Elaine Feinstein is a poet, novelist, biographer, playwright and critic. Born in Liverpool, raised in Leicester, she now lives in London. She was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge. Leicester University has since given her an honorary doctorate in support of her contribution to poetry and literature. Feinstein is the author of fourteen novels and innumerable books of poetry. Her novels and biographies have been translated into French, Spanish, German, Italian, Danish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew, Russian and Chinese; and her poetry into French, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. Her poems have been widely anthologised, and two were included in Christopher Ricks’ Oxford Book of English Verse.
An expert on Russian literature, Elaine Feinstein has been working in the worlds of poetry, translation, novels, plays, academia and criticism for over forty years, although it was only later in life that she began to learn Russian. (Despite her Russian heritage, Feistein grew up speaking English at home and had to learn Russian in her twenties). She has since received three Arts Council Awards for her translations of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whom she describes as “the most important single influence on my poetry”. Feinstein has also translated a host of other Russian writers, including Margarita Aliger, Yunna Moritz and Bella Akhmadulina and she is also the biographer of Alexander Pushkin.
In the preface to her Collected Poems and Translations, Feinstein writes that she began reading and writing with a “sense of being an outsider . . . of being on the periphery”. She counts fringe poetic movements amongst her inspiration, including the Black Mountain poets, such as Charles Olson, as well as those closer to home, such as JH Prynne. Feinstein acknowledges that her early poetic career was in some way a rejection of the New Movement in the fifties and sixties, criticizing what she saw as their “smugly insular” attitude to poetry.
Feinstein’s debut collection, In a Green Eye, was published in 1966. Her first, unsettling explorations of female flesh, birth and family offered blade-sharp verse: “their eyes are eaten with desire / for sheltering flesh to / cover canal and wire / that string the throat on haggard days” (from ‘Female Principles’). Since then her poetry has tackled a wide variety of subjects: from Jewish identity to Ted Hughes to the previously little-known poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Her most recent collection, Talking to the Dead, is dedicated to the memory of her late husband, and was received with great critical and popular acclaim in Feinstein’s 77th year, with many readers finding it a consolation in times of grief.
What threads together her huge bulk of work over forty years is an emphasis on family life and its obligations and the influence of Russia and its poets: “People have always been at the centre of my concerns,” she has said. Her poems often tackle Jewish identity and its twentieth-century history, providing fascinating insight from a poet who has lived through the fall of the Weimar era, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the founding of the Israel state. Tsvetaeva, whom Feinstein identifies as a mentor, said: “All poets are Jews”, and her comment highlights some of the liminal ground that Feinstein occupies in her poetry. On the poet Tsvetaeva, Feinstein has commented: “She was enthralling and I could identify with her; she was domestically challenged like me.”
Ted Hughes views Feinstein as “an extremely fine poet”. “She has a sinewy, tenacious way of penetrating and exploring her subject that seems to me unique,” he writes. “Her simple, clean language follows the track of the nerves. There is nothing hit or miss, nothing for effect, nothing false. Reading her poems one feels cleansed and sharpened.”
Feinstein is the judge for the Poetry Society’s Corneliu M. Popescu Award for Poetry in Translation. In a journalistic capacity, she writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and the Poetry Review. She received a Cholmondeley Award in 1990 and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
In a Green Eye, London, Goliard Press, 1966
The Magic Apple Tree, London, Hutchinson, 1971
At the Edge, Sceptre Press, 1972
The Celebrants and Other Poems, Hutchinson, 1973
Some Unease and Angels, Hutchinson, 1977, 1981
Selected Poems University Center, Michigan, Green River Press, 1977
The Feast of Eurydice, Faber & Faber/ Next Editions, 1980
Badlands, Hutchinson, 1987
City Music, Hutchinson, 1990
Selected Poems, Carcanet, 1994
Daylight, Carcanet, 1997
After Pushkin (edited by Elaine Feinstein), Folio Society & Carcanet, 1999
Gold, Carcanet, 2000
Collected Poems and Translations, Carcanet, 2002 (a PBS Special Recommendation)
Talking to the Dead, Carcanet, 2007
Elaine is the Poetry Society’s judge for the Popescu Award
Elaine’s main publisher is Carcanet Press
Elaine is a regular contributor to the Poetry Review