I recently bought The Best Man That Ever Was, Annie Freud's debut poetry collection from Picador, and have been reading it. Reading poetry collections takes time, and I don't imagine that one - or even two - fairly rapid read-throughs is enough for anyone to comment wisely on a poet or their work. But I'm going to attempt to comment to some extent on what I've read, in particular the title poem, and you'll have to forgive any fuzziness now or subsequent shifts in opinion as I come back to the book in the future.
First off, The Best Man That Ever Was is an intelligent collection, darkly humorous, loaded with grand ideas and impressive metaphors, written by a poet with oodles of raw talent and a sure ear.
But there are flaws here, and most of them are connected, in my opinion, to Annie Freud’s decision to sidestep the sticky issue of gender in poetry by writing so frequently over the shoulder of a man (i.e. ‘He’ does this or that, rather than ‘She’) or actually in the first person voice of a man. Which is problematic in itself, because it raises another sticky issue for poets, which is authenticity.
You could argue that it’s in the nature of things for a poet to be a ventriloquist, speaking in the voice of an object or another person, regardless of gender. But you could also argue that when it becomes noticeable it’s no longer in the nature of things, but is a stylistic nervous tic.
Which brings me to the question of style.
‘One of the most startlingly original poets to have emerged in recent years’ declares the Picador-generated blurb on the back cover of this handsome book.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself struck by these - often very witty - poems’ similarity to work by, say, John Stammers, Roddy Lumsden, and other London-based poets tonally influenced by - among others, agreed - the same Frank O'Hara/New York School tradition. There's also more than a touch of well-known American poet Sharon Olds here, with the long, loose-limbed rhythms of some poems and their peculiarly detailed note of intimacy, the psychological touch [though often veering away into a blokeish humour, as though Freud flirts with but doesn't want to get too close to any kind of female love poem tradition, even one as densely textured and metaphysical as Olds'].
This is a poetry with two distinct moods, neither of them unusual in contemporary poetry. It either undulates, like the I Claudius-style snake on the cover, in syllabic-heavy American-influenced lines dripping with semi-colons and subordinate clauses, or trots in sharp urban stanzas like this:
Fucking great to have done my bird
and get the heat of the sun on my neck,
no longer to hear the hooter’s howl
and live in fear of the cunting screws.
Which is where you may spot the problem I mentioned earlier: Annie Freud’s liking for poems written from a man’s point of view.
I can see that writing poetry in the voice of a man can be liberating for a woman, allowing her to say all sorts of things she might feel uncomfortable with as a woman and to use a few techniques native to male poets, like the snide or brutal closing one-liner, blowing right down the British line from Simon Armitage, which makes a frequent appearance in this collection.
It’s a fabulous trick if you’re trying to achieve humour – and these poems can be very funny – but it’s a trick that’s right there on the surface of the work, not concealed by the magician, as here in the final statement of The Maskmaker of Wanstead, its deliberately empty 'You ain't seen nothing yet.'
Authenticity. It’s not so much that we have to consider biography whenever we read, relating each poem back to the poet’s life. It’s more that the poem must seem authentic in the reading, that it must strike the reader as being ‘true’.
Indications for me that a poem is ‘true’ in this sense may include a raised heart beat, a sharp intake of breath, the urge to re-read those particular lines, and a strong desire to instantly rush off and write something myself, because the spark of authenticity ignites something in me as a writer, a sort of internal wick that’s always there, dry tinder, waiting to catch light.
Ambition is another word on the list of things I tend to look for first in a poem, including my own work. I constantly find myself writing unambitious poems, perhaps having been influenced by others in the same tradition to the extent where I don't always notice how a poem is going, the way it's shaping up, until it's too late to do anything about it.
There can be a randomness about this, but I see no other reason for wanting to write poetry than to leave behind work that will last. Anything less and we might as well give up the attempt and work a supermarket check-out. Or write fiction.
Annie Freud's The Best Man That Ever Was announces its ambition up-front with its title. Or does it?
Two things here: ‘best’ and ‘man’, the first being obvious in its claim, the second striking at first glance, gender-wise. But is Freud the ‘best man that ever was’, you may wonder, picking up the book in Waterstones? Or is this the inverse of female poetic ambition, tugging a forelock to the male tradition in the hope that it treats you kindly?
