Friday, January 06, 2006

Mark Haddon's debut poetry collection THE TALKING HORSE

THE TALKING HORSE AND THE SAD GIRL AND THE VILLAGE UNDER THE SEA -- Mark Haddon (Picador 2005, £12.99, Hardback) ISBN: 0-330-44002-0

Well, I finally managed to afford Mark Haddon’s debut poetry collection a few weeks ago - an extravagant Christmas present to myself - and took it home to savour it properly. I’d found the book just after its launch at the start of October in a bookshop in Exeter, and although I couldn’t afford it at the time - it’s an expensive little hardback at £12.99 - I stood there in the poetry section and read it cover to cover, laughing and exclaiming where appropriate, and no doubt looking quite deranged to the staff and other customers. It's a little annoying, having handed over my ill-gotten cash at Waterstones in Coventry, to find this collection now on sale at Amazon for less than £4, plus P&P. Harumph! But I suppose at least I'm helping to keep poetry afloat by paying full whack for it. Or the Picador poetry list, anyway.

I’ve written a full review of Haddon's collection for publication elsewhere, but I think I can get away with posting some comments here which either didn’t make the final edit of that review or have been tweaked a little to suit the blog format. Overall, I found this collection quite an interesting read, in spite of its mad title and its leanings towards the more laconic end of postmodernism, a tone that struck me as being both contrived and derivative rather than the natural voice of the poet. But hey ho, it’s early days yet for Haddon the poet -- as opposed to Haddon the children’s writer, or Haddon the celebrity novelist (he’s also the author of the multiple award-winning bestseller THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME). Plenty of time yet for him to decide which way he’s leaning and whether that direction’s going to suit him in the long-term. It must suit him perfectly at the moment though, otherwise a mainstream publisher like Picador would not be publishing his first collection.

So I enjoyed reading his debut and often found myself wondering where he would be going afterwards, how his work would progress, sensing an ambition which is not fully realised here - and how boring life would be if our ambitions as poets could be realised that quickly and easily! - and another poet beyond the knowing smile. The French have a warning sign on their railroad crossings, which goes something like this: Un train peut en cacher un autre. Here it struck me that ‘un poet peut en cacher un autre’ - one poet may hide another. I think in my own debut collection I was hiding behind about a dozen poets, most of them having been pushing up the daisies now for fifty years or more. Apart from classical authors like Horace, most of Haddon’s influences appear to be very much alive. I would even number his own editor, Don Paterson, among them. But there’s real talent here and a voice to reckon with. I’m looking forward to reading new poems from Mark Haddon over the next few years and gradually watching the real poet emerge from under those influences.

There were poems in this collection that left me cold and poems that I loved; the latter were generally written in a more personal voice, poems like ‘Cabin Doors to Automatic’

This is how we leave the world,
with the heart weeping

and ‘Old, New, Borrowed, Blue’

My Ella Live at Montreux which I hope he plays one night by accident and makes you cry.

There are also translations of Horace which require - and reward - fairly close study; these took me back to my days as an A-level Latin student (not altogether a recommendation, I’m afraid) but also provided clues to Haddon’s identity as a poet, how he sees himself, or would like the world to see him. Perhaps it might not be entirely fanciful to say, here is a gentle sensibility made cynical by the disappointments of modern existence, a poet who wishes life ran along more mythical lines but who fears the opposite to be true, pre-empting the arbitrary nature of things with these well-constructed, provocative and often wittily surreal poems.

I have much more to say about this collection but don’t want to duplicate what I’ve written in my hard copy review, so you’ll just have to buy the collection yourself - or wait until it’s in the library! - to find out what sort of poet Mark Haddon is. And in case you’ve been wondering, the title THE TALKING HORSE AND THE SAD GIRL AND THE VILLAGE UNDER THE SEA is taken from the opening poem, ‘Go, Litel Bok’. It’s an odd and cumbersome title that reminds me - in possibly an arbitrary fashion - of Dylan Thomas’ verse play ‘Under Milk Wood’. But perhaps that’s another clue to Mark Haddon’s real poetic identity - not the drinking, I should stress, but that deeply human response to other people, the expansive nature of his poetry, the delight in the absurd and the trivial, things which came so wonderfully to life in Dylan Thomas’ famous play, and which come alive in a similar way in Haddon’s best poems. More of the above, please. Less of the laconic.

And for those who haven't yet discovered it, Mark Haddon - idiosyncratic novelist, illustrator, poet and raconteur - has a fascinating and quirky website of his own - aimed mainly at his younger fans but with enough dark humour to make it attractive to adults as well. Go explore.

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