About John Whitworth

John Whitworth is an English poet born in India who now lives in Canterbury with his wife and two cats, his grown-up daughters still conveniently nearby.  He began writing as an undergraduate at Oxford, and has since published nine collections, from Unhistorical Fragments (Secker & Warburg, 1980) to Girlie Gangs (Enitharmon, 2011). Whitworth’s poems have appeared in Poetry Review, London Magazine, The Spectator, and in major magazines in the United States and Australia. In 2007 he came second with ‘The Examiners’ in the Times Literary Supplement poetry competition, judged by Wendy Cope. He has been the recipient of the Cholmondeley Award, The Silver Wyvern from Poetry on the Lake, and numerous other magazine prizes. He is also the author of a writing manual, Writing Poetry (A&C Black), now in its second edition.

A committed formalist, his work holds many of the delights of a type of Light Verse made most famous by the New Yorker in the mid 20th Century: the accessibility of subject (often the minutiae of the everyday), the heavy rhymes, the dark and sinister themes that lurk beneath the jovial tone. His earlier works have been spoken of in terms of a ‘Betjemania’ before he took a more metaphysical turn, as with his prizewinning ‘The Examiners’, a set of elusive, omniscient beings who infiltrate and terrorize the private and public, the identity of whom Whitworth refuses to reveal. The speaker draws them out only through an incantatory build up of rhyme and repetition: ‘They confine us, then malign us, in the end they undermine us / They are there, they are there, they are there’.

Whitworth has said he is ‘often looking for a kind of emotional colour rather than a meaning’, and in many cases the poems feel lead more by rhymes than philosophical ideas. Though he cites several American influences, including Wallace Stevens (a poet of light, magnificent rhymes), and Archibald Macleish – whose ‘ArsPoetica’, and its imagist dictum ‘a poem should not mean / but be’, is referenced in the introduction to this recording of ‘Reading the Bones’ – his work is distinctly rooted in post-war Britain, with its tales of O Levels, ‘turned-up raincoat collars […] Woodie packs of ten’ and a love as strong as ‘a packet of vinegar crisp loves a lager and lime’ (‘Dog Days’).

Each poem recorded here is provided with a generous introduction – in a voice of energy and garrulity – drawing on biographical and curious historical detail, as well as reflections on their differing composition: ‘The first line came drifting by me one early morning… The rest followed’. Indeed, ‘Reading of Bones’ illustrates the extent to which form (and its inflections) leads the writing process: as the ghost of Goering sitting became that ‘of Garbo knitting’. His crafted rhythms acquire further vibrancy in their reading, like ‘the sun of a little daughter’ animating ‘The Tower’ as she plays on it: ‘Beautiful like a ring, / Intricate, like a verse […] Ordering everything’. 

This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 27th February 2014 at ID Audio and was produced by John Green.

 

John Whitworth's favourite poetry sayings:

'You must never get the idea that you’ll just try expressing your own private thoughts… in Chinese characters. I’ll say it again: all inner demand for self-expression, all things related to… modern poetics, are forbidden.' [JW: So who or what exactly is going to write the poem?] 'Why, the words will, of course… Listen to what they have to say.' – Nitta Daisaku in How to Write Chinese Poetry

'What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.' – Henri Matisse 

'A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.' – W.H. Auden

'The use of [poetry's] feigned history hath been to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in those points wherein the nature of things doth deny it.' – Francis Bacon  

'I write in rhyme and metre because... because that is what I do. That is the way poetry presents itself to me. I can't write it any other way. I'm not at all sure I would want to, but even if I did want to I couldn't.' – John Whitworth
 

Girlie Gangs, Enitharmon, 2012

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Being the Bad Guy, Peterloo Poets, 2007

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The Whitworth Gun, Peterloo Poets, 2003

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Landscape with Small Humans, Peterloo Poets, 1993

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Tennis and Sex and Death, Peterloo Poets, 1989

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Lovely Day for a Wedding, Secker & Warburg, 1985

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Poor Butterflies, John Whitworth, 1982

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Unhistorical Fragments, Secker & Warburg, 1980

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Prizes

The Alice Hunt Bartlett Award of the Poetry Society 1980

The Cholmondeley Award 1988

Prize website

The Eleanor Room Award of Lamar University Texas 2010

The Times Literary Supplement Foyles Poetry Competition ('The Examiners') (Second Prize) 2007

The Literary Review Prize ('Life at Eighty') 2011

Recordings

John Whitworth

John Whitworth Downloads

1Jenny Jefferey: A Topographical Love Song

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2Lindsay Paterson

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3I Wish You A Wave of the Sea

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4Joffy and Me

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5Getting to Go

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6The Tower

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7Down Oz

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8Love & Sex & Boys in Showers

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9The Room and Mr Twelvetrees

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10Minstrel Boys

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11The Disappearance of Jack Moon

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12Outplacements

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13Like Love

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14You and the Books

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15His Dreams

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16Respected Sir

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17Reading the Bones

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18The Examiners

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19Life at Eighty

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20On the Deaths of Philosophers

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21The Peak and the River

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22Dog Days

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23Little

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24Black Dogs

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25Tobacco and Boies

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26The Sacrament of the Water

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27Nil Carborundum

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28Love You Madly

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Books by John Whitworth