Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

What Poets Need


Here is a small but beautiful book I want to sell to all you readers out there: “What Poets Need” by Finuala Dowling (Penguin Books). It is close to my heart for many reasons. Firstly, it’s set in my favourite city Cape Town, but more specifically in Kalk Bay, a place where I spent many happy hours as a student drinking beer in the sun instead of studying. I even had my twenty-first birthday party there.

This is a first novel, written by a poet, and while the book is poetic, contains poems, is about a poet and talks about the writing of poetry quite a lot, it is also completely accessible to those who don’t have much interest in poetry. This is because it is funny and is about love. I took a poetry-writing course once, while I was pregnant with my second baby, so I don’t remember too much. But I do remember the teacher (he too was a poet) pointing out that successful poems often juxtapose things oddly, creating fresh images. The author does this often and amusingly. For instance:

He remarried almost instantly, a very thin woman – Lilian – who always asks me solicitously whether I’m tired, by which I understand that I look hung-over, dishevelled, or unshaven and/or that my private love of butter has taken on a public dimension.

How I just love that “private love of butter”! I’m not even sure what she means (perhaps that he’s got some smeared on his face) but I find it so quirky, especially as it never gets mentioned again. The man who is married to Lilian has a number of irritating habits, one of which is saying “at the end of the day” often, which is my worst cliche. I loathe it to distraction, probably unreasonably. If anyone ever says it on TV (which since we watch BBC Prime is often), I roll my eyes and groan, usually causing my husband to leap to its defence. He says it’s not such a bad phrase, just over-used; I say it’s an abomination. 

So what do poets need? Well, this poet is writing letters to his married lover, whose husband has discovered their affair and understandably banned it. He writes in a state of longing, which colours the whole book with melancholy, but which makes him very prolific. As well as writing and editing, he lives with his sister and niece, has some mad poet friends, hangs out a lot with the mothers of his niece’s classmates, and gets some human relationships spectacularly wrong.

I got the feeling while reading it that the author was writing the book to amuse herself and a small audience of her closest friends. As a reader you are let in and warmed by the fire of her wit and style. The scope of the book is domestic – a man, his family, a winter, some letters – yet it covers broad themes of love and loss. It is full of the quirks and strangenesses that play themselves out in everyday life. Read it, and be delighted. 


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

11 thoughts on “What Poets Need

  1. I hate that phrase “at the end of the day” too. In the internet buzz years that was the most annoyingly overused phrase and always accompanied by a side of arrogance. . .blaaaaaaach

  2. …yeah funkmeister is right. It has that ring of ‘I know what I am talking about, even if you haven’t got it yet’.. me no like it neither 🙂

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  4. I love it when poets write novels – they are often very good indeed. I really like the sound of the book you describe and will try and see if it is available in the UK.

  5. Thank you for this review. Cape Town sounds like a wonderful place to set a novel and this sounds like a book worth reading! Best, BL

  6. I’ve just ordered the book, so intriguing did you make it sound! I love the melding of prose and poetry, the creation of a world where the everyday is both comfortingly familiar and cathartically poetic.

  7. I’m so happy to see someone out there writing about this book! I have read it twice and reluctantly passed it on to a friend. I miss it already. Her characters became family for me – such warmth, such tenderness and sly wit. And her prose is pitch perfect. It’s a gem.

  8. I know how you feel about lending it out. I’ve put it into the pool at my book club, but I’ve warned them to be VERY RESPECTFUL when they report back, because I will brook no criticism. To me it’s as close to perfect as a modern novel can be. It deserves to win prizes and make Finuala Dowling rich. I hope that happens, but if it doesn’t I hope it will continue to gather devoted readers.

  9. I think when she writes of his private love of butter becoming public, she’s referencing a weight gain; but that’s just a guess. 🙂 This book is going on my “Book to Check-Out” list.

  10. I have just finished reading this book and LOVED it! I posted on my blog about it today. (In Afrikaans)

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