Michael Symmons Roberts – Drysalter

Statement of Prejudice: I’m largely indifferent to Roberts. I remember thinking his interview on the SPL podcast was pretty self-congratulatory, and what I’ve read of his work doesn’t do a lot for me. That this seems to be a concept album – 150 poems meeting the 150 Psalms, each 15 lines long – doesn’t fill me with confidence, nor does the fact that it was named the Poetry Book Society’s summer choice in February, two months prior to its release. I suspect there’s a totally logical but ultimately saddening reason for that being totally above board.

Reality: Reading a long series of MSR’s poetry is like a boring friend tell you about a fashionable party they went to. He talks (at length) with a cosy satisfaction that comes with the assurance that no matter what one’s audience thinks, one knows how cool one is. Several of these poems I wanted to pour cold water over. And not even because any are outrageously bad

(whatever bad means: if, as I usually do, you take bad to mean something that leaves little/no emotional/mnemonic impact then most poems are bad. What makes these poems worse is that their internal meaning-mechanisms seem to have passed through the checkpoints of the poet’s internal border control without once presenting their documents. MEANING that when a poem titled “Elegy for John Milton” (e.g.) goes, stanza by stanza: i) a brief contextualising of Milton’s relationship to his contemporary national politics; ii) a suggestion that Milton could hear, on his deathbed ‘dog duets, car-alarms, twenty-four-hour news / evacuations, bomb scares, marching troops’ (note how MSR turns seamlessly from things that one can physically hear to things one cannot (and back) without pausing to alter the syntax. Doubtless to someone this is proof of his wizardry but it feels lazy and contemptuous in a poem which is itself lazy and contemptuous of anyone trying to follow its logic (however dreamy and big idea-d it might be) the way human beings tend to. I’m all in favour of dislocating your narrative and challenging the reader, but even dream-logic demands consistent dream-logic. Lorca didn’t bloviate on local politics midway through Gypsy Ballads. For a poem to have any impact it has to respect the mind of its reader/listener, and there’s a huge difference between something that takes easy-to-follow-but-unexpected turns and the poetry version of Calvinball. I realise I say this so deep in parentheses I have little hope of escape.); iii) an image of an untended Eden so stock Kodak ought to copyright it; iv) ‘buddleia, cotoneaster, ragwort, / bindweed, russian vine, dead nettle, ivy, / on the edge of evolving into song.’ Not only is this closure largely nicked and largely unaltered from Michael Longley’s “The Ice-Cream Man” (read it), it means almost nothing. This is what Paterson describes as pumping profundity into a poem at the last minute in a grasp for significance, in an attempt to surreptitiously slip the reader the surface in place of the substance, try to cover up their lack of finish. Which I’ve said before, but it’s one of poetry’s diseases-in-trade, and demands the ability to tell between the forged note and the true mint.)

but that they try to present extremes of emotion in a dull and uninterested timbre, one that is unwavering and creepingly oppressive over the course of the book. The voice is instructive, intimately command-giving, and wholly lacking in empathy, either for you or the subject matter. Imagine telling someone a really clever and witty joke and them saying, flatly, ‘that’s hilarious’.

that's hilarious
that’s hilarious

What’s left is a book much like several others by similarly self-involved, middle-aged, middle-class straight white men with Ted Hughes fixations and an uncomfortable penchant for airing their sexual fantasies in public (“To An Immortal II” has the Gaimanesque nerve to paint a scenario in which a deathless woman wants to give the writer a shifty), and MSR just doesn’t do enough to set himself apart from the pack. What the book particularly lacks is a sense of humour about itself, that canny self-awareness the best writers deploy at opportune moments to vent the pressure of their presented egos. As a counterpoint, this opener from “What the Body Cannot Hold”: ‘I regard myself as – let’s say – Tokyo’. Few single lines of verse have so viscerally made my skin crawl. I expect it’s intended for urbane chuckles but it made me want to hurl the book out a closed window. This is not to mention that the very fact of these poems works against the likelihood of their success. Not only does the form warp many poems out of their natural shape but their sheer number virtually ensures there’s a lot of horse in the beef mince. With the best will in the world only a very few individuals have written 150 good poems in their lifetime, and for all MSR’s fine ear for the singing line and active imagination, this would have been a strong, even powerful book had it been half as long.

1 GC

To speculate to a hopefully constructive end, I suspect writing this many poems requires a certain amount of automatic function, giving (ideally) the subconscious room to breathe but also (realistically) allowing some of the more received ideas of one’s cultural immersion a free pass, as well as dropping the old quality control a few clicks. There are small moments of snobbery dotted throughout the book, the casual and unexamined reproofs to stock modern villains (financiers pop up on a few occasions) which set up a very clear an Us and Them scenario, seemingly designed (if not purely then largely) to leave the speaking voice very safely on the respectable side.

What MSR does exceedingly well is the construction of individual rhythmical units: though the lack of cumulative punch may ultimately let the book down, the poet’s ear for meter is near flawless, and the vast majority of pieces in Drysalter read elegantly and smoothly. Of course, as mentioned before, this also has a dampening effect on the poems’ content, and the few game attempts MSR makes at either rhyme or ballad meter (“Automatic Soothsayer Booth” being a particularly sketchy example) lack the confidence and significance necessary to pull off their set missions.

The book isn’t a total wash: the fact that so many poems sounding like a poem-a-day exercise manual means there’s certainly a range of engaging tidbits to pick over and think about how they could be improved – a deeper engagement with and curiosity about the individual subjects at hand would be an excellent start, see review of Michael Pedersen for a longer para on specificity – and while there are a few genuinely accomplished and moving pieces (“Excise Me”, a poem about a metamorphosed heart is excellent, as is the powerfully suggestive nightmare “What the Night Told Me”, while “Abyss of Birds” is a beautiful encapsulation of what it means to be a flock of thrushes), it’s difficult to leave the book with more than when you arrived. The poems don’t build on one another’s foundations, barely talk to one another in terms of theme and focus, and only a very few are alert to the possibility that the book’s presiding voice is outstaying its welcome.

3 PF

Tl;dr: Drysalter suffers from exactly the problems you’d anticipate of such a long book with such strict rules – too many unpolished pieces, noise that dulls out signal, irony fatigue, a growing impatience for the writer to get to the point. The biggest problem, of course, is that this book will almost certainly win; it’s written by a long-established and well-connected writer (five collections) with an extensive CV (much of it on BBC Radio) and a truckload of previous awards. He even wrote a book with one of the judges, Paul Farley. Who of course will be objective but it doesn’t hurt that he wrote a pull quote for the bloody thing. I’d love to be optimistic and say Sinead Morrissey’s Parallax (which I have high hopes for) has a chance or even Jacob Polley’s commendable The Havocs, but Forward have crowned some stinkers lately (’12: Jorie bloody Graham, ’11: John bloody Burnside, ’10: Seamus Heaney’s most pedestrian book) and are unlikely to rock the boat this time. We’ll see. For now, don’t waste your time on Drysalter.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Symmons Roberts – Drysalter

  1. Oleoleo December 3, 2013 / 3:08 pm

    MSR is the British version of Bruce Bond; or the other way around.

  2. Mick Finn September 25, 2014 / 7:26 pm

    I am not sure these are in fact sexual fantasies, as you describe them. The collection reads to me like an account of someone in a dead or dying marriage (so many frozen rivers etc to cross – a bit ‘undergraduate’) who is on the verge of having an affair. Lines such as “I keep myself grounded with stones in my pockets, marked with my children’s names” (Hymn to November) ring hollow as he is drawn back again and again to his secret love (Excise Me). The Scent perhaps more reportage than fiction?

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