Writing Her Book: The Poetry of Jo Shapcottby Jane Satterfield
he recipient of the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry for her life's work in verse, Jo Shapcott is widely admired for the "calm but sparkling Englishness" which characterizes her poetry. Eloquent and witty, hers is an engaging and skeptical voice, one that manages to be utterly personable without being conventionally auto-biographical. U.K. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy describes Shapcott's vision as one combining "accessibility with a deeply cerebral engagement"(qtd. in Flood). Passionately curious about the natural world, Shapcott embraces a compelling range of subject matter that reveals an astute awareness of gender relations, politics, science, history, music, and art. The poet's most recent collection, Of Mutability (2010 Costa Book of the Year), builds upon an intellectually ambitious body of work that "belongs as much to the body as the mind"(Poetry Archive) and reflects her on-going quest "to be a different kind of writer, for whom place and language are less certain, and for whom shifting territories are the norm" (Confounding Geography 115). Whether she is chronicling the decay of gardens or the cellular degeneration of body or mind; whether she is adopting the masks of literary figures, superheroes, animals, and pop culture icons, or paying homage to the work of visionaries like conceptual artist Helen Chadwick and television dramatist Dennis Potter, Shapcott's colloquial verse seeks to embody the transformative nature of human experience.
Shapcott's exploration of women's relation to literary tradition, society, and nation marries a strong feminist vision to irony, humor, and tenderness. Dominantly narrative, her poems emerge from "a displaced, oblique but controlled point of view" and possess a "surreal wit" that enables her "to explore the balance of
sexual, political, or human versus animal power" ("Jo Shapcott," Poetry Foundation). If Shapcott is difficult to pin down to a single representative persona, it may be partly because she takes refuge in "a multitude of poetic disguises which range from Greek goddesses to roses and mad cows" (52 Ways of Looking at a Poem 61). Critic Sean O'Brien observes that Shapcott is "an original in contemporary poetry—she comes at traditional subject matter as if she's entered the room through a different door" (Cochrane, "Jo Shapcott: The Book of Life"). A poet of powerful vision, Shapcott treads a liminal space, forgoing sentimental or romantic perspectives for an attentive response to human vulnerability; an examination of power dynamics lies at the heart of her work, but her resistance to easy answers allows her to illuminate the contradictions of gender as well as history's dark currents.
Shapcott was born in London in 1953 and considers herself an urban poet even though many of her poems include the familiar countryside and tropes of traditional English poetry—cows, flowers, humble rituals of making tea—all of which co-exist with the often disturbing images of contemporary news media. A self-admitted "'naturally compulsive reader'" who was encouraged in her writing early on in school, Shapcott enjoyed an unremarkable childhood (Crown, Guardian). Not long after
she turned eighteen, Shapcott's parents died unexpectedly within a month of each other. Soon after, she left England for Ireland to read English at Trinity College Dublin. She spent two years at Oxford studying the work of Elizabeth Bishop, but set work on her doctorate aside when she was awarded the Harkness Fellowship to Harvard. There, she studied with Seamus Heaney, a geographically rooted poet who encouraged young writers to "delve into the language and landscape of your own territory" (Confounding Geography 114).
As an aspiring poet who had spent her formative years in a new town, however, Shapcott felt herself challenged: her sense of spoken language, she recalls, "was flat, a version of London watered down by a mild accumulation of the various modes of speech of the many people who had moved there from all over the place" (114). Having observed the gradual erosion of her parents' "rich Forest of Dean accents and phraseology," Shapcott recalls feeling disconnected from her roots to some degree even though the experience of living abroad was a welcome one (114). Ultimately, Shapcott discovered this tension to be a powerful source of poetic vision, in part due to Elizabeth Bishop's model. In the poetry of this literary mother, she saw a "hint of early post-modernism . . . that speaks to writers who want to make an aesthetic of the fragmentary and rootless experience which now seems the norm" (115). Bishop's example, she reflects, gave her "formal permission to put travel, rootlessness, even lost identity, at the centre" (Confounding Geography 115-16). Critics have noted the extent of Bishop's influence in Shapcott's use of parentheticals and modulations of tone ("Responses to Elizabeth Bishop" 242-3). Shapcott's reticence about her private life—a trait shared with Bishop—is underscored in interviews where she frequently draws a distinction between a poet's imaginative relation to autobiography that is quite a distinct contrast with the approach taken by confessional poets.
