Full Disclosure: I just reviewed Underwood a couple weeks back. O’Brien was my external examiner when I did a creative writing masters in 2008, and he marked me generously. So, Underwood 0 Me 1, basically.
So Sean O’Brien reviewed Jack Underwood’s first collection on Saturday in the Guardian. O’Brien has several collections under the belt dating back to the 80s, TS Eliot and multiple Forward Prizes to his name, an influential book of essays, a professorship at Newcastle University and the Vice-Presidency of the Poetry Society. Underwood has just been published by Faber and is pretty much set to have a lengthy and high-profile career in the business, alongside his academic post at Goldsmiths. So when I say the review is first and foremost a kind of intra-mural bullying, I’m speaking in pretty relative terms. Underwood will be just fine. However, I think there’s something useful in examining O’Brien’s approach here, the particular guise of his critic/poet relationship, and the assumptions that inform that relationship. So hop on the ol’ Close Reading Express, destination: THE MAGIC CIRCLE.
O’Brien: “When his initial Faber pamphlet came out in 2009, Underwood appeared to show Donaghy’s influence, but now he recalls a poet of an older generation, Hugo Williams, for whom, as now for Underwood, the world is largely a personal matter composed of the problems of love and selfhood, as well as that of Frank O’Hara, whose presence is now as ubiquitous as weather, with his “Personism” manifesto seeming to promise access to all areas.”
Throwing three major poets’ names around in your opening lines performs two functions: i) it overwhelms the new poet in existing authority; ii) emphasises the critic’s mastery of the scene, very literally putting the poet in their place. If I was Hugo Williams I’d be feeling some severe shade in this paragraph; I don’t think the comparison is complimentary. What exactly prompts O’Brien to ‘recall’ Williams is a mystery. They both… talk about themselves? In kind of a funny, wry way?
O’Hara is a bit more believable, but the claim of ubiquity as it stands here can only illuminate so much without going into specifics; how (or if) he functions in Underwood (and Happiness is a homebody of a collection, decidedly anti-cosmopolitan) is different to how (or if) he functions in any of Underwood’s peers. Did Personism really ‘promise access to all areas’? Wasn’t O’Hara acknowledging what had been the case for years? Which areas were inaccessible before? Is Hugo Williams really the primary exemplar of a modern poet making the world a matter of love and selfhood? Precious little substance so far from O’Brien.
SOB: “By moving in this direction Underwood has apparently renounced the implacable rigour on which Donaghy’s own playfulness was founded. At times, indeed, Underwood seems to be aspiring to invertebracy. […]The cartoon detail, combined with a tone at once demonstrative and short of affect, mark a kind of indie house style that can be read (and perhaps more significantly, heard) almost anywhere at present.”
Is Faber indie now? I think ‘Indie’ is a kind of pun here, signifying ‘fashion-conscious young people’, while ‘house style’ suggests some kind of young poets’ union whose aim is to sound indistinguishable to careless outsiders. And they’re anywhere at present. Terrifying. As we know, no generation of poets who have grown up working alongside each other experiencing the same social conditions have ever wound up sharing influences, aesthetic common ground, or, yes, a ripping good in-joke. Real poets, as we know, spring fully-formed from Zeus’ skull with a unique and peerless aesthetic. O’Brien’s distinction between good, rigorous, real men’s playfulness and the cartoonish, limp, undergraduate variety is spurious at best. The vicious lack of generosity in this paragraph reminds me of a young me. And that guy was terrible.
SOB: “Innocence, of a kind clung to like a pillow placed over an alarm clock, is perhaps his central subject for now. It is, inescapably, a studied state, composed partly of the innocent egotism that moves attention back from the child to the beholder, partly of openness to the steady rain of impressions and to the fleeting absoluteness of happiness and of “cack-handed LOVE”.”
O’Brien, you’ll note, hasn’t forgotten that Underwood is, to his discredit, YOUNG, and thus his aesthetic cannot but be immature and a stay against adulthood as O’Brien defines it. Because, again, as we know, older poets are famously mature, generous, selfless souls who cannot bear to take centre stage, as O’Brien’s missive in a national daily demonstrates. Seriously though, Happiness has at its core an understanding that love is anything but absolute, and arguing that a poem about a newborn artificially takes attention away from the child discredits similar poems by Yeats, MacNeice and Paterson, just off the top of my head. A baby’s interiority is not quite as interesting as one might hope. Also, look at that ‘for now’. Soon, O’Brien implies, he will come back to the proper established fold, like all mature artists. It’s worth noting, too, that this review returns time and again to question Underwood’s manliness (as opposed to childishness, in this case). It seems a matter of great concern.
SOB: “Combine these conditions with intense self-consciousness and it might all, to an ancient and sceptical reader, sound like adolescence outstaying its time. Yet as a depiction of conditions prevailing among many of Underwood’s generation (he was born in 1984), it sounds accurate. In the last half-century in the west, the process of getting older has ceased to necessitate (or perhaps even permit) what would once have been thought of as growing up – for example, in the wartime conditions in which Keith Douglas (dead at 24) or Wilfred Owen (dead at 26) wrote.”
