"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
For more information about the books of Nicholas Murray
click HERE and access his website
Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday 25 September 2023

New Poetry Collection

My new poetry pamphlet from Melos Press, The Dictionary Speaks, is now out and can be ordered post-free via this link.

From the publisher’s blurb:-

NICHOLAS MURRAY’S many books include poetry, two novels, critically acclaimed biographies of Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, Bruce Chatwin, Andrew Marvell, and Matthew Arnold, and studies of Liverpool, Bloomsbury, and British poets of the First World War. He is a Fellow of the Welsh Academy and, with his wife Sue, runs the prize- winning poetry imprint, Rack Press.

ELSEWHERE: Collected Poems of Nicholas Murray was published in 2022. His poems deal with love and art, humanity, politics, and the natural world in a body of work marked by both passion and fine craftsmanship. David Harsent wrote that Murray has ‘a sure hand, whether with hard-edged satire... or sense impressions that produce place and event so vividly.’


Of earth, water, air and fire: ‘A real treat...an elemental menagerie in which the poet’s own delight through verbal magic becomes ours.’ Christopher Reid

The Museum of Truth: ‘A stunning collection.’ Martina Evans

City Lights: ‘The poems have an emotional intelligence, a wit, I really admire.’ Michèle Roberts

Monday 15 May 2023

From a Loyal Subject

 Invective for an Imminent Investiture

Here is our gift to you, please take it, everyone needs a Prince,

and Wales should be grateful: never look a gift horse in the mouth

in spite of missing or yellowing teeth and various hints,

in the region of the back end of the nag, of trouble to come.

There are experts on hand with handbooks of courtly etiquette;

they are skilled in the manufacture of tradition, protocol,

they can sketch a crimson carpet unrolled over stone steps

for brocaded slippers to tread (slowly, magnificently).

They have studied form, know what The People love to see

in a gilded procession, trumpets blasted in a row

from a high turret (castles in such cases obligatory)

and everything that flags and clopping horses can do.

Roll out the barrel. Chips with everything. Party time!

A small girl speaks into a microphone: it was so emotional.

She is persuaded that the King and her grandad chime,

show the same wrinkles and baldy twinkles, smile

with the lovely ease of condescension at The Young

who are seen to look up from their mobiles and gawp,

briefly, before a Tweet comes in or an anthem is sung

whose words they fumble for, heads scratched in bafflement.

In a city street, tables are erected for iced cakes, and the TV,

like a holy icon, burbles all day long, watched or unwatched,

as the bunting in Butetown or Bangor flutters free

and crowds line the route waiting to touch the royal hand.

All it needs now is a senate of bards, druid-like, holding a lyre

(or is it a leek?) with their formal odes hymning the Prince,

their long faces gravid with obedience, the loyal leer,

hands folded in front, heads bowed, white garments rippling.

Here is a battlement, high and windswept, jackdaws in flight.

All it needs is a short leap through the bright air

down to the mortal rocks, the sea foaming white,

and freedom at last in a thousand smithereens.

[First published in Planet, Feb-April 2022]

Tuesday 7 March 2023

What Happened to the Poetry?


The Guardian 2023 New Poetry Choices: 

A Found Poem

A bold debut collection

delving into Blackness,

trauma, sexuality and the divine;

poems of gender, transformation

and the body in a collection about

authenticity and conformity;

the personal is political in a collection

reckoning with resistance, freedom,

caste and the refugee crisis;

drawing on a Hong Kong childhood

a new collection exploring 

postcolonialism and queer identity.

The above was a little nothing I put up on Instagram on New Year’s Day, having read the Guardian selections of the poetry assumed to matter among 2023’s prospective new titles. 

“So many people would not be amused,” was one response, to which I replied: 

“Well, yes, there’s nothing to be done with the humourless but my serious point here is that these poets have been let down by The Guardian which concentrates exclusively on their (wholly worthy) political messages and refuses to say anything about the poetry. The poem, Wallace Stevens said, is “the cry of its occasion”, its poetic form not its paraphrasable content. I speak as someone who has published a lot of political poetry!”