Once she was back in England, Shapcott joined a group of poets who met regularly at the Lamb pub in Lamb's Conduit Street. She had been directing a full roster of programming for several years as arts administrator at London's Southbank Centre when her poem "The Surrealists' Summer Convention Came to Our City" won the National Poetry Competition in 1985. Electroplating the Baby, her first collection, was published by Bloodaxe in 1988; its striking title reflects the poet's interest in scientific investigation and surrealist's eye for the unexpected. A wry intelligence and comic touch are evident in her varied choice of subjects and forms; her inventive and syntactically driven free verse is supplemented by several sonnets and an ambitious sequence of poems that explores the adventures of "Robert and Elizabeth," a writing couple who find themselves inspired and challenged by their literary companionship. Here, Shapcott incorporates narrative details from the lives of the Brownings, using epigraphs to set the stage. Throughout the sequence, the use of voices—Elizabeth Barrett confiding in Miss Mitford, Jonathan Swift advising Vanessa, anthropologist Gregory Bateson on DNA transcription, and the contemporary narrator of Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights reflecting on gender differences—adds surprising context to Shapcott's vivid dramatization of the very real collisions of domesticity and art.
In 1991, Shapcott spent six months at the University of Cambridge where she was Senior Judith E. Wilson Fellow. That same year, she won the U.K.'s National Poetry Competition for the second time; so far, she has been the only poet to do so. Her arresting collection, Phrase Book (Oxford University Press, 1992), is populated by a host of surprising characters—sheep, goats, Superman, a reluctantly commuting Brando, an Englishwoman abroad, a mad cow, a lettuce lying face down in the fridge. Each of these characters comments on his or her predicament, and, indirectly, the larger world. Ordinary details of contemporary life in the last decade of the millennium are set against the backdrop of extraordinary political events, such as the televised coverage of the Gulf War and Britain's bovine spongiform encephalitis outbreak.
Shapcott's use of dramatic monologue links her to a specifically female tradition of employing the technique as a means of social critique. Part of dramatic monologue's enduring power for women poets lies in its tendency to "expose the conflicting and multiple positions through which the self can be situated and to emphasize the ways in which this self is produced by various socioeconomic and linguistic systems" (Byron, 135). Shapcott's monologues in Phrase Book are a fascinating means of exploring these tensions, allowing the poet to muse directly on her relation to the patriarchal literary tradition. Shapcott further explores the question of poetic inheritance and its relation to a woman's voice in "The Windows," a selection of her translations of Les Fenêtres, Rilke's ten-poem cycle to a beloved. In her versions, the formal language of the male speaker's address to his absent lover is modernized. Although colloquialisms and witty turns of phrase replace the familiar elevated lyricism of Rilke's lines, Shapcott's versions retain the meditative quality of the original sequence. As Shapcott's dialogue with Rilke continued over a span of ten years, her approach to translation became increasingly subversive as she posited a female speaker who talked back to the original persona, often interrogating a male speaker's perspective. Tender Taxes (Faber and Faber, 2002) collects all of her versions of Rilke's French poems.
Shapcott's continued fascination with material and psychic transformation on all levels resides at the heart of her third collection, My Life Asleep (Oxford University Press, 1998), where a combination of short lyrics and longer narratives pay tribute to Ovidian metamorphoses. The mad cow travels to space and models for Vogue, cabbages uproot themselves to walk the gardens at night, and an antsy quark plays Casanova to other particles in the subatomic field. The poems' speakers negotiate their way in an ever more troubling context: one where "you don't hesitate/knowing you're about to buy a world/ in the supermarket someone else/lost recently" (3) but can also find yourself "carrying a torch for someone/to the point of hallucination" (4). These compelling personae dramatize the strange and troubling contradictions of modern society. In an era where media culture's hold brings the world's economic disparity ever closer in view, the wonder and beauty of daily existence registers even more starkly against a backdrop of darker social and political realities. The implicit power of Shapcott's verse is that these forces are held in balance.
