Welcome To Talking Verse

This blog is dedicated to discussion on poetry.

Poetry, on the European side of the Atlantic, has hardly progressed since the early 20th Century. Whilst in the USA poetry continues to evolve and present itself afresh.

Part of the reason for this is that the issue of poetry has been debated widely in the USA whereas in Britain, for example, you will be hard pressed to find anything that challenges the status quo of poetry.

There have been a few attempts: the Liverpool Beat poets made an short-lived impact during the early 1960s, but they could only offer a poor imitation of a style from the USA.

A handful of poets in the 20th century did make an impact. Basil Bunting and Tom Leonard shook up the established schools. But compared to the US the impact is small. Whilst other art forms have managed to progress over the years, poetry has stood still. Only the narrative has altered to keep abreast of the times.

Many people look to poetry to ‘tell’ them something; as if poetry were some form of journalism or propaganda. The laureateship of Carol Anne Duffy has only reinforced that view. But it is not simply a case of blaming the poets. Duffy is only responding to a demand that arises out of a society that pushes art for other ends, rather than simply art for the sake of it.

Today there is a wide awareness of poetry, the internet is weighted down with poetry sites that offer varying degrees of quality. Poetry is as valid as any other art form but only as long as it operates as an art form. Poets should not be seen as harbingers and the audience should look for meaning rather than rely on the poet or critic to provide answers.


This blog welcomes essays and book reviews about poetry. Please do not submit any poetry. If you wish to use a blog to submit poetry then I would recommend The Poets' Graves Workshop.

All submissions will be read and editing suggestions may be put to the author before being posted. Rejection by the author of any suggestion does not preclude it from being posted on the site.

Talking Verse follows no particular school of thought and has no other remit apart from the widest debate on matters of poetry.

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Saturday, 12 May 2012

On Brownjohn Land.

A Fortnightly Review of
The Saner Places: Selected Poems
by Alan Brownjohn
£10.99 | Enitharmon Press | 60 pages

By Anthony Howell.

THE SEAL AROUND my freezer door has perished.  I ring Smeg, and learn that it is called a gasket, and will cost more than a new fridge to replace.  I feel that I am in Brownjohn Land.
With so much of his focus on the small vicissitudes of life rather than on its more grandiose themes, Alan Brownjohn might be the Giorgio Morandi of contemporary poetry.  I cannot help but associate Morandi, and his humble arrangements of boxes and jars, with the Italian novelist Italo Svevo.  Born some twenty-five years before Morandi, and a friend of James Joyce, Svevo was part of the modern initiative, yet wrote in a seemingly conservative narrative style.  His subjects, however, are notably devoid of heavy significance.  His Confessions of Zeno is written as the biography of a man who wishes to put things straight for his analyst, to whom he has gone in an attempt to give up smoking.  The style is decidedly anti-’Beethovenic’ – and the same could be said for much of the work of this very English poet.  Like Morandi in visual art, Brownjohn occupies an ambiguous position.  Is he an ironic modernist and a metaphysical force, or is he just a throw-back to Betjeman, as Morandi was a return to figuration?

Certainly he shares certain Slough-like aspects of the landscape with Betjeman.  Eight-a–side railway compartments with no corridor – such a gift to rapists!  And the  drab bombsites of the post-war years providing the footprint for supermarkets.  The poet teaches at prep-schools, or attends office parties where squeakers unroll, but very often there is a sense of the countryside out there in the dark, or in the background, a heritage under siege – grumpily expressed in ‘Farmer’s Point of View’.

