Wainwright, Jeffrey

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Nationality: British. Born: Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, 19 February 1944. Education: Florence County Primary Junior School; Longton High School, 1955–62; University of Leeds, B.A. 1965,M.A. 1967. Family: Married Judith Batt in 1967; one son and one daughter. Career: Lecturer in American literature, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1967–72. Since 1973 lecturer, then senior lecturer in English, Manchester Polytechnic. Visiting instructor, Long Island University, New York, 1970–71. Address: 11 Hesketh Avenue, Didsbury, Manchester M20 8QN, England.



The Important Man. Newcastle upon Tyne, Northern House, 1970.

Heart's Desire. Manchester, Carcanet, 1978.

Selected Poems. Manchester. Carcanet, 1985.

The Red-Headed Pupil. Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Out of the Air. Manchester, Carcanet, 1999.


The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, adaptation of a workby Charles Peguy (produced Stratford upon Avon, 1984). Manchester, Carcanet, 1986.


Translator, The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel (play broadcast BBCRadio 3, 1988).

Translator, Le Cid by Pierre Corneille (play broadcast BBC Radio 3,1994).


Critical Studies: Introduction by the author to Heart's Desire in Poetry Book Society Bulletin (London), spring 1978; "Am I Doing It Right?" by the author, in The Poet's Voice and Craft, edited by C.B. McCully, Manchester, Carcanet, 1994.

Jeffrey Wainwright comments:

I do not think the responsibilities of poetry toward play, toward words as sound images that are only provisionally attached or supposedly free of referents, preclude an attempt to say something in a poem, however oblique, composite, or provisional. The strength that poetry—having absorbed the discursiveness of neoclassicism, the subjectivity of romanticism, and the fragmentation of modernism—now possesses is the opportunity to combine so many different aspects of experience, knowledge, and ways of speaking and to mix them in a way that is richer, more linguistically—that is to say humanly—diverse than any of the argufying discourses it might feed from. Descartes, a child's bedtime memories, geology and evolution (popularly apprehended), a bit of argot, and verbal playfulness can coexist here as in no other form outside the literary. Of course we strive to think our way through discrete subjects and to impose on ourselves the appropriate rules of enquiry and contemplation, and it is right that we do so. But that effort is part of the whole contingent jostle of our mental states that bear the impression of the language about us. The capacity of the poem to speak something of this mix of the mind is what interests me most at present, though not, I hope, as an interior monologue but as part of the exchanges in which we seek for sense.

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"History, which is Eternal Life, is what / We need to celebrate." From his early poems on the battles of Waterloo and Jutland in The Important Man to "Thomas Müntzer" in Heart's Desire, Jeffrey Wainwright has been drawn to historical subjects. He treats them in a language sparse and plain enough to be easily underestimated. But Wainwright is a poet of vision. His poems show that social reality is everywhere a construct made by human beings and therefore capable of being changed by them, and his gift is in writing of the particular human activity or transaction in a way that reveals the larger power relations and social constructions that inform what is apparently personal. Without depending on rhetorical or analytical language, he can show that questions of politics, class, wealth, or power are not optional extras to understanding or simply the province of the committed but rather are implicit in all we do. It follows that the psychology of human actions, even theology, is all of a piece with politics, and Wainwright is as interested in states of mind, emotion, and beliefs as in material action.

Müntzer was a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer and leader in the Peasants' War. Reviled as a madman and liar for daring to propose that "God made / All men free with his own blood shed," Wainwright shows Müntzer as one whose vision is inseparable from his struggle for justice, and the poem conveys the power of his exultant faith. Inspired by God's "promised rainbow" at the Battle of Frankenhausen, he says, "I thought I could catch their bullets in my hands." Vision and courage like his are the preconditions of social justice but not the sufficient means, for what they confront in the poem is the material power of those who monopolize wealth and learning. One cannot catch bullets. Wainwright is not afraid to show the heroic visionary as sometimes ridiculous, self-punishing, and self-indulgent, perhaps necessarily so. The pursuit of paradise on earth is both idealism and action, both hopeful and terrible. As another poem, "Before Battle," puts it, "We wade so deep in our desire for good."

The title sequence in Heart's Desire treats the same themes in more personal terms. Poems of love and grief show how we may "escape ourselves alone," for love is the first move beyond the self. "Heart's desire" comes close to being an oxymoron, in which the most inward and personal are yoked to what points beyond the self, for desires must be formed and chosen. In forming them we may actually have to fight "our dealing hearts and flying brain." These limpid lyrics are carefully woven out of the repetitions of a few nouns—"desire," "dream," "heart," "light"—which, like all of the most common and familiar words in the language, bear the most complex charges of meaning. Selected Poems draws heavily on Heart's Desire, and in the handful of later poems collected in the volume Wainwright restates his preoccupations with love, death, and war and with the connections between what is supposedly private and what is public and historical.

Wainwright's spare language suggests utterance wrung from silence. It suggests human beings reduced to vulnerable simplicity and truthfulness by the pressure of immediate and particular circumstances, driven to speech by the need to become conscious of their situations. His socialism, too, is the stronger for its near reticence, its being allowed to emerge in the reader's own construction of the poem's juxtaposed images.

—R.J.C. Watt