The Arty Semite

British Literary Doyenne's Letters to Gay Poet

By Benjamin Ivry

Dennis Selby
Poet Edward Field.

Admirers of the Brooklyn-born Jewish poet Edward Field, whose “After the Fall: Poems Old and New” appeared in 2007 from the University of Pittsburgh Press, will rejoice in the role he plays in an April 16 book from W. W. Norton & Company, “Letters to a Friend” by the venerable British literary editor Diana Athill.

Athill was a longtime mainstay of the publishing house founded by the Hungarian Jewish émigré André Deutsch. Her letters from 1981 to 2007 radiate stalwart support and friendship, although not to the extent of preserving Field’s epistolary replies, which are lost to posterity. Even in obliquely reflected glory, Field’s forthright personality shines through her letters as it does in his first, and best, 1960s poetry collections “Stand Up, Friend, With Me” and “Variety Photoplays.” In these, Field, born in 1924, emerged from a near-death escape during World War II military service to strongly affirm his dual identities as gay and Jewish.

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