John Birtwhistle has said that ‘one writes each poem just to learn how to write it’, and insists that he ‘doesn’t care a dried pea for Artistic Development or Finding One’s Own Voice’. The result, of course, is that a strongly recognisable voice comes through. For all their variety of forms and ideas, his poems are consistent in their visual precision, their scrupulous phrasing and their formal clarity. These qualities are brought to everything he touches, whether it is a passing moment of childhood, a natural detail, a wryly stoic observation, or perennial emotions in the face of events from before birth (first foetal movements) to after burial (removal to an ossuary).
Many scores of individuals are named or make their appearance in some way. If one poem is satiric, the next is unashamedly lyrical. Several reflect on the adequacy of art, and a feature is the stream of very short pieces by way of illustration or riposte, like the border of the Bayeux Tapestry. Wit and feeling are so interwoven in Birtwhistle’s technique, that when it comes to the register of loss and death he is able to find what an otherwise hostile critic admitted ‘can be a kind of bridled eloquence’. Word frequency analysis shows a high incidence of time, thought, light, morning, child, apple tree, painting and fossil.