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Sabbagh Omar, Reading Fiona Sampson: A Study in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Anthem Press, 2020
Claire Hélie
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Sabbagh Omar, Reading Fiona Sampson: A Study in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Anthem Press, 2020 (202 pages) ISBN 9781785274206

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1In spite of a brilliant career spanning more than three decades (Writing: Self and Reflexivity, co-edited with Celia Hunt, was published in 1998, but she started writing in the mid-1980s), in spite of the sheer number of books and collections she has published so far (over 30), in spite of the amazing versatility she displays in the genres she experiments with (several poetic forms, essays, reviews, translations, biographies, scholarly articles, to name but a few), in spite of her international recognition in the poetry world (testified by the awards she has received or been shortlisted for, the uncountable reviews of her works and the translations into quite a few other languages, for instance), in spite of much more evidence of her importance as a writer, editor, workshop facilitator . . . Fiona Sampson is rarely the object of critical attention in academia. Is it due to her transnational positioning (as a poet she looks to Europe, and in particular to east and central Europe, for inspiration and collaborations), or due to her reservations regarding schools and cliques (her first editorial at Poetry Review started: ‘If editorials had titles, this one would be called “Against Balkanisation”.’), or due to her refusal to choose between a radically experimental type of poetry and a radically traditional type of verse, or to reasons beyond human grasp even? The point is, Omar Sabbagh’s Reading Fiona Sampson: A Study in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, published by Anthem Press in 2020, is the first and therefore long-awaited book-length essay on this much-acclaimed poet.

2Since there is little previous literature to rely on, the book is no state-of-the-art review of articles to think from (or against). Instead, it provides many insightful close readings (the author claims his work is ‘not a work of scholarship’ but ‘a work of sustained literary criticism’). A scholar, a literary critic and a poet himself, Omar Sabbagh has written extensively on Sampson and some chapters actually redraft articles that had been previously published in magazines and journals like Agenda, The London Magazine, English studies . . . Collated together, they provide a rather comprehensive overview of Sampson’s writerly activities, though, probably due to a lack of space, some works (Folding the Real, 2010, and On Listening, 2007, in particular) have been left out. Yet, the vast majority of the works are covered one way or another, though they are not all listed in the index, far from it indeed (Common Prayer, Music Lessons, Creative Writing in Health and Social Care are missing from the list but given valuable critical attention nonetheless for instance).

3From the onset, Sabbagh steps away from the traditional biographical approach to literary works (only three pages are devoted to her life and they mostly list exhaustively her publications and awards). Yet, he admits to knowing Sampson since they met when he took her Creative and Life Writing class at Goldsmith’s College and she told him he would have one of his poems published in Poetry Review. Some of the material used in the book is based on this personal acquaintance, and therefore constitutes an important resource for future archival studies. Now the backlash is that Sabbagh’s admiration for Sampson’s person and œuvre sometimes seeps through the anecdotes and the meliorative / superlative style. The risk, obviously, is that the critical analysis may turn into hagiographical writing. Yet, Sabbagh’s attention to the works themselves is a rather operative safeguard.

4So Sabbagh’s book is not organised chronologically (which would superimpose Sampson’s life and her works). Nor is it organised thematically. Indeed his method of close-reading allows him to clarify the main concepts that cut across Sampson’s writings—which can probably be subsumed under the two keywords of ‘democracy and excellence,’ a conceptual pair used as a title for the conclusion. Nor is it organised according to the genre each work belongs to, the shelves the books would be stacked on in a library, as this would beat the fact that there is commonality throughout her writing. Instead, he chooses to group his ideas around Sampson’s areas of expertise. Indeed, her many ventures are sustained by what he calls ‘the same structure of feeling’ (2), the same ‘poetic sensibility’ (3). The use of Raymond William’s notion allows him to claim that Sampson always taps into the zeitgeist while not supporting hegemonic ways of thinking at a given time and place.

5First, in ‘Hearthsides and Hospices,’ Sampson is presented as an editor, reviewer and a workshop facilitator i.e. as a talent scout who organises the field of poetry. This aspect is rarely tackled—or at best it is mentioned in passim—when working on a poet. Yet, Sabbagh shows how relevant this work is not so much in her career (the doors it has opened) but in her poetics (how her meticulous work on other poets has helped her shape her own ideas of poetry). This chapter also shows how poetry can be taken out of the page or the reading room into the wide world, into the wild world of care settings for the benefit of all human beings, and in that Sampson has done some pioneering work.

6Then, in ‘From The Looking Glass to the Lamp,’ a much longer chapter than the other three, Sabbagh focusses on four collections—Rough Music, Coleshill, The Catch and Come Down. Large chunks of Sampson’s poetry are quoted and analysed through the theoretical framework provided by philosophers like Theodor Adorno, Ermanno Bencivenga, Hélène Cixous and Emmanuel Kant, alongside psychoanalysts like Jacques Lacan and theorists like Gayatri Spivak. The concepts of embodiment, empathy and hospitality are given pride of place.

7The third chapter, ‘Prose Animations,’ focusses on Limestone Country, four meditations on limestone landscapes, and In Search of Mary Shelley, her first biography (she now also has one on Elizabeth Barrett Browning). Sabbagh uses here the same kind of close-reading as in the previous chapter, bringing out some stylistic devices that allow Sampson to create her stories around place and people.

8The final chapter, ‘For the Love of Music,’ draws from Beyond the Lyric and Lyric Cousins, to pinpoint the fact that form is a permanent feature of Sampson’s poetics, based on active listening or what she calls ‘attention’ (in an article for the Guardian in 2007 she wrote ‘Listening is a kind of hotline to poetic attention’).

9What the conclusion shows is that concepts of commonality and community are not concepts in Sampson’s works but an ideal to work—or write—towards.

10Finally, the Appendix to Reading Fiona Sampson is an invitation to actually listen and pay attention to Sampson’s poetics and methods as it consists in reading her ‘A Speaking Likeness: Poetry Within Health and Social Care,’ the inaugural Wellcome Trust annual public Mike White Memorial lecture, given on June 14, 2016 in London. The text is an interesting mixture of biography, research, theory and poetry. Indeed, drawing from her work experience with creative writing workshops in care settings, from documents such as the European Charter and reports provided by the Health Foundation, from thinkers like Heidegger and Spivak, and from authors with or without a first-hand experience of hospital and mental institutions (George Herbert, Robert Hass, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish, David Gascoyne or Edward Thomas), she composes a convincing plea for hospitality, the sine qua non condition to reach human dignity when faced with individuals suffering within the community.

11The book closes on a ‘Selected Bibliography’ which contains all the abbreviations used in the book. It really is a Works Cited section more than a bibliography that would include a more comprehensive reading list of books, articles and reviews by or on Fiona Sampson.

12All in all, the book is a must have as it is the first one to provide a good overview of Sampson’s works while delving into the specificities of her poetics. Omar Sabbagh’s style may be baffling at times, but if one overcomes a few idiosyncracies (the pun ‘about and “about”’ is repeated almost 10 times, the status and function of the many epigraphs are not quite clear, the puns sometimes mar the intention), the reading is quite rewarding.

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Claire Hélie, « Sabbagh Omar, Reading Fiona Sampson: A Study in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 02 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Hélie

Université de Lille

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