120 pp, ISBN: 978-1-904130-36-9, £8.99 (paperback only),
UK Publication, June 4th 2009
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note about Penultimata |
"In the history of modern poetry, Conquest occupies a permanent place."
So wrote the Nobel Prize winning poet, Czeslaw Milosz, and in Penultimata,
his seventh collection of poems, we see further evidence of Conquest's remarkable
poetic talent, a talent that stresses the art's relationship to the phenomenal
universe in particular to landscape, women, art, and war. His entirely
individual poetic voice, varying from achieved lyrical sound and structure to
other well-rendered forms and finish, gives us disturbing fictions, emotive landscapes,
vivid erotica, off-beat humour, historical sufferings and even odd demons,
planets and philosophies.
A note on Robert Conquest
Conquest was born in Malvern, Worcestershire, in 1917, to an American father and
his English wife. Educated at Winchester College, the University of Grenoble,
and Magdalen College, Oxford, he took his B.A. and (later) M.A. degrees in politics,
philosophy, and economics, and his D. Litt. in Soviet history.
Lisbon on an American passport at the outbreak of the Second World War, he returned
to England to serve in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and
in 1944 was sent from Italy on Balkan military missions awkwardly attached to
the Soviet Third Ukrainian Front and later the Allied Control Commission
in Bulgaria. From 1946 to 1956, he worked in the British Foreign Service
first in Sofia, then in London, and in the U.K. Delegation to the United Nations
after which he varied periods of freelance writing with academic appointments.
poems were published in various periodicals from 1937. In 1945 the PEN Brazil
Prize for a war poem was awarded to his For the Death of a Poet
about an army friend, the poet Drummond Allison, killed in Italy (published in
The Book of the PEN 1950) and in 1951 he received a Festival of
Britain verse prize. Since then he has brought out six volumes of poetry previous
to Penultimata, and one of literary criticism (The Abomination of Moab).
He has published a verse translation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns epic Prussian
Nights (1977), and two novels, A World of Difference (1955), and (with
Kingsley Amis) The Egyptologists (1965). In 1955 and 1963 Conquest edited
the influential New Lines anthologies, and in 1962-1963 he was literary editor
of the London Spectator.
He is the author of twenty-one books on
Soviet history, political philosophy, and international affairs, the most recent
being The Dragons of Expectation (2004). His classic, The Great Terror,
has appeared in most European languages, as well as in Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew
In 1959-60 he was Visiting Poet and Lecturer in English at
the University of Buffalo, and has also held research appointments at the
London School of Economics, the Columbia University Russian Institute, the Woodrow
Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Heritage Foundation, and Harvard
Universitys Ukrainian Research Institute.
In 1990 he presented Granada
Televisions Red Empire, a seven-part documentary on the Soviet Union which
was broadcast in the UK, the USA, and in various other countries, including Australia
Conquest is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the
British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the British Interplanetary
Society, and is also a member of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies
(contributing to Britannia an article on the Roman Place Names of Scotland). His
honours and awards include the Order of the British Empire and Companion of the
Order of St. Michael and St. George; the Jefferson Lectureship (1993); the American
Academy of Arts and Letters Michael Braude Award for Light Verse (1997);
the Richard Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters (1999); the Fondazione Liberal
Career Award (2004); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005).
his wife Elizabeth live in California, where he has long worked as a research
fellow at Stanford Universitys Hoover Institution.
Praise for Penultimata
Conquests sparkling light verse has always tended to distract attention
from the seriousness that was in his poetry from the beginning, but in this collection
the depth is unmistakeable. In a poem about St Petersburg, the city comes back
from the historical disaster which he did so much to analyse and combat. In poems
about love, the subversive, lyrical proof that desire goes on into old age is
alive in every cadence and perception. As ever, he makes many a younger writer
look short of energy. Clive James
left of love and beauty just survives, according to one of these poems.
Really the whole of Penultimata is about whats left of love and beauty,
after a long life and 3,000 or more years of western civilization: to be recovered
in memory, in a Roman figurine, in sharp sensuous delight, or in speculation on
the nature of the universe. To poetry folk, Robert Conquest is a legend for having
helped promote the talents of, among others, Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn, and
in the wider world he is revered for having published the murderous realities
of Stalinism. Here a hunger for truth-telling and the virtues of his own poetry
are all in evidence. Those virtues precision, wit, craftsmanship
only seem old-fashioned to those who believe poetry can do without them. For others,
this book will be a continual reminder of times when poetry was turned to in the
sure and certain hope of pleasure and instruction. Alan Jenkins
his tenth decade, Robert Conquest retains all his characteristic virtues. The
poems in Penultimata are smart, funny, tough-minded, generous, and utterly
individual. Zachary Leader
for the poetry of Robert Conquest
pay tribute to an exceptionally worthy man is to realize once more that there
is no equality in the republic of arts and letters ... Robert Conquest, though
he is the author of several scholarly books, is a poet, and I wish him much free
time to pursue his true vocation....In the history of modern poetry, Conquest
occupies a permanent place." Czeslaw Milosz, National Review
in addition to imperishable works of modern history...he has been one of our most
distinguished poets (and critics of poetry)." Christopher Hitchens,
TLS, February 15, 2006
strong and individual voice talking about things that matter ... hard energetic
movement ... lucidity and power." Thom Gunn, Spectator
Conquest's many moods and modes, two seem foremost here: a sometimes unabashedly
erotic love poetry and a well-tuned way with light verse ... Conquest writes with
great subtlety and often with great tenderness. David Yezzi, New Criterion
by an emotional generosity and nobility of style ... He is one of the few who
can write about love without either gushing or sniggering." D.J. Enright,
a poet of distinction ... honourable, courageous and deeply civilised.