As though to completely throw out of kilter this initial impression, the title poem turns out to be one of the most complex and interesting pieces in the book. Like the collection itself, it plays with the reader, suggesting one interpretation, then unexpectedly revealing another, and yet another. It's also unusual for its content: 'The Best Man That Ever Was' tells the story of a woman who is beaten - or enjoys being beaten - in a ritualistic and theatrical manner by a man in a hotel room. **
Five stanzas of twelve lines, alternate lines slightly indented as though to create a see-sawing, swaying or dancing motion for the eye, each stanza recognisably different in tone. The first two stanzas left me confused, forced to retrace the earlier lines to find the thread I suspected I’d missed.
Having regained some sort of stability in the middle section, I then found the poem pulling me on compulsively to the end, by which time I felt a prurient interest in the interior world of the poem, its hinterland, its past, its truth or otherwise, not to mention intrigued and a little flustered by the content of the poem.
Here's the middle section, the rhythmic core of the poem, with no hesitations and the narrative voice superbly poised:
And having washed and dried his hands with care
and filled our flutes like any ordinary man,
the night's first task would come into his mind.
He'd bark his hoarse articulate command
and down I'd bend across the ornamented desk,
my mouth level with the inkstand's claws,
my cheek flat against the blotter; I'd lift my skirts,
slip down my panties and sob for him
with every blow.
[I can't do the inset for alternate lines here: anyone with the correct HTML please email me!]
I loved this particular stanza, could feel the authenticity zinging off it. Yet after the poem had finished I still felt confused, questioning the logistics of the poem's voice and set-up, like someone who walks out of the cinema after watching a film and feels unable to stop going over and over the plot and its closing moments in her mind. Re-writing, perhaps, or just trying to come to a better understanding.
In this title poem, Freud’s tone - and this applies to many of the longer poems in the book - is beautifully managed and maintained. Like a formal garden. Indeed, there’s something Edwardian about 'The Best Man That Ever Was', its narrative voice old-fashioned in an ironic and highly self-conscious way. We have the stilted self-importance of the wealthy man who beats his mistress (or wife, or prostitute, I’m not quite sure which) with birch twigs in a grand hotel, referring to the birch twigs as -
A Thing of Nature, so he said, so fine, so pure.
He’d turn away and smooth his thinning hair,
lost as he was in some vision of grandeur
- at that moment complementing the tone of the woman being beaten, in other places contrasting with it.
The narrator's voice sounds slightly deranged at the beginning of the poem, off-balance, with truncated clauses cluttering the first stanza. The narrative develops quite suddenly into eloquence after that, imbued with a sense of calm resignation about the woman’s ritual beating and its effect on both of them, Freud’s sentences lengthier and more urbane as the poem reaches its middle section.
Then her manner changes abruptly at the end, becoming Plath-like in its declamatory rhetoric, short clauses falling over themselves to reach the finishing tape, the tone unexpectedly triumphant as she celebrates rather than decries her oppressor/lover:
It’s over. But it is still good to arrive at a fine hotel
and reward the major-domo’s gruff punctilio
with a smile and a tip and let the bellboys slap my arse
and remember him, the man who thrashed me,
fed me, adored me. He was the best man that ever was.
He was my assassin of the world.
I can hear the true voice of the woman here. The throwaway finality of ‘It’s over’, the bite in these shortened syllables, the hint of barely controlled hysteria behind ‘assassin’.
Submission. Domination. The cruel, complicated, often unfathomable mental and sexual games that men and women play together. The see-sawing motion of the alternately indented lines: first one, then another. The dual face of desire. These are the things which inform the title poem.
And perhaps the deliberate textual confusions sprinkled throughout 'The Best Man That Ever Was' - who’s speaking? who is the best man? who’s doing what to whom, and why? - reflect the playful and duplicitous nature of Annie Freud’s first book. Another word to describe this might be artful. Which is to say - authentic, good. Which is to say there may be hope yet for my inadequate reading of this complex, multi-layered, tongue-in-cheek collection, and plenty more for Annie Freud herself.
But I still wish she hadn’t written quite so many poems from the point of view of a man ...
*I had to look up ‘velleity’. It means 1. a low degree of volition not conducive to action, and 2. a slight wish or inclination (Shorter Oxford English). I’m not sure how that fits into its context here.
**I'm grateful to Roddy Lumsden here for letting me know that the man mentioned in this title poem is Hitler. This was not at all clear to me from the title or content, but may be apparent to others. I think, in instances like these where vital contextual material is not immediately obvious in the poem itself, notes should be supplied at the back of the book, or a subtitle given to elucidate the poem. Either that or the poem should be written in such a way that it can stand alone, without notes or subtitles, otherwise alternative readings to the one intended by the poet are inevitable and must be accepted as such.
The Best Man That Ever Was (Picador, 2007), Annie Freud