As a culture, we have long been in love with the idea of the poet as naturally gifted visionary – one who somehow derives inspiration from the mysterious realm of the muses. This is what Burns was tapping into when he described Robert Fergusson as “heaven-taught” – but even heaven-taught Fergusson studied at the University of St Andrews. Time spent in academia doesn’t necessarily result in writing that has a whiff of the academy about it, and good writers are often students of writing.
A case in point is Hannah Sullivan, an associate professor of English at New College Oxford. She is an expert on modernism and has written a soon-to-be-published book on the theory of free verse in which she argues that “the prosody of modern poetry is, to a large extent, determined by practices of lexical and syntactic repetition: reliance on noun-compounds and left-stressed polysyllabic words; techniques of parallelism and anaphora.” Reading such a tome might not be many people’s idea of a fun night in, yet Sullivan is also a poet, and her first book, a collection of three long poems, is far more likely to appeal to the general reader. Indeed, the opening section of the first of these poems, “You, Very Young in New York,” is one of the most aesthetically pleasing things I have read in a long time. That is to say, it sounds like a million dollars. Beginning with the memorable lines “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. / ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’ / But nothing seems to happen”, it presents a series of ennui-laden snapshots of a young woman looking for adventure in the Big Apple but failing to find it at every turn. It pulses with casual rhymes and half-rhymes, and is propelled along by them, albeit at an appropriately listless pace. If you didn’t know Sullivan was an academic, you might think these first few tercets had been written by a professional performance poet, so effortlessly do they flow into one another. (The fizzing rhyming couplets of the fourth and fifth sections of this poem, meanwhile, sound as if they owe more to the late-80s / early 90s Golden Age of hip-hop than anything else.)
The second poem in the collection, “Repeat Until Time,” is subtitled “The Heraclitus Poem” (Sullivan’s first degree was in classics) and it operates as an extended riff on the philosopher’s much debated idea that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. For much of the poem, however, rather than perpetual novelty the focus is on repetition and the frustrating sameness of things. Sullivan boils down the life cycle of an oak tree (wonderfully) to “that eternal kernel rigmarole”, and writes later of “repetition’s sense of comedy”. The early line “It is hard to say if there is progress in history” is echoed in the final stanzas of the poem, which recall the atom bomb test of July 1945, during which Oppenheimer famously reached for a line from the ancient Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become Shiva, death, the shatterer of worlds.”
The final poem in the book, “The Sandpit After Rain,” is the most personal of the three, dealing with the death of Sullivan’s father and, later the same year, the birth of her first child. Candid, funny and also extremely poignant – particularly in the fourth and final section, which contains the Larkin-esque line “Dull as any family business / Dying is what the dead pass on” – it brings a highly ambitious debut to a memorable close.
Three Poems, by Hannah Sullivan, Faber & Faber, 73pp, £10.99