I own certain acre-scraps of woodland, scattered
On undulating ground; enough to lie hidden in. So,
About three times a year, and usually August.
Pairs of people come to one or another patch. They stray
Around the edges first, plainly wanting some excuse
To go on in; then talking, as if not concerned,
And always of something else, not what they intend.
They find their way, by one or another approach,
To conducting sexual liaisons – on my land…

Dead-pan, downbeat – Brownjohn will sometimes epitomise anxiety with a disconcerting softness and delicacy of touch.  But at the same time, he is able to access a satirical mode and can wallow in accurate grotesque, as in his description of his road – the ‘A 202′:

This road, generally, is one for
The long-defeated; and turns any ironic
Observer’s tracer-isotope of ecology
Sociology, or hopeful manic
Verse into a kind of mere
Nosing virus itself.  It leaves its despondent, foul
And intractable deposit on its own
Banks all the way like virtually all
Large rivers, particularly the holy ones, which it
Is not…

THE FIRST POEM of his that I got to know was ‘Breaking eggs’ – which is not in this selection, though it can be found in his Collected Poems.  I was struck by the intellectual intensity of lines that were marshalled around an incident so mundane and particular, and how the thought was accompanied by an imagery that was made as intense by dint of its precision.

…She will unclasp each poised, mature
Vegetable’s grip upon itself, leaf
By pathetic leaf, intently; or crack
The fragile and decorous eggs
With rapid and curt fingers, not smiling.
It would look like no more than cold spite
If it were not her own kind of care; and
If she could not also, with a mere knife only,
Take up (precise and chilling miracle)
Each omelette into surging fabric-folds.

The accuracy of the language and the quality of the syntax brings to mind Donald Davie’s Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), which probably exerted an influence on poets at that time.  A preoccupation with appropriate prosody can be felt even in an ode to Felix the cat.  In fact the pristine language used makes the references to Li’l Abner and Donald Duck all the funnier.   He is good at finding the evocative verb or the phrase that seems just right.  On board ‘The Ship of Death’, the cutlery scintillates to the throb of the engines and

From the deck,  far off, is it west,  you can pick out an esplanade
With lights like a frippery of beads…

BORN IN 1931, and thus experiencing childhood in a time of war, Brownjohn is a socialist, brought up, one imagines, on Russell’s Sceptical Essays.  Something in his patient noting of daily life suggests that socialist project  ‘Mass Observation’.  There is a conscience operating, and Auden can be sensed as an influence, but only slightly, thank heaven!  He is least effective when the target for his satire is too obvious – foxhunting, for instance, in ‘Pastoral’, and dancing, in ‘Of Dancing’.  But then, being keen on both, my bias should modify this criticism!

With ‘Peter Daines at a Party‘, we get introduced  to a medley of the stock characters who populate Brownjohn Land, living in urbanised villages near notorious traffic blind-spots, and blissfully unaware of their own blind-spots.   Foremost among these is ‘The Old Fox’, a predator in civil servant’s clothing, who takes wiliness to Olympian heights in ‘Negotiation’ and later in ‘Procedural’.  In both these poems, the system is beaten by one adept at manipulating its rules; however, in several others, the participants are not so lucky:  minor irritations or discrepancies get piled on with mounting absurdity until full-scale Kafkaesque paranoia is achieved.  At times, in catalogues of nightmares and preconditions for police states, the humour reminds me of Morgenstern. The poet is also a respected novelist, and with the skill of an experienced narrator, he can encapsulate an entire drama in a poem as perfect as a walnut shell, as in ‘An Orchard Path’But often the excitement which his poetry generates is that of discovering the incongruous line that can nevertheless be explained by reality: ‘Hands deep in pockets clutching children’s shoes’ is the last line of a poem describing shop-assistants with kleptomaniac tendencies.

Were he just a purveyor of light verse and suburban satire, he might easily be dismissed as a latter day Graves, or as inheriting the mantle of Betjeman.  However, as observed, Brownjohn can work the seam of quietism in poetry; a sense of almost nothing going on that allows the slightest small incident to resonate.

Something rotates his upper half anti-clockwise
Roughly ninety degrees to the left, and his legs overhang
The sanded and polished floorboards he hoped might lift
His morale for a new millennium…
…the simple fact
That he can still stand up makes him optimistic.