George Walden, Sunday Telegraph
measured confident richness of a poet who knows his own full power, resource and
sincerity." John Holloway, Hudson Review
poetry is marked by intellectual clarity, technical skill, the assertion of traditional
values, and a strongly romantic sensibility, all of which lend firmness and coherence
to his most accomplished work. His poetry, which yields a keen, civilized pleasure,
bears witness to the values and traditions in which he believes."
his verse and prose alike display the virtues of scholarship, intelligence, and
lucidity, proclaiming a belief in the value of rational discourse, formal strength,
and the power of reason to check and guide the emotions by which we live."
John Press, Dictionary of Literary Biography
Review, LXIII:2, Summer 2010
poets are born old but achieve a youthful spirit
later in life, regardless of their subjects. So it is
affirming and delightful to find Robert Conquest publishing
vigorous poems in his tenth decade ... He excels at comic
verse, but Penultimata bears a much broader range
of subjects and strategies than such a descriptor implies.
"The Idea of Virginia" is that rarest of creations
in our time, an elegant verse essay. And Conquest's outrage
at terrorism, wheteher perpetrated by criminal governments
or maddened individuals, appears in several poems here,
including "At the Rebirth of St Petersburg,"
"Whenever" and "Demons Don't," a poem
reminding me of Auden's ogre. Invoking that name along
with Larkin's might suggest that I am over-praising Conquest's
contributions to modern poetry. It does not seem that
he has left us a poem as grand as "The Shield of
Achilles" or "The Whitsun Weddings," to
name two examples. If his achievement is more modest than
those two masters, he still deserves an honored place
in anthologies representing recent British poetry. What
Conquest offers is a civilized voice, alternatively irreverent
and grave, praising the life of the body, the individual
over the collective ... These are poems by a man of the
world who has seen and studied much and has apparently
lived with gusto. It is good to be in his company."
25 June 2010
is a warming, engaging book ... Now in his ninety-third
year, one of the four or five most influential anthologists
of the twentieth century and one of the first unmaskers
of Stalinism shows that his grip on the present and his
love of poetry are both unabated." Lachlan
Review, 98:2, Spring 2010
only a comic poet of genius but also a love poet of considerable
force ... [Conquest's] indelible limericks are the best
of the past hundred years ... [A] poet producing some
of his finest poems in late career ... [He] makes Hardy
look like a whippersnapper." David Yezzi
Review, 100:1, Spring 2010
elegance and liveliness of Robert Conquest's poetry skims
depths suggested by his lovely quotation from De Musset,
'si triste et profonde'. The poems flow in cadences
which draw an intricate net of echoes and names into their
wake ... Conquest has an equally fine ear for speech.
'Perfect's a word you mustn't use,' / She said.' The poems
in Penultrimata depend on perfect poise ... These
vigorous poems have an exquisite colour sense: St Petersburg's
light is 'ermine, almond'. They linger wittily over longing:
'There'll be no naiads in that rill / So let's forget
about them. (Still ...)' ... Conquest was born in 1917
and the lightness and sharpness of this writing remain
exemplary to all of us who are under ninety. With its
long drawn-out falls and quickfire wit, it is a restorative
music." Alison Brackenbury
December 1st 2009
wistfully and certainly hopefully entitled, this is the
sixth collection by a poet now in his ninety-third year.
Conquest is much better known as a historian of the Soviet
Union, intent on exposing its internal crimes; his Great
Terror ... on Stalin's purges, is a classic. As classic,
or classical, is his poetry. Its themes love, history,
manners are those of the great Greeks and Romans;
so, too, is its wit, warmth, and the ultimate humility of
recognizing that anyone's life fades and dies, while human
nature endures. Love, especially eros, is the concern of
the volume's first part; history and, again, love, with
some politics and physiology, of the second part. Although
poems in the others are often funny, always light-footed,
the third part consists of deliberately humorous verse that
frequently touches upon ... love. Without losing any wit,
the poems of the last part are generally more reflective
than those of the others. And do they, like the others,
scan, rhyme, require one's shar attention and reward
it? Most graciously. Ray Olson
comes already garlanded with praise from Clive James (well
worth having), Alan Jenkins, the estimable Poetry Editor of
the Times Literary Supplement, and Professor Zachary
Leader, who wrote the authorised biography of Kingsley Amis.
