Kantaris, Sylvia

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Nationality: British. Born: Sylvia Mosley, Grindleford, Derbyshire, 9 January 1936. Education: University of Bristol, 1954–58, B.A. (honors) 1957, Cert.Ed. 1958; Sorbonne, Paris, 1955, diploma in French studies 1955; University of Queensland, St. Lucia, 1964–71,M.A. 1967, Ph.D. 1972. Family: Married Emmanuel Kantaris in 1958; one son and one daughter. Career: English teacher, Withywood School, Bristol, 1958–59; English and French teacher, St. Paul's Way School, London, 1960–62; tutor in French, University of Queensland, 1963–66; Open University tutor, Southwest England, 1974–84; extramural lecturer, Exeter University, Devon, 1974–92; writer-in-thecommunity, Cornwall, 1986. Awards: Poetry Magazine award (Australia), 1969; Poetry Society Competition award, 1982; Major Arts Council Literature award, 1991; Society of Authors award, 1992. D.Litt.: University of Exeter, 1989. Address: 14 Osborne Parc, Helston, Cornwall TR13 8PB, England.



Time and Motion (as Sylvia Kantarizis). Sydney, Poetry Society of Australia, 1975; (as Sylvia Kantaris), Helston, Cornwall, Menhir, 1986.

Stocking Up. Helston, Cornwall, Menhir, 1981.

The Tenth Muse. Liskeard, Cornwall, Peterloo, 1983.

News from the Front, with D.M. Thomas. Todmorden, Yorkshire, Arc, 1983.

The Sea at the Door. London, Secker and Warburg, 1985.

The Air Mines of Mistila, with Philip Gross. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1988.

Dirty Washing: New and Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1989; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1990.

Lad's Love. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1993.

Lost Property. Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1998.


Critical Studies: In Outposts Poetry Quarterly (Sutton, Surrey), Spring 1989; "Terpsichore and the Incredible Hulk: Sylvia Kantaris—An Accessible Contemporary" by David Wilkinson, in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-war British and Irish Poetry, edited by C.C. Barfoot. Amsterdam and Atlanta, Georgia, DQR Studies in Literature 13, 1994.

Sylvia Kantaris comments:

With regard to form, I agree with Christina Rossetti: "In the poet, the ear dictates and the mouth listens." What fascinates me most is to discover the curious and humorous within the everyday, and I enjoy the sheer fun of mixing dictions outrageously.

(1995) I think the poet has one skin too few and that it hurts.

*  *  *

The publication of Sylvia Kantaris's Dirty Washing, which contains a substantial selection of her previous work together with a generous supplement of new poems, provides a fine opportunity to assess her achievement. It is a pleasant collection to read, mainly because of Kantaris's gentle conversational style, which relies on the subtle rhythms of the speaking voice. Because the style is difficult to maintain, it is not surprising that there are lapses into the prosaic from time to time. But at her best Kantaris is very good, her poems exerting a strong hold on the reader. When she starts a poem, as she often does, with a direct statement—

   It takes a certain savoir-faire to give a paper on
   some area of deconstructionism when
   I don't know what it means


   I don't put the clock back. I just stop it
   for an hour and let time do the catching up

—then the hold is exerted straightaway. The extended metaphor in "Genesis" is a case in point:

   May I scream? I asked
   but they said no,
   so I held it between my teeth
   where it slowly spread.

Kantaris's style suits her brief narratives and certainly her probing reflections and descriptions. Her eye for detail often intrigues the reader:

   My grandmother's kitchen looks almost normal
   on the surface, though a bit too bare.
   Nobody really cooks there. The drawer
   contains two knives and forks which don't match;
   there are two pans in the cupboard and a few
   old mugs and plates. Nothing accumulates.

The poem gives not so much a picture of the kitchen as a character study of a grandmother. It is a characteristic of Kantaris's best poems that under the deceptively unassuming ordinariness of her vocabulary and syntax lie deep layers of metaphor and feeling.

Humor enlightens Kantaris's poetry too. "The Big One" and "O Little Star" are gems. While "Fairy Tales" is another example, here something deeper is revealed when Beauty

   Never stopped tormenting him
   until the beast emerged again
   from underneath the skin.

I am of two minds about the work Kantaris has written in collaboration with others. The Air Mines of Mistila, with Philip Gross, is successful enough, but in News from the Front, with D.M. Thomas, the two voices and stances are too disparate. Besides, Kantaris's own powers of expressing the emotional and the sensual are intense enough in themselves. "Parting," for example, with its extended symbolism of the railway, is beautifully done:

   So many partings glance away ahead of us
   to where the rain slants on an empty track.

Other examples are "Some Untidy Spot" and the impressive "An Innocent Adultery," all the more powerful for its gentleness:

   … the day before was just the kind
   of day for touching breasts, as he had said
   casually, as if words had no fingers.

John Cotton

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