Elaine Feinstein


The clock’s gone back. The shop lights spill /over the wet street, these broken streaks/ of traffic signals and white head-lights fill/ the afternoon. My thoughts are bleak .

In this poem, Winter, Elaine Feinstein, who has died aged 88, remembers her late husband by recalling such personal idiosynrasies as -You never did learn to talk and find the way/ at the same time. It was a marriage she once described as bumpy, but always affectionate. In an early poem, Marriage, from Selected Poems (Carcanet) she asks: Is there ever a new beginning when every /word has its ten years’ weight? – adding: We have taken our shape from the/damage we do one another, gently as bodies moving in the night. Her acute, almost painful sensitivity towards her husband is elegiac – but what hurt me, as you chose slowly/was the delicacy of your gesture:/the curious child, loving blossom/and mosses, still eager/in your disguise as an old man.

Feinstein found much inspiration in her Jewish heritage, drawing on Russian women poets. She has been noted for – if not overshadowed by – her translations of the emotional work of Marina Tsvetaeva, which first appeared in 1961. followed by her biography of the Russian’s tragic life, A Captive Lion in 1987.

A realist as well as an artist, she understood that the resonance she found in the work of Tsvetaeva, a victim of revolution, war and upheaval could never reflect her own. She wrote: “Once or twice I felt the same loneliness/but I can never learn from you, Marina.”

What the Russian taught her was “to be unafraid of exposing my least dignified emotions.” While her translations were important in introducing Tsvetaeva to the west, Feinstein also published biographies of Pushkin, and Anna Akhmatova, in Anna of All the Russias in 2005. Her poetic prose novel, The Russian Jerusalem, takes the theme further by exposing the Soviet persecution of Russian Jewish poets.

Her involvement in Russian poetry and her outspoken critique of the Soviet authorities addressed her own background as the descendant of Orthodox Jews from Odessa, but she did not remain in this East European hinterland. She also brought North American beat poetry to British readers via Prospect Magazine, which she founded in 1959, publishing writers like Alan Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Charles Olson. Prospect, (unrelated to its contemporary namesake) introduced a transatlantic cultural exchange.

The clarity and emotional intelligence of Feinstein’s work influenced many poets working in English today. She has been praised by Ted Hughes (the subject of her 2001 biography) and George Steiner, the latter describing her work as “instinct with caring.”)

Her 1966 debut volume In a Green Eye, was followed by several poetry collections, including Talking to the Dead (2007) which sensitively resolves the tensions of her loving but imperfect marriage to the molecular biologist Arnold Feinstein. Her debut novel The Circle ( 1970) reached the Booker longlist twice. It was followed by short stories, radio and TV dramas and 13 novels, including The Glass Alembic (1973) and Mother’s Girl (1988). And then there’s her autobiography, It Goes with the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet ( 2013).

A magnetic performer of her verse, she emerged from the generation that brought Angela Carter, Eva Figes and Emma Tennant to the vocalised literary scene. In 1980 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and won a Cholmondeley Award in 1990.

In the late 1980s she moved into politics with Hotel Maimonides in which she analysed the struggles of the Middle East, and Annus Mirabilis in 1989, in which she describes an antisemitic cabaret in Budapest.

True to her character, in her role as the Daily Telegraph’s poetry critic, she reviewed the work of other poets with wisdom and sensitivity.

For all her East European ancestry, Feinstein had a very English reticence. To dismissive publishers and critics, she was unfailingly polite, thanking them for their time. This may have been partly because she saw herself as an outsider; she described three strikes against her: one as a woman, two as a Jew and three as a Northerner. Perhaps it was this which drew her to Hampstead, which she loved for the way it embraced strangers – “where everyone of us would be thought peculiar!”

Her birth in Bootle, Merseyside, was a far cry from the Odessa of her ancestry, but it influenced much of her poetry. She was the only child of Isadore Cooklin, a cabinet maker, and Fay née Compton. It was her mother who developed her love of reading and she began writing poetry at the age of nine. After Wyggeston girls grammar school in 1948 she won an exhibition to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge, studying for the bar on graduating. Her sense of being a stranger on the periphery remained despite those “three privileged years.” Wartime in Leicester had little impact on her. She married Arnold Feinstein in 1956 and they returned to Cambridge raising a family of three sons, and where she supervised undergraduates. The Feinstein home became a magnet for international writers, including Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Miroslav Holub and the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.

From 1967 to 1970 Feinstein lectured in English at Essex University, while her husband held a position at Sussex University. She left to write novels within the embrace of her beloved Hampstead. She is survived by her three sons. Arnold predeceased her in 2002.


Elaine Barbara Feinstein: born October 24, 1930. Died September 23, 2019


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