This argument is a very old one that invariably has us quoting Auden yet again: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Others would go further and say that it isn’t the business of poetry to make things happen, it should simply be. Others still would favour political poetry that is studiously ambivalent like Marvell’s great Horatian Ode. Because of course we don’t want rants or propagandist tripe. Enough great political poetry has been written, however, for it not to need defenders. But currently there is a sense, sharpened by the strident “virtue-signalling” of the social media, that without visible adherence to a range of identitarian political stances a poet will not prosper. I cannot say whether this is true or false – it might just be grumpy prejudice from those who reject the politics or feel their poetry is being pushed into second place – but at least at the level of the noise made by publicity the argument feels persuasive.

At the end of last year I received two email comments from friends who are each poets and professors of English. Here is what they said in response to my own views on the poetry scene:


“I perfectly understand your feelings regarding the current poetry scene and the reviewing culture. My friend X recently said that the 'establishment' is now entirely driven by the politics of representation, so that 'poetry as such' is no longer their concern either. There was always plenty of virtue-signalling in the poetry world, and it hasn't got any better in the current climate.

My own view of poetry publishing now is that it needs to be done on something very like the eighteenth-century subscription model, where the books are produced strictly for the people that want them—not unlike print on demand. The problem, then, is that it's difficult to find new readers—so the internet locks us into our groups and we signal to each other without much access to any 'common' culture. But is there one, or was that always an illusion foisted by those who controlled the organs of opinion?”


“Interesting what you say about the poetry scene, which has clearly pulled itself out of shape. The prizes are a bit of a racket, decided, as you say, on extra-poetic principles, and no one publishes reviews any more. The main publishing houses (Faber, Picador etc) also seem to have lost their way, and can no longer lay claim to set any sort of standard-setting.”

Two poets hardly makes for a comprehensive, statistically sound, definitive judgement on the question but the fact is that I would have been surprised if anyone writing to me had not come to such conclusions. If there is anyone out there happy with the current state of poetry publishing and critical reception I would like to meet them.

Personally I would locate the difficulty in the reviewing culture – or its growing absence. I hardly seem to read any serious, discriminating reviews of new collections that are not social media style gush or that don’t sound like a series of blurbs stitched together into a group review. Many important collections simply don’t get reviewed at all with the result that the intelligent general reader, always hesitating before the challenge of contemporary poetry, is bereft of any reliable guide  – though the din of poets telling us on Twitter how “awesome” they are may be drowning such fine discrimination out. 

And it is not a question of identifying the winners and losers but of exploring what a good poem is, what its components might be, and whether the writing is satisfying. Formal questions, ways of saying, language and rhythm, image and music are all part of what makes a poem valuable (and what gives pleasure) and one wants poetry critics to focus on these things.

That doesn’t mean that “exploring postcolonialism and queer identity” is not legitimate in poetry. Far from it. No subject matter is alien to a poet.  But I am interested in the way it is done, the poetry that is made of this matter, and good criticism can help us to think about these vital questions. If a poem doesn’t foreground these dimensions it runs the risk of being an inferior form of agitprop and the poet would be better advised to paint words on a placard and get out on to the street to take what is likely to be more effective protest and direct action. 

Neither of my poet-professors cited above is a “reactionary” and neither, I hope, am I but we are worried about an abdication of critical responsibility. Truly politically engaged poets have as much to gain from reversing that as any aesthetic dilettante.

Could this be a New Year Resolution for poetry editors: start to commission reviews which focus on the poem and its medium, its expressive means, its formal qualities as much as, but not of course disregarding, its paraphrasable content?

Sunday 8 January 2023

Three Wishes for 2023 in Poetry

  •  A little more humility. You are very good because you tell us so on Twitter but you are not “awesome”, “stellar” or “amazing”. Just concentrate on writing better and we will let you know how well you have done.
  •  A little more intelligent criticism. Serious reviewing of poetry seems to be in terminal decline. Many group reviews read like social media puffs or are written in a strange, over-egged language, like a demented blurb, in sentences that appear to have no discernible meaning. Many important new collections from small and large publishers get no reviews at all.
  • A little more reading. We have much to learn (not to mention enjoy) from the Illustrious Dead (and Living).

Wednesday 5 October 2022

The Prime Minister Regrets by Nicholas Murray

The Prime Minister Regrets (October 2022)

That smoking gun, 
warm in my hand,
and the scarlet pool
on the tiled floor;

the white shirt spattered
and the mute stillness
of the cold corpse
might seem to some a proof

(now that you mention it)
of culpable wrong-doing.
But context is important here
and all is not what it seems.

