Nationality: British. Born: Bootle, Lancashire, 24 October 1930. Education: Wyggeston Grammar School, Leicester; Newnham College, Cambridge, B.A. in English 1952, M.A. 1955. Family: Married Arnold Feinstein in 1956; three sons. Career: Editorial staff member, Cambridge University Press, 1960–62; lecturer in English, Bishop's Stortford Training College, Hertfordshire, 1963–66; assistant lecturer in literature, University of Essex, Wivenhoe, 1967–70. Writer in residence for the British Council in Singapore, 1993. Awards: Arts Council grant, 1970, 1979, 1981; Daisy Miller prize, 1971, for fiction; Kelus prize, 1978; Cholmondeley award, 1990. D.Litt: University of Leicester, 1990. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1980. Agent: Gill Coleridge, Rodgers, Coleridge & White, 20 Powis Mews, London W11, England; (plays and film) Lemon Unna and Durbridge, 24–32 Pottery Lane, London W11 4LZ, England.
In a Green Eye. London, Goliard Press, 1966.
The Magic Apple Tree. London, Hutchinson, 1971.
At the Edge. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1972.
The Celebrants and Other Poems. London, Hutchinson, 1973.
Some Unease and Angels: Selected Poems. London, Hutchinson, and University Center, Michigan, Green River Press, 1977.
The Feast of Euridice. London, Faber, 1980.
Badlands. London, Hutchinson, 1986.
City Music. London, Hutchinson, 1990.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.
Daylight. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.
Gold. Manchester, Carcanet, 2000.
Lear's Daughters (produced London, 1987).
Radio Plays: Echoes, 1980; A Late Spring, 1982; A Captive Lion, 1984; Marina Tsvetayeva: A Life, 1985; A Day Off, from the novel by Storm Jameson, 1986; If I Ever Get on My Feet Again, 1987;
The Man in Her Life, 1990; Foreign Girls, 1993; Winter Meeting, 1994.
Television Plays: Breath, 1975; Lunch, 1982; Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady series, from work by Edith Holden, 1984; A Brave Face, 1985; The Chase, 1988; A Passionate Woman series, 1989.
The Circle. London, Hutchinson, 1970.
The Amberstone Exit. London, Hutchinson, 1972.
The Glass Alembic. London, Hutchinson, 1973; as The Crystal Garden, New York, Dutton, 1974.
Children of the Rose. London, Hutchinson, 1975.
The Ecstasy of Dr. Miriam Garner. London, Hutchinson, 1976.
The Shadow Master. London, Hutchinson, 1978; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.
The Survivors. London, Hutchinson, 1982.
The Border. London, Hutchinson, 1984.
Mother's Girl. London, Century Hutchinson, 1988.
All You Need. London, Century Hutchinson, 1989.
Loving Brecht. London, Hutchinson, 1992.
Dreamers. London, Hutchinson, 1994.
Lady Chatterley's Confession. London, Macmillan, 1995.
Matters of Chance. London, Covent Garden Press, 1972.
The Silent Areas. London, Hutchinson, 1980.
Bessie Smith. London, Penguin, 1985.
A Captive Lion: The Life of Marina Tsvetayeva. London, Century Hutchinson, and New York, Dutton, 1987.
Marina Tsvetayeva. London, Penguin, 1989.
Lawrence's Women. New York and London, Harper Collins, 1993.
Pushkin. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998; as Pushkin: A Biography, New York, Ecco Press, 1999.
Editor, Selected Poems of John Clare. London, University Tutorial Press, 1968.
Editor, with Fay Weldon, New Stories 4. London, Hutchinson, 1979.
Editor, PEN New Poetry. London, Quartet, 1988.
Editor, After Pushkin: Versions of the Poems of Alexander Sergeevish Pushkin by Contemporary Poets. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.
Translator, The Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva. London, Oxford University Press, 1971; revised edition, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1981; revised edition, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.
Translator, Three Russian Poets: Margarita Aliger, Yunna Moritz, Bella Akhmadulina. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979.
Translator, with Antonia W. Bouis, First Draft: Poems, by Nika Turbina. London, Boyars, 1988.
