For the first time in recent history, English dons at Cambridge agree on something. They unite with one voice to say that a 24-year-old woman graduate is the greatest poet since Shakespeare. Her tutor has even given a lecture on her work, comparing her sonnets to the bard's, and saying that she has " transformed English poetry overnight."
You would be forgiven for not noticing this, because her first volume, Swansong, was published last week with minimum fuss by the tiny, impoverished Oleander Press, which is not even on the telephone.
Sue Lenier was spotted, as it were, by her tutor, John Newton of Clare College, Cambridge. He arranged for a number of dons to read her work and encountered wild praise. Christopher Barstow, of Churchill College, suspected she was a genius, while John Rathmell of Christ's College said: "She is going to be very famous very quickly. Obviously a much bigger thing than Sylvia Plath."
It's all better than a slap in the face with the Complete Oxford Keats, but Roger Scholfield, of Clare College, went one better. "I compared one of her sonnets with the Shakespeare that she started from and thought it better than the original." In Sonnet 26 Shakespeare, who has had such a good run for his money as Genius-in-Chief of the English output, starts:
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage / Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit; / To thee I send this written embassage / To witness duty not to show my
wit, which is all very nice. But Lenier then rewrites him.
Lady of life, to whom with weary sage / I make my plea and lay my duty down, / Take from me here this busy whittling page / And darken its margins with your careful frown.
Who then, is Sue Lenier? She was born in
Birmingham and became a rude and hyper-active child who surprised
everybody by getting eight O levels and three A levels and a place at
Whatever the real quality of her poetry, she is certainly the fastest poet
on legs. During her undergraduate days Newton arranged a number of
readings for small groups of distinguished dons, At these, she would
create sonnets with perfect scansion and rhyme schemes off the top of her
head. In one day alone she composed 10 sonnets and a poem that is
During her final exams she wrote poems in answer to the questions.
"She begged me to retrieve them by burglary after the papers were
marked," says Newton, " but I got the administration to agree
that they would never be destroyed."
One of them rattles along as follows:
Black willows draped with flags shine over the hasty momentous sea; /
That dipped in sunshine, swift as rice shone turtles / clambering with
heavy neck and empty rocks; / Out of the water to shake clear cypress”
Sue Lenier is now at the University of California at Berkeley on a
Harkness scholarship studying drama. Last week she said: " I find all
these remarks really frightening. I really don't know how good I am. I
just know that when I am writing that I cannot write fast enough for speed
of my thoughts."
However, the good news for Shakespeare is that she has not stopped
writing. "I have got to get settled here before I start again,"
says Lenier, who is incidentally, a Virginia Woolf look-alike.