Statement of Prejudice: None. I do not know of Sean Borodale.
Reality: Uh oh. Three poems in and this is looking like pretty flimsy stuff, and there sure is a lot of it. The writing is hella linear, which is almost always a bad sign (working along the simple network of meaning = simple thinking nexus, which rarely lets one down). Even worse, it actually appears to be literally a journal about keeping bees. The title is not a clever metaphor, or even a metaphor at all. Here’s my new collection, ‘Poetry Book’. It also indulges in that weird habit occasionally exhibited in free verse where one can just drop in a couple of words non sequitur and expect them to have emotional impact beyond ‘what the frig was that’. Imagine you’re in a restaurant, halfway through a pretty tasty chunk of [red meat of your choice or a like nut roast if you’re veggie vegans can BITE ME lol irony] when the chef bursts from under the table and squirts you in the face with squeezy bovril. Maybe you’d consider him a post avant mis-en-scene surrealiste par excellence but more likely you’d struggle to get back to enjoying the meal. When a poet self-interrupts with a line like ‘Lifted on thought I flew briefly. Human dance.’, a poet had better have earnt it.
Poetry builds its capacity for meaning by combining ideas syntactically, nudging the reader towards the intended experience by means of sound/etymological connotation/emotional significance/what have you, encouraging you to do some assembly work for its little lyrical gestalt, and breaking this process isn’t a powerful gesture toward freedom of expression, it’s concerted self-sabotage. Language is a near-limitless tool, for sure, but the structures by which we understand it are finite, and the only reliable way of understanding each other, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m wilfully missing the point with these ostensibly creative gestures: they’re just an unsustainable means of communication. Worse, they’re frightfully dull. When ideas are combined in a poem’s variegated syntax you create a thought shaped unlike any other; when you break syntax to unconnected chunks you very rarely get much more than that. Anyhoo. Onward ho, look out below.
Exempli gratia dos: ‘Liquid I boiled and stirred the sugar into: / clear refined British beet. / It went, like magic does.’
So let’s take a different tack. I’m not impressed formally, so let’s look at its content. It’s a Bee Journal. Okay! Fine. What are we learning about bees or beekeepers.
25th July: reading someone’s amateur account of running a beehive is dull. Much jargon, much self-aggrandisement, little insight, no attempt to inform/include the uninitiated. Interest: waning.
14th August: ‘Nor will she collect her males into her mating flight / and fuck, and sever his genitals fiercely under the sun, / and creep back into darkness in that box again / she lays the eggs in for a lifetime’s distance.’ Bees are edgy. As fuck.
September – November: Borodale’s account of what his home-grown honey tastes like on buttered toast is by some margin the most middle class thing I’ve read in some time. This sentence aside.
14th February: I think you can tell a lot about a poet when a poet tries to rhyme. Getting it to not sound ridiculous and childish requires serious care and attention. In this instance Borodale appears to be tone deaf and/or arrhythmic, or at least too lazy/self-unquestioning to fix it, which you’d think would be a barrier to getting published by Jonathan Cape. At this point it seems less like a lack of technical ability and straight up bad manners. How dare you chuck this in front of your reader before it’s ready? Their time does not belong to you and you are wasting it.
Exempley gratey trois: ‘Calm holes in my head heard the exact creak / of breaking nettles across the buzz’.
I’m in serious danger of not taking my own advice, so let’s tl;dr already. There are a lot of apparent assumptions made by the writer going into this book, principal among them that anyone would be interested in what is, essentially, a diary with a vocabulary running into nearly a hundred pages. It’s also no surprise to me that the back-page blurbs come from Carol Ann Duffy, one of this year’s judges, Simon Fucking Armitage, and Alice Oswald, to whom CAD compares Borodale. What a neat little web of basic poetry. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t poetry, because that’s dumb and meaningless, I’m saying Borodale took the shortest route possible between notebook and finished article, and the speaking voice comes across as a lazy, self-advertising blowhard, complacency and self-obsession being two of poetry’s cardinal no-nos. There is not one instance of surprising emotional insight or even useful information about the world of bees. It’s an account of Borodale’s bees, but even more specifically it’s an account of Borodale, his presumption that we’ll be excited because he says he is, then sad when his bees die (whups spoilers) for the same reason. It’s kind of a lame way to treat your audience, and what could have been a pretty cool idea is tossed off without due care, attention, and most of all, editing. Avoid.