In a world of perpetual change, the poet's sole constant is the body, and many of Shapcott's poems celebrate female sexuality. Throughout My Life Asleep, Shapcott wittily employs animal imagery for a lively and subversive effect. The speaker of "Pig," for instance, reflects on the scope and variety of female appetite. Elsewhere, Shapcott explores history's imprint on the present moment. In a striking version of Marina Tsvetaeva's nostalgic lyric, "Motherland," she considers the contemporary English poet's uneasy relation to her homeland and the extent to which the poetic vocation problematizes national identity, suggesting also that one's shameful awareness of her country's historical, political, social, and economic realities can nonetheless inspire formidable art.
In 2003, Shapcott underwent extensive treatment a for a breast cancer diagnosis; the profound interplay between bodily vulnerability and psychic transformation informs her recent collection of lyric meditations, Of Mutability. In her characteristic fashion, Shapcott sees the poems as "emotionally autobiographical" rather than confessional and notes that, for her, an experience in and of itself is "not the most interesting thing." Any serious illness, like her own, "has tinges of mortality" but can also lead to a greater understanding of the essence of change—and, for Shapcott, the experience creates a powerful opportunity to explore the regions where "sometimes, there at the edges of it, there is twinkling green'' (qtd. in McKay, "The Book of Life"). Shapcott's exploration of illness and health in the individual and in the body politic shares a kinship with the work of British conceptual artist Helen Chadwick, whose avant-garde exhibitions explored the boundaries between the physicality and identity, beauty and revulsion. She credits this artist as "the presiding genius" of the book. Speaking in an interview, the poet explained that Chadwick's "take on gender was fascinating" and suggested "ways of relating the body and the world, which at that moment spoke to me, opened windows and doors, opened the whole house up" (qtd. in Crown). Beyond her interest in the visual arts, Shapcott has frequently collaborated with composers and musicians, as in American composer Stephen Montague's setting of Shapcott's darkly playful poems on animals, insects, and even a dreaming cabbage. Conceived for narrator and orchestra, with some audience participation, The Creatures Indoors was premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra at London's Barbican Centre in 1997.
Shapcott's active role in fostering the next generation of poets includes teaching in the MA programme in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she also supervises Ph.D. students. In addition, as co-editor (with Linda Anderson) of the essay collection, Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery (Bloodaxe, 2002), and author of The Transformers: Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures (Bloodaxe, 2010), Shapcott has made significant contributions to literary criticism. An abiding interest in science and medicine has led her to become a patron of Medicine Unboxed, a National Health Services initiative that seeks to foster a broader understanding of medical treatment by engaging medical practitioners and humanities scholars in reflective dialogue (Medicine Unboxed). Her committed support of projects that create innovative spaces in which the arts can flourish and enrich civic life is crucial to her literary vision.
A clear-eyed feminist vision lies at the heart of Shapcott's poetics, and "Venus Observes Herself," one her early poems, typifies her witty and direct approach to this concern. A dramatic monologue might be the woman poet's obvious first resort if she seeks to write a poem subverting the overt cultural assumptions in Botticelli's allegorical representation of the heavenly goddess of love and wisdom. Shapcott, however, allows Venus to speak for herself in a third-person voice, and thus casts her as an everywoman who takes stock of her perceived imperfections. While this Venus' direct and colloquial diction reveals her to be an utterly contemporary creature, she has nonetheless come to view herself through the lens of the male gaze. Her smile, which "makes her feel prickly," is "lopsided like a guitar" and what might be voluptuous curves engender further dissatisfaction: that "half-curve/which seems puffy to her touch" is something she "wants rid of" (Her Book 12). As John Berger observed, a woman does not act so much as appear, a condition that generates additional anxiety: for our everywoman, the "Seventh Heaven" of perfection might be within sight if only she
this art of arriving on shells
and a waist.
