The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

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The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Steeped in poet references and research, Prof Stone attempts to write the great academic masterpiece her Oxford professor predicted and re-kindles her strange relationship with her mentor. More intellectual than The Land of Decoration and less haunting but particularly if you enjoy the study of poetry, this will appeal.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1444769951

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Grace McCleen's The Professor of Poetry is Elizabeth Stone, a 52 year old aged professor at a London University. When the book opens she has just discovered that a cancer scare is now in remission, but forced by her illness to take a sabbatical, she sets about researching her latest book based on some papers of TS Eliot. This takes her back to Oxford, to her alma mater and raises the prospect of seeing her former professor there, a man convinced of the young Miss Stone's potential at an early age, but whose last meeting was somewhat awkward. McCleen looks at the issues raised by generations of poets, namely time, death and love. For Professor Stone, the first has passed, the second come uncomfortably close and the third remains unknown to her. What's more, her academic focus is on the music of love poetry which is somewhat ironic in that she avoids human relationships perhaps due to the death of her mother at an early age and an unhappy foster experience, while also having a peculiar aversion to music. Perhaps though this is what allows her a detached ability to write academic studies.

Like many writers before her, following on from a book of such extraordinary critical acclaim as The Land of Decoration is always a challenge. There are some familiar elements though. Again, McCleen writes of a detached outsider and there is a similar haunting sadness to her writing which make McCleen such an interesting writer. However, in other ways until the end of the book where she does pull a rabbit out of the hat, it suffers somewhat in comparison. The main disappointment is that it lacks the originality of her debut book and in fact some of her elements border of cliché; there is the constant ringing of bells to signal the passing of time in the 'City of Books' and some fairly predictable use of the weather to signal changes in fortune for the characters. Even her main character's name, Stone, is hardly a subtle reference to her character. Most of all though, while The Land of Decoration felt drawn from the very depths of McCleen's soul, this feels much more hewn from her mind and the result is that it lacks some of the tension and pathos of her first book.

Also in her first book the main character is a young child for whom it is easier to gain the reader's sympathy. It's rather harder to evoke the same reaction to a middle aged woman who has had the chance to make life choices of her own to seem like the victim and it needs the health scare to engage our emotional contact with Professor Stone.

It is also worth noting that this is a very intellectual subject matter and the nuances of poetry analysis are complex and one assumes intellectually rigorous, but unless you are well versed (sorry, bad choice of word) with this art, then it remains somewhat high brow. If, on the other had, you are highly knowledgeable about poetry analysis or the works of TS Eliot amongst others, then you may get more out of this but I confess that I have never enjoyed Eliot's works. What doesn't help is that Professor Stone's work presented here is less clear than the one instance where a competitor academic's works are represented and for all her former professor's claims that Stone has a natural ability to convey her points, in fact, I found her writings and arguments to be difficult to follow.

Yet for all this, McCleen's ability to write about something that is so difficult to express, namely the sound of poetry, is impressive and there are passages where her descriptions are amongst the most poetic in themselves. Moreover, once you strip away the academia, there is a touching story of a relationship at its heart and where the focus is on this element, McCleen is superbly moving. McCleen's dark, detached characters make her a fascinating writer.

Our thanks to the kind people at Sceptre for sending us this book.

For more Oxbridge-based fun, check out Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott.

Buy The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen at

Buy The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen at


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