TS Eliot ’11 Part 5 – The Rest

Partly due to a shortage of time before the big day and partly to impatience I’ve decided to do five reviews at once. No man has ever attempted such a feat of daring. Will I survive? Will you be suddenly afflicted with a sudden case of who-gives-a-shits? FIND OUT….


John Haynes – You

A 78 page epic about the poet’s wife and her struggle to adapt to life in England after emigrating from Nigeria, written in 254 seven-line stanzas with a repeating rhyme scheme.
There is no reason for this to be a poem.
The book is a perfect example of form working against the content. There are no breaks or even separate titles for each poem that could divide the action into digestible sections and lend it some variation in dramatic emphasis. There should be a difference in tone between, say, the scene when they are allowed to pass through customs for the first time as a married couple and are faced with anti-immigration headlines from the tabloids, or when they have sex on a camp bed in her mother’s house. But there just isn’t. Each scene flows endlessly into the next like a man counting to a hundred then starting again. What’s frustrating is that it’s probably a story worth telling, which in the right hands could have become a deserved peer to Sharon Olds or Mark Doty. But it’s never given a chance, the author assuming throughout that the reader is fascinated not by the emotional arc of a relationship, not by the social criticism of both his home nation and his wife’s, not by an intimate investigation of the significant moments in their lives, not even by a study into the justifications for epic poetry, but by a kind of finger-buffet of everything.
There is so little emotional intensity in the speaking voice, so little desire to slow down a story that covers decades in one short book, such a lack of awareness of which thoughts are coincidental and which are worth investigating. It’s an absolute slog, unrewarding and frustrating. Much like this paragraph. Next.

Annie Freud – The Mirabelles

I had high hopes. A poet who enjoyed rhyme! My goodness! But she’s shit at it. In “Pheasant”, after stopping her car beside a dead pheasant (yep) by the roadside:

I pick her up by her scaly feet,
and, laying her gently in the boot
home I go with my fabulous loot.

Christ. Listen to the torture she gives that last line to force it into scansion. From “Head of a Woman”:

I remember the mornings before Pap died
long before I’d heard of things like suicide.

These are just two sentences that happen to end in the same syllable. I imagine it’s supposed to sound aloof and debonair like Judi Dench in a period drama but I can’t help reading it as Nursey from Blackadder II. This is the ongoing problem through the book, what it seems to being aiming for and what it hits are so far removed. “Marc Almond Poem” and “Sting’s Wife’s Jam Has Done You Good” are flimsy little pieces built solely on the names dropped, and Freud does little to play with our expectations after the title. The former is a straightforward retelling of the events of Marc Almond’s first gig after a long absence, the latter makes mention neither of jam, Sting or his wife, and it all adds to the sense that Freud is content to replace humour with whimsy. At the very least I got to the end without resenting it too much and there are a couple of interesting pieces: “The Egyptologist’s Honey Pot” uses its long lines to invest some story and complexity into its characters, even if it adds to the book’s feeling of being written by a minor character from Poirot. On the other hand there’s a piece about her being Lucian Freud’s daughter, the less said about which the better. It’s at once painfully self-regarding and impossibly unaware of its own pose. The closing six (long) poems are renderings into verse of her mother’s letters, and if there has been much creative editing in its conversion it is impossible to tell. Again, the presence of this frothy collection in a shortlist of the nation’s best work can only be political. Which is thoroughly depressing. Moving on.

Sam Willetts – New Light for the Old Dark

Again, I had very high expectations. The title is reminiscent of Muldoon’s first collection New Weather, which presented a real departure and a voice that opened creative possibilities wherever it set its gaze. Thinking about it, that may be revisionism, but the point stands, Muldoon made waves, and Willetts is attempting a similar trick. Few readers will take the blurb on the flyleaf as reliable criticism, but its claim that “Sam Willetts emerges now – suddenly, and apparently from nowhere [italics mine] – as a fully-fledged and significant English poet,” is categorically wrong. He is absolutely not fully-formed, and many of these poems have a clumsy, undergraduate feel. More on that later. But how much of a story is there in those words? Where is the somewhere from which poets usually emerge? Do we assume that new poets will announce their arrival ahead of time? That they will make their contacts in the industry well in advance so Faber and Cape and Picador will consider them a sure thing before they burst onto the scene as simultaneously fully-fledged and barely pupated? I’m being very naïve. But poetry (like any branch of the arts) is worth being naïve about.
Willetts is, like many of the nominated poets, not untalented, but seems to ascribe to the idea that poems should not only play with their emotional cards firmly to their chest, but that the whole enterprise should unfold like a piece of kabuki theatre, with the audience left to colour in all the intensity the author has decided to omit. The second poem in the collection is “Stroke City, 2001”, a piece set in Derry/Londonderry that seems blissfully unaware of any political advances made in the 25 years since Sunningdale and plods merrily down the well-worn tropes of oppressive masculine violence on the part of the army and disarming humanity for the Bogside residents. Calling the watchtower “Permanent / numb hard-on of an intimate war” is lifted unexamined out of 1970s Heaney, and characterises much of the collection. After this piece of retreading, Willetts also decides to name a poem “Digging”, a fairly grim little piece that recounts the mental processes during the act of shooting smack without investigating the motivation behind it, an aspect left confoundingly blank; a poem called “Ghetto” that hopes you haven’t read Longley’s poem of the same name, or in fact any of Gorse Fires; and a poem that uses the same metaphor and track of thought as Heaney’s “St Kevin and the Blackbird”, the poet plumping for “You and St Kevin and the Birds”. His major flaw is his search for originality on a surface level forgoes deeper significance, substitutes a broad vocabulary for insight, and sensationalism and the liberal spread of f-bombs stand in for intensity and emotion.
Let’s have a close look at one word that ticked me right off. It’s from “Truanting”, and unlike Paterson’s “Two Trees” that’s all it’s about. Here’s the line: “By the little-sister river / spring calves jostled, saint-francissed me”. Yes, you’re a very clever writer! Look at you juxtaposing incongruous qualifiers and coining an ingratiating new verb. Have a biscuit. It’s all so self-admiring, the subject gets lost in the poet’s overweening desire to show off. “Saint-francissed me”. Saint Francis was a man so holy the beasts of the field and the birds of the air brought him food in recognition of their high regard. Here, Willetts bestows that regard upon himself. Over-analysis? Maybe. But it illustrates a recurring failure where the poem’s subject is lost in the act of portrayal, and it’s worth noting that in a series of poems about his mother’s escape from Nazi-occupied Poland, most of which are overplayed and forcefully melodramatic, the most engaged and moving piece is “A Moral Defeat”, which relates his own tearful breakdown after a visit to a concentration camp. There’s nothing wrong with making yourself (or even the ‘you’ that happens to appear in the poem) the centre of attention– it’s almost unavoidable – what I object to is the disingenuous use of heroin addiction and the holocaust to force sympathy. There is a lack of a sense of irony, of self-criticism, that would have transformed this book from an interesting debut into a generous-spirited exploration of modern politics and worthy award-winner.
Again, I should point out that my frustration is borne out of the high regard given these books by their nomination for the country’s most prestigious poetry prize. It just isn’t good enough.

