Thursday 29 March 2012

Review: The Probabilities of Balance, by Stephen Payne

I first came across Stephen Payne's work in Issue One of New Walk. I remember encountering a lot of excellent poetry in the magazine, much of it by well-known names, but Payne's poem, titled Journey Home, stood out for me. It enabled the reader to grasp a new truth that seemed obvious once it had been revealed, and that is a quality that I very much admire in poetry.

I was consequently keen to read Payne's Smiths Knoll pamphlet, The Probabilities of Balance, and it didn't disappoint. His background in science (with a job as Professor of Human-Centric Systems at the University of Bath) plays an interesting role in the book, informing his work, but more of a counterpoint to experience than as an invasive presence. By this, I mean that Payne seems at his best when juxtaposing dispassionate observation with the vulnerability of feeling, as in Dyslexia:

A hard thing to explain to an eight-year-old.
How to lift from everything we know
a clutch of truths by which he'll be consoled.
I keep to what it doesn't mean, name
the famous cases. Hard to answer no
when he asks quietly, Are you the same?

Throughout the poem there's an intriguing interplay between an analytical, scientific perspective and implicit doubts over just how "truths" and "explanations" can be defined when applied to the often inexplicable and unscientific nature of human experience and interaction. All this effect is especially heightened by the presence of a child's viewpoint.

Payne's verse may be rooted in the everyday, but it's constantly looking beyond, playing off what can be calculated and what can't, as in Infant Weight:

...I paused, let the feel of your infant weight
fill my mind, so as to take the measure,
knowing the moment held in that one thought
I'd carry with me everywhere thereafter.

The poet is again inviting comparisons between what can be exactly measured in terms of pounds and ounces (the infant's physical weight) and what cannot (the significance of the moment).

Stephen Payne's The Probabilities of Balance is a throught-provoking read. As explained above, I feel he has an idiosyncratic, subtle and eye-opening way of exploring the role of science in our lives. Never hectoring, his technique develops poems gradually.They reveal themselves to the reader bit by bit, rewarding repeated readings more than the grabbing of individual quotes. I very much look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Full collections for Rhian Edwards and Hannah Lowe

Two of the most outstanding poetry pamphlets to be published in the U.K. over the last few years were Rhian Edwards' Parade the Fib (Tall Lighthouse) and Hannah Lowe's The Hitcher (The Rialto). In fact, I wrote extremely positive reviews for them on Rogue Strands.

The latest good news is that these poets have deservedly found excellent publishers for their first full collections. Rhian Edwards is bringing out Clueless Dogs with Seren this May, while Bloodaxe are publishing Hannah Lowe's Chick in 2013. I very much look forward to getting hold of a copy of both books and reviewing them here in due course.

Friday 23 March 2012

Passive to active

While Raymond Carver's verse might at first glance seem like chopped-up prose or snippets from short stories, it's actually packed with poetic craft. His gift for condensed narrative is extremely well suited to the genre. In all Carver's work, constraint enables him to raise his game, and his poetic background infuses his short stories. In fact, he stated that he saw himself primarily as a poet. Just as with his short stories, he wears his technique lightly in his poems, never overplaying his hand, as in this ending to The Toes:

"...The sound of hooks being
unfastened, stays coming
undone, garments letting go
onto a cool, hardwood floor."

The accumulation of detail and implicit narrative via the piling up of gerunds is clear, but Carver's real thrust is achieved through the shift from the passive to the active voice. The effect creeps up on the reader and then opens out beyond. This is a gorgeous example of how Carver controlled language in his poetry. I'm convinced it will gradually find more and more recognition alongside his prose.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Abegail Morley's blog

I'm delighted to be the current Featured Poet over at Abegail Morley's excellent blog. She's generously showcasing two poems from Inventing Truth, 01252 722698 and Epilogue, and you can read them here.

Abegail's well known as both a top-notch poet and editor, while her blog archive provides an ideal introduction to the work of many terrific poets. I very much recommend a leisurely look through it and have added her blog to the roll on Rogue Strands so as to keep up with new posts.

Wednesday 14 March 2012


Over at her HappenStance blog, Helena Nelson is very kindly featuring my poem, La Despedida (from Inventing Truth), as part of a post on "The Ironing Poem Genre".

Now that title might seem somewhat tongue in cheek, but there is actually a fair degree of substance to it. In fact, it reminded me of a poem, Ironing, from Peter Sansom's excellent collection, The Last Place on Earth, which begins as follows:

"I like it best when there's time to see myself
through the drizzle of a weekday morning
with Woman's Hour or a talking-book detective,
and forsythia defining the universe..."

As with my own poem, Sansom is playing with the gender expectations involved with the task of ironing, although he goes about it in a very different way. His focus is on the mechanical and repetitive nature of the chore, beginning with a quote from Stanley Cook that evokes "the perfect release of a limited aim". In this sense, hia poem recalls an Ian McMillan poem, Three Boring Miles on the Exercise Bike, which starts with...

"Three boring miles. The television flickering
in the corner of my eye. A man talking..."

Both poems gradually build up detail so as to explore the significance of a regular event. McMillan and Sansom concentrate on the repetitive nature of the task, while I portray an everyday task that suddenly becomes everything but everyday - in La Despedida a routine is transformed into a pivotal moment and is even more highly charged as a result. These are very different and equally valid examples of how ordinary occurences can turn into ambitious poetry.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Dr. Seuss

I picked up a copy of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat for my son at a car boot sale a few months ago. On reading it with him, I recalled having done so with my own father, always demanding it, treasuring it as my favourite book.

Putting aside doubts over its literary merits, sometimes clunky versification and the advances since then in children's poetry, I was struck once more by its vibrant language, by how it relishes playing with words, by how it transmits that infectious enjoyment to young readers. In other words, I'm now piecing back together part of the process that led to my falling in love with poetry. Our children so often help us to view afresh our own upbringing.