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It Goes With the Territory: Memoirs of a Poet, by Elaine Feinstein, Alma RRP£20, 288 pages

“Them lady poets must not marry, pal.” So said John Berryman in one of his Dream Poems. Elaine Feinstein comes perilously close to claiming that marital unhappiness “goes with the territory” of being a female poet. Her memoir, as well as being a rich account of people met and work done, portrays her own difficult – yet in its way triumphant – marriage.

Chalk and cheese in some ways, Arnold Feinstein was an East End tailor’s son, impoverished and deprived, while Elaine Cooklin hailed from Leicester and a fitfully well-off home. Her father Isidore was a cabinet maker who ran his own business and, a daddy’s girl, she was not close to her quiet mother.

In It Goes With the Territory, Feinstein portrays the heady atmosphere of undergraduate life at Cambridge university in the late 1940s and early 1950s. But she was astounded by some of her fellow students’ lack of ambition. She had already begun writing poems as a girl, while bouncing a tennis ball in the road. Despite her evident drive to succeed, once she married and had three boys, actual publication seemed a distant goal. Her progress thereafter was steady.

Feinstein is known not just as a poet but also as a gifted biographer (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Ted Hughes, Pushkin), translator and novelist. The memoir details her voyages beyond the Iron Curtain, and friendships with Joseph Brodsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and other dissident writers. Striking figures stud the narrative: Jill Neville, novelist, female libertine and brother of Richard of Oz magazine fame; vibrant Emma Tennant, aristocrat and author; DNA genius Francis Crick and his wife Odile; lovable Allen Ginsberg; Fay Weldon, always up for laughs.

Though hers has been a fascinating life, filled with extraordinary characters, Feinstein is too nice, too sane, too understanding, to indulge in gossipy revelation. Many of those she writes about are still alive, or recently deceased, but even if they weren’t, it’s hard to imagine her with the sort of pitiless gaze that Sylvia Plath turned so freely on those around her and which made her journals so nasty but compelling.

Feinstein is less sparing with her husband but, again, there is no sense of spite. She relates devastating comments by Arnold, successful in his own scientific field but clearly resentful of his wife’s growing eminence. Of course his wife has written a lot of books, he remarks to a friend, it’s all she does (a dig at her housekeeping). He describes another female novelist as more intelligent than her. He has affairs. But still, she says, he was the love of her life.

Plath, whom Feinstein never met, hovers in the background. Feinstein befriends Ted Hughes and knows Assia Wevill, with whom Hughes had an affair. Olwyn Hughes, Plath’s disliked sister-in-law, becomes Feinstein’s agent, and is a softer, more likeable figure here than she cuts in many books about Plath. And Feinstein makes a characteristically generous comment about the controversial appropriation of the Holocaust in Plath’s work, pointing out that the trial of Adolf Eichmann took place in 1961: “I always understood how Sylvia Plath came to use such imagery drawn from the camps in her Ariel poems. It was in the air we breathed.”

Surveying the recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks, she simply comments: “I have lived most of my life in a rare island of time when such behaviour was not acceptable, and I did not appreciate my good fortune.” We are certainly fortunate in having this most humane and civilised of voices in our midst.

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