I had no idea that the raised gun
and the pulled trigger
might result in such a scene.
Believe me, sincerely.

Do not rush to judgement,
or call me an arrogant oaf
whose lease is too long extended
who lies, easily, as others breathe

until the truth seems a word
light as an autumn leaf
that falls in a bright spiral
of papery flight, prettily.

Tuesday 13 September 2022

Writing Material

Does it matter what one writes with? Creative writing tutors have their endearing prohibitions and recommendations (write about what you know, don’t use adjectives etc etc) but the physical medium of writing itself tends to be dismissed as nothing more than an irrelevant personal quirk that has little bearing on what gets written. 

But does it? Iris Murdoch famously preferred to write in fountain pen (“One should love one’s handwriting”) and the mystic union of hand and writing instrument (quill or MacBook) should not, perhaps, be too quickly dismissed. In a similar way, on a writer’s desk a pebble from a Greek beach, a statuette, a piece of coloured glass, can be the crucial co-ordinates of creativity, aids to the chancy manoeuvres of composition.

A new book from the French writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint, C’est vous l’écrivain (You are the Writer) takes it title from a remark offered to Toussaint when his first novel was accepted by the legendary Jerome Lindon of Éditions de Minuit, publisher of the nouveau roman of the 1950s. The fledgling author timorously offered Lindon a list of post-acceptance alterations and second-thoughts, fearing that this would be taken wrongly but Lindon coolly replied: “c’est vous l’écrivain,” with the unspoken warning, however, that the writer might propose but, as fearsome editor, obsessed with detail, Lindon’s scalpel would not stay long in its sheath.

Toussaint describes in fascinating detail his own writing methods, the succession of Apple computers he has worked on, each page printed off for intense reworking with a hand-held pen, fonts played with, patterns of text laid out on the page for evaluation (he prints a bizarre example of cramped micro-paragraphs arranged like troops at a dictator’s victory parade), dictionaries ransacked, everything subjected to forensic re-writing. Not for him the astonishingly rapid productivity of Stendhal who could hardly have had time to check for a missed comma (The Charterhouse of Parma’s 500 pages tossed off in 53 days).

Ford Madox Ford, in his characteristically digressive memoir/fiction It Was the Nightingale (1934) confessed that he disliked writing with a pen, in part because of arthritic pain. He was forced to use a new Corona typewriter and even tried dictation to a stenographer – but this made it all too easy: “If I have to go to a table and face pretty considerable pain I wait until I have something worth saying to say it in the fewest possible words.” Ford had put his finger on a crucial need for any writer: to have an invisible antagonist to wrestle with. If it isn’t the product of sweat and toil it has come too easily. Unlike the computer which has made rewriting and re-positioning text so effortless, Ford found insupportable the typewriter’s requirement for him to redo a whole page in order to eliminate a mistake (“I detest a typewriter page showing any corrections”). He went to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to retype, even finding a new context in the words around it for the mistaken word in such a way that it now worked without alteration. But he knew the ultimate truth: “Elimination is always good.”

In the end Ford Madox Ford resolved to return to writing with a pen. His advice to any writer was “in composing make your circumstances as difficult as possible” but erase any mistakes with “bold, remorseless black strokes”.

For Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who began with an Apple LC2 in 1993, and has passed through every ordinateur portable from that stable since then, these years have seen “a silent revolution” in the processing of words which he judges nonetheless as “a natural evolution of the practice of writing” leaving him, however, to speculate about what communications revolution is waiting for his old age.

For my own part, I am grateful that I never learned to touch type, my two-fingered dexterity being quite fast enough, if not quite Stendhalian. As I watch the fingers of others flick like lightning over the keyboard I am relieved that I cannot go any faster. I know that slowness is good for me, hauling me back from the precipice of a too-fluid sentence. As Ovid urged, in another context, lente, lente, currite noctis equi.

But strictures about writing will always retain a certain specious logic. What looks like a rule, a necessity, a universal truth, will turn out to be merely a piece of advice that might work for you but not necessarily for me. Closer to a lucky charm than a law of physics, these strictures aid us in the good work of being hindered, help to convince us that we are on the stony but right track. 

The only immutable law, however, remains the one that should be carved into the marble lintel of every writing school: all writing is re-writing.