Friday, 14 September 2012

The Dark Film by Paul Farley

If you want to get a flavour of this book, there's an excellent review on another blog which I have commented on which you might like to read

There's no point in repeating what it says in the blog and the comments. I'd rather say what I think about Farley's poetics and look at what I believe is the best poem in the book, Cloaca Maxima.Farley in my view is a class act, but I find it strange that, nothwithstanding all the autobiographical poems in the book, I don't feel I really know anything about the guy. It's as if he's being too abstract and creating a strerotype of his own experience:

I'd look up to them looming on street corners,
or down on them through my bedroom blinds,
crashing home from the Labour Club, mad drunk
Yes, he tries to make it specific by mentioning his bedroom blinds, but this could be any literary story of growing up in the midst of working class families. It isn't half so specific as Roger McGough's tales of his Liverpool family or anywhere near as touching as Peter Sansom's on-going poetic chronicle of working class familial decencies in Nottingham. After reading McGough and Sansom I feel I know loads about them and their relatives, and share some of the sadness they feel about them, but something about the way Farley approaches the subject of his own upbringing leaves me cold.

Inner City Liverpool in the Late Sixties. Children swinging on a dead tree amongst rubble with new high rise council flats in the background.
On the other hand, Cloaca Maxima  is a magnificent poem that plays to all Farley's profound rhetorical strengths. It records a moment - an epiphany - when the poet was a child and sewer jumping and suddenly understands the pain of preceding generations of labour, who created the place. I think it's a moving exploration of history and forgetting. Part of its appeal is the struggle of the poet to give expression to his compelling sense of human alienation in the process of labour i.e. the lives that most of our forebears forebore. Thus he writes about:

the pearlescent blind eye we need 
to grow to keep the world under our noses
safely removed.The millions of mixed shades
are still running beneath our surfaces

and visible to those who just step sideways

For those of us with a working class hinterland, these are very profound words about how we experience contemporary life, apparently so cut off from the past and yet so dependent upon it.

Bevel by William Letford

There's a kerfuffle in the poetry world at the moment about William Letford's entertaining first collection, Bevel. The Guardian even referred to the collection's 'transcendental insight', though this was probably the work of a sub editor as it appeared on a strapline under the headline.

Amongst all this excitement,  I hate to sound a note of caution. Bevel is being universally praised, but it is a flawed, though enjoyable and promising collection.

First, the good stuff. The Guardian review goes on to accurately describe his work as follows:
Letford's poetry, while it has the look of early experimental modernism – that William Carlos Williams/ee cummings thing – has the cadences and accents of ordinary, reported speech
Letford has a distinct voice and his work is memorable. Unlike the denser stuff in Roddy Lumsden's anthologies of recent poetry, Letwin opts for clarity. His short poems showcase brief striking images e.g.

The chapel on the hill has no roof. For five hundred years its four walls
have framed the universe. The locals laugh at the Sistine chapel
and call it the coffin lid
(In the mountains of northern Italy)
Now that is the whole poem in its entirety. I find it immediately striking, but also it makes me think about something familar (the Sistine chapel) in a new way, by incorporating a pithy local saying from a different part of Italy which isn't Rome.

Letwin is also very good at writing about doing the pleasures of physical labour because he's a roofer by trade. No one else can do this because most contemporary poets seem to work in academia or publishing.

On the other hand, he can be crass.

A blonde haired angel in a pair of red hotpants
Turns to give me a grin so wide
I know it's not for me.It's for the whole fucking world.
(A Bassline)
I'm sure us men have a tendency to experience the world primarily through our bell-ends, but when we grow up we realise this and try to stop speaking like complete dicks.

The shortness of the poems not only charms me, it bothers me because I'm not sure what else Letford has to offer other than these sudden - often randy - epiphanies. In a sense, he can be a metaphysical poet because he sees some of his poems as a kind of flirtation in which he ropes in all sorts of amazing scientific facts about the universe and applies them to a specific situation. There's no question that he has some genius, the problem is that he seems to be using it to say 'look at me, aren't I the fucking One and a Bit'.

Charming, striking, clever, different from the rest of the crowd, I shall certainly be buying his second collection in the hope that he can apply his substantial gifts to a more grown up set of subjects.