I mean. This is just bizarre. Summoning Douglas and Owen from their eternal rest to fling them at inadequate millenials in the middle of what is ostensibly a poetry review is an odd move. Is warfare the true test of maturity? What of the non-combatant poets of both world wars who didn’t have the chance to be forcibly matured by their circumstances? Are we really holding up social conditions of the 1910s and 40s as a better time for poets? ‘An ancient and sceptical reader’. Sir, you are 63. You are not Melmoth the Wanderer. Again, the call to dismiss adolescence is inadequately articulated. Adolescence is a time of great change and upheaval, and without a precise definition of the adulthood one should move into, ‘adolescence’ is a meaningless concept. Harsent just won twenty grand for one of the most adolescent collections I’ve ever read, one that thinks insensitivity to suffering shows how much you understand it. Maturity is complicated, and doesn’t always come in wearing a plain, serviceable pin badge that says ‘I am a grown up’.
SOB: “By its own neurasthenic lights this may be honest, but it doesn’t wholly deflect the unworthy, unwanted and unprecedented urge to say: get out of the house more; take up the biathlon or cage-fighting.”
Witness the Raine school of saying by not saying. The irony of demanding that a poet get out of the house a bit doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind (note also the STRONG MANLINESS of those alternative pursuits). The urge is unworthy and unwanted – I’ve no clue what ‘unprecedented’ is doing there, I’m sure I can find some other established poet berating the new starts – and utterly meaningless as criticism. Telling a poet to get their life in gear is not within a critic’s remit, and O’Brien knows it. This is lousy behaviour, an extra-curricular, real-life insult.
SOB: “And what a whimsical, winsome battleship that would be: very hard to resist sinking it with a deftly hurled rubber duck.”
The condescension. Underwood has clearly spent a lot of time on Happiness, and O’Brien thinks he can tear it down on a whim. The posture here is ‘this is so beneath me I’m not even going to dignify it, despite asking the Guardian if I could spend 900 words dignifying it’. If there was the least engagement with the ideas explored by Happiness, O’Brien might have a case to make, but he hasn’t even tried. He is caught between wanting to cast the book into the darkness and refusing to sufficiently engage with it to do so, and we get this insubstantial nonsense.
SOB: “Altogether more substantial is “Wilderbeast”. This is partly a matter of the quality of attention Underwood brings to the series of nightmarish transformations through which, it seems, male sexuality reveals and condones itself, before a glimpse of the redemptive possibility of love and a final return to mirror-gazing: […] It’s an ambitious and energetic piece of work. It’s also, in contrast to some of the other poems here, attentive to line, to the tercets that frame the lines, and to the accumulating rhythmic consequences of a poem conceived as something more than a clever accident.”
Discussing a poem! Saints be praised. Look at him almost give some credit. He just can’t help dropping in that punitive ‘mirror-gazing’, though, and the back-handedness of the second half – ‘unlike some poems I could mention’. Something more than a clever accident? Underwood spent eight years (or more) on this. You think it just sorta happened, that he only bothered his arse on this poem? Happiness pays extremely close attention to its lineation, and the vast majority of its poems are very regularly patterned, even those which don’t make that patterning typographically obvious.
Again, it seems like O’Brien first identifies a quality he values (formalism) and then accuses the poet of failing to embody this quality. But it’s completely unfounded criticism. How could he have missed this? Is he thinking of one of Underwood’s indistinguishable peers?
SOB: “That Underwood has entertained not only this charged, highly wrought kind of work but also some narcotic inertia might indicate that he risks losing his way. But, on the other hand, he is not content to be the acolyte of a perceived formalist orthodoxy. He is after something that has yet to take shape. His talent is obvious even when he seems to be misapplying it. In music it used to be the third album that was the test, but time has accelerated, so a good deal will depend on what follows Happiness.”
This mess needs serious unpacking. Losing his way from what? How does O’Brien know what ‘his way’ is? A ‘perceived’ formalist orthodoxy? Is the central influence on British poetry of formalists like O’Brien, Paterson, Muldoon, Robertson, Symmons Roberts, Burnside and Harsent all in our heads? Why would Underwood be content as an ‘acolyte’? Is his attention/lack of attention to formalism the central tension in his work? Wasn’t Frank O’Hara the orthodoxy back in the first paragraph? What is the something he’s after that’s yet to take shape? What ‘shape’ should it be taking? How should he be applying his talent, and where does he so frivolously abuse it? What in the name of fortune does that last sentence even mean?? Time has accelerated, but young people don’t grow up these days, plus difficult third album that makes the earlier ones irrelevant so who even cares about this one, something something Wilfred Owen?
The review is a patronising mess, a collection of unsubstantiated accusations and aesthetic prejudices, and it doesn’t take a clever Freud with a calculator to see why O’Brien has jumped at the chance to take Underwood down a peg. His poetry is barely under discussion here. O’Brien summoned the straw poet of his mind and set fire to it, all under the banner of a national daily newspaper.