Mole Valley Poets, 29th March 2010
John Whiting: Jo Shapcott

There is a good brief biography and critique of Jo Shapcott and her work in Ruth Padel's book: 52 ways of looking at a poem.

In a bit more detail she was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, St Hilda's College, Oxford, and received a Harkness Fellowship to Harvard. She is currently teaching on the MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, Visiting Professor at the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, Visiting Professor at the London Institute and Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Oxford Brookes University. She is Consulting Editor for Arc Publications. She is also a tutor at the Arvon Foundation.

The Harkness Fellowships (previously known as the Commonwealth Fund Fellowships) are a philanthropic programme set up by Ann Harkness in 1918 and run by the Commonwealth Fund of New York City. This fund is also supported by overseas bodies including the Nuffield Foundation in the UK. Since 1997 it has concentrated on awards in healthcare only.

Jo Shapcott has worked with a number of musicians on collaborative projects. She has written lyrics for, or had poems set to music by, composers such as Detlev Glamert, Nigel Osborne, Alec Roth, Erollyn Wallen, Peter Wiegold and John Woolrich. Her poems were set to music by composer Stephen Montague in The Creatures Indoors, premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London in 1997. During the BBC Proms season, she presented the weekly 'Poetry Proms' on Radio 3.

Jo Shapcott's Books

Her Book: Poems 1988-1998 (Faber & Faber 2000) consists of a selection of poetry from her three earlier collections:

Electroplating the Baby (1988), which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, Phrase Book (1992), and My Life Asleep (1998), which won the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection).

Together with Matthew Sweeney, she edited an anthology of contemporary poetry in English, but gathered from around the world, entitled Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (1996).

Tender Taxes (2002) is a collection of Rainer Maria Rilke's poems in French which over a 10 year period she has put into her own voice.

The Transformers (Bloodaxe 2009?) is a collection of public lectures given by Jo Shapcott as part of her Professorship at Newcastle.

Of Mutability - due out in 2010

She has produced other books including essays about Elizabeth Bishop and has co-edited a number of poetry collections including Last Words(1999).

She has been president of the Poetry Society since 2005.

Prizes and Awards

Fiona Sampson in a Guardian review in 2006 included the following praises for her:

Her Book: Poems 1988-98, by Jo Shapcott

Faber's handsome reissue of Jo Shapcott's Her Book does more than simply affirm, as we might expect, the progress and coherence of this extraordinary poet's canon. It allows us to set a decade of key work in context: to revisit her formative significance for British poetry in the 1990s, and to arrive again at her contemporary role as one of the handful of poets charged with Eliot's "dialect of the tribe".

What dialect does Shapcott herself speak? It would be facile to follow the cue of the last poem included here, an in memoriam Dennis Potter, and ascribe her to her native Forest of Dean; to the poetics of regionalism. Instead, the 18 years that have elapsed since Shapcott's triumphant debut, Electroplating the Baby, are long enough to allow us to hear again, beyond the clamour of imitators, the individuality of that voice, emerging without clear precedent: yet inflected throughout by influences, both incorporated and (as with those wittily chosen epigraphs to the Browning poems) overt.

In "Lies", for example, sheep "are walking clouds / and like clouds have forgotten / how to jump" - lines which are clearly cousin to Ted Hughes's "There's a summer ocean liner in cows". The poem's project is Hughesian too, urging us to see things true: "Watch carefully / next time". But Shapcott's vision veers like one of her own "bouncing" lambs, and "In reality [the sheep] walks across the sky / upside-down in special pumps"; an astonishing change of gear which propels us from the barnyard of authenticity into a surreal pastoral out of one of Selima Hill's early collections.

Reading backwards from 2006, we know this trajectory will lead to the "Mad Cow" poems of Phrase Book and beyond; but in 1988 Shapcott's poetics are still open-textured and underdetermined. There's everything to play for; and everything is full of play, in all its senses. Electroplating the Baby's witty, flexible prosody refuses to be stilted by end-stopped lineation or mannered diction. The language seems spring-cleaned: resolutely direct and comfortable in the mouth. But at the same time there's a characteristic surplus of intelligence: puns riff, as when Botticelli's "Venus Observes Herself" and decides she wants bigger breasts, "an imperceptible up-tilt / which would balance the economy / of her happiness". The effect is rangy, long-legged, omnivorous: this is already an absolutely characteristic voice.

Second books are notorious challenges. The famous title poem of 1992's Phrase Book is an exercise in ostranie (making strange) which links three moments - lovers in "my own front room", aerial bombardment in first Gulf war, and the world of an old-fashioned phrase book - through "bliss", an acronym for escape tactics. However inadmissible in today's British poetry, this is the postmodern gesture: a sleight of hand which transfers meanings (love, the poem suggests, may be a risky enterprise) as rapidly as the moving moment changes into the next; and against which a traditional emotional or political centre cannot hold.

Yet Shapcott's poetics do want to hold to some centre; and this volume marks the turn from the radical openness of Electroplating to an identification and mastery of discrete elements of its poetics, emerging here as thematic strands. Much is achieved through the use of personae. As well as the Mad Cow there are stars of stage and screen (Pavlova, Brando, Tom and Jerry), many of whom seem alibis for some apprehension - Brando's that the tube is full of sexualised advertising, Pavlova's of chaos theory - which another poet might make their own. But Shapcott understands that we are seduced into insight by her characters' sparkle; that the extravagance of fancy dress, like all theatre, allows us to enter more fully into serious matters.

Shapcott remains overwhelmingly a poet of presence, renegotiating the concrete world with as much brio as her own dancing cow. The consummate openness of this brilliantly intelligent selection extends the possibilities for poetry written in English. It reminds us that she remains a pioneer among contemporary British writers. We should be grateful for her.