QUIETNESS IN ENGLISH POETRY is a feature that can be found in William Drummond’s version of one of the Silvae of Statius, and in ‘The Seasons’ by James Thomson.  Like a Dutch master focused on the detail before his eyes, a poet may simply describe without the intrusion of too much comment. This ability to describe is a quality Brownjohn shares with his less known but talented contemporary, David Jacobs (published by Peterloo). With Quietism, form fits content as water fits a jug: it’s an abstract fusion that appeals to creative people who value the plastic properties of their medium.  In poetry, its focus on familiar experiences or tasks that usually go unremarked, such as breaking eggs, is equivalent to a painter’s preoccupation with still-life. Significance is downplayed, but something is ‘brought to life.’  A magic is at work.  Brownjohn’s poem ‘Hedonist’ is not a celebration of ‘heady’ libertinage, but a celebration of mere walking alone on the bright pavement.’
Master of the art of endings which just dwindle away,  many of his finest poems have, like Morandi’s paintings, an unworldly quality, for all their mundane matter, and this is well expressed by ‘Doorway’.

Where it stood by the roadside, the frame for a view,
It made the step from one weed-patch to the next
A metaphor…

For me, this poem evokes the metaphysical and essentially modernist  landscapes of Paul Nash.  It is suggested that having walked through this door you will not be the same.  With Svevo-like diffidence, the poet turns back from that view, walking on to
where this girl smiles, in apparent sleep…
The poem incorporates vacancy and creates a drama out of nothingness.  It is a poem which exists for lines it contains;  an experience made out of its words.  Here, ethics is aesthetics.

ANOTHER POEM, ‘THE SPACE’, is equally enigmatic, both describing and inhabiting a species of void, which the poet  manages to describe while allowing the meaning of the poem to remain elusive.  In much of his work, there is a spooky dislocation -  a kind of link missing that  leaves the reader puzzling  – and invites a re-reading.  Brownjohn experiments with cadence and repetition, sometimes for hilarious ends – as in ‘From his Childhood’ – but not always.   In the brilliant twelve-liner (almost a sonnet) sequence, ‘Sea Pictures‘, he achieves a crystal clear, yet uncannily remote and disinterested, vision of the panorama afforded by a day at the seaside that would have delighted Raymond Roussel – whose poem, ‘A View’, has the same quality.  Brownjohn’s ability to perceive detail and make his image almost tangible is unique.   Consider the entirety of  ‘A Dream of Launceston’:

So clear and safe and small,
on the nearest horn of
about twenty-seven
steady-breathing fellows
who have me cornered in
a field in North Cornwall
with their overbearing
friendliness (is it that?)
the ladybird allows
a petticoat of wing
and then recovers it.
And then: one pink-and-blue
nose lifts, and a deep note
rides out over the grass
to tremble the yellows
of the low primroses …
And ‘Shoo’ I say, and ‘Shoo!’
in my nine-year-old voice
each time the dream comes back.
They do not shoo, and I
will not grow up, at all.
Reading the numbers on
the twitching ears as if
nothing more happened next,
I crave the freedom of
that tiny elegance
to flaunt itself, and fly.

This selection ends with some poems from his latest book, Ludbrooke and OthersLudbrooke begins with a sequence of sixty thirteen-line vignettes of this incorrigible character, and is a collection well worth possessing.  The poems are as passionate as they are mirth-provoking – an extraordinary achievement for a poet now in his eighties.

No one has phoned him for what seems several days.
Ludbrooke tries one-four-seven-one, the lonely man’s friend.
And confirms it, his last call was on the ninth.
The caller withheld “their” number.’ The adjective ‘their’
Annoys the pedantic Ludbrooke, who detects yet another
Example of political correctness. If only
A plural of persons were phoning Ludbrooke…

Ludbrooke  compares favourably with John Berryman’s celebrated Dream Songs, and establishes Brownjohn as a significant poet of the twenty-first as well as of the twentieth century.  He is also very good at cats:

They leap without letting on they intend to,
These cats. Assuming they always do land
In amenable safety, they cling to
Your lap with four paws cold from the darkness.
You shiver at the ice they bring in them.
But slowly your legs regain a heat,
Their claws retract, and the vacillating tail …

So begins ‘A Fear of Wilderness’, from Alan Brownjohn’s The Saner Places – Selected Poems 2011.

Anthony Howella contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review (where this review first appearsand a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, and The Times Literary Supplement. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice; his most recent collection of poems is The Ogre’s Wife, published by Anvil.