Nationality: British. Born: London, 11 February 1948. Education: Sevenoaks School, Kent, 1959–66; University of Warwick, Coventry, 1966–71, B.A. in English and American literature 1969, M. Phil. in English 1975. Career: Teacher of English, Kimbolton School, Huntingdon, 1971–74, and St. Christopher School, Letch worth, Hertfordshire, 1974–86; owner, Baldock Bookshop, Hertfordshire, 1986–90. Since 1990 freelance writer and editor. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1969. Address: c/o Carcanet Press, 4th Floor, Conavon Court, 12–16 Blackfriars Street, Manchester M3 5BQ, England.
At Little Gidding. Rushden, Northamptonshire, Sceptre Press, 1974.
Afternoon Dawn. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Cellar Press, 1975.
Suffolk Poems. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1975.
Four Letters. Sundridge, Kent, Letter Press, 1976.
A Mandeville Troika, with Peter Scupham and George Szirtes. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1977.
At the Edge. Manchester, Carcanet, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1977.
Out of Time. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1979.
A Season of Calm Weather. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.
True Colours: New and Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1991.
The Stones on Thorpeness Beach. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.
Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1998.
Unreal City. Brighton, Millivres, 1992.
A Commentary on Henry V. Petersfield, Hampshire, Studytapes, 1973.
Carpenters of Light: Some Contemporary British Poets. Manchester, Carcanet, 1979; New York, Barnes and Noble, 1980.
Roy Fuller: Writer and Society. Manchester, Carcanet, 1995.
The Language of Jazz. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.
Editor, Selected Poems by Fulke Greville. Manchester, Carcanet. 1990.
Editor, Gay Love Poetry. London, Robinson, and New York, Carroll and Graf, 1997.*
Critical Studies: "A Slight Angle" by the author, in Critical Quarterly (Manchester), summer 1982; "'These Shifting Constances': Time, Place and Personality in Three New Collections of Verse" by Bill Ruddick, in Critical Quarterly (Oxford, England), 26(3), autumn 1984; "Starting Out Again" by Conor O'Callaghan, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 16 October 1998.
Neil Powell comments:
I started writing poems at school because I liked making these things out of words—the "things" being sonnets or villanelles or anything that offered the challenge and discipline of matching sense with form—and I remain fascinated by the oddly liberating possibilities of formal poetry. But the choice between metaphysicality and romanticism, the head and the heart, seems to me one that ideally need not be made. The poets I most admire are those who balance intellect and emotion in ways that transcend the necessary imbalances of their historical moments—Greville, Marvell, Coleridge, Auden, Gunn.
My poems are rooted in love and friendship, in the random shuttlings of memory and in the sense of place. The East Anglian landscape, with its huge skies, ragged coastline, and hidden valleys, has been especially kind to me. I am fortunate in the diversity of my literary work, which at present includes a good deal of editing and reviewing as well as extended prose projects in biography, criticism, and fiction. Consequently, I am not at all surprised if I find I have not written any poetry for months, though I am immoderately grateful when a poem does begin to bubble up, pushing everything else out of the way, demanding my undivided attention.* * *
Neil Powell's collection At the Edge carries as its epigraph a verse by Donald Davie: "The purest hue, let only the light be sufficient / Turns colour." The book itself is a conscious attempt to form a poetic in accordance with this precept. A firm admiration for the controlled force found in the work of Davie and Thom Gunn has led Powell to a consciousness that to write poetry is to exercise the intelligence as well as the heart and that the disciplines of a severe formalism are those most likely to prove fruitful:
The poem's flow—the rock pools or the bends,
Metre or syntax, shaping its slow progress—
Becomes a formal fountain as we turn
Our private art to public artifice.
The exact and exacting patterns, accurate rhyme schemes, and clear stanzaic forms of the poems are deployed to hold up to the light episodes of time past and time present. Inside these crystals the past and the present become each other, and their relationship is celebrated with a restrained, intelligent affection and a consciousness that ends and beginnings are artful mimics of each other:
The years are misting over. I recall
Something I didn't say a dream ago,
Return abruptly to the reading class.
The weeping condensation on a window
Becomes the image of another day,
A conversation in a different place
Minutely glimpsed, and very far away.
In these handy-dandyings of personal time Powell makes an easy, rueful use of a conjurer's personal box of props, and a golden world gathers its tarnish to the accompaniment of a bric-a-brac of talk, drink, jazz, and old sunlight. More subtle and striking deeper home are the meditations on time in collusion with place. These poems show a wariness of dramatic effects and grand gestures, at their happiest with the undemonstrative and hidden landscapes of East Anglia. The poet is frequently found in the role of eavesdropper, watcher, revenant, alert for the chance disclosure of some part of the secret compact that place and time have made, a compact itself under threat:
Trespasser? Tenant? Neither will win, the sea insists,
in the vanished places—Dunwich, Walberswick—
where lanes scrawl to the margin of a torn-off coastline
whose history is written by the tide.
Always beyond the local familiarities and the boundaries, the edges and lines formed by masons and poets, lie worlds evading circumscription. Some of Powell's most impressive poems move out toward enigmatic and uncharted areas of sea, dizzying weathers, oblivion. Roads lead endlessly and nightmarishly on
Until "The North" proclaims a giant sign,
As if the north were somewhere you could reach
By following a disembodied line
Which joins nowhere to nowhere, each to each,
And work to home. Or will it merely end
In featureless space, an orange void stretching
On each side of the road, round the next bend,
With distant amber lamps, the planets, gleaming?
The stance taken by the poet at this stage of his career is one of some ambivalence. The game is played neither at home nor away but often in some temporary ground we may provisionally call either. Metaphor is used sparingly, with Powell preferring an accurate and evocative use of detail held in place by an intellectual scaffolding. This can lead to a rather dry philosophical tone and a preponderance of abstraction in the weaker poems. His later work, however, shows a relaxed and sparer style emerging, which promises to bring a suppler tension to his forms:
I walk through the silent town. A breeze is blowing
Snuffed-out candles from horse-chestnut trees,
The unknown is on the air, and I am knowing
Something I cannot recognise, unless
It is a distant prospect of the future, showing
All that is and all that will come to be,
As blossoms of the past are going, going.