ThinkBooks: Poetry, politics and philosophy for self-preservation

ThinkBooks: Poetry, politics and philosophy for self-preservation

by Linda Holt
article from Tuesday 22, December, 2020

TO MY SHAME I had never heard of Louise Glück, the 77-year-old American poet and essayist who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. But what a delicious discovery when I went online and found many poems by her! (She has published thirteen collections but strangely a number are not in print). Her voice is fully realised in language that is simple and concrete, but also archetypal as it draws unflashily on classical, biblical and poetic forebears. Through the prism of female experience – relationships, birth, domestic life – she illuminates transience, loss and death in new and distinctive ways. Her poems offer no easy answers as they find themselves grappling with the idea of god or the soul - but there is a kind of consolation, even transcendence, in Glück’s unflinching eye and precise expression.

Another poet I had heard of but paid insufficient attention to is Helen Dunmore, a British poet and novelist who died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 64. Her final collection, Inside the Wave, (Bloodaxe, 2017) is another prize winner, having scooped the Costa Book Awards Poetry and Book of the Year Awards when it was published a month before her death. It is a stunning meditation on a life in the light of a terminal illness. Like Glück, Dunmore does not shy away from using the directness and simplicity of a female perspective to address questions of time and meaning. Although she is more obviously English in her settings and references, this perspective is never parochial or “feminine”. I can’t think of anyone who writes better, or for me more recognisably, about the seaside. Her final poem, “Hold out your arms”, written ten days before her death and added to subsequent impressions of Inside the Wave, is a tour de force. Against the tradition of death as the grim reaper, it addresses death as a nurturing mother within a natural cycle of birth and growth, as symbolised by the sun-baked rhizomes of an iris.

The novel I have been most impressed by this year I also missed at the time of its publication. Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) is the third instalment in the much-garlanded Marilynne Robinson's Gilead quartet. Its eponymous heroine is an orphaned, barely educated vagabond who ends up marrying a widowed, aged minister in small-town Iowa in the 1950s. Wittgenstein famously aphorised 'That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent', and while Robinson anatomises the silence of communication – and the solitariness which can persist in the best of relationships – with consummate skill, she uses her material, and her narrative and poetic gifts, to articulate in toto that which cannot be articulated. She presents a profoundly moving mystico-religious vision, and I say that as someone who has an aversion to religiosity and modish spirituality.

Finally, two political books stood out for me this year: an oldie, The Decline of the Scottish Conservative Party by Colin Sutherland (Book Guild, 2016); and Michael J Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, (Allen Lane 2020) the year’s most outstanding work in political philosophy. In entertainingly idiosyncratic style, Sutherland lays out in gory detail the disaster that was the Westminster Conservative takeover of the Scottish Unionist Association in 1959. The causes for the decline of Scottish Conservatives which he identifies – membership dying on its feet, lack of organisation at constituency and association level, out-of-touch direction from London – retain relevancy today, for all the fillips provided by the 2014 referendum and Ruth Davidson. 

Sandel’s scope is much wider as he sets out to explain the rise of populism in terms of a reaction against meritocracy and globalisation. He shows how the latter have stalled social mobility and abandoned the working class who are left to carry the blame for their disadvantage. His solution is to call for a radical reappraisal of moralising meritocracy and the supposedly unskilled, low-paid workers it writes off – Covid’s key workers, if you like. He revives notions of the dignity of work and of the common good beyond individualism and the market. This may recall an old-fashioned strain of left idealism – he cites the English Christian socialist RH Tawney as an intellectual forebear – but it will strike a chord with many on the right as well. 

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections. lindaholt.org.uk 

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