Translator, Marina Tsvetaeva: Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.*
Manuscript Collection: Cambridge University.
Critical Studies: "Modes of Realism: Roy Fisher and Elaine Feinstein" by Deborah Mitchell, in British Poetry since 1970 edited by Michael Schmidt and Peter Jones, Manchester, Carcanet, and New York, Persea, 1980; Peter Conradi, in British Novelists since 1960 edited by Jay L. Halio, Detroit, Gale, 1983.
Elaine Feinstein comments:
When I began writing in the early 1960s, I felt the influence of the Americans—Stevens and perhaps even Emily Dickinson as much as W.C. Williams—and I suppose the turning point in finding a voice of my own arose, paradoxically, from working on the translations of Marina Tsvetayeva and other modern Russian poets. And perhaps also from writing prose, which began at first as an extension of the poetic impulse but, after several novels, works as a channel for the exploration of my humanist concerns and leaves me freer now to take greater risks with language when I choose to write lyric poetry. Perhaps both experiences have encouraged me to write longer poems, such as the title poem of The Celebrants and more recently "New Poems for Dido and Aeneas," and to find longer lines and new rhythms as well as richer subject matter.
(1995) I find my poems get bonier and more bare as I get older and usually spring from some experience in my own life, as if the impulse to make poems now has to connect with a need to puzzle out personal thoughts and feelings. And I want the verse to be clear and quiet, even though lyric poetry rises most powerfully from intense emotion, and it is the lyric I love. I have no ambition to write a long poem. If I am going to tell stories, I would rather write novels.
The poets I most read are still, above all, lyric poets. Herbert's simplicity, Pound's marvelous ear for syllables, Lawrence's sharpness of response, and Charles Reznikoff's humanity remain my models. My onetime Black Mountain mentors had some of these virtues too, but neither their passion for geography and local history nor their insistence on uncorrected spontaneity was ever truly mine. And they were often obscure even on a close reading.
These days I work most of all for directness and lucidity. I do not want the music of the lyric to drown what has to be said. There is always a tug between speech and music in poetry. What I am looking for is a music that has the natural force of spoken feeling, the Wordsworthian "language really used by men," though I confess I enjoyed the street language of slang rather more in the days when it was not so smart to make use of it.
It was from Tsvetayeva I first learned to use personae, finding mythical figures particularly useful as vehicles for the passions. Like characters in fiction, personae allow poets to go outside autobiography without forfeiting their own patterns of feeling. It is rather like writing drama. I do not know whether I will do more.
Tsvetayeva thought a poet had to let "the hand race, (and when it doesn't race to stop)," and I may well write fewer poems of any kind. It is hard to predict. I shall probably not do many more translations. The pressure is elsewhere, in the work of understanding, assessing, and confronting the passage of time.
I am not conscious at the moment of being part of any particular grouping, nor have I been since the English Intelligencer poets who followed Jeremy Prynne came and sat on my Trumpington floor in the sixties, and even then I am not sure how much I shared with them. Over the last twenty years or so my closest literary friendships have been with novelists. But I am very much aware of the good women poets who are writing now. When I began writing, there were so few of us, and now some of the best young poets are women. And I have not written many overtly political poems. I continue to feel a poet should serve poetry rather than putting his art at the service of any politics.* * *
"Anniversary," which opens the collection The Magic Apple Tree, expresses the act of faith in humanity on which all Elaine Feinstein's poetry is posited:
Listen, I shall have to whisper it
into your heart directly: we are all
we rise new creatures/cannot be predicted.
