Image by Magalie Delporte

Stephen Romer

b. 1957


One of our finest poets of thwarted or impossible love – Adam Thorpe, the Guardian

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About Stephen Romer

Stephen Romer was born in Hertfordshire, and educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Since 1981 he has lived France, first in Paris, and since 1991 in the Loire Valley, where he is Maître de Conferences in the English department of Tours University. He has also taught in the UK and the US, and has been a Visiting Fellow at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, and at All Souls, Oxford. Romer has four published collections of poetry: Idols (1986), Plato’s Ladder (1992), Tribute (1998) and Yellow Studio (2008), the first three with Oxford University Press, and the fourth with the Oxford Poets imprint of Carcanet Press, and he is the editor of the Faber anthology Twentieth-Century French Poems. A selection of his poems appeared in the Carcanet Oxford Poets anthology (2001), and a book of his selected poems in French translation, Tribut, was published in 2007. Besides his work in poetry and translation he is a specialist in French and British Modernism, and his French Decadent Tales, an anthology of fin-de-siècle stories, appeared from Oxford World’s Classics in 2013. He regularly writes on French literature and modern poetry for the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.

Critics have drawn attention to Romer’s wry awareness in his poems of his own Francophile tendencies, but also point out how the various guises and flourishes borrowed from French poetry traditions in fact illustrate an involved study of ‘Englishness’ – including its reticence and brittleness – in light of European sensibilities. The presence of Proust in the first stanza of ‘Remedies’ is no accident, and his famous recommendations on the ‘uses of unhappiness’ in literary art are here treated with discomfort and wariness, while at once being demonstrated with ironical detachment: “and no emotion will go to waste. / It is a tempting feast”. The meagre compensation offered by poetry in exchange for romantic rejection is ultimately scorned, while the emotional stakes of this refusal are upped in the last couplet’s extravagant image, in which a future happiness is demoted to the imaginings of “the asthmatic in his scentless spring” – a lurid shade of Baudelaire, made all the stranger and more striking emerging from the poem’s sense of decorum and restraint.

Writing in the Guardian, Adam Thorpe called Romer one of the “finest poets of thwarted or impossible love”, and this assessment is justified based as much on Romer’s ingenuity in his various approaches to the subject, as for the shudder of honesty that characterises much of his work. ‘Grammar’ uses a lesson in its titular subject as a way of describing the distances between a desiring self, his language and his former lover. The neat, disconcerting reversals of the conceit discover a kind of authorial truth, where a life is spoiled by “the change of tense.”

Also available in this selection for the Poetry Archive are two poems on fatherhood, ‘May-Time’ and’ Picardy’, which tenderly observe the stirrings of language and its illusions of certainty in the poet’s young son.  Yellow Studio, Romer’s most recent collection, which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, and described by Hugo Williams as containing poems that have “torn away a veil, releasing a new energy and vision”, has a section devoted to poems about his father. ‘Collects for Lent’ included here, is an unpublished sequence, this time for his mother.  These informal, uncapitalised fragments graph the movement of a mind in solitude, listing away a long spring, and suggest that, having recorded memorable moments of parting and union, a more philosophical sort of exploration has become available to Romer’s work, adding to its long-running dialogue with French literary traditions.

This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 31 October 2013 at ID Audio and was produced by John Green.

Stephen Romer's favourite poetry sayings

There are many plausible definitions of poetry, though none of them all-inclusive or definitive.  I am attracted by Coleridge’s 'more than usual emotion combined with more than usual order', by Montale’s 'poetry is a religious penetration of the world', and by Joseph Brodsky’s 'the spirit, seeking flesh, finds words'.  All these stress  the urgency, and the high stakes, involved in the composition of a poem, and the sense of concentration.  My own poems are usually short, sharp 'peaks of concentration', and they attempt to record the rare and mysterious coincidence of inner and outer worlds, the world of ideas and the world of physical perception (if you like, the invisible inferred from the visible).  A poem may be triggered by a love affair, or a configuration of light. The poems I admire (and try to write) are those in which intellect and emotion are in a war-embrace, and the intensity generated finds its pattern (and the mental state its preservation) in the right words.  The arrival of a poem can resemble Coleridge’s definition of love : ‘a chasm of kind in a continuity of time’.

Selected bibliography

20th Century French Poems, Faber and Faber, 2002

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Yellow Studio, Carcanet, 2008

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Tribute, Oxford University Press, 1998

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Plato's Ladder, Oxfor University Press, 1992

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Idols, Oxford University Press, 1986

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Prizes

1985 New Statesman Prudence Farmer Poetry Prize

1986 Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Idols

1992 Poetry Book Society Choice for Plato's Ladder

2008 T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist

Books by Stephen Romer