Fleur Adcock has been one of the most influential poets in Britain in the past thirty years. Her deceptively quiet poems collect detail about the world in much the same way as a child collects insects in boxes – something a young Fleur Adcock also did. Emigrating to England from New Zealand in 1963, she wrote poems about the process of belonging and about the life of the place. Since then she has written, edited and translated many books, as well as libretti. Her matter-of-fact feminism, her humour and her ability to combine inwardness with very tangible impressions make her work unique.
Fleur Adcock was born in 1934 in New Zealand, spent part of her childhood in England, and since 1963 has lived in London. Her poetry has been widely published and celebrated in both countries.
Her first poetry collection, Eye of the Reed, was published in New Zealand in 1964, and since then she has written over ten more collections of poetry, observing the world with a quiet trenchancy. This observation is applied frequently to nature and our relationship with animals (“All our lives we’re surrounded by these creatures,” as she has said). It is also applied to other people and to ourselves, observed from the outside. ‘Immigrant’, which can be found (and heard) on the Poetry Archive website, begins in “November ’63: eight months in London”, with the poet looking at the pelicans. Even these non-native birds “float like swans”:
I clench cold fists in my Marks and Spencer’s jacket
And secretly test my accent once again:
St James’ Park; St James’ Park; St James’ Park.
This deadpan everyday detail (such as the ‘native’ Marks and Spencers jacket, the practised speech), combined with an unflinching exposure of internal impulses, also characterises the poem ‘At the Crossing’, which appears here. In this poem, the poet sees a man in a green T-shirt, wearing a pair of fairy wings. There’s practically no chance to even notice him, however:
Traffic swings around the corner;
gusts of drizzle sweep us along
the Strand in the glittering dark,
threading to and fro among skeins
of never-quite-colliding blurs.
All this whirling’s why we came out.
Adcock’s poems use description to ask questions: what is this thing? Who is this? Where am I? They also question her own responses to things. The sense of mystery-within-ordinariness remains long after the reader is finished reading the poem.
in 1987 Adcock edited the Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry, and her brand of stealthy, pragmatic feminism has concentrated more on integrating poetry by women into the mainstream of literary tradition than in separating it out into a separate category called ‘women’s poetry’. Her poems quietly expose or unearth women’s lives, reminding the reader to look beyond what is shown. Recent poems about family history, addressing ancestors or old family stories – “unpeeling lives out of archives”, as she has called it – make use of the poet’s gift for the anecdote, drily told, and bring the hidden everyday world to life.
Adcock’s Poems 1960–2000 was published by Bloodaxe, who also published her most recent collection, Dragon Talk, in 2010. A new collection, from which the poems featured here are drawn, will be published next year.
Fleur Adcock’s poetry has received many awards in both the UK and New Zealand, and she was awarded an OBE in 1996.
Eye of the Hurricane, Reed, Wellington, 1964
Tigers, Oxford University Press, London, 1967
High Tide in the Garden, Oxford University Press, London, 1971
The Scenic Route, Oxford University Press, London and New York, 1974
The Inner Harbour, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1979
Below Loughrigg, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1979
Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1983
Hotspur: A Ballad, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1986
The Incident Book, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1986
Meeting the Comet, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1988
Time-Zones, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1991
Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1991
Poems 1960-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2000
Dragon Talk, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2010
Edited and translated
Editor, Oxford Book of Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1982
Translator, The Virgin and the Nightingale: Medieval Latin Poems, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1983
Editor, Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1987
Translator, Orient Express: Poems, Grete Tartler, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1989
Translator, Letters from Darkness: Poems, Daniela Crasnaru, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992 Translator and editor, Hugh Primas and the Archpoet, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1994
Editor (with Jacqueline Simms), The Oxford Book of Creatures, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995
Fleur Adcock at The Poetry Archive
Adcock's poet profile at Bloodaxe Books
The Guardian reviews Dragon Talk