Adcock, Fleur

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Nationality: British. Born: Papakura, New Zealand, 10 February 1934; immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1963. Education: Studied in England, 1939–47; Wellington Girls' College and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, M.A. (honors) in classics, 1956. Family: Married Alistair Campbell, q.v., in 1952 (divorced 1958); two sons. Career: Temporary assistant lecturer in classics, University of Otago, Dunedin, 1958. Held library posts at University of Otago, 1959–61, and Turnbull Library, Wellington, 1962; assistant librarian, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library, London, 1963–79. Arts Council creative writing fellow, Charlotte Mason College of Education, Ambleside, Cumbria, 1977–78; Northern Arts fellow, universities of Newcastle upon Tyne and Durham, 1979–81; Eastern Arts fellow, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1984. Awards: Festival of Wellington prize, 1961; New Zealand State Literary Fund award, 1964; Buckland award, 1967, 1979; Jessie MacKay award, 1968, 1972; Cholmondeley award, 1976; New Zealand Book award, 1984; Arts Council award, 1988. Address: 14 Lincoln Road, London N2 9DL, England.



The Eye of the Hurricane. Wellington, Reed, 1964.

Tigers. London, Oxford University Press, 1967.

High Tide in the Garden. London, Oxford University Press, 1971.

The Scenic Route. London, Oxford University Press, 1974.

The Inner Harbour. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979.

Below Loughrigg. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1979.

Selected Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Hotspur: A Ballad for Music. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1986.

4-Pack 1: Four from Northern Women, with Maura Dooley, S. J. Litherland, and Jill Maugham. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1986.

The Incident Book. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Meeting the Comet. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1989.

Time-Zones. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Looking Back. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997.


Editor, with Anthony Thwaite, New Poetry 4. London, Hutchinson, 1978.

Editor, The Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry. Auckland and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Editor, The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Women's Poetry. London, Faber, 1987.

Editor and translator, Hugh Primas and the Archpoet. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Editor, with Jacqueline Sims, The Oxford Book of Creatures. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Translator, The Virgin and the Nightingale: Medieval Latin Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1983.

Translator, Orient Express, by Grete Tartler. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Translator, Letters from Darkness, by Daniela Crasnaru. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.


Critical Studies: Introduction by Dannie Abse to Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 5, 1973; Fleur Adcock in Context: From Movement to Martians, by Julian Stannard, Edwin Mellon Press, 1997.

Fleur Adcock comments:

I cannot give a code of my poetic practice or a set of rules by which I have operated; I can only point to certain tendencies and outline an attitude. Poetry is a search for ways of communication. It must be conducted with openness, flexibility, and a constant readiness to listen. The content of my poems derives largely from those parts of my life that are directly experienced: relationships with people or places; images and insights that have presented themselves sharply from whatever source, conscious or subconscious; ideas triggered off by language itself. In recent years I have tended increasingly to use poetry as a method of writing fiction; the narratives of my poems, seldom ever merely autobiographical, often now tell invented stories.

My verse forms are relatively traditional (traditions alter). In general they have moved away from strict classical patterns in the direction of greater freedom, as is usual with most artists learning a trade. It takes courage, however, to leave all props behind, to cast oneself, like Matisse, upon pure space. I still await that confidence. In the meantime I continue to learn and sometimes find it fruitful to return to a rigid metrical form as a discipline and for a different kind of exploration.

I write primarily for the printed page, not for performance, regarding poetry readings as the trailer, not the movie. But because the sound of words is central to the experiencing of a poem, I read my work aloud as it develops and try to remove anything that is clumsy or unacceptable to the ear. As for the eye, the patterns of lines in type do not particularly interest me; words, not their shape on the page, are what matter. If one is fortunate, their destination, like their origin, will be as voices speaking in the mind.

*  *  *

Fleur Adcock is one of the most popular poets in Britain. Though New Zealand born, she spent much of her childhood in wartime England. Her work shows a strong attachment to place, whether it be the English countryside, the beaches of New Zealand, or the dirt tracks of Nepal. Coupled with this is an acute awareness of the barriers between people. Adcock is, by her own admission, a solitary person; with her cool, dispassionate eye and her reluctant nostalgia, she is a true expatriate.

After the war, Adcock's family returned to New Zealand, and it was there that she produced the prizewinning elegy "Flight, with Mountains." The poem is characteristic of her later work in its clear, conversational tone and in its preoccupation with friendship, death, and landscape:

   …Another one for the mountains. Another one
   Who, climbing to stain the high snow
   With his shadow, fell, and briefly caught between
   Sudden earth and sun, projected below
   A flicker of darkness….

The poems ends,

   Rope, nor crumbling ice, nor your unbelieving
   Uncommitted hands could hold you to living.
   Wheels turn; the dissolving air rolls over
   An arc of thunder. Gone is gone forever.

