“Outside, this incandescence in the gardens, the sprinklers turning in the garden squares”
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About Hannah Sullivan
Hannah Sullivan is an accomplished poet and academic. She was born in London and studied Classics at Cambridge; she has a PhD in English and American Literature from Harvard and is currently an Associate Professor at New College, Oxford, where she has taught since 2012, having previously taught at Stanford. Her book The Work of Revision (Harvard University Press), looking at the importance of revision in Modernism, was published in 2013 and won the Mary Crawshay Prize from the British Academy and the Philip Leverhulme Prize. Her debut collection of poems, Three Poems, was published by Faber & Faber in 2018 and won the T.S. Eliot Prize and the John Pollard International Prize. Was It for This was published in January 2023 (Faber and FSG). She lives in London.
Sullivan’s work is virtuosic in its range of prosody and material. Her panoramic paean to a city, and a time, ‘You, Very Young in New York’, draws on literary influences such as Joan Didion, Henry James and W.H. Auden while capturing – with pinpoint accuracy – a contemporary, if disorientating, scene of “The usual prescriptions, the usual assays on innocence”. Sullivan employs a variety of metres and forms across the poem to provide propulsion, tension and musicality – moving from the opening section’s terza rima to later, wittily juxtaposed couplets, yoking together seemingly disconnected ideas and images with full and slant rhymes, surprising the reader with her dextrous craft, building a world through concrete images and nearly overwhelming us with the list of available commodities: “Cold hoppy Kruŭovice, whiskey sours, and Staropramen.’/On Fridays, a pop-up serves tonkotsu miso ramen.”
Sullivan’s use of the second person throughout the poem allows for a certain camera-like distancing and an element of the self as performance, being rebuilt as it goes – again looking back to the ‘very young’ of the title and to the air of nostalgia, or at least no longer present-tense experience being laid out among the rooftop bars and “greyscale Park”. It speaks to the “huge lost innocence” of the poem, as well as the yearning to be elsewhere, both then and now – “Old New York, a James novel”; “Berlin in the seventies”. That pull of elsewhere, as well as the layering of the visual with Sullivan’s talent for simile, for the smuggling in of literary allusion, populates the poem with all manner of available material, haunting it with possibility as well as missed opportunity: as Lavinia Greenlaw wrote in the London Review of Books, “Her metaphorical scope is that of the internet, as access-all-areas as it is frictionless”.
Time is one of Sullivan’s great subjects, perhaps most explicitly so in the second long poem in her debut collection, ‘Repeat Until Time’ in which eternity and “cyclical theories of the universe” are considered and brought down to the human scale. In ‘Repeat Until Time - the Heraclitus Poem’ Sullivan once again employs rhyme as a means of laying out the connections and patternings with which one is faced on a daily basis, as well on time’s often irksome repetitions and routines. Riffing on Philip Larkin’s ‘Days’ “What are days for?/Days are where we live” Sullivan highlights the absurdities of our day-bound lives:
Days may be where we live, but mornings are eternity.
They wake us, and every day, waking is absurdity;
All the things you just did yesterday to do over again, eternally.
The melding of subject and form, the binding together of the end-rhymed three-line stanza, helps to capture both the irritation and enclosure of the speaker. The poem foregrounds repetition as a form of erasure – of pleasure, of novelty – “The clench of tonsil on extra tonsil is an oyster only once” – but builds, in the end, to the ongoing possibility of small, unignorable pleasure, too, amid the Prufrock-like reminder of “coffee to brewed” “in eternity”, even among all this routine: “Stupid bliss of hot water, tongue-tingling, steaming the shower”.
Sullivan’s perfectly paced, nuanced readings help to draw out the long perspectives of her work.
Hannah provided these recordings from her home during the summer of 2021.