Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Precarious and disarming, Richard Osmond's Shill

There's an argument that a superiority complex is an alternative manifestation of its opposite number (i.e. an inferiority complex). In other words, many young, hugely talented poets feel the desperate need to show off with syntactic gymnastics so as to assert themselves, all in the fear that they might otherwise be judged to have fallen short in some way.

In Shill (HappenStance Press, 2014), Richard Osmond demonstrates throughout the pamphlet that he doesn't require such flashiness to shore up his verse. Instead, he reins in his language in order to ramp up its power. One such example comes in Hobby, which seems set to become one of Osmond's signature pieces. The chill of distance is used to emphasise (inversely) the heat that emanates from certain subjects, abstract nouns of observation running through the poem: "...conclusion...disposition...benefit...". Even when writing in the first person, Osmond is portraying someone from afar, thus underlining the precarious nature of the lyrical voice.

This above-mentioned precariousness is key to an understanding of Osmond's poetry. What's more, it leads me on to a fundamental poem in the chapbook: Road Kill. I imagine Osmond with a slight, crooked grin on his face as his wrote the following:

"...If this were a poem,
we'd hit the biggest stag tonight,
and pull over to learn ineffable truths
about chance and being animals..."

This is brave stuff. It's taking on John Burnside's poetics via allusions to the renowned poet's piece of the same name, at the same time as it cheekily winks at Libertad and especially Penitence, all three from Burnside's collection A Normal Skin. Osmond gently yet surgically dismantles his predecessor's approach.

Nevertheless, there's a lack of pomposity throughout this highly ambitious work. Moreover, Osmond doesn't just undermine Burnside, he even undermines and questions himself, as per the first line of the quote above and in the poem's ending:

"..and the automatic wiper mistakes
our small epiphanies for rain."

This is an implicit, tongue-in-cheek declaration of poetic technique, extremely surefooted, never having to shout.

Shill shows us that Richard Osmond is a disarming poet. He disarms the reader, the canon and himself. He invites us in and then challenges us to think. In my book, that's the hallmark of a terrific poet.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Whitsun Weddings: an invented history

The media recently featured a commemorative train journey from Hull to London to mark the 50th anniversary of publication of Philip Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings. Part of the Guardian article reads as follows:

"The half-century anniversary of the poem will be celebrated on 6 June – a week late for the Whitsun bank holiday, but otherwise just as Larkin described: "All down the line / Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round; The last confetti and advice were thrown." At several stops along the way actors in period dress will board the train, and fill the time until the next station by telling stories of marriages glad and sad.

The poem was believed to be based on an actual journey Larkin took in 1955, but scholars have since argued about the date: the Whitsun weekend that year was hit by a truly British bank holiday event, a rail strike."

In fact, the above story of the poem's genesis has been "photoshopped" by the poet and swallowed by generations of readers and critics. This can be shown via a comparison between extracts from The Whitsun Weddings and Larkin's second novel, A Girl in Winter.

The Whitsun Weddings reads...

"I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat."

When A Girl in Winter describes Katharine's first train journey in England (from Dover to London), she observes that...

 "...new brick houses were brilliantly shadowed in the sun."

Katharine's journey then continues, moving away from London, this time by car:

"Occasionally she saw white figures standing at a game of cricket. These were the important things."

The Whitsun Weddings, meanwhile, brings us

 "someone running up to bowl".

In both examples (prose and poetry), Larkin lists objects in order to give the impression of places flashing past the window. A Girl in Winter describes

"...a row of houses, a church on rising ground, the slant of a field..."

And The Whitsun Weddings tells us...

"...a hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
and rose..."

In other words, Larkin is spinning us a line when he evokes a single clearcut experience as the origin for The Whitsun Weddings. The common ground between poem and novel goes way beyond a mere bibliographical coincidence. There's a clear indication that Larkin is using the accumulation of experiences and journeys to create fictions: he's inventing histories from Hull to London, from Dover to London and beyond.

Many people seem to love the illusion that verse is somehow truer than a novel. In fact, top-notch poetry feeds off fiction, as Larkin knew full well. Maybe Jorge Luis Borges did have competition when leading his readers a merry dance! After all, both of them were librarians and lovers of Chesterton. Now isn't that a strange coincidence too...?!


Friday, 9 May 2014

Slippery yet gripping, Lydia Macpherson's Love Me Do

Lydia Macpherson's Love Me Do (Salt Publishing, 2014) might be a first collection - in fact, it won the Crashaw Prize - but it's unusual for a début in that it presents a consolidated voice, the fruit of decades rather than a couple of years.

Macpherson's verse strikes authentic and personal notes, but that doesn't mean it's confessional. Instead, she delves into people, turning them into believable characters and conjuring a poem around them. Perhaps Macpherson's skill is best explained via her use of the first person singular. She displays a crucial awareness of the slippery nature of "I", playing with lyrical expectations.

One such example is the poem Twelve Bore, an excellently compressed poetic tale in which the narrator heads for suicide via their ex-lover's shotgun. The ending is satisfyingly unexpected because the reader has been lulled into supposing the "I" is Macpherson herself.

The poet's control of narrative is a key feature of this collection. A personal favourite is Ossuary, in which the story unfolds via the homing in on mundane details, thus implicitly highlighting their emotional ramifications. All this is combined with revelatory turns of phrase, as in the extract below:

"...Then, to test it on his thumb pad,
drawing the finest wire of blood... "

Of course, it's impossible to discuss this book without mentioning the melancholy of such a beautifully presented artifact being one of Salt's final individual poetry collections. As in the past, production values are still very high in spite of a couple of typos (e.g. "everyday" for "every day") and a few aesthetic tweaks (I'm not a fan of poem titles in italics!).

However, I refuse to end the review on such an ambivalent note. Macpherson's work doesn't deserve such doubts. Love Me Do is rich in narratives, scenes and characters that grip the reader. They interweave to create a coherent poetic transfiguring of life. I very much hope this collection finds wider recognition.

Monday, 5 May 2014


"Seminal" is an overused word, but it really is valid when referring to Julio Cortázar's 1963 novel, Rayuela (Hopscotch). A possible translation of part of the author's own introduction to the book might read as follows:

"In its own way, this book is many books. However, above all, it's two books. The reader is invited to choose one of the following two options:

The first book can be read in the normal way and ends at Chapter 56...The second book can be read by starting at Chapter 73 and then following the order that's indicated at the bottom of each chapter...73, 1, 2, 116, 3, 84..."

In other words, Cortázar is inviting his readers to play hopscotch (thus the title of the novel). Likewise, we can either plough through a poetry collection from start to finish or we too can play hopscotch, jumping from page to page, flicking back and forth, dipping in and out, inventing our own connections. I far prefer the latter option. What about you?