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Martin Stannard

 

The Return of the Man Who Has Everything by Rupert Loydell (Shearsman)
Falling Off by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

I'm pretty sure that often we take from our reading of poems what we are most inclined to take rather than what's actually there. Or we enter upon reading with preconceptions that colour our perception of what we encounter. This is perhaps particularly true of our reading of poems by poets we know we like, but perhaps the opposite is the case. To read a poem with an absolutely open mind and a blank backdrop, to see it as an object before us unhindered by association or other distractions, that would be a moment of purity. It might even be enjoyable. But actually, given the condition of most of today's poetry, it might not. And anyway it's terribly difficult to do, no matter how hard  one might try.

But, as Rupert Loydell has told me at least once, if not more than once, poems are just words, and if one holds on only to that notion while reading then I guess it's a step toward purity and pleasure. And with purity and pleasure and a poem one might even approach thought, by which I mean thinking for oneself rather than being told what someone else thinks. I mean, why do I care what anyone else thinks? This is poetry, not school, and not the comments section of your favourite online newspaper.

Loydell is what people call "prolific", and anyone familiar with his work will know he writes in more than one "style" – he has different ways (strategies?) of doing what he does. Sometimes he uses paint instead of words. And what he does in The Return of the Man Who Has Everything is write in what he calls the "smartarse" mode, a term he applied to the poems in an anthology he edited a while back and in which I had some work. So it would seem I'm something of a smartarse too.

How does this way of doing things proceed? Well, I've read the manual and, in short, you kick off from some vaguely insignificant everyday moment or passing thought and you write, and you allow that writing to lead you into perhaps saying something you had not previously considered saying. You may have some kind of tone or sense of something in your mind, but that is essentially "you", and beyond that "you"-ness the poem is likely to be a bit of a surprise. As for the language, the "smartarse" poem is generally colloquial (i.e. not many difficult words), somewhat discursive and conversational, albeit superficially, because people don't have conversations like this or talk like that, and it's determinedly not paraphraseable. It might be like this:

     My book about freemasons
     is hidden under the bed,
     the new one about krautrock
     is less defensively abandoned
     on the floor. A motorik pulse
     underpins most of this music,
     although a recent CD anthology
     reveals a surprising religiosity
     at work above the beat.
     There are no secrets now,
     simplicity of form means
     everything is available to all.
     The moment of complexity
     has been and gone, now
     it is time to learn how to die,
     having been given another
     six months to live. Meanwhile,
     you have handed in your notice
     and are moving to the mainland,
     happy to no longer be an exile
     or a pirate out at sea. No,
     I don’t know what happened
     to the poems that you sent
     and no-one has bothered
     to respond to my review
     except for John pointing out
     a name spelt wrong throughout.

            (from "The Whole Way Through")

and the poet might say he's "hoping for/ truth amongst the form" but I would doubt he expects it, because "truth" is probably just another bunch of words. The thing I like about this kind of poetry is that when it's done well, as it is here, there is a pleasure in the reading, a lightness of touch, and the poet isn't out to show me how significant a particular event or moment or thought is. It may or may not be; whatever, it's a lot like life: fragile, and reliable only in its unreliability, changing by the day or even by the hour, and yet somehow always unchanged. This is far from the anecdotal poem so much in favour these days. Indeed, instead of the wise and sensitive poet ordinary people can only admire for their wisdom and sensitivity we have the chap who insists it's all words, just words, and they might or might not matter but here they are anyway, and it's good, isn’t it, that we can do this, that we can make this?

Critics might complain there is a superficiality to the content, that this kind of thing

     Stephen is still plundering the library for pirates,
     Nathan is concerned about the use of tabs
     and how they translate, or not, into html.….. 
     I found the office key in my shirt when I got home
     and had to drive back to work, so my afternoon off
     shrank to an hour before it was time to collect
     the girls. In town the trousers didn’t fit
     and I decided I didn’t need any more shirts.
     They don’t make cardigans like they used to,
     especially if you want one in brown. This is
     all I have to say and maybe my recent poems
     were much more to the point: for someone
     who’s tired of narrative and confession
     I don’t half go on a bit.    
                      

          (from "The End of It")

is a bit too "I did this, I did that", and there are moments when uncertainty, that bane of modernity, is the only thing you can be sure of:

                                  I’m still
     not sure of anything, least of all
     how to lay words out on the page.
     What is a story? What is a poem?

          (from "On the Other Side of the Mountain")

But when reading the accumulation of real event and digression we both lose and hold on to the person writing the poem and are taken into a thoughtful area where we are with ourselves and a friend but mainly, if our brain is engaged, ourselves – the exact opposite of the anecdotal. It's something of a play area, but it's serious play. Never underestimate how serious the play is.

In a sense it's easy to see these as personal poems by a poet not afraid, because it's all just words, to risk the overly private, when this kind of thing pops up:

                                   Each morning
     I make myself wake up, get tea for us all,
     and struggle to hold back the tears. 

          (from "Photosynthesis")

But that's far too easy, because it would suggest confession and anecdote, and that completely ignores the poet's delight in making something with words, just words (an alternative to paint):

     Bill was asking what my new paintings were about
     and I facetiously said ‘paint’. But as you observed,
     just when you think you are talking about one thing
     it turns out to be a conversation about something else.               

            (from "Lost Property")

     you told the students how poetry
     informed all your reviews and articles,
     how everything you write is true,
     but only some of it is fact, had ever
     happened to you. It puzzles them,
     this world of words they are tiptoeing into,
     they still want to self-express, be honest;
     have far too much to say and are afraid
     to let language do its work for them. 

