Friday 1 December 2023

Dislodging preconceptions, Paul Stephenson's Hard Drive

Long-awaited debut is a cheesy cliché in the poetry world, but it’s actually true of Hard Drive (Carcanet, 2023), Paul Stephenson’s first full collection, following three stellar pamphlets that had left readers wondering how he might deal with a broader canvas. Throughout those pamphlets, if anything had defined Stephenson as a poet, it was the feeling that his writing was indefinable. Impossible to pin down, refusing to be pigeonholed, his principal aim seemed to be a constantly evolving exploration of the genre’s possibilities.

The above backdrop is key to an understanding of Hard Drive, which revolves around a series of elegies for a partner. It’s often stated that elegies are ideal for poets to stretch themselves and push their boundaries, due to the inherent attempts to capture something that lies beyond the capacity for expression of human language. As a consequence, they lend themselves perfectly to Paul Stephenson’s approach to poetry. In these poems, his inquisitive method revolves around a continuous and continual reinvention of itself, desperately thrusting into the indescribable agonies of loss.

One such example is Putting It Out There. Here’s the first stanza…

So here I am worrying myself to death
about commodifying your death,
arranging and sequencing your death,
curating the left and right pages of your death,
deciding which parts of your death to leave out…

From the start, this poem finds Stephenson playing with language but with utterly serious intent, toying with the absurdity of its idioms such as worrying myself to death, which is juxtaposed to death itself in the original meaning of the word.

And then it implicitly challenges the blurred roles of subject, speaker and poet, inviting us to question this collection’s supposedly confessional nature, suggesting a difference between factual truth and poetic truth, casting doubt on the poet’s own motives, underlining that these poems move far beyond anecdote, claiming them as art.

In other words, Hard Drive might be a series of hugely affecting elegies, but it’s far more than that. The collection rummages through the received wisdom of how the poet and the reader are meant to interact, dislodging many preconceptions with great emotional courage. I recommend you get hold of a copy - its echoes will linger in your head and heart for years to come.

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