Shapcott's delicate lineation here foregrounds the fantastical nature of Botticelli's representation of Venus. Throughout the poem, Shapcott creates further comic effect through the use of contemporary marketing rhetoric as Venus confides plans to work "towards/an increase in breast/nipple ratio" and an "imperceptible up-tilt/which would balance the economy of her happinesses" (12) and "secure her potential like a frame" but not before "the Seasons advance clenching garments"(12). Subtly exploring the troubling objectification of the female image in the history of Western art, Shapcott posits woman as both subject and speaker in her own right.
That this poet would turn her skeptical eye to the body politic seems a natural extension of her aesthetic concerns. As she began to consider more directly in verse the means by which language constructs both gender and national identity, the scope of her art evolved to great effect. The title poem of Shapcott's second collection, "Phrase Book," reveals the poet's skill for rendering complex themes through precise diction and imagery while avoiding the pitfalls of didacticism and polemic. This striking dramatic monologue opens with a speaker who appears to be the poet herself watching televised coverage of the 1991 Gulf War but whose identity seems to shift as the poem unfolds and the speaker adopts the voice and language of an English tourist from the Imperial era who struggles to make sense of her experiences and observations in a foreign land. Throughout the poem, informal diction and fragmented languages—poetic, political, military as well as that of an old Collins Italian/English phrase book's questions and polite imperatives—jostle against each other to powerful effect:
TV is showing bliss as taught to pilots:
Blend, Low silhouette, Irregular shape, Small
Secluded. (Please write it down. Please speak slowly).
Bliss is how it was in this very room
when I raised my body to his mouth
when he even balanced me in the air
or at least I thought and yes the pilots say
yes they have caught it though Side-Looking
Airborne Radar, and through the J-Stars.
(Phrase Book 26)
In shifting perspectives so rapidly, Shapcott challenges the notion of a single authorial voice to "emphasize the instability and confusion of a post-imperial England no longer able to control the world and uncertain of its own place and position" (Byron 134).
But the speaker also takes note of other instabilities. The acronym, BLISS, as taught to pilots, describes military flight maneuvers; hearing this, the speaker's mind shifts back to a line of Wordsworth, then to the physical experience of love. The collage-like arrangement of narrative voice and detail reflects the tensions and contradictions of perception: the borders between public and private, historical and contemporary, Shapcott suggests, are more permeable than we may realize. The poem follows the movement of the mind as it seeks to apprehend; there is something here, too, of the polyvocality of personal letters in its urgency and directness. Reflecting on "Phrase Book" in the Poetry Society Bulletin, Shapcott comments on her speaker's voice, noting that she "tried to give her the toughness and imagination to be implicated in the atrocity while she watched it" (2-3). The poem does not provide its readers with the formula for living a just life in today's rapidly changing media-driven culture. Instead, the speaker's sense of fragmentation vividly illustrates a vexing contemporary dilemma: that of finding an adequate response to atrocity and the fear that the very things that make life bearable—the "bliss" of love, for instance—come to look (and feel) like "evasion and escape" (Her Book 66).
"Composition," an exploration of perception in Of Mutability, provides an intriguing look at the artistic process and a glimpse into the means by which Shapcott continues to link the disciplines of poetry and neuroscience. At the outset of the poem, the ordinary details of a domestic setting appear straightforwardly: there are "dust motes," a pencil (blue) sounding loud on the page" (51). Before long, the speaker's attention takes on a kind of hyper-focus: she notices, for instance, "a blast of sun hit a puddle/and a distant radio told the news" (51). The collision of internal thought and external stimuli soon result in a heightening of the senses:
a winter tree and then eternity trembled
and my fingers smelled of garlic from before
and the window was smeary, the tea cups
wanted washing and the Gulf Stream
was slowing and O my hips
ached from sitting...
(Of Mutability 51)
As the poem unfolds, the speaker continues to link seemingly disassociated phenomena through anaphora:
an ice shelf collapsed into the sea
and a cat with a white-tipped tail
walked by and somewhere in my body
the changed cells gathered...
