When approaching a book that's been published posthumously, the reviewer must confront inherent difficulties such as how to criticise the dead and how the book might have been different had the writer lived.
In the case of Tom Duddy, the first issue is easily resolved. I admire his work for numerous reasons that I will explain below. What's more, I'm convinced the next few years will demonstrate that he is a major poet. Dead writers are a hard sell - they can't do readings or push their work via social media - yet The Years (HappenStance, 2014) should prove a slow-burning success as word of its quality spreads.
As for the second point, this book has provided me with the umpteenth reminder that death stops all of us in our creative tracks at one point or another. There will always be a lingering doubt as to where someone's writing might have taken them, but that shouldn't stop our savouring what has been achieved.
And Tom Duddy's The Years is an achievement. Some poets arrest the reader with striking rhythms and dazzling turns of phrase, but Duddy's verse is far more understated and nuanced. His work might even seem loose on a first reading. In fact, the opposite is true. His apparent ease and linguistic simplicity lull the reader with a false sense of banality before a sudden acceleration brings us to the core of his inspiration. At this point we're forced to go back immediately to the beginning of the poem, reassessing the poet's choice of words, realising their impact and recognising that every single one of them pays its way.
The afore-mentioned technique means that it's exceptionally difficult to quote from Duddy's work, as the slow build-up of effect is lost when a few lines stand alone. However, I'll try to illustrate something of what I mean with an example from Story Time. The poem begins with snippets of typical fairy tale plots and ends with the following:
"...Life's not like that,
you think, until one day you hear
hushed word of someone you sat
beside in High Infants, and there
is the same lurch of the heart."
Of course, our reaction is intensified by the knowledge that this time Duddy's classmates are feeling that "same lurch" when hearing of his death.
Even though much of this collection was written after a diagnosis of cancer, mortality is seldom an explicit theme in The Years. It tends to lurk in implicit comparisons with Duddy's intense expressions of his wonder at living and his affection for those around him.
In other words, this is a joyous book. For instance, I defy you to come to the end of Nights Out without wanting to grab someone you love and give them a massive hug. And no, I'm not going to quote from it. It's far too good in its entirety. Buy this book and read the poem, but make sure that the someone in question is nearby when you do so.
As a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I was asked in May 2020 to write and record three brief talks. One of these was on ‘Writing and Technology’ which I posted...