Leontia Flynn – Profit and Loss

Every so often there is a book of poems that is just damned entertaining. Leontia Flynn’s These Days was one of those, an amazingly rare thing, a poet who sounded like someone you might want to hang out with. I get disheartened sometimes – and I’m happy to blame my extended silences on this blog at least in part on this – by the number of poetry books that come packaged without a heart; or come with the understanding that now it is business time and we must pretend that having a sense of humour is somehow incidental to the human experience. Lest our funding be revoked if it seems like we’re having too much fun. Lest our humourless peers find us wanting.
As my granny often said in such instructional moments of revelation, cmere til I tell ye.

Poetry does not matter.

shitty jpegs matter

Feeding hungry people matters. Providing good educations, good living conditions and the possibility of ending one’s life in a better state than how one began it; these are what we, the privileged, should be serious about. Writing a book of straight-faced investigations into one’s personal dream-life is a frivolity that should be treated as such – with your tongue so far in your cheek it’s almost impossible to speak. Out of these conditions come some great poetry. We don’t live in the world of Eliot, or Yeats, or Auden, or MacNeice, where we could have some hope or expectation of being anywhere near a notional centre of the art, of being the voice of poetry. Yeat’s gyre is dissipated, Eliot’s tower is abolie, we are all an authoritative voice, and we need to listen to each other and quit pretending we’re living in the out-of-town-campus called Poetry. Poetry needs to learn the lessons of the podcast or die. No one in Yeats’ era read poetry the way they did a century previously – remember there is a scant seventy years between “Ode Upon a Grecian Urn” and The Wanderings of Oisin – and no one should seriously consider writing like Eliot, a man ninety years since his heyday, and yet here we are.

We can blame academia, for the most part. Flynn is the first writer of my reading acquaintance to internalise and develop the lessons of Liz Bishop, her capacity to make it seem effortless, her generous and funny observing eye. How hard is that?! Very hard of course. Many of us mortals depart this coil without ever learning it. So it goes. A sense of humour is a precious light in the darkness. Vendler can away and fuck.

Flynn’s revolutionary (nope, no one ever chucked out a government because of poetry, not even Yeats and his poxy pen), experimental (nope, poetry has never discovered anything we didn’t already know, just expressed it more elegantly and in the choir’s voice of our collective dreams) breakthrough (yes) is not Ashberry’s ever more introverted convolutions about which we might say metatextual as if no other book was the sum of every other book it was aware of, and the daily life from which each of those books sprang.

There’s a truism that a bad film is one that’s been made only by watching other films, where good films are made from someone who has read books as well. There’s something to that, but not from some notional generic hierarchy that goes (in ascending order): tv, films, novels, poetry, the latter being politely excused from the complications of being alive because of a sicknote from Dr Stevens. Better works don’t come from tapping the genre directly ‘above’; they come from an awareness of a world outside the one of its acquaintance. One, dare I say it, that barely involve books at all. To be perfectly frank, I have taken more from films and television in the past five years than poetry. You want to breathe the rarefied air of Parnassus? Fucking earn it.

Of course Parnassus isn’t up a mountain, if it ever was. Flynn knows that it’s right here. It’s sitting across from you, going about its day. It’s your cold flat. It’s your internet connection. It’s the attractive older man on the early 36 bus. It’s someone else’s porn in the post. It’s you. It’s me. And there’s dancing.

I apologise. I got carried away. It’s been an upsetting time for me. And reading Profit and Loss just reminded me of how well the little garden I’ve tended more than any real garden can bloom.
I suppose I should talk about the book.

It’s good. It’s really bloody good. Its world is so full of worthwhile things it’s easy to be overwhelmed and shut down that part of the brain that gets lit up by the sheer weirdness of being in it at all. We are all so lucky. How could you be sad? Flynn gets that. All the sad things in her book – the sickness of her father and uncle, a pervasive sense of being adrift, even the sweetly sad love poems – are tempered by a life-giving humour, which when you get down to brass tacks is just a way of putting things into a perspective that makes it seem ridiculous that we could have been upset at all.

I could talk about her connections to MacNeice, Longley, Bishop, her metrical fluency, the sound of the poems that make them more than their parts, the thematic consistency, her place in the tradition, but I think doing anything more than nodding to them would be betraying the animating spirit of the book. It talks because not talking is inconceivable. Writing is a bodily function like all the rest, and, to hijack Donaghy’s metaphor, it’s only gotten to its position of privilege because no one stood up and said this is pish. It is pish. But it’s pish that from time to time, when the stars line up, makes everything else seem okay. At least you’re alive to experience the pish, once and never again.

Profit and Loss is the best pish I’ve read in years.

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5 thoughts on “Leontia Flynn – Profit and Loss

  1. Sarah October 4, 2011 / 8:00 pm

    I enjoyed this review, but would argue that far from this book being an exception, many critically acclaimed and/or successful poets try, (sometimes too hard!) to have a sense of humour and not take themselves too seriously. To pick a couple of random examples, this http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242490 and this http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242666 were published on the Poetry Foundation site recently, which is absolutely huge.

  2. davecoates October 4, 2011 / 9:15 pm

    Thanks for reading, Sarah! I certainly agree with you that many poets aren’t so hot on delivering a punchline. Armitage and Collins come to mind. But guys of their ilk have this habit of studiously announcing their ‘funny’ poems rather than the natural wittiness you get from Flynn.
    What I’m talking about is her capacity to run the gamut not just in one line, or a single poem (and she certainly does turn the screw sometimes), but across the whole book. It’s her emotional range and authenticity that strike me as unusual.
    Also, granted, those PF poems don’t *appear* to be taking themselves too seriously, but they ring hollow to me. They seem pretty pleased with how clever they’re being, which is no way to tell a joke.

  3. Adam Ford December 2, 2011 / 2:23 am

    You had me with the bit about what really matters, and then you nailed it with the Los Camps link. Great review. I think you and I look for similar things in our poetry, Dave. Nice to meet you.

    Have you ever read any Bob Hicok? He’s funny sometimes.
    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/bob-hicok

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