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Thread: Seeking opinions on Glyn Maxwell's poem "Anything But the Case"

  1. #1
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    Seeking opinions on Glyn Maxwell's poem "Anything But the Case"

    Hello all!

    I'm creating this thread here as I haven't found Glyn Maxwell on the Author List. I am currently analyzing his poem Anything But the Case and could use some feedback on it. Here's the poem:

    I believe the poem outlines, in general terms, an unhappy relationship between narrator and his/her spouse. I'm trying to pick up its sense from line 8 onwards, particularly the sense of the word case. Could someone please tell me if you feel that case here implies situation or facts, as I believe it does? Perhaps it's too obvious and the word here carries nothing but its usual meaning, but I'm consulting because, according to some pundits, Glyn Maxwell is a difficult poet and so I want to make sure I'm not missing something important here.

    Whatever interpretation you can draw from the poem will be most welcome. Thanks beforehand!
    Last edited by Maximilianus; 10-28-2014 at 11:09 PM.

  2. #2
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    Hi Maximilianus,

    Glyn Maxwell is one of my favourite contemporary poets, and it’s great you’re studying his work. (But I’d also say you should remove the majority of the poem from your post as you’re currently breaking copyright by printing the whole poem without permission.)
    ‘Anything but the Case’ is taken from Hide Now (Picador, 2008) and was placed together in the collection with ‘Dust and Flowers’ under the heading ‘Love Songs from Plays’ (although I notice this title was dropped when the poems were published in his selected poems One Thousand
    Nights and Counting
    [Picador, 2011]).

    In general terms, I think he creates his distinctive, rhythmic, formally accomplished voice through his ability to manipulate syntax rather than tackling demanding themes or subjects. So, I think you’ve got the subject of the poem right. There’s probably an autobiographical note to this as well, as Maxwell has separated from his partner (although I don’t know if they were married) with whom he had a daughter. His latest book, Pluto (Picador, 2013) takes as its general theme the loss of love; Pluto itself is an ex-planet of course, a giant, swirling, cosmic symbol of loss.

    In ‘Anything but the Case’, the word ‘case’ works as a pun; ‘anything but the case’ is an idiom (or variations upon it, sometimes these days reduced to just saying ‘it’s anything but’) meaning it’s the opposite of whatever has just been said. In the poem, it takes extra, localised meaning. As Time is personified as a clerk, perhaps a solicitor’s clerk, it could be suggested the ‘case’ in hand is the narrator’s divorce, and he’s wishing – slightly helplessly, and for an hour at least – that his life could be filled with ‘anything but’ the legal proceedings.

    Returning to Maxwell’s formal sense, you might have noticed the poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, albeit one not written in iambic pentameter. He employs a looser line length (perhaps we could call it free blank verse, as some lines are IP and most lean in that direction) and he uses ternary feet often, to replicate more spontaneous speech patterns, which also add a sense of rhythm and pace to the poem.

    The poem has a slightly desperate tone, built upon Maxwell’s use of imperative sentences. The poem is split into two imperatives, the first (‘Do me my elegy now’) introduces a demanding speaker; and furthermore, the sentence consists of a series of threats – I’ll do this OR this OR this. The second imperative is more of a wish (‘Let this hour be filled’) and introduces a different tone. Perhaps it is fitting that this poem about a failed relationship (and the use of a sonnet is almost ironic in this sense) contains just two sentences.

    To this end, it might be tempting to suggest that each party has an equal say in the poem. However, I’m not sure exactly who this is speaking in the first section. If we conflate the narrator with Maxwell the poet, it seems plausible that he is being spoken to by his partner, and it is she who is demanding that he write a poem – an ‘elegy’ – for her and the end of their relationship. But then this speaker is also a writer who ‘scrawls’ various things (or threatens to) which also suggests it could the narrator-poet. I can’t quite figure this bit out clearly; various readings seem possible. Perhaps it’s the narrator-poet throughout and he is demanding an ‘elegy’ from his partner of a less literary kind – he just wants to her say it’s over; I don’t know. Maybe this is deliberately confusing.

    The next section seems to point out this indecision with the mention of the ‘son | And / or daughter’, which is a remarkable thing to say, as if the father forgot or doesn’t realise the sex of his offspring. We could speculate there is a hidden autobiographical element behind this; it could be a black in-joke at the narrator’s and / or Maxwell’s expense. In fact, this section is quite black in itself; why is their son / daughter seemingly having their names engraved on a gravestone? It’s quite melodramatic, but understandable if the child is quite young. It ends with a sudden shift of register from reality to a dreamworld, when it seems he wishes they could go back to the start of the relationship (‘that first Saturday’) and begin again.

    Maxwell’s ability with syntax is noticeable in the way this first, seven-and-a-half line sentence is constructed; it’s almost Shakespearean with different voices, tones and registers cutting across each other, and becomes (deliberately) confusing, perhaps reflecting the manic, confused state of mind of the narrator as he tries to come to terms with a relationship falling down around him. Perhaps this is why the lines don’t conform to standard IP: to do so would not do justice to the unrestrained emotions of those speaking.

    The second sentence (‘Let this hour be filled’) marks the sonnet’s volta, half way through line 7, so coming half a line earlier than we might expect. This sentence seems more of a desperate plea or prayer to someone, anyone, to intervene in fate and stop the inevitable coming to pass. In personifying Time as a harassed and stressed clerk it also introduces a note of grim humour; despite the poet’s imaginative wishing, he realises ultimately it’s all futile and there’s nothing more he can do about the reality of the situation. So, overall, perhaps this point comes out strongest: that regardless of how autobiographical the poem is, Maxwell has created a narrator who is losing control of his life and is resigned to fate, but has allowed the narrator some time, in the form of the poem, to express his feelings in a way that gives the experience shape and therefore some sense of control. It’s Maxwell’s skill as a poet that enables him to craft those emotions into art.

    You might also be interested in watching this interview with him, conducted by the Buddhist poet Maitreyabandhu, before a reading he gave at the London Buddhist Centre. I was there, and spoke to Glyn afterwards and he signed my books of his (I’m such a groupie!). I’m glad to report that, although he doesn’t seem comfortable being the centre of attention, he’s an intelligent, generous and friendly guy.

    There’s not much critical writing on his work, but there is a short section in Sean O’Brien’s The Deregulated Muse (Bloodaxe Books, 1998; pp. 245-250) in which his work is contrasted with that of his friend and fellow poet, Simon Armitage. However, the essay only covers his poetry until the point of publication, of course. You might also look in David Kennedy’s New Relations: The Refashioning of British Poetry, 1980-94 (Seren, 1996) although I don’t have a copy of the book so can’t guarantee how useful it would be.

    Anyway, I hope that helps. b|v

  3. #3
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    You have been tremendously helpful and I thank you from the bottom of my heart!
    I wasn't expecting such an elaborate and enlightening take on this, so thanks a lot again!

    I will read your post more carefully in the coming days (I hope I may ask you a couple more questions if need be)

    PS: I'll remove the poem's text and replace it with a link to Poetry Foundation in order to observe copyright laws.

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