And now Mr Conquest can add me ...
in serious mode, is the last of a set of triplets
about a sunset called 'Last Hours'. You cannot write better
than this, nor more seriously.
in the water, the day is done
Theres nothing new under the sun,
Still less when its gone down.
it the journalist in him makes Conquest so good at grabbing
fucking fool of a father
Was waiting when we got home.
Often the verse has all the qualities of good prose, which
may sound odd praise, but I might say the same of Samuel Johnson.
There is always solid sense in Conquest, surely something
we don't want to be short of." John Whitworth
Telegraph, August 4th, 2009
none of the poems is given a date, many are clearly the work
of old age. It has often been pointed out that there are very
few good novels written by old people. The urge to create
new human characters fades; the grip on the details of the
world loosens; the sheer energy required is lacking.
this is much less of a problem with poetry. On the contrary,
the ability to look back can add depth and poignancy to a
situation, particularly a youthful belief, or hope, or love.
Thomas Hardy, most of whose best verse was written in old
age, was the gloomy master of this the feelings that
'shake my feeble frame at eve, with throbbings of noontide'.
Conquest had quite a few throbbings in his noontide. Before
settling down happily with his present wife nearly 30 years
ago, he had three others, including one married in, and another
met during, the war.
of his best poems in this book are about early love, and I
would say that they owe a good deal to Hardy. They take much
of their drama from the sea and the moon, and the linking
of the two, and they even use a very Hardy-esque word, 'demi-lune'.
Natural' is a poem that begins in the light of the moon on
a cliff-top, as the young man approaches the house of his
new girlfriend's parents, for a farewell dinner. They
and she with them are taking a new posting abroad.
'In this early hour / Of the second night which should have
been / Theirs', he prefigures the loss of something he has
poem called 'The Last Day (Embarkation Leave)' is about spending
the title's last day with his girl in a cove:
thyme-tang; transsensual skies.
it's not that the outspread scene
Is no more than props for their stage, the sun
Its arc-lamp. But it amplifies.
what it amplifies is a paradox of love: 'An appeasable yearning
/ For what we already have'.
of Hardy's most famous poems is called 'Afterwards', about
what people will say about him after he is gone. One of Conquest's
best in this collection has the same title, but the subtitle,
'recollected in tranquillity', refers to Wordsworth. Poetry,
wrote Wordsworth, took its origin from 'emotion recollected
poem takes issue with the idea. How can violent emotions be
accurately recollected that way?
passion, sharp and hot,
Might once have seized the heart
To rip or scald.
So far as this can be
Recalled in tranquillity
It's not recalled.
yet the chief note of most of this verse is of tranquil recollection,
an old man amused and touched, more than agonised, by what
has happened to him.
is good that Conquest writes fine poetry, that he is part
of the free civilisation that his history has done so much
to defend." Charles Moore
read the whole of Charles Moore's review, please click on
the link below:
Moore, "Tranquil Reflections on a Passionate Past"
such a pity that we dont have
Anything like a photograph
Of her about
whom the ancients rave ...
been talking about the well-known tale
Of her lawyer at her blasphemy trial
her breasts to gain an acquittal.
it wasnt the beauty of what they saw
That made the judges
unloop the law,
But whats been described as sacred awe.
visual be better than verbal, though,
Projected into the long-ago
think we know what well never know?
copies, museums still hold
Of statues she modeled, or so were told
not the Delphi one in gold).
at Thespiae how did they feel as
Praxiteles, daring celestial malice,
up together, on equal pillars
of her and of Aphrodite.
A girl and a Goddess damn-near Almighty
temper not to be taken lightly?
could only pre-empt their sacred fear
With what could unarguably appear
spillover from another sphere
to physique made partly free
From the pressures of externality
all that the subtlest lens can see.
Marilyns, Sophias, the very cream
Of our time, arent sewn without a seam
into the fabric of dream.)
shes gone! Long gone! Gone to the grave
And left us, instead of a photograph,
residual glow of an ancient grief.
a swollen moon protrudes
Out of the West, and brings to mind
askew the bare behind
Of one of Stanley Spencers nudes.
lax limbs outspread,
Eyes glazed, as if they didnt know
being watched: indeed as though
Caught in the dark on infrared.
dead fly on the canvas web,
Some old caves supine stalagmite ...
this gold-starved, furtive light
Plumbs the pulsed oceans flow and ebb.
concepts hardly seem to mesh
Into our more reactive space
an inexpressive face
But even inexpressive flesh!
no sex or shock was meant
With genitalia on display
Like organs on a butchers
Quite untransgressive in intent.
tissue samples cut from time
He sought a fixed, unspurious pose
as the tightest prose
Velásquez more like rose-blurred rhyme
that unorganic sphere
Rolls on; and where we live and breathe
sensual spectra seethe
Swept down the irreversible year.