In processing what she perceives, the speaker's vision expands, and the distance between the global and local, the public and private, shrinks. The dramatic visual effect of environmental collapse and nearly imperceptible subtle shifts at the cellular level reflect the universe's mutability. The speaker attributes her heightened awareness to a flaw in the body's physical system, but readers will hear textual echoes of Lowell and Plath in the jest that her brain's "not right," and that familiar stimuli have unexpectedly acquired such meaning that even "a hangnail thrilled" (51). For the artist, Shapcott suggests, there is no irrelevant stimulus. Though "hurricanes whirled and hissed," and the poet prays momentarily "to be disturbed"—order derives from chaos: the page is printed (51).
Throughout her career Shapcott has, like Virginia Woolf, sought to "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall" in order to "trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent..." ("Modern Fiction"). Her body of work reflects her confirmed belief that science and poetry possess complementary disciplinary goals. Subsequently, she has approached her subjects "through sensual things that poetry often leaves unmentioned: smells, tastes, detritus in the crannies of the house or human body" (52 Ways of Looking at a Poem 61). At the same time, Shapcott's deep concern with the contrasts and contiguities of public and private lives produces poetry that is equally responsive to contemporary power politics and personal investigation. Never merely nostalgic, Shapcott adopts a multitude of masks in service of exploring the broadest possible spectrum of human experience, underscoring her poetic project with playful irony and a refreshing self-awareness. For Shapcott, poetry's power lies in its ability to reveal the world's hidden marvels and to function as a kind of illumination that is "even better than a MRI" since it provides a untrammeled "window into the inner mind" ("Faber Academy"). Readers and poets who follow will indeed be grateful for the example of Jo Shapcott's vivid illuminations.
Byron, Glennis. "Contemporary Dramatic Monologues." Dramatic Monologue. London: Routledge, 2003. 129-145. Print.
Cochrane, Kira. "Jo Shapcott: the book of life." The Guardian. 26 January 2011. Web. 8 May 2012.
Crown, Sarah. "Jo Shapcott: I'm Not Someone Chasing My Own Ambulance." The Guardian. 23 July 2010. Web. 8 May 2012.
Entwhistle, Alice. "This Place Which Is Not One: Shapcott's Shifting Territories." Cambridge Quarterly. Vol. 31, No. 2. 2002.
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Jo Shapcott reads 'A Letter to Dennis.' YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2012.
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Shapcott, Jo. Electroplating the Baby. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1988. Print.
---. Phrase Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.
---. Her Book: Poems 1988-1998. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. Print.
---. "Confounding Geography." Poet of the Periphery. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 2002. 113-118. Print.
---. Of Mutability. London: Faber and Faber, 2010. Print.
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and Jo Shapcott." English (1995) 44(180): 229-245.
Woolf, Virginia. "Modern Fiction." The Common Reader. 29 April 2012. Web. 31
2010 Of Mutability (Faber and Faber)
2002 Tender Taxes (Faber and Faber)
2000 Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (Faber and Faber)
1998 My Life Asleep (Oxford University Press)
1996 Motherland (Gwaithel & Gilwern)
1992 Phrase Book (Oxford University Press)
1988 Electroplating the Baby (Bloodaxe)
1996 A Journey to the Inner Eye: A Guide for All
2010 The Transformers: Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures (Bloodaxe)
2008 Poems/Farzaneh Khojandi, translator with Narguess Farzad (Enitharmon)
2006 George Herbert (Poet to Poet), compiler (Faber and Faber)
2002 Elizabeth Bishop: Poet of the Periphery, editor with Linda Anderson, (Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Series: 1)
1999 Last Words: New Poetry for the New Century, editor with Don Paterson (Picador)
1997 Penguin Modern Poets 12, Helen Dunmore, Jo Shapcott, Matthew Sweeney (Penguin)
1996 Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times, editor with Matthew Sweeney (Faber and Faber)
2011 Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry
2010 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), Of Mutability,
2010 Costa Poetry Award, Of Mutability
2010 Costa Book of the Year, Of Mutability
2006 Cholmondeley Award (for literary achievement)
1999 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), My Life Asleep
1991 National Poetry Competition, First Prize
1989 New Statesman Prudence Farmer Award
1989 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, Electroplating the Baby
1985 National Poetry Competition, First Prize
1982 South West Arts Literature Award