Saturday, 7 January 2017

Hello 2017

2016 was a funny old year. One of those years you don't really want to repeat itself - rather like 1916, I suppose. There must have been many families looking forward to 1917 with less than enthusiastic anticipation, having lost loved ones on the Western Front in the course of the previous year and knowing that there was more to come and no end in sight.
Since the countries where most of us live are not officially in the middle of a war at the moment, we have to be sanguine about the coming year and hope that international events will not be of the "disaster movie" variety that some years of the 21st century have been. As we look back on 2016, I thought it would be an idea, instead of talking about all the media personalities who have passed away, to consider the careers some of the poets and writers who died during the year. It is so often their words that give us hope for the future.
Sir Geoffrey Hill, who died in June aged 84, was perhaps better-known as an academic than as a poet, but he had begun to make a name for himself while still a student at Oxford, his first collection, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958, coming out in 1959. Later collections, such as King Log and Mercian Hymns, used early Christian history as subject matter. He continued to write devotional poetry, and was seen by some critics as the natural successor of T S Eliot. Like Siegfried Sassoon, he was the winner of a Hawthornden Prize, and he ended his career in the much sought-after role of Oxford Professor of Poetry, in which he has been succeeded by Simon Armitage.
Other English-language poets who passed away during 2016 included 94-year-old Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest known for his involvement in the anti-Vietnam protest movement of the 1960s (which briefly put him on the FBI's "most wanted" list). His compatriot, Carolyn Wright (who wrote as C D Wright), often wrote with a "Southern" voice, and lived in many parts of the USA before becoming Poet Laureate of the tiny state of Rhode Island in 1994. "Jock Scot" (real name John Leslie) was a performance poet from Edinburgh, where he was well known for his appearances at the Fringe. Adam Small, a South African "Coloured" writer, produced both poetry and prose, in English and Afrikaans, much of it dealing with racial issues.
Perhaps most notable among the list of 2016's dead poets was Leonard Cohen, the Canadian who became better known as a singer-songwriter (though he admitted he couldn't sing), a career he took up during the 1960s in order to sell more of his poetry. Nicknamed "the poet laureate of pessimism", he produced verse that, when translated into song, was often dismissed as "music to slit your wrists by", but nevertheless gained a huge following. Cohen was a perfectionist: his song "Hallelujah", which achieved popularity about twenty years after he first recorded it, originally had eighty verses, of which only six appear in the final version. It seems to have struck a chord with the present generation, although interpretations of the lyric's true meaning vary considerably.
We seem to have lost a disproportionate number of dramatists during the year, including such giants as the UK's Arnold Wesker, who made his name in the late 1950s with Roots and Chicken Soup with Barley, the US's Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and Italy's Nobel Laureate Dario Fo (Can't Pay? Won't Pay!). Sir Peter Shaffer, twin brother of another playwright, the late Anthony Shaffer, is known for numerous outstanding plays, including Equus, Amadeus, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, all of which were successfully adapted for the big screen. Ireland's William Trevor was a dramatist, novelist and short-story writer who won three Whitbread Prizes and was nominated five times for the Booker, though he never won it.
Anita Brookner, who died in March aged 87, did win the Booker Prize, for her 1984 novel Hotel du Lac (not, in my opinion, her finest). Her Jewish father had brought the family out of Poland and changed their name from Bruckner to avoid anti-German harassment during the Second World War. This background is reflected in most of her novels, as is her interest in art history, which was Brookner's main occupation until she retired from academia.
Another successful English female novelist who died during the year was Margaret Forster, whose 1960s best-seller Georgy Girl was perhaps eclipsed by her work as a biographer; her subjects included Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And of course, on Christmas Eve, the literary world said goodbye to 96-year-old Richard Adams, author of the children's classic Watership Down and other novels based on the lives of animals, such as The Plague Dogs and Shardik.
There is nothing unusual about famous writers dying. Most have to wait until middle age to achieve success and, in view of their relatively stress-free lifestyle, can hope to live to a ripe old age. There are not many Keats, Shelleys and Byrons around nowadays, to die of tuberculosis, drowning or blood poisoning. And - perhaps fortunately - there are not many war poets either.



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