If you’re only going to read one first full collection this year, make it Nigel Pantling’s Kingdom Power Glory (Smith-Doorstep, 2016). It's a one-off. It's subtly experimental. It's a unique personal commentary on the recent social, political and economic history of the U.K..
This book is packed with so many achievements. Among them is the capacity to take supposedly non-poetic language and turn it into poetry. Pantling never writes chopped-up prose. Instead, he draws out and heightens the cadences of work, of money, of the establishment, of institutionalised violence, as in the final stanza of “In the Interrogation Room”:
“…The ceiling lights pin three shadows
to the ripples of the concrete floor.
Sweat glitters on our faces.
The only noise, our breathing.”
The above poem is from “Kingdom”, the first of three sections in the collection. They chart a journey from the army to the civil service and on to merchant banking in verse that reduces the distance between poet and man to a minimum.
The book’s second section, “Power”, is especially strong in its character sketches. Reaching far beyond mere descriptions of people, they implicitly illustrate how institutions shape people and vice versa, as in the following ending to “Speaking Truth: Gregory”:
“…Faced with a question of principle, Gregory asks
“Minister, what do you want the answer to be?”
and then works backward to a justification.
You guess he might go in to politics himself one day.”
Quotes from two poems so far. Both possess hugely powerful endings. Suffice to say, such endings are a speciality that runs throughout Pantling’s verse.
Moving on to the final section, ”Glory”, this part of the collection depicts “human consequences” of big business from the inside. It’s never boastful, never hypocritical. Instead, the whole book is laced with self awareness, as in one of its best poems, “Photograph Album”, back in the first section. A daughter talks to her father:
“…She asks how that makes him feel.
He says that it was his job in those days
to find these men and lock them up.
“Yes, Dad, but how does that make you feel?””
Nigel Pantling is not some pensioner who’s playing about with poetry now that he’s got some free time. He’s taken an incredible life story and rendered it in verse so as to concentrate and intensify still further its emotional impact, stuffing it with extraordinary insights into inaccessible scenarios via accessible syntax.
Let’s not allow a culture of envy to colour critical judgement: this white, male member of the establishment, already highly successful in other fields, has written an exceptional book of poetry that reaches out to people who aren’t habitual fans of verse. Kingdom Power Glory deserves to win a major award. Most of all, it deserves to be read.