          (from "Dream Machine")

Is this poet "unriddling the world", as the poem "Salvage" seems to suggest? I don't know. And I don't care. The world is probably immune to unriddling anyway. "Salvage" includes the lines

     My secret history is on the shelf,
     neither secret nor much of
     a history, just a line of books
     I brought into being, some words
     and pictures in print. Do not
     assume it is true, that this
     ever happened, let alone
     that I meant what I said.     

So there.

Paul Sutton also featured in that "Smartarse" anthology, though when I think "Sutton poems" I think rather of tension and anger than of words, just words. And so, with Falling Off, I was expecting more of what, in a review of an earlier Sutton collection, I described as poetry whose message is that Britain in its current state  sucks, and the danger is that one can say Yeah, we know that, and there's not much point reading about something we already know. But I went on to say the poems were not as straightforward as that, and concluded by saying that "Most takes on these poems are going to talk about the politics, which is fair enough. But it would be a mistake to ignore the presence of the poetry. The book's mixture of poem, prose poem, dramatic monologue, and some things which seem to combine all three, is quite an achievement."

I could say much the same of Falling Off, but there is a stronger element of the personal lurking throughout this collection, a tone set by the first poem, "Bodies", that begins

     My father’s the first I’ve seen;
     the grief tinged with interest.

and one might almost be duped, if one knew no better, into thinking that here come poems of loss and grief , and we have had a lot of those, thank you all the same, from a host of grieving poets. But while that loss provides something of a backdrop to what follows (and one assumes this loss is real and not fictional, though I don't know for sure), and while what follows sometimes delves back into childhood and memory

     I’m back, in Welwyn Garden City.
     The pure white houses concatenate;
     my childhood, adulthood coexist;
     behaviour, repetition, workplace.                

          (from "Doubles")

     how I loved  the arrival of  frozen
     food even lasagne could become a  ticket to sunlit uplands the
     sailing  lake  during  a  heat-wave  so  gorgeous  even  capsizing
     held no fear for me.

          (from "Now I Dream of Independence")

and while we are more than once reminded of that loss, in such lines as

     I cannot cry when leaving things.
     Bodily actions and the time flows prevent this.
     Who weeps on a motorway?                                    

          (from "Emotions")

it's far from being overpowering or distracting. This is still largely a poetry about Sutton's country, a Britain that dismays him for the most part, as in the title poem:

     No, I say again to
     you bumhangers,
     flaunters of perfection,
     empathy drones,
     emasculated redbrick
     pornfed scarecrows.
     Try a town of shire men:
     uprooted agricultural
     labourers, forcefed ship’s
     biscuits in plague pits
     or newbuild scabs –
     bedaggered, ready to stab.
     It takes me eighteen minutes to reach the precinct.
     This is dependent on negotiating the obese, the infirm,
     the Euroscum photo gallery of ‘smash for cash’ lurkers:
     all, though, ‘enriching immeasurably’ us palsy locals.   

and in the prose poem (I guess you'd call it that) "Ennui":

 

In  one  Oxfordshire  town,  all  males  over  eighteen  hinder pedestrian  progress,  by  the  simple  expedient   of  standing  in your way.

When asked to move, their progress is tectonic – with yellowy smirking and a whiff of Lynx deodorant.

Local social workers have dignified this custom as indigenous, requiring  funding  and  –  if  the  cause  of  ‘aggro’ –  the  harshest penalties for the provoked.

Generations are now incapable of any other activity.

 

The prose form seems to suit Sutton. The sentences of "Traffic", for example, are separated spatially, and the slower pacing that results from that design strengthens the poem, setting each statement in semi-isolation and allowing time for the words to work:

 

The estates are beautiful, specifically in the tungsten light from my high balcony.

Each Platonic  solid  is replicated, within the  various groups of symmetry,  encouraging  untethered  memories  of  molecular orbital theory.

Sexual matters are complicated.

In  theory  there  are  prostitutes,  but   exchange  is  limited  to comestible or market-garden products.

One wonders, at times, if Sutton ever thinks poetry may not be a "useful" thing to be doing, or whether it's the best medium for the kind of snapshots and critique of modern Britain he writes. In a recent interview, Sutton said "I've no interest in provoking political responses though, other than feelings of unease. I also couldn't care less whether people 'agree' with me. That's meaningless, in creative work." Poetry is probably politics in some shape or form, but does this kind of writing do anything other than preach to the converted, or upset a few insignificant morons who might read it by accident? Poetry is not going to change anything, but one assumes Sutton knows this as well as anyone. To be honest, I'm not sure if I've asked a worthwhile question and, if I have, what the answer is.

Sutton's writing process, I would assume, is markedly different from Loydell's. I doubt he looks upon these poems as words, just words, though I'm sure he knows that in one sense they are exactly that. On the other hand, I think there's not too much room for the reader to manoeuvre – the poems "mean", I think, which is somewhat in contrast to the meanderings of Loydell's poems. Sutton always seems pretty sure what his poem is aiming at, and where it's going. And the poems in Falling Off are rarely what one might call a comfortable read. Whereas I could glide through the smartarse version of Rupert Loydell's world in one (admittedly quite long) sitting, I have to take Sutton in smaller doses. The world of Falling Off is a world written from a harsher perspective, and the thinking it assumes you will do is of a different order, but it's not a didactic poetry of easy answers or political tub-thumping. This is writing seriously engaged with modern life, and constantly interesting.

 

© Martin Stannard, 2015