Thursday, 3 January 2019

Michael Laskey, a major poet in a minor key

Poets, like friends and lovers, must encounter us at just the right moment in our lives if we are fully to connect. One such example, in my case, is the poetry of Michael Laskey.

I first read Laskey’s work back in 1999, when his collection The Tightrope Wedding was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. I recall coming to a swift dismissal borne out of youth: his work seemed insubstantial. Nevertheless, this year at Poetry in Aldeburgh, while waiting to give my own reading, I flicked through the accumulated books for sale at the venue and encountered The Man Alone, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstep, 2007). On skimming through a couple of pieces, I was immediately hooked.

Michael Laskey’s poetry is deceptive. Its emotional power and depth creep up on you and take you by surprise. In terms of cadence, meanwhile, his matter-of-fact tone is underpinned by a delicate musicality. Its accumulative, layered effects are thus difficult to convey via short quotes, although the following extract from Patient Recordshould give a flavour of what I mean:

…I’m writing it down so I don’t forget it –
this year you’ve lived through
with what the oncologist called
fortitude, an unusual word.

The line endings here are exquisitely judged. One key word – fortitude – is held over and dropped into the following line like a laser-guided missile. As for the ending, that’s the type of Laskey touch that so frustrated me nineteen years ago and so delights me now. His knack for understatement means that what he holds back, what is left unsaid, is actually more resonant than what he explicitly articulates. As a consequence, the poem finishes by opening and echoing outwards rather than limiting itself to neat conclusions.

This technique is a sign of a poet who works in a minor key but with major ambitions and achievements. Of course, it’s only too easy to miss the impact of Michael Laskey’s work if we race through it in search of the fireworks or the punch line. Instead, his poems reward slow reading, which enables us to engage with his music and connect his life to ours.

I thoroughly recommend The Man Alone, New & Selected Poems (Smith/Doorstep, 2007)  as an excellent introduction to his work, while his latest collection, Weighing the Present (Smith/Doorstep, 2014) is an exceptional book. Its limited critical reception is a travesty but also a reflection of current trends. Laskey’s poetry, however, is built to last, and it will resonate long into the future. 

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