It Goes With The Territory: Memoirs of a Poet

Poetic take on a provincial outsider's life

By Peter Lawson, January 20, 2014
Feinstein: prodigious talent

Feinstein: prodigious talent

It Goes With The Territory: Memoirs of a Poet
Elaine Feinstein
Alma Books, £20

Elaine Feinstein's autobiography is a treat, offering an exciting insight into her prodigious output. Despite the sub-title, Feinstein is more than a poet. She is a highly respected novelist, playwright and biographer, as well as an award-winning translator and writer of television screenplays. This is very much the life of a major English Jewish writer: her passions as well as literary achievements.

It is also a fascinating depiction of how a Jewish woman from the provinces (Feinstein, née Cooklin, hales from Leicester) makes her mark in English, Jewish and Russian literature.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Feinstein becomes friends with Ted Hughes, Yehuda Amichai and Joseph Brodsky. Her translations of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva appear in The Oxford Book of English Verse. She tours the literary festivals in Britain, Europe and Australia; she gives readings under the auspices of the British Council in Israel, India and Indonesia. She is indefatigable.

Equally fascinating is Feinstein's understanding of herself, despite her fame and success, as fundamentally an outsider. She describes herself variously as a "bohemian", a "loner" and "dreamy". This last term relates her to "the Luftmenschen of Europe, whose stamina brought my family to Britain". Feinstein imagines her identity as among "those who live on their wits", the "nomads" who are "independent, knowing and fearless". It is surely no coincidence that her trilogy of radio plays is titled Foreign Girls and concerns "school friends who have Jewish roots".

Feinstein's Jewish identity has affected her poetic practice. From the start, she looked to American experimental poets such as Charles Olsen for a poetic model. The American Jewish Objectivists, George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff, were similarly an important escape route from English insularity.

Feinstein's poetic friendships are with people who do not disdain "the world beyond this English island". She refuses to follow the example of English "Movement" poets such as Philip Larkin who, according to the poet and critic Donald Davie, wasted their poems "on inert gestures of social adoptiveness". Feinstein is remarkable for finding her own literary place against the odds in England.

Family has sustained the poet. It Goes With The Territory describes Elaine's marriage to the distinguished immunologist Arnold Feinstein, and their three children, of whom she is clearly proud.

My only cavil with this book is its brevity (260 pages, with just eight of photographs). At times, it reads as though much has been cut; and although it is beautifully written, it can feel fragmentary. But, overall, it remains a delight and an inspiration for women, Jews and other outsiders who have something important to communicate.

Peter Lawson's books include 'Anglo-Jewish Poetry from Isaac Rosenberg to Elaine Feinstein'

Last updated: 11:27am, January 20 2014