Friday, 18 March 2011

Of Mutability - Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott's recent prize-laden collection, of Mutability, shows everything that is best and worst about contemporary English verse. It's clever and full of cocky phrases, and unusual takes or strange angles on the subject matter. But somehow I also find it quite flat, even inert, at times.

To give some examples, she has this trick of mixing the prosaic and the boldly abstract. Thus, in Era, she writes

The twenty-second day of march two thousand and three
I left home shortly after eight thirty
on foot for the City. I said goodbye
to the outside of my body: I was going in.

She also goes in for a lot of juxtaposition and contrast. In Sinfonietta for London, she describes the nosies of the City (i.e. as we Brits arrogantly call the City of London, as if there's only one real one on Earth)

Integral are the living sounds of Fenchurch Street,
the mechanised city with its patterns
of soft and loud ..........

your darling's head floating
above the rest, singing and whistling
all the way down to the Thames

She plays the same trick on facing pages by placing two poems called Religion for Girls and Religion for Boys next to one another. In some ways, they lack bite and energy (e.g. Bacchus is for 'giving sparky life') but there's plenty of room and semi-concealed opportunity to extrapolate loads about gender, ancient history, anthropology.

I think it's telling that the most unified and convincing poem in terms of subject matter, language and tone is an adaption of Rilke.

However, she breaks one of the stony faced rules of white English middle class poetry by writing a political poem, though only on safe territory: against the Iraq war. The poem's called St Brides, it's excellent, and builds to a passionate very personal and immediate climax about a war which is very far away from our day to day lives.

I find the collection intriguing, and I can return to it again and again. I'm glad it won prizes, but I wish the style wasn't so omnipresent in contemporary English verse, and there was more room for people like Mike Haslam (below) and for the sort of engaged and visceral poetry in Red, a new anthology of Black British Poetry.

But more of that, as they say, anon!


  1. Hi Mr. Timbers,
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    thanks so much!

  2. I wish I were a poet
    I'd win a pint of Moet
    -and then just blow it
    writing sensless ryhmmes
    to pass the times
    - until the nag's heads turned towards enternity...!

    (The Nags Head, Kinerton Street - brill pub..!)