John Whitworth (1945-2019) was an English poet who was born in India.  He began writing as an undergraduate at Oxford, and published nine collections, from Unhistorical Fragments (Secker & Warburg, 1980) to Girlie Gangs (Enitharmon, 2011). Whitworth’s poems have appeared in Poetry Review, London Magazine, The Spectator, and in major magazines in the United States and Australia. In 2007 he came second with ‘The Examiners’ in the Times Literary Supplement poetry competition, judged by Wendy Cope. He was the recipient of the Cholmondeley Award, The Silver Wyvern from Poetry on the Lake, and numerous other magazine prizes. He was also the author of a writing manual, Writing Poetry (A&C Black), now in its second edition.

A committed formalist, his work holds many of the delights of a type of Light Verse made most famous by the New Yorker in the mid 20th Century: the accessibility of subject (often the minutiae of the everyday), the heavy rhymes, the dark and sinister themes that lurk beneath the jovial tone. His earlier works have been spoken of in terms of a ‘Betjemania’ before he took a more metaphysical turn, as with his prizewinning ‘The Examiners’, a set of elusive, omniscient beings who infiltrate and terrorize the private and public, the identity of whom Whitworth refuses to reveal. The speaker draws them out only through an incantatory build up of rhyme and repetition: ‘They confine us, then malign us, in the end they undermine us / They are there, they are there, they are there’.

Whitworth said he is ‘often looking for a kind of emotional colour rather than a meaning’, and in many cases the poems feel lead more by rhymes than philosophical ideas. Though he cites several American influences, including Wallace Stevens (a poet of light, magnificent rhymes), and Archibald Macleish – whose ‘ArsPoetica, and its imagist dictum – ‘a poem should not mean / but be’, is referenced in the introduction to this recording of ‘Reading the Bones’. His work is distinctly rooted in post-war Britain, with its tales of O Levels, ‘turned-up raincoat collars [ ] Woodie packs of ten’ and a love as strong as ‘a packet of vinegar crisp loves a lager and lime’ (‘Dog Days’).

Each poem recorded here is provided with a generous introduction ‘in a voice of energy and garrulity’ drawing on biographical and curious historical detail, as well as reflections on their differing composition: ‘The first line came drifting by me one early morning. The rest followed’. Indeed, ‘Reading of Bones’ illustrates the extent to which form (and its inflections) leads the writing process: as the ghost of Goering sitting became that ‘of Garbo knitting’. His crafted rhythms acquire further vibrancy in their reading, like ‘the sun of a little daughter’ animating ‘The Tower’ as she plays on it: ‘Beautiful like a ring, / Intricate, like a verse [ ] Ordering everything’.

John Whitworth’s favourite poetry sayings:

‘You must never get the idea that you’ll just try expressing your own private thoughts’ in Chinese characters. I’ll say it again: all inner demand for self-expression, all things related to ‘modern poetics, are forbidden.’ [JW: So who or what exactly is going to write the poem?] ‘Why, the words will, of course. Listen to what they have to say.’  Nitta Daisaku in How to Write Chinese Poetry

‘What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter ‘a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.’  Henri Matisse

‘A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.’ W.H. Auden

‘The use of [poetry’s] feigned history hath been to give some shadow of satisfaction to the mind of man in those points wherein the nature of things doth deny it.’ Francis Bacon

‘I write in rhyme and metre because… because that is what I do. That is the way poetry presents itself to me. I can’t write it any other way. I’m not at all sure I would want to, but even if I did want to I couldn’t.’  John Whitworth

This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 27th February 2014 at ID Audio and was produced by John Green.

Poems by John Whitworth

The Tower - John Whitworth
Reading the Bones - John Whitworth
Dog Days - John Whitworth
Tobacco and Boies - John Whitworth
John Whitworth in the Poetry Store

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Books by John Whitworth



Cholmondeley Award


The Silver Wyvern, Poetry on the Lake


Eleanor Room Poetry Award Lamar University


Literary Review Poetry Prize