Pascale Petit – What the Water Gave Me: Poems after Frida Kahlo

Earlier, I mentioned how this collection would live or die by how Petit negotiated with the towering presence of Frida Kahlo. The short answer is that she doesn’t seem to have tried. The book is phenomenally frail. The poems, which are supposed to be ‘based’ on Kahlo’s paintings and share their titles, are more often than not verbal accounts of the visual narrative the paintings already suggest. Having no great familiarity with Kahlo, I decided to experiment with reading the book first, then googling the paintings, then reading it again. The book doesn’t survive on its own. My suspicion was that the text relied heavily on Kahlo’s own writing, so incongruous was the wording of some of the passages, and the acknowledgements proved me right, because I am amazing. The whole book took about 45 minutes to read, and with the paintings in front of you there is little the book doesn’t give up on its first reading.
As for interacting with Kahlo’s legacy, I found it difficult to tell who was the ventriloquist and who was the dummy. The effect was to take the already flighty and surreal text to another degree of removal, unsatisfying for those interested in the thoughts of the poet, and of little value to students of Kahlo. Its nomination seems for novelty alone.

Seamus Heaney – Human Chain

This collection made me very sad. As sad as you are after reading all this shit, I’d wager. After a few quality pieces, including the fantastic “Miracle”, it starts to meander, and the recollections of the poet’s childhood that make up the bulk of the book seem to have lost the buried significance they carried so securely in previous collections. The heartbreak comes less from the poems themselves and more from the sense that Heaney might be slipping away from us, not necessarily in terms of his health, but certainly as the great poet he has been for the past four decades. In one of the closing poems he says “As I age and blank on names, / As my uncertainty on stairs / Is more and more the lightheadedness // Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging, / As the memorable bottoms out / Into the irretrievable, // It’s not that I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.” I’m hoping Heaney still has better things in him than Human Chain.

So that just leaves Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light which I’ll be giving its own spot tomorrow. Tune in for the last throes of this regrettable little enterprise that has taken hours of my time and all of my faith in the TS Eliot judging committee.

Edit: nope. Out of time. Maybe on Wednesday.


3 thoughts on “TS Eliot ’11 Part 5 – The Rest

  1. Bernardine Evaristo March 28, 2011 / 3:52 pm

    A note on your critique of the TS Eliot shortlist. The three judges only select six of the books on the shortlist. Four of them are the Poetry Book Society Choices of the preceding year that are automatically, historically, always added to the shortlist. So four of the collections were NOT chosen by the judges.

  2. sam willetts January 22, 2012 / 11:56 am

    Oh dear. It’s been a worry of mine that because I have read so little recent or contemporary poetry, my own might be old-fashioned or conspicuously “wrong” in some other way. I’ve never heard of Longley or his ghetto – I mean, literally, have never heard of him or it. It’s possible that I read Heaney’s Kevin/Blackbird poem, but I don’t recall it. In any case I’d be surprised if its content had much in common with my Kevin/birds poem; mine is about my ex-partner, a Dubliner who likes robins and blackbirds. That’s it. “Saint-francissed” – I had and still have doubts about this – it always seemed a bit twee, or a bit clever-clever. But
    in the end I decided to use it & be damned, since it made sense to me. There’s no grandiosity in it – no delusions of saintliness. It was meant ironically: or to say that I was a grubby schoolboy who had no saintly rapport with those unfortunate calves. As you say, the poem called “Truanting” is about, and only about, truanting. If it had been about something else I would have called it something else. “Digging” – I cringed for some time when, very late in the game, it occurred to me that I’d appropriated the title of one of the most famous post-war poems in English (a poem I did of course know, though I hadn’t looked at it since schooldays). As to the why of my dismal affair with heroin – I’m fucked if I know. I’m more interested in not repeating that nightmare than in understanding its genesis.
    I have many misgivings and regrets about the poems in that collection; if you’d asked I could have pointed out some of the howlers and infelicities for you. Addicts (“active” or not) are notoriously slippery and devious folk; plagiarising poems I’ve never read, however, is beyond even me.

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