Richard Barnett is a poet and historian. He taught the history of science and medicine at Cambridge, UCL, and Oxford for more than a decade, and his history books include Medical London, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and The Sick Rose, an international bestseller.
His ﬁrst poetry collection Seahouses was published by Valley Press in 2015, and was short-listed for the Poetry Business Prize. His next poetry publication was Wherever We Are When We Come to the End, a poetic experiment digging into the form and language of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, published in May 2021.
Read an exclusive extract of this book here, courtesy of Hotel magazine.
Spring 1916: Ludwig Wittgenstein is on his way to the Eastern Front.
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the terse, gnomic masterpiece of modern philosophy, is also a war poem. At the outbreak of the First World War this strange, intense, immensely wealthy young man volunteered as a private soldier in an Austro-Hungarian regiment, serving in some of the most brutal battles of the conflict, and carrying notes for the Tractatus in his backpack.
Wherever We Are When We Come to the End digs into the form and the language of the Tractatus, following Wittgenstein through the war and his own conflicts with words and silence, violence and grief, time and eternity. The result is a highly original formal experiment and a poetic fantasia on logic, love and war.
‘Ingenious, devastating, and filled with emotional riches – a beautiful exploration of Wittgenstein, of war and fear, of speech and silence, and of love.’
— Sarah Bakewell
‘A work of double history, an excavation of war and false peace carried out with a single archaeological implement: poetic language. Barnett’s field call to the trench-footed Wittgenstein, intent on keeping his Tractatus from the rats, is relayed to the reader as proof of Electronic Voice Phenomena. Through imagery as deep and tannin-hued as Mercian Hymns, Barnett pulls off the impossible: revealing the still pulsing consciousness of the greatest mind in analytic philosophy.’
— Chris McCabe
‘Richard Barnett has opened a new window on the Great War, that reveals its territorial encounters of precision, humanity and sacrifice. He gives us a view that soars into extraordinary devotional spaces, but always returns to the haunting details of a soldier’s life, where, no matter what the time and place, the blue field coat will always hang on the back of the door.’
— Emily Mayhew
‘If you like your Wittgenstein, your poetry, and your WWI history, this is right up your street. It recreates Ludwig’s time at war in ways that are startling, and gripping, and there’s a deep poignancy that runs through it.’
— Rishi Dastidar
‘A beautiful short work that manages to maintain intimacy even in the aphoristic.’
— Rachel Genn
Seahouses is the first collection of poetry from cultural historian Richard Barnett. Those familiar with Barnett’s non-fiction – recently described as ‘superbly erudite and lucid’ by Will Self – will be unsurprised to discover he is also a formidable poet, with a distinctly English approach that is at once fluid, precise, cynical and tender.
Not a single word in this volume is wasted; least of all in the award-winning title sequence, where the sea sifts and rolls through the dreams of an old man asleep in a deckchair, conjuring a vision of history and our human crossings. Elsewhere, fragments of first love are glimpsed, pursued, and interrogated; fathers sit down to eat with the sons they have killed; two textbooks sing three songs of suppressed longing; bees are kept for all the wrong reasons.
This is low modernism of the highest order, cranky, eloquent and broken-hearted.
“Richard Barnett’s landscapes are never what they seem, shining with a glassy, supernatural clarity. Seahouses is a map to a world where ‘paths are ghosts’, things are ‘felt not heard’ and even the river offers ‘variations of water’. This is an accomplished and haunting debut. Barnett’s poems will unnerve and renew you.”
— Helen Mort
“To read Richard Barnett’s poems is to find yourself in the haunted space between water and land, the living and the disappeared, the written and the unspoken word. Seahouses is a collection of paths leading you to such borderlands, each poem beckoning you to ‘come with me. Everybody comes with me, eventually.’”
— Malene Engelund
“Unafraid to tackle the shifting territories of love and loss, Seahouses is bound with a palpable sense of human and natural history. This is an assured and remarkable first collection that heralds an exciting talent.”
— Sarah Westcott
“There are only nineteen poems [in Seahouses], but each is possibly a novel in its own right in terms of its depth and feeling. Unnerving, disturbing and utterly brilliant.”
— Quarterday Review
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