Welcome back to St. Andrews! As summer closes in, books editor Henry Crabtree reviews Glyn Maxwell’s Drinks With Dead Poets, a dreamlike story wherein the author finds himself face-to-face with some of history’s finest proponents of poetic literature. If you’d like to write for The Tribe’s Books section, email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com .
Have you ever wondered what your favourite poet would say about their work? Not what they wrote about their methods, or inspiration; but what they would actually conceive to tell you if you were standing right there in front of them. This is Glyn Maxwell’s premise in a delightfully indescribable book, one that sits between autobiography, fiction, and poetic critique, that weaves a tale of a strange village in eternal autumn, where long dead poets come to wax lyrical on their literature.
Waking up in an unknown corner of rural England, the author (and protagonist), poet/playwright/librettist/lecturer Glyn Maxwell is charged with teaching a poetry class; with the fortunate caveat that every week the poet in question arrives to guest lecture. An eclectic mix of nationalities, styles, forms, and personalities soon arises. Maxwell is joined by, in order: Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Coleridge, Poe, Clare, Yeats, Whitman, the Brownings and Lord Byron. Particularly insightful is Maxwell’s illumination on the feelings these poets had for one another, whether they coexisted or had been informed by a predecessor’s work.
There isn’t a singular genre that this work fits into. The genius of this piece of literature, is that it isn’t simply a fiction, nor is it merely a biography of these poets. Using the poets’ own words, verbatim, from diaries, letters, and their own prose about their work, Maxwell reanimates these long dead pillars of poetry. From the impressions they left, their known personalities and biographies, this work creates a living historical invigoration that interact with the protagonist and his class, explain their work, and share their opinions on writing. Their motivations as to why they write will strike a chord with any writer, professional or amateur. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge espouses poetically in an unnaturally succinct fashion when asked why he writes, he replies: “Because my life is short.” These poets survived beyond their deaths in their words, yet Maxwell brings them back with splendour and passion, and many drinks down the village pub.
‘Drinks With Dead Poets: The Autumn Term’ was on the agenda for Maxwell’s visit to Toppings in town last November, though as we well know St. Andrews wasn’t particularly autumnal. His book consistently escapes my describing, it truly must be read to be believed. What begins as an eerie evocation of poets long dead broaches love, motivations for writing, the beauty of edification. It follows from his seminal work on poetry, conveniently titled ‘On Poetry’, and espouses many of the same ways of thinking. Both books are heartily recommended to anyone with even the slightest spark of an interest in writing, poetry or otherwise. Towards the denouement of the novel, while teaching his class on the importance of the white space in poetry (the blankness of the paper), and the black spaces (the words in which you fill the silence of the white space), Maxwell commands a wonderfully concise raison d’être on writing; that “the white space (…) the nothing, the element you work in. It’s been good to us, it’s canvas, it’s sheet, it’s bed, it’s soil.” That the visiting poets are brought to life with such vicissitude is a true testament to Maxwell’s craftsmanship, his ability to transform their verbatim words on a page into a portrayal of living, breathing, thinking, feeling people: no easy feat. This novel features the same fictional class that appears in ‘On Poetry’, a piece that never insists on being a how-to but edifies just the same, described as “the most compelling, original, charismatic and poetic guide to poetry that I can remember” by Simon Armitage.
The previous work’s insistence that a poem “coherently expresses the presence of a human creature” is beautifully, melancholically explored in ‘Drinks With Dead Poets’. These are not mere subtitles under a poem, nor are they the canonical, almost poetically beatified omniscients that some might applaud them as. The true victory in Maxwell’s work is to depict these poets as people, and their wisdom, verbatim from their own hand, colour this work exquisitely with their impression: the human insight from those long dead, whom we forget were human. Glyn Maxwell’s blur of fictional non-fiction allows this reanimation, and is a triumph of literature, no matter your interest in poetry.