murders has been committed. The literary reader, who is traditionally supposed to be less bothered about surprises, may therefore be pleased with the book’s flippancy. If you prefer thrillers and don’t know Shakespeare, then the twist might not be spoiled for you and you can enjoy your surprises. But then, who’d read a murder mystery about contemporary poets if they didn’t read poetry?

Death Comes For The Poets by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams is published by Muswell Press at £12

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