The Poet’s Essay

The Adam Phillips Seminar at Keble College, Oxford

Last year the New Yorker described Adam Phillips as ‘Britain’s foremost psychoanalytic writer’, and John Banville has praised him as ‘one of the finest prose stylists at work in the language, an Emerson of our time.’ He has been a regular writer for The London Review of Books, the Observer, and the New York Times for many years, and is the author of several books, including On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (1994), On Flirtation (1995), The Beast in the Nursery (1998), Darwin’s Worms (1999), Houdini’s Box (2001), Going Sane (2005), Side Effects (2006), On Balance (2010), Missing Out (2012), and Becoming Freud (2014).

‘The Poet’s Essay’ seminars take place three times a year. Each seminar lasts around one and a half to two hours. The series is free and open to all who wish to attend. There are no sign-up lists or reserved places, although there will be a small amount of required reading in advance of each seminar. Seminars focus primarily on American poetry of the twentieth century. A few weeks before each seminar, a handout will be made available via a downloadable link on this page, and at the meeting Phillips will introduce the material and lead the discussion.

The series will pursue a wide range of ideas and issues, but recurring questions may include:

  • Pragmatically, what is the problem the essay is trying to solve, or clarify that the poems can’t?
  • What, if anything, about the poet’s future practice is being intimated or broached by the essay?
  • What, if anything, does the poet’s essay add to or detract from our reading of the poems? Does the essay spoil, in any way, our reading of the poems?
  • What is the poet’s essay persuading us not to do?
  • Given the essay interrupts and continues an already ongoing cultural conversation, in what direction is the essay pushing the conversation?
  • How is the poet in her essay persuading us, if at all, to read her poetry?
  • What, if anything, is the poet’s essay telling us about how his readers might have failed him?
  • What, if anything, is the poet’s essay telling us about his preferred reader of his poems?
  • What, if anything, is the poet’s essay telling us about he mistrusts, or is unconvinced by his own poetry?
  • How does the poet want our lives to be different after reading her essay?
  • If we hadn’t read the poet’s essay what, if anything, might we have missed about her poems? Why might we prefer not having read the essay?
  • Where, if anywhere in the essay, do we get a sense of the poet’s real enjoyment?


The next seminar, on James Wright, will be on Wednesday 13th November at 4.30pm [Material will be made available via downloadable link on the right-hand side of this page].

Venue: The Pusey Room, Keble College

All welcome.

Enquiries: please contact Matthew Bevis.