A lot of so-called socially aware poetry falls into the trap of reflecting stereotypes, clichés and a sense of outsiders looking in. In fact, a more personal type of poetry is often more adept at capturing a snapshot of a society at a certain moment. Ben Wilkinson’s first full collection, Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018), is a perfect example.
Wilkinson might explicitly be writing about an individual’s experiences in Way More Than Luck, but he’s implicitly portraying the society that surrounds and affects the individual in question. Let’s look at a number of pieces from the book.
First of all, there’s contemporary U.K. society’s expectations, doubts and demands regarding the role of a young heterosexual male. Wilkinson begins by homing in on depression, as in “Pal”:
“…he’ll be there alright. His smile is a frown.
His frown is a scowl. His scowl is the fear
you hoped was long gone. Still here. Still here.”
The very title of this poem, and by extension the naming of its beast, is traditionally masculine. The poet is thus not only facing down depression but society’s view of how a man with a pal should act, turning the definition of a “pal” on its head.
And then there’s the use of football in poetry, male roles implicit once more, as is the mapping of wider social history alongside the histories of countless families and lives, all filtered through an individual’s perspective. One such example invokes and evokes a child’s first visit to Liverpool F.C. in “This is Anfield”:
“…I still remember it like that: the luminous pitch,
echo of the terraces, players floodlit
beneath an October sky. An ordinary game,
solid win, save for one kid looking on in wonder.”
This stanza, which brings the poem to a close, is an illustration of Wilkinson’s deft use of line endings and sentence structures, first panning out across the stadium before homing in on the eyes of “one kid”. At this point, the reader is reminded that the scene forms part of a person's story.
As the collection moves on, so there are poems with clear political overtones, such as “Building a Brighter, More Secure Future” or pieces that set out to describe a set of physical surroundings with social connotations, as in Byroads, which mentions “hanging baskets…the pub’s carpark…the village shop…the borderline/where post boxes change from red to green…hillside housing estates…”.
However, once again, the most affecting poems, those with most powerful social ramifications, are personal in nature. “The Argument” is an excellent piece in this respect. Its final stanza reads as follows:
“…And it isn’t that they won’t come though this, but what
the house alone, insidious, is able to articulate. Half-empty
cups on a table. A dust-thick windowsill. A washer spinning
through its final cycle, like a HGV thundering downhill.”
The poem in question is taking a specific couple’s argument and layering it with their context. The roles of the man and woman are clearly no longer those that traditional society assigned, while this final stanza also undermines itself on purpose. It starts by stating that only the house itself, internally, can find the right words, while it ends by reaching out beyond the humdrum washer (who put it on?!) to an external and extremely contemporary element, the HGV. The poet’s choice of simile is shocking and mirrors a “thundering” threat.
Ben Wilkinson’s first full collection is of the moment. It succeeds in capturing the here-and-now of society via personal involvement instead of rhetorical soapboxes. As a consequence, Way More Than Luck will resonate for years to come.