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A Review of Anthony Burgess's
Revolutionary Sonnets



Tess Crebbin


Carcanet Press, 2002
ISBN 1 85754 616 4
9.95 Pounds
Release Date: November 25th, 2002

On the official 9th anniversary of British novelist and composer Anthony Burgess, November 25th, 2002 (he actually died on November 22nd), the renowned British literary press Carcanet has undertaken an commendable and highly overdue task: that of releasing a volume of Burgess's poetry.

Burgess, best known to the broad reader for his novel A Clockwork Orange , to the literary enthusiast for such masterworks as his Booker Prize Nominee Earthly Powers, to the Joycean for his scholarly works on the author, to the music scholar for his Elgarian compositions and his music books, was, in all actuality a poet before he ever was anything else. Lauded for his poetry early on, though winning the Governor's Poetry Award for one of his first works, and later commended by T.S. Eliot, Burgess turned to fiction because he needed to earn a living from his writing, and poetry, sighingly written this comment is, does not make a living anymore for anyone, no matter how gifted.

At heart, Burgess remained a poet and he never abandoned the craft totally. To publish his poetry, he created the alter-ego Enderby, a poet and university lecturer to whom he dedicated five books, which can also be bought as the Complete Enderby. In the novels, Enderby's award-winning poetry book is titled Revolutionary Sonnets, and it is an endearing touch that Carcanet chose the same titled to pay homage to the poet Burgess.

So, is his poetry any good? Anyone who had read Burgess's last novel, the verse novel Byrne, published after his death and Byronic as much as Joycean, will know that Burgess understood his craft better than most living poets. He was born a few hundred years too late for a veritable poetry career, but Byrne, the cumulating of Burgess's lifelong quest to produce an answer to Nabokov's Pale Fire, became a New York Times Notable Book of 1997 and already proved that there was more to the man than novels and music.

Leaving Byrne aside, there is plenty of other stuff to sink one's mind, and teeth, into, and be left with a sense of wonder why Burgess never considered his poetry of sufficient merit to publish it during his lifetime, except under the guise of Enderby.

Take 'Enderby's' poem, “Eden” for instance, and marvel at this excerpt:
One looks for Eden in history, best left unvisited
For the primal sin is always a present sin
The thin hand held in the river which can never
Clean off the blood, and so remains bloodless
And this very moment, this very word will be Eden
As that boy was already, or is already, in Eden
While the delicate filthy hand dabbles and dabbles
But leaves the river clean, heartbreakingly clean
Or, an untitled poem, published in The Serpent:
What we made out of light
The light would not have
So we hollowed out a grave
Where light has forever set
Revolutionary Sonnets is more, however, than a selection of pretty darn good poetry, that is, if you are still looking for form and message in poetry, and have not subscribed to the modern, verse-free and often meaningless excuse for it. This is good, old-style poetry, as might have been released a hundred years ago.

Anthony Burgess, a man who, in his acclaimed textbook English Literature, (Longman, 1974) devoted several chapters to the art of writing correct rhyme, and used the change from head-rhyme to end-rhyme to illustrate how the English language has changed over time, could only have been expected to deliver good poetry. To expect anything else would have been ludicrous, as readers of works such as Byrne, Moses and the Enderby series already know. Nobody who pays such painstaking attention to the craft of writing good verse would deliver anything else himself. Aside from being a compilation of works of true literary merit, however, Revolutionary Sonnets is also an insight into Burgess's own biography.

We meet a man who, back in 1975, grew mighty disillusioned with the powers to be, for instance, as is illustrated in the poem, “Oh Lord, oh Ford, God help us, also you” Here is an excerpt:
We need philosophers, not men who've been
Exalted through their skill at shyster's tricks
Who shell out shibboleths, who fox, who fix,
Committed to the timocratic view
That wealth is power, and neither is for you.
or, from the same poem:
Leave inarticulacy to the loathed
Nude apes up there: let us at least be clothed.
and, also in the same poem, a man concerned about social injustice:
The rich man has a juicy joint to carve,
But no joint's big enough to palliate
The hunger of the hundreds at the gate
One need not forget that Burgess found recognition as a poet almost as soon as he put pen to paper, even though the then went on with novel writing and left the poetry craft to his alter-ego Enderby. He won the Governor's Poetry Award with this 1945 piece, reproduced here in excerpt and in its entirety in the book:
Useless to hope to hold off
The unavoidable happening
With that frail barricade
Of week, day or hour
Which melts as it is made,
For time himself will bring
You in his high-powered car,
Rushing on to it,
Whether you will or not.
The poems were edited by Kevin Jackson, a British freelance journalist, who knew Burgess personally and has produced two Burgess documentaries for the BBC. Jackson's introduction is knowledgeable and profound, containing excerpts and citations, and, in an add-on Personal Note, reflects his affection for Burgess. “I would also like to place on record my first-hand experience of him as a considerate, charming and, at heart, modest man: a good man.” Jackson sums up his experience of editing the poems in one, effective statement, at the end: “His poems were among the wonderful playthings he produced for his comfort and for ours: his toy, his dream, and (let us pray) his rest.”

If there is one disappointment about Revolutionary Sonnets, it is its slimness, especially since Jackson informs us that " ... the bulk of Burgess's work in metre ... is a pretty sizeable bulk, since a Complete Poems of Anthony Burgess would easily run to several hundred pages."

It is a shame we do not get to read them all.