In 1963 Adcock moved back to England. In her first British publication, Tigers, she abandoned the romanticism of her earlier works. Influenced by the informality of the 1960s, she experimented with syllabics, discarding conventional meter and rhyme to embrace a more prosy, colloquial style. Although she tends to extrapolate from her own life, Adcock is too reticent to be classed among the confessional poets. Preferring understatement to exaggeration, she tends to suggest rather than plummet. A poem like "Incident" hints at disconcerting truths as the speaker wakes from a nap on the beach to find her lover "waiting for the lapping tide to take me / Watching, and lighting a cigarette." In "Miss Hamilton in London" a spinster goes through her daily rituals, "then went to bed; where for the hours of darkness, / She lay pierced by thirty black spears…." Again thecalm, oblique style gives a shocking punch to the poem.

The love poems in this volume are, to say the least, astringent. "Advice to a Discarded Lover" begins by describing a bird's corpse and then goes on to warn the lover that "… in you / I see maggots close to the surface. You are eaten up by self-pity, / Crawling with unloveable pathos … Do not ask me for charity now: / Go away until your bones are clean." Relationships get equally short shrift in Adcock's next volume, High Tide in the Garden, where "Against Coupling" begins,

   I write in praise of the solitary act:
   of not feeling a trespassing tongue
   forced into one's mouth …
   Pyramus and Thisbe are dead, but
   the hole in the wall can still be troublesome.
   I advise you, then, to embrace it without encumbrance….

Adcock also draws on the imagery of dreams and mythology. "Afterwards" begins, "We weave haunted circles about each other, / advance and retreat in turn, like witchdoctors / before a fetish…," and the long fantasy "Gas" tackles the theme of the doppelgänger.

In The Scenic Route, Adcock explores the Ireland of her ancestors. Death creeps into the volume with "In Memoriam: James K Baxter," but any fear of sentimentality is undercut by the poet's characteristic candor: "I'd write with more conviction about death / if it were clutching at my every breath. / And now we've come to it. The subject's out: / the ineluctable, the all-pervasive … / and if so far I've seemed a bit evasive / it's not from cowardice or phoney tact— / it's simply that I can't believe the fact…." In "Kilpeck," the poet and alover, "dried out and brittle this morning / fragile with continence," examine the grotesques of a Norman church. Although the poem is laced with erotic imagery, the poet affirms her commitment to poetry above all else, presumably including the relationship in question.

Adcock's next volume, The Inner Harbour, concentrates on the beginnings and endings of relationships. It also contains some short imagistic pieces, as in the title poem, a sequence of lyrical observations such as:

   Under the sand at low tide
   are whispers, hisses, long slithers,
   bubbles, the suck of ingestion, a soft
   snap: mysteries and exclusions….

The volume contains one of Adcock's most poignant poems, "The Soho Hospital for Women," which describes a cancer ward: "Doctor, I am not afraid of a word. / But neither do I wish to embrace that visitor …."

The Incident Book is more outward looking than Adcock's previous collections, with the section "Thatcherland," for example, exploring contemporary Britain. There are ironical reflections on language and art; "Leaving the Tate" concludes with the line "Art's whatever you choose to frame." Adcock also experiments with voices other than the autobiographical. "On the Land" is written as by a World War I land girl, and in "Drowning" a woman condemned to drown for the murder of her husband ruminates,

   Then let the fishes feast on us
   and slurp our blood after we're finished:
   they'll find no souls to suck from us.
   Yours, perhaps, has a safe-conduct:
   you're a bishop, and subtle, and Greek.
   Well, sir, pray and ponder. But our language has no word for dilemma.
   Drowning's the strongest word for death.

As this poem suggests, Adcock's work reveals a subtle feminist streak. Over the years her poems have increasingly turned toward the politics of relationships.

In 1987 Adcock edited The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Women's Poetry. In her introduction to the anthology she explained that what she values in a poem is "the odd or the unexpected … the kind of detail which throws new and startling light … often… related to another quality I admire: wit." Certainly her work both startles and amuses. Without sacrificing any of its delightful, acerbic humor, with time Adcock's poetry has also become more compassionate.

Time-Zones, Adcock's 1991 collection, is an array of sensitive and intelligent responses to events both small and enormous. In one poem she mourns her father's death and in another witnesses the devastation of the plant by the greenhouse effect. Her flourish is for noticing the link between the domestic and the international, as in "Libya":

   When the Americans were bombing Libya
   (that time when it looked as if this was it at last,
   the match in the petrol-tank which will flare sooner or later,
   and the whole lot was about to go up)
   Gregory turned on the television during dinner
   and Elizabeth asked the children to be quiet…

Wit, a formal ear, and a strong feminist and global consciousness mark Adcock's significant contribution to the poetry of her country and her language.

—Katie Campbell and

Martha Sutro