Thursday, 28 November 2013

Simplicity's tightrope

Many critics (and thus poets) equate verbal fireworks with poetic risk-taking and depth. That might sometimes be right, but the opposite can also be true.

Syntactic simplicity is just as capable of ambition and is even more dangerous as its opposite number. Moreover, there's no gorgeous language to hide behind if the verse falls flat on its face. As a consequence, I hugely admire poets who write in such a way.

Hamish Whyte is a case in point, and his new HappenStance pamphlet, Hannah, are you listening? is an excellent example of such a kind of verse. Yes, there are poetic failures in the book, as in any collection. Yes, they are stripped naked for inspection. However, that also means that the successes are crystalline and memorable. One such instance is the ending to the title poem:

"...It's only a tiny chime
but I hope you hear it through ineluctable time."

The musical effect of the assonance is heightened by Whyte's semantic clarity. What's more, his poetic method means that strands of observation stand out, as in the opening lines from One of those lives:

"One of those lives
that's more a tone of voice
than a biography..."

I'll carry that turn of phrase with me for a long time. Poetry doesn't have to be flash to be memorable.

Hamish Whyte dares to walk simplicity's tightrope in this pamphlet. I love watching him do so, especially when he reaches the other side and I can't resist a huge, silent cheer. I very much recommend Hannah, are you listening? to any reader who cares to join me.


  1. "Syntactic simplicity is just as capable of ambition and is even more dangerous as its opposite number."

    Inclined to agree, Matt. For me, real ambition in writing a poem always skirts close to the stuff that, as writers, we're most terrified of. That includes being emotionally earnest without coming off as sentimental or saccharine; making real sense without talking nonsense or, almost as bad, in clichéd platitudes; and achieving absolute simplicity without ever being one iota simpler than necessary. It's a virtually impossible task, but in Beckett's sense of failing better, the only road worth taking. Also why I have less and less time for any kind of posturing, and pay keen attention to anyone brave enough to point the finger at the latest emperor in his new clothes. Not familiar with Whyte. Will check this one out.

  2. My follow-up's on