Anthony Burgess, Collected Poems, edited by Jonathan Mann

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

Inevitably, when Anthony Burgess is mentioned, people who have heard of him will associate him with the notorious novel and then film A Clockwork Orange. Often that is the sole reference point, which is an enormous pity. Burgess was the author of over thirty novels, numerous works of criticism, several plays, libretti, thousands of essays and reviews, as well as an extensive musical oeuvre, (a reading list I compiled for his centenary can be found here). To add to this cornucopia, we now have for the first time his collected poetic work, here ably assembled and edited by Jonathan Mann, the leading expert on Burgess the poet.

This volume, published in the Carcanet Classics series, collects together from some very disparate sources most of the poems that can be ascribed to Burgess, many of which appeared first as embedded items in novels, though there is much here that is making its print debut, compiled from the fragments amassed in the various archives of Burgess’s work.

Burgess and his second wife Liana were both hoarders: it seems they very rarely threw anything away, so that the task of the editor and scholar can seem a Sisyphean one. Much of his work exists in numerous versions, and this can lead to a bewildering variety of material, often spread across diverse locations. As well as the impressive collection of Burgess manuscripts at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, there are substantial deposits of his papers in Austin, Texas at the Harry Ransom Center, and in archives in France and Canada.  As Burgess never published a conventional volume of poems in his lifetime, the task of the compiler was an onerous one, and Jonathan Mann hints at the tribulations of this work in the introduction, in which he explains his method, favouring the earliest drafts where possible, “often for sanity’s sake.”

So, what is on offer in this exciting volume, containing four hundred pieces? First, it is as well to say that one substantial verse narrative, Moses, is here reproduced in full. This poem, published in 1976, arose from Burgess’s work on an international television series of the same name, and has been unavailable for years, so it is good to see it back in print. Burgess’s other published long verse narrative, Byrne, is not reproduced here, as it remains easily available as a separate volume. What remains is really a feast for the Burgess fan or scholar, since many of these poems have remained in manuscript  only, or published in different forms. Burgess, despite not publishing much poetry himself, often used poetry in his novels: there’s a brilliant sonnet in his novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun, for instance. One fruitful source of Burgessian verse is from his recurring character, the dyspeptic poet F.X. Enderby, whose work appears in several novels. Here, it is useful to find these poems, often startlingly original, stripped of their context and forced to stand on their own merits. Burgess’s linguistic inventiveness is also on dazzling display in the Belli poems, based on the Roman dialect sonnets of the nineteenth century poet Belli, and featured in Burgess’s novel ABBA ABBA (evoking the beginning of the sonnet rhyme scheme) where Belli meets Keats. Other sources for poems reproduced here include fragments of poetry by invented poets in novels, and bespoke poems included in letters to friends and relatives.

But perhaps the most important aspect of this volume is the fact that it prints for the first time some poems that are otherwise completely inaccessible, and have remained unseen. The editor is to be commended for his diligence and persistence in tracking these items down and saving them from obscurity. The range, in both style and content, is extraordinary, and showcases Burgess’s linguistic dexterity. Often, his subject matter remains germane to our present world: the first poem in the book is a long meditation on censorship, for example. And Burgess’s poem written for the New Year in 1975 seems very pertinent to the way we live now:

This Nineteen-Seventy-five will see us still
Churning in Seventy-Four’s Satanic Mill.
Has any twelvemonth fed us more with fear?
Was ever a more salutary year?
At least we’re learning and no more pretend
That history moves to a Hegelian end.
Utopia spells Erewhon, the earth’s
Resources are not infinite, a birth’s
Another burden in a hungry world,
Man’s gobbled up the soil and also hurled
His poisons in the water and the air,
Hell is a fact and no mere Sunday scare,
America as Eden’s dead and gone,
The Devil rides, and so on and so on.

This volume contains many more examples of Burgess’s original and penetrating poetic work, in an astonishing variety of modes from the whimsical to the apocalyptic. It is scrupulously edited, with an illuminating introduction and useful endnotes – though, in my copy at least, the endnotes are not signalled in the text. This will doubtless be the definitive volume of Burgess’s poetry for some time, though, as the editor hints, decades after his death, the finds continue, so we are probably some way distant from a truly comprehensive collection. In the meantime, this will do very nicely to state the case for Burgess the poet.

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Anthony Burgess, Collected Poems, edited by Jonathan Mann (Carcanet, 2020). 978-1800170124, 503pp., paperback.

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1 comment

  1. Sounds like an exemplary work of scholarship! I don’t know that I was even aware Burgess wrote poetry – his reputation is eclipsed by that one book – but I will keep an eye out…

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