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Maxwell, Glyn

MAXWELL, Glyn


Nationality: British. Born: Welwyn Garden City, England, 1962. Education: Oxford University; Boston University. Career: Freelance writer and editor. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1991; Poetry Book Society Choice for Tale of the Mayor's Son, and Recommendation for Out of the Rain; Somerset Maugham award for Out of the Rain. Address: c/o Bloodaxe Books, P.O. 1SN, Newcastle upon Tyne NE99 1SN, England.

Publications

Poetry

Tale of the Mayor's Son. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1990.

Out of the Rain. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.

Rest for the Wicked. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.

The Breakage: Poems. London, Faber, 1998; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Plays

Gnyss the Magnificent: Three Verse Plays. London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Wolfpit: The Tale of the Green Children of Suffolk. Todmorden, ARC, 1996.

Novel

Blue Burneau. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.

Other

Editor, with Michael Dobbs, The Bridport Prize: Poetry and Short Stories. Bristol, England, Sansom and Company, 1996.

Editor, Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland, by Simon Armitage. London and Boston, Faber, 1996.

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Critical Studies: "Glyn Maxwell's 'Out of the Rain'" by Scott Anderson, in Agni (Boston), 37, 1993; in Poetry Review, 84(1), spring 1994; by Nick Hornby, in Poetry Review, 85(2), summer 1995; by A. Topping, in Critical Survey (Oxford), 8(2), 1996; "Glyn Maxwell: Aestheticising Place-Myth" by D. Brown, in Critical Survey (Oxford), 9(1), 1997.

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Glyn Maxwell is one of the most prolific and immediately impressive of the new wave of contemporary British poets. His work is marked by a confidence of address and an ability to create an immediate excitement in the reader. He writes naturally in a wide range of traditional prosodic forms and gives them energetic new life. Form is not a restraint into which he fits but a creative release that lends his work edge and wit. Furthermore, he experiments with form and can often undermine prosodic form with the syntax of loosely structured demotic speech. His work first came to prominence in the British journal Poetry Review in 1987, and it has been praised by Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, Peter Porter, and Peter Forbes.

Maxwell writes poems from the point of view of many different individuals and expresses himself in many voices. His facility is great, but the reader is led to feel that Maxwell needs to set himself a range of technical challenges in order to be himself in verse. He is a prolific writer and can write at length. His sequence "Out of the Rain" is twenty pages long, and many poems run from between two to three pages.

Maxwell's gift is essentially protean, enabling him to write a range of types of poem, be it lyric, narrative, or dramatic. This makes it difficult to pinpoint one or two poems that are representative of the best in each of his books. He is a poet who needs to be read entire. His poems reward close reading, but the sheer diversity of voices and subjects encountered in them make reading Maxwell a demanding experience. The challenging nature of the work is offset, however, by a lively sense of humor that entertains the reader. The titles of Maxwell poems are often playful and puzzling: "Actress-as-Cat," "Tale of a Chocolate Egg," "We Are Off to See the Wizard."

In a Poetry Review questionnaire Maxwell mentioned W.H. Auden, Robert Frost, and the early music of Bob Dylan as influences on his work. At time he can be reminiscent of all three, and he can remind us of formal poets a generation earlier than his own, such as John Fuller or James Fenton. Maxwell has said that his main reading is of dead poets, and his work provides evidence of a wide reading of poetry written in English.

The world of Maxwell's poems is essentially contemporary, recognizably postsurrealist, post-Paul Muldoon, and expressive of images of a shared modern reality through traditional forms. His narratives tend to be tangential rather than linear. The poems often start with an arresting line that places the reader in an unclear situation that then becomes clearer during the reading. (In this, and in his writing of verse drama, the reader is tempted to add Robert Browning as another influence.) The title poem from Maxwell's dazzling first book, Tale of the Mayor's Son, effectively buttonholes the reader through a number of direct and initially enigmatic pointers to the story to come:

The Mayor's son had options. One was death,
and one a black and stylish trilby hat
he wore instead, when thinking this: I Love.
 
The town was not elaborate. The sky
was white collisions of no special interest
but look at the Mayor's son, at the bazaar!

In its evocation of two young women at a swimming pool, the later poem "Helene and Heloise" brings together a number of Maxwell traits:

So swim in the embassy pool in a tinkling breeze
The sisters, mes cousines, they are blonde-haired
Helene and Heloise,
One for the fifth time up to the diving board,
The other, in her quiet shut-eye sidestroke
Slowly away from me though I sip and look.

Maxwell writes lyric poems too, such as "Poem in Blank Rhyme," which employs only one rhyme and which begins, "This isn't very difficult to do." The poem ends with these lines:

Now over there, I'm standing in the dew,
Remembering and hoping. But it's true:
 
Days are very many. Days are few.
I want to be with someone and you're who.

Maxwell's book Rest for the Wicked contains "New Year Song," a dramatic lyric from a play:

The apple's eaten, the year is died,
The sun is climbing over the side,
The sparrow's flown the ocean wide,
Remembering me, forget me.

Other poems in Rest for the Wicked tackle serious public events, as in "The Sarajevo Zoo," where the strangulation of the besieged Bosnian city is presented through the effect on the unfed zoo animals. Despite the efforts of the two zookeepers, the animals are driven to eat one another. The poem is public, somber, and plain in form, and it steers clear of cleverness. When armed troops arrive,

Trees were what you could not see the starving
beasts behind, or see there were now no beasts,
only the keepers crouching with their two lives,
Then winter howled a command and the sorry branches
shed their leaves.

The Breakage, published in 1998, shows equally the continuing need to come to terms with the mainstream modern English verse tradition in which Maxwell's work is firmly based and a further deepening of themes in his poetry. The impressive sequence of fourteen poems titled "Letters to Edward Thomas" is an act of homage to a poet who developed an existing meditative and fluid English verse line (which Maxwell adapts in the sequence) as an alternative to modernism's clearer break with tradition. The poem also aims to come to terms with World War I, which remains the greatest trauma of twentieth-century Britain and in which Thomas died. Other poems in the book add a further, more personal connection to the experience of Thomas. Poems such as "My Grandfather at the Pool" and "June 31st, the Somme" tell us that Maxwell's own grandfather fought in the war and survived. In "Letters to Edward Thomas" Maxwell confesses to the older poet, "Whom do I write for? Anybody? Yes, /You." In its pages The Breakage demonstrates once again the virtuoso range of Maxwell's talent, from occasional poems, hard-edged lyrics, and conversational pieces to "Under These Lights," a fine elegy for Brodsky.

Given his undeniable gifts, his ambition to express things clearly, and his energetic springing line, there is little doubt that Maxwell is a key figure in British poetry today.

—Jonathan Barker

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