Monday, 8 February 2021

Challenging our preconceptions, Jonathan Davidson's A Commonplace

One important factor when approaching poetry collections is their attitude to the reader. Some seem intent on talking to themselves in an echo chamber, while others generate an implicit dialogue with anyone who opens them. However, a select few establish their own interior dialogue, before offering the reader a role as observer and even as an additional participant.

If Jonathan Davidson’s new book, A Commonplace (Smith-Doorstep, 2020) achieves the unusual feat of belonging to this final category, it’s primarily because his method when assembling the manuscript also deviated from the norm. Not an anthology, not a single-author collection, Davidson’s book is a unique combination of his own poetry with work by others, all interwoven through snippets of prose that comment on, complement and join up the poems themselves. In itself, his breaking with convention is already a statement of intent.

Throughout A Commonplace, the afore-mentioned dialogues are established via two main methods. The first is implicit, using juxtaposition, as in this example, in which Davidson offers us Kit Wright’s ‘Sonnet for Dick‘…

…So brave in his dying, my friend both kind and clever,
And a useful Number Six who could whack it about…

And he then follows Wright’s poem up with one of his own, titled ‘Tony‘…

I’m reconciling a bank account, thinking of you.
A thousand little contracts keep me in the black…

In this case, by placing the two poems alongside each other, Davidson is inviting us not only to compare and contrast both poems’ attitude towards death, but also to think about our own losses. If cricket and number-crunching are what remind these poets of a person who’s passed away, the inevitable, unspoken question is what unexpectedly comes to our minds when we remember our versions of Tony or Dick.

Davidson’s second method, meanwhile, is explicit, and can be found in his prose commentaries, as in this extract discussing the two poems that are quoted above:

…‘Sonnet for Dick‘…has the artifice I sometimes want from poetry, precisely engineered and polished. It goes in hard and then takes off into the distance…When I wrote the poem ‘Tony‘ about my late friend Tony Whitehead, I had Kit’s poem in mind…

Of course, the second method is usually invoked after the first. In other words, the reader is initially allowed to plough their own furrow without any preconceptions. Davidson often give his opinions only after the poems in question have been presented.

And those opinions are significant in terms of what we might take away from A Commonplace, because this book reaches beyond discussion of individual poems to a challenge about how we view the genre itself and how we interpret its relationship with our lives. The above extract provides one such example. When Davidson states that he sometimes wants poetry to be precisely engineered and polished, he’s also asking us whether we agree. And why.

As a consequence, A Commonplace is an excellent read that lingers in the memory. At times, while A Commonplace might even annoy or make us shake our heads, but this courageous provocation simultaneously becomes one of its fundamental qualities: the ability to make us question our established perspectives. And that’s never a bad thing…

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