Confronting the banal, flat surfaces of modern existence, symbolized by the mud, mists, and rain of the East Anglian fens, "our brackish waters" ("The Magic Apple Tree"), she acknowledges the limitations set for humans by "the tyranny of landscape" ("Moon") and by our rooting in a particular and all-pervasive present—"How do you change the weather in the blood?" ("I Have Seen Worse Days Turn"). The techniques of poetry are the "alembic," the alchemist's vessel that effects a transformation that is not the transcendence but a sharpening of the real, the celebration of "what in the landscape of cities / has to be prized" ("Some Thoughts on Where"). Feinstein shares with the reader the liberating power of new perceptions: "We have broken some magic barrier" to become "open to the surprises of the season" ("Renaissance February 7"). She delights in the surprises of imagery, color, syntax, tone, and rhythms that set "your own East Anglian children / … dancing. To an alien drum" ("Moon"). "Our Vegetable Love Shall Grow" develops the surrealist quality of Marvell's image in the mock horror of a vampire crocus, grotesquely yoking the energies of nature and the city to drain away the lesser vitality of the human. Black humor is the vehicle for modern man and woman to reassert dominance of a reality that threatens to overwhelm. The invocation of Buster Keaton ("Out") is no accident, nor is the marvelous punning cynicism of "West," whose hesitating and stabbing rhythms embrace exactly the bitterly revealing twists of Mae West's comedy.
Feinstein moves incessantly between creative turmoil and a sense of peace, carrying the poet's burden of personal responsibility for the remaking of harmony and unity out of a torn, disjointed world. The broken utterances of "Marriage" catch the pain of human separateness on an intensely personal note:
tender whenever we touch what
else we share this flesh we
bring together it hurts to
think of dying as we lie close
In the realm of private loves Feinstein can convey the kind of rare emotion she finds in Marina Tsvetayeva, whom she praises in the introduction to her translations for the "wholeness of her self-exposure." Feinstein also goes beyond the purely personal, however. At the Edge evokes a new understanding reached through the "lyric daze" of carnal passion but makes it clear that the knowledge gained at these frontiers can be kept only through the interpretative but distancing medium of poetic language: "We were washed in salt on the same pillow together / and we watched the walls change level gently as water …"
The title poem of The Celebrants recounts the perpetual struggle for meaning through love, science, art, and religion, seeking to evade the limits of death and corruption bounding the world of the body, waiting for the gratuitous moment of poetic surprise "to free us from the / black drama / of the magician." The other poems in the volume have a darker tone than earlier work, a deeper and richer seriousness, and a more biting and bitter humor. Some Unease and Angels, essentially a well-chosen retrospect with some new poems, confirms Feinstein's determination to create through language a new balance of man, woman, and their world with nature and its warring elements, as in "Watersmeet":
everywhere plant flesh
and rich ores had eaten into each other, so that
peat, rain, green leaves and August fused
even the two
of us together; we took
a new balance from the two defenceless
kingdoms bonded in hidden warfare underfoot.
In Feinstein's later work, including The Feast of Euridice and the "Nine Songs for Dido and Aeneas," the perspective of myth and legend throws the balance back into question. Virgil's epic celebration of empire is brilliantly turned into a denunciation of the devouring lust for power and possession that drives the imperialist hero. Dido's ancient, orderly kingdom, freely offering its nurturing affections to exorcise Aeneas's ghosts, is laid waste by his ambitions. But at the end it is Dido who wins immortality, not by any witch's magic but by natural powers of endurance and love.
Badlands collects together, across time and space, landscapes of exile, suffering, and loss. Present-day California is given over to "entrepreneurs and bandits"; in England "the old gods are leaving"; in Carthage and Ithaca, or deep in the volcanic passage to Hades, Dido, Penelope, and Eurydice yearn toward hopelessly lost loves; in dream and in reality childhood homes or empty lodging house rooms enshrine the absence of dead parents or of poet friends. Again the volume pays tribute to the necessary pain of poetry. Mute matter must be forced to speak; to release the dead soul in "England," the poet must "crack the / tarmac of the language." The poet, too, must constantly "fight for breath" ("Park Parade, Cambridge"). Turn and turn about, Feinstein's poetry demonstrates its double face: the cool Apollonian "weaving and waiting," practiced by the waking Penelope, and the frenzied onslaught on language in Penelope's dream, presided over by Dionysus or by "Hermes, the twister, the pivoter" ("Three Songs for Ithaca"). The god-magician enters Penelope's sleep with language that embodies the cruel mystery of poetic creation "to remind me of strangers, returning, who speak in the language / of timberwolves, feeding on human flesh, sorcerer's prey." The loose, twisting syntax and the savage, melodramatic vocabulary generate a radical disturbance that evokes the sacred terror of the poetic experience: "I blench at his voice."