We are going to need poets like Seán Hewitt, and I hope his pamphlet (Lantern, ORB), published last year and soon to be joined by his first full collection (Tongues of Fire, Penguin), proves to be the seed that will grow into a thoughtful, elegant and profound body of work. It is perhaps early to make such grand claims, but there is evidence in Lantern that this will be the case.
I say we are going to need poets like him because Lantern reveals, I think, a moderate romantic, and with the extreme and even radical passions that dominate discourse today, moderate romanticism is something that can help provide much-needed calibration. Among the gifts bequeathed us by the romantics was the ability to look into the darkness and chaos of nature and see not some terrifying ‘other’ to be destroyed or tamed, but instead a reflection of our own feelings and emotions. And it is in this sense that Hewitt’s ‘lantern’ lights a way through the various dark inner-worlds of his poems (“The world is dark/but the wood is full of stars” ‘Wild Garlic’). I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Hewitt has a penchant for Wordsworth, Coleridge et al. but he also deliberately references Christopher Smart (in ‘And I will lay down a votive to my silver birch’), who was thought by Yeats to be the prototypical romantic, while other reviewers have noted the influence of Seamus Heaney, who also has much of the romantic about him, and it is difficult to ignore the aforementioned darkness pervading almost every poem, which is so linked to romantic notions of the sublime (c.f. Edmund Burke). Yet a potential to lurch towards the unbridled passions and uber-sensibility of the Gothic is a concomitant danger of the romantic, along with the tendency towards ‘Utopias’ (both left and right) of which WH Auden was so aware in his famous criticisms of Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron. Politically, it could be argued, we live increasingly in a world of the romantically motivated extremes Auden feared. It seems important therefore that the heart is tempered by the head. This is where Hewitt’s moderate romanticism is welcome, and it can be seen in some of the other influences and references in Lantern. The first comes right at the beginning of the opening poem, ‘Leaf’: “for woods are forms of grief/grown from the earth” which, while casting forward structurally to the Smart poem, also clearly references Philip Larkin, who says, in ‘The Trees’: “Their greenness is a kind of grief”. Larkin does not tend to be thought of as romantic, although John Bayley (LRB, 5th May, 1983) pointed towards the similarities between him and Keats, but this early reference indicates a ‘Movement-influenced’ element in Hewitt’s writing: Thom Gunn is also there in the gay physicality, and so is Elizabeth Jennings in the many beautiful religious phrases and allusions (I would direct the reader to some of Jennings’ later poems such as ‘Among the Stars’ and ‘Walking in the Dark’ for comparison with the beautiful ‘Härskogen’), although we also find an idiom at times close to wonderful Hopkins pastiche: “glory be to the näckros, naked rose” (‘Waterlily’). One of the pamphlet’s most powerful moments occurs in ‘Dryad’, where the eroticism of woodland sexual encounters (“acts of secret worship”) leads, through a “perfect symmetry” between a lover’s body and trees themselves, to a rhetorical reflection which fuses the natural, the sexual and the religious: “But then/what is a tree, or a plant, if not an act/of kneeling to the earth, a way of bidding//the water to move, of taking in the mouth/the inner part of the world and coaxing it out.” I submit this sentence as evidence that Hewitt’s writing is more than the sum of its influences; there is something new and interesting here which is his alone. Such poetic moments, where the speaker appears to turn declaratively straight towards the reader, can come over as disappointing cod profundity, but here we see such a skilful weaving of the romantic with the erotic (the romantic subverted, we might say, by the erotic; with the latter then subverted itself by the religious) that the sentence yields insight on multiple levels. The mode is echoed in ‘Dryad’s partner piece, ‘Kyrie’ (“and what is a parent to a child but a god/who we turn to when we believe/everything is fixable”) with less individual power but functioning perfectly in tying the two poems together structurally, enhancing the original moment of reflection by over-layering it with the parent child image. The child imagery in the pamphlet deserves more space than I can give it here (if I can realistically expect anyone to make it to the end of my review!), and it is a theme I expect and hope to be developed in Hewitt’s forthcoming collection. I look forward to giving it more thought then.
However, to return to influences, there are other females here too, more obvious perhaps than Jennings. The way Hewitt gets so close physically to nature recalls Alice Oswald, particularly in ‘Häcksjön’ in which the speaker leaps into a forest lake (“for a long moment/I plumb its dark core”) just as the speaker of Dart does into the eponymous river. And against, or perhaps alongside, Oswald sits the Eavan Boland of ‘Anna Liffey’ (“A woman in the doorway of a house”) as the speaker in ‘Kyrie’ stands on the threshold of his house, under a “purple blush of sky” keenly alert to outside sensation: “I stand frozen/by the back door of the quiet house,/trying to listen, receptive but distrusting/my body – the ring of light from the kitchen/over my shoulder…”
In these collaborative-creative times it is easy to be unfair on poets who thank other poets in the ‘Acknowledgements’, looking for and sometimes finding overt influence of those who have been involved with early drafts of the poems. Hewitt mentions Andrew MacMillan, Helen Tookey, Okey Nzelu and Sarah Hymas and, seeing this, those who know their work might find evidence of their guiding hands at times in Lantern. But of course, if Hewitt had not thanked them, we would not have looked and probably not have noticed. There are interesting questions around authorship here, but they certainly don’t only relate to Hewitt’s poetry so I will leave them for another time. And what, we might ask, is influence anyway? Where does it begin and end? Hewitt has written about Henri Cole, Yeats, Hopkins and, particularly, JM Singe. Harold Bloom would no doubt say that the poems in Lantern arise from Hewitt’s anxiety relating to his readings and misreadings of all these poets and more; and that may be so, but the quote we need here is well-known, it is TS Eliot from his discussion of Philip Massinger’s indebtedness to Shakespeare in The Sacred Wood: “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”
We all borrow, then, we who write poetry, published or otherwise; the question is how well we ‘weld our theft’. I have chosen to focus on influence in this review not because I find Hewitt derivative (I hope I make clear above that I don’t) but because, and I repeat, we need him and poets like him who are able to take their wide range of influences and create poetry which is new, compelling, and which speaks wisely in a voice of tempered passion so that we might all be able to see more clearly through our shared darkness.
You can buy Lantern from ORB, here.
As of May 2020, you will be able to buy Tongues of Fire from Penguin, here.