Warning: part-way through this novel about the author teaching poetry and drinking with Keats and Walt Whitman, I realised that it’s a sequel, of sorts. I’ve now got a copy of it, Maxwell’s On Poetry, but I haven’t read it yet. So I might have missed something in this review. Bear with me.
Glyn Maxwell, real-life poet, playwright and novelist, wakes up in a dream where he’s a poetry tutor on Thursdays, in a small village that has more pubs than shops. It also has an Academy, whose staff are none too pleased that Maxwell has been scheduled to run his extra-mural, ungraded classes for their students, who ought to be studying more important things with the real staff. Drink and rebellion against administrative regimes seem to be important for this poet’s mission. Maxwell is confused about why he’s there with no explanations, but he gets on with the classes anyway.
He gulps, but takes it in his stride, that he’s got guest poets arriving each week to do readings and meet the students: John Keats, Emily Dickinson, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Charlotte Bronte, both the Brownings and Yeats. Edward Lear is also in attendance, shyly sitting with the students rather than performing his own work. We encounter a clutch of almost indistinguishable British First World War poets in their cricket pavilion watching the fireworks, but I think I spotted Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.
It’s a lovely conceit that succeeds because as a practitioner Maxwell is steeped in poetry, and I personally would like to be taught by him. His classes are anarchic but also intensely informative: by making the students write poems he shows how it’s done, how poetry works. His students have strong characters, so their evolving community makes a novel out of their classes and encounters with the poets, as we learn more about them (and pick up on stories that seem to be left dangling from On Poetry). Maxwell has more scope with the students as fictional characters because he’s invented them. He can’t invent the poets, because he has restricted himself to only showing them as they are historically known to be, in their clothes, what they say, what they are known to have thought. He patches their dialogue so cleverly into the narrative that the dead poets live, magnificently: they are, variously, formidable, charming, friendly, shy, magnificent, dangerous, irresponsible, self-effacing and always elusive.
Maxwell himself works as a character because he is only confused when he’s not teaching or talking about poetry. In the episodes when he’s trying to find out where this extraordinary village is, how to leave, wondering what his real life is up to out here beyond the fog of this bubble of time, he is just a bit tiresome. When he’s fighting the Academy staff and its philistine autocracy (and, most unexpectedly, having a fling with one of them) he’s pig-headed, brave but irritating. When he’s moderating the uncontrollable poets, he’s desperate, juggling their wellbeing as ghosts with feelings, with the needs of his students and their emerging private lives that need a lot of taking care of.
What emerges is a passion for poetry, and a longing to have known how the great poets did it, how they thought about it. I loved this book. There’s a hint that he might be teaching plays next. I’m reading On Poetry now.
Glyn Maxwell, Drinks With Dead Poets. The Autumn Term (Oberon Books 2016), ISBN 9781783197415, £12.99