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What Must Happen by Jeffrey Wainwright review – seeking human traces in the landscape

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Methodists and Marxists, art and aspiration in a powerful and austere collection

Jeffrey Wainwright’s work is among the most interesting of any poet now writing. Although he has an admiring readership, he has stayed under the radar much of the time, pursuing a line of poetic inquiry that links him to writers as various as Geoffrey Hill, Roy Fisher, Tony Harrison and even Charles Tomlinson (who like Wainwright was from the Potteries) – all of them in various ways historian-poets. Wainwright’s particular imprint is a richly charged austerity, an ostensible plainness that, like a powerful magnet, summons suggestions to the page and the ear. Part of the pleasure of reading his work is trying to establish how he does so much by such apparently unspectacular means. An equally unobtrusive formal assurance has much to do with his success.

One of his modes is the condensed epic, like the early “1815”, set in the year of Waterloo, amid “the English miracle” of industry and the attendant deaths of mill workers “common as smoke”. History continues to absorb Wainwright in this new collection, where the title poem depicts a series of ideas of what history is or should be, including this painterly and grimly comic tableau: “Look at His Highness there in white and gold, / And this other in his oh-so-modest blue; / Look how their men are drawn to breast the rise – / Accoutred and alive, how historical they are!”

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