Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Inviting yet challenging, David Tait's Self-Portrait with The Happiness

Most British poets run scared of abstract nouns such as “love” and “happiness”. David Tait, on the other hand, relishes getting to grips with them, as he demonstrates from the title onwards in his first full collection, Self-Portrait with The Happiness (Smith-Doorstep, 2014).

Novice poets often use “love” as an emotional shortcut, imagining that its meaning is clear. Of course, the innate problem with the word is that it is loaded with so many different meanings for different people in different contexts. This is one reason why it is often avoided in contemporary verse.

Tait, however, is far from being a novice. He is acutely aware of these pitfalls, but he doesn’t just take on the risks of abstract nouns. In fact, he uses them to his advantage, as in the following examples:

“…Love everywhere, and so much of it;
so much you can hardly see the strings.”

“…This happened to me once, love,
and I was in love with a man…”

“…then love love love
like the shunt of a truck…

“…as love gallops off
not once looking back.”

“…we’d had a fight and made up and had another fight
as the credits rolled and we tore off our clothes
and love spooled before us. And we were cameras.”

And I could have chosen instances from several more pieces.

Within the context of its poem, each quote seems at first to offer us a stand-alone meaning of “love”. Nevertheless, such an impression is subverted by the next occurrence of the term, often a few poems later, with a variation on that afore-mentioned meaning. As a consequence, every use of the word “love” has numerous counterpoints, thus highlighting the slippery nature of the word.

Moreover, this very slipperiness is compounded by Tait’s treatment of pronouns throughout the collection. Each of them might appear clear-cut and obvious in its individual, specific context, yet they mingle, merge and clash, refusing to tell a single, linear story. In other words, Tait is again undermining the reader’s expectations so as to enable us to question our own perspectives.


In Self-Portrait with the Happiness, David Tait deals in accessible, well-written lyrics, proving that “accessible” is not a synonym of “facile”. Physical and emotional aspects are drawn together with syntax and semantics in a highly skilled subversion of an abstract noun: love. Via Tait’s probing approach, we are encouraged to re-assess our own interpretations of the word. This is poetry that issues invitations and challenges.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Poetic truth

The truth in its literal sense isn't a destination to be found by verse but a point of departure. In fact, an obstinate quest to render certain moments or scenes in a "truthful" way often inhibits a poem. Add a few swirling drops of fiction and a more authentic, arresting and unexpected truth suddenly emerges...

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Poetry as commemoration

A great deal of writing is an act of commemoration. It's a grabbing on to feelings, thoughts, experiences before they slip away, and poetry is no exception.

For example, I haven't dialled my childhood telephone number for over a decade. I might be struggling to remember it by now if I hadn't written the following poem from Inventing Truth, my 2011 HappenStance pamphlet:

01252 722698

You worked your way round my milk teeth,
sung umpteen times before you stuck.
Soon a chameleonic code,
you were my safeguard from a snatch,
then my duty when staying out,
and recently a thankful leap
from trade fairs and dogged insects.
My fingers refuse to leave you.

Of course, my aim in this poem is to involve the reader, implicitly asking whether they too still recall their first telephone number. Well, do you?

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Delicious discoveries

I've blogged previously about my love affair with second hand bookshops, in part out of fear that they could disappear in the midst of Amazon's onslaught. However, I'm becoming more and more convinced they inhabit a niche that will ensure their survival.

Here's one such example. When in Chichester, I take every chance to head down South Street to Kim's Bookshop and scan their poetry section. Back at Christmas, I spotted a copy of Conor O'Callaghan's Seatown. I was vaguely familiar with O'Callaghan's work via anthologies, but I'd never read any of his collections. £3 and two hours later, I was a firm fan, ready to seek out more of his books.

I would never have happened upon O'Callaghan on Amazon. Physical browsing brings with it the underlying thrill of expectation and hope that a discovery is waiting on the next shelf, while it also enables the shopper to pause, examine the book, maybe even have a sniff (such gorgeous aromas for an addict such as myself) and sample a couple of poems in the aisle before deciding on a purchase.

This facet of second hand bookshops can never be replaced by the internet, just like the joy of paper, the crack of a spine. But that's another post...

Friday, 6 February 2015

Signature poems

One of my best friends has long championed the need for all poets to have signature poems: strong, identifying pieces that act as hooks for readers. Singles on an album might be a decent analogy. For example, two or three poems immediately jump into my mind when certain poets are mentioned, just as specific songs are the advance party for singers.

In this respect, I was drawn to one of The Guardian's Poems of the Week in January. It was Rory Waterman's "Access Visit", taken from his exceptional first collection, Tonight the Summer's Over (Carcanet, 2014). You can read it here, together with Carol Rumens' analysis. When discussing "Access Visit", she encounters many of the qualities that can also be found elsewhere in Waterman's work, all brought together in one of his signature poems.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Good poetry...?

When I browse repetitive threads on Facebook that jostle and strut along with varying definitions of "good poetry", I'm reminded that taste is not just fickle. It's everything. Just as Helena Nelson evoked the decline in popularity of a once-renowned poet in her blog post last weekend, so I'm drawn to compare successful and unsuccessful verse in different countries: Spain and the U.K..

Perhaps my favourite contemporary Spanish poet is Jordi Virallonga. His book, Crónicas de Usura, is jaw-droppingly good. His readings of two of the best pieces from that collection - "Los Ahorros" and "Mira Padre" - are on You Tube, yet their viewing figures barely reach double figures. And most of those views are mine!

Virallonga is not a famous poet in Spain: his poetry is not in vogue. For me, through the filter of my particular tastes, he's exceptional. What's more, his reading style heightens the concentrated intimacy of his work. Why not have a listen to "Mira Padre" (thus also brushing up on your Spanish!) and make your own mind up...?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Tom Duddy's The Café

Most of my favourite poetry is dangerous. It breaks the rules and takes risks. By that, I don't mean that it necessarily undermines metrics or flouts grammar. Instead, I'm referring to a great poet's ability to pull off something that shouldn't work at all.

One such example is Tom Duddy's poem "The Café". It comes from his indispensable first full collection, The Hiding Place (Arlen House, 2011), which inhabits my desk alongside his posthumous book, The Years (HappenStance Press, 2014). Duddy achieves delicious simplicity in "The Café", convincing the reader that his words couldn't have been written in any other way. Here's an extract:

"...Though I always ask for one
coffee - regular, black - she
never presumes to guess.
And so each day is a new day.
Which is as it should be.
There is an understanding
that there is no understanding..."

Count those four uses of "is" in eight lines, alongside the seemingly mundane repetition of "day" and "understanding".Yet the poem undoubtedly works. How? Forget logical analysis or explanation, this is verse that's been lifted from the ordinary by Duddy's magisterial touch.