Saturday, June 23, 2007

Growing A Pearl: Jacob Polley's 'Little Gods' (Picador 2006)

Mother of tides, father of skies:
give me the grit to grow a pearl.
Fill me with fear,
that brain-food, or that dark matter, desire.

As the eminently quotable Don Paterson has told us*, ‘Poetry is the art of saying things once’, and Jacob Polley’s second collection, Little Gods, published last year, seems to provide that perfect balance between under and over-statement to which Paterson, his editor at Picador, was referring.

His poetry is clear-spoken, or rather - since this is poetry - clear-sung across the white space of the page, without straining for emphasis or becoming distracted by those odd peripheral activities that poems indulge in as they are written, as evidenced by the perfect poise and lyrical invocation of the four lines above (from Polley’s ‘Sand’).

It is possible to read Paterson’s little aphorism as an assertion that poetry is about saying things on one occasion and never needing to go down that route again. But then none of us would bother with all these versions or translations of poems that have influenced us, or poems inspired by other poets, ad infinitum.

But of course we do bother, because part of being a poet is positioning oneself within a certain poetic tradition - or, if you are daring and competent enough, outside that tradition - by choosing poets, past and present, with whom you can align yourself.

Jacob Polley understands this venerated practice and leaves us a number of these signposts in Little Gods: two poems directly ‘after Baudelaire’ (‘Spleen’ and ‘The Sun’), and many individual words, lines or tropes which speak to me clearly of the pastoral lyric tradition.

On top of that, there’s the blistering contemporary varnish of ‘burnt-out’ urban decay, reminding me in places of shorter poems by T.S. Eliot such as ‘The Love-Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ or ‘Preludes’:

October, November: leaves and smoke.
The coalman pulls up in his flatbed truck.
Who would believe I stand where I am,

so long at the window, lost in a coat,
or under a streetlamp, my shadow unstuck?
Only she with her clock and her almanac can.

This is from Polley's 'Skin and Bone'. Here I’m waiting for Eliot's lonely cab-horse that steams and stamps ('Preludes'), ‘And then the lighting of the lamps.’ The last line too, its old-fashioned deferral of the verb giving us an unusual stress on the final word, feels almost ironic, self-mocking. Then, as though to confirm my pinpointing of his influences, we have the closing lines of Polley’s ‘Twilight’:

On the river, lanterns float. The city
lies with its throat cut and wrists open,
feeding streetlight into the water.

Ah, but the rain you prayed for. Do you hear?

Now I’m waiting for rain in the dry mountains, followed perhaps by a quick chorus of ‘Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.’** And who doesn’t remember ‘ When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table’ from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’?

Here we have a highly urban Eliotesque poetry, dark, intelligent and sophisticated, alongside versions of Baudelaire, a poet praised by Eliot for his ‘great genius’ and technical mastery. Some ambitious choices of mentor from Polley here.

But what does Charles Baudelaire represent to us now? A reckless and dissolute young man, his political edge tempered by addiction and the relentless pursuit of luxury in its older sense – that of lust or lasciviousness from the creamy Latin luxuria, meaning excess. ‘Spleen’ is his infamous expression of rage against the world, a dark and slimy place he envisages as an inescapable trap, full of horrors and leading only to death.

So how does all that translate to Jacob Polley’s take on Baudelaire? At first glance, it seems a glaring mismatch of styles. Jacob Polley is a ‘nice’ poet. He writes about owls in trees (yew trees though, associated with Plath, graveyards, longevity) and doesn’t write about unpleasant things lurking in the darkness or ladies with long tresses, the fleshpots and seductive lures of the city. Or does he?

Here are the final two stanzas of one of his more urban poems, the gothicky ‘Black Water’:

The knife’s not a fish,
though it’s cold from the drawer;
and the birch leaves aren’t cymbals, though they’re blown
silver-side-up in the wind, which won’t show you
death in a cistern’s slab of black water:
only your own untroubled face.

And there’s no testing the blade of her shoulder,
there’s no catch hidden in her throat,
and your heart’s no more than meat.

The ‘her’ of these last lines is the first mention of a woman in this poem. She is not named, nor designated as lover, wife or muse, but is described almost as a faceless predator, a suggestion of dangerous nudity in ‘the blade of her shoulder’, and a trap being set for the unwary male where ‘your heart’s no more than meat.’

But Polley is cleverer than that. The narrator’s face is ‘untroubled’ in the ‘cistern’s slab of black water’ and he is not involved with the woman, so cannot be trapped or hurt by that seductive shoulder and throat: ‘your heart’s no more than meat’.

Some critics have seen Ted Hughes in this poetry; I don't, except in individual poems where specific echoes occur, and as a general influence which I consider all-pervasive for younger poets, something you can't help imbibing directly or indirectly via other poets as you learn your trade.

For me, poems like ‘The Turn’, the Plath-like ‘Caldecotes’ - 'Roll over, you dead, for the little ones' - and ‘Twilight’, quoted earlier, simply reinforce that other face to Polley’s work, the darker and less socially integrated side: ‘Here comes the evening, the criminal’s friend'.

The powerful emphasis on metaphor and simile in Polley’s work can seem old-fashioned in this age of unsophisticated, confessional writing. Yet perhaps this is precisely what we need to bring that elusive general readership back to poetry. As twenty-first century poets, we work within a paradox where poetry is everywhere, yet everywhere ignored. A poet whose work is quotable, accessible and nostalgic in tone - whilst also being complex enough to provide any number of hot meals for academics - may be the answer to our prayers.

There are problems associated with that sort of writing, though. For instance, we tend to associate the English lyric with over-simplicity, perhaps a certain lightweight feel to theme or subject. Poetry for more innocent times, for the children we used to be. What we need now - it’s generally assumed - is a spare, muscular, uncompromising poetry. Poetry for the modern age, poetry for grown-ups.

But the truth is, we are still looking to poetry to fill the gaps left by the demise of religion and the old-fashioned intergenerational family unit, mothers who used to sing and teach us nursery rhymes, fathers who told us stories at bedtime, grandparents still available to explain the way it used to be when they were children. The television, video game and computer have largely taken the place of those creative sources. Even the novel is barely in evidence anymore: if statistics are to be believed, we are a nation of non-readers.

So, as adults, we may come to poetry looking for truth and spiritual sustenance - ‘I remember hearing a poem about the sea when I was a child, or was it a dark forest, anyway it made me feel sad/frightened/exhilarated’ - only to wander away empty-handed, bemused by the incredible variety and the sheer vacuousness of most contemporary poetry.

Is Jacob Polley’s poetry too lyrical to be truly contemporary, too simple to carry the weight of what we know now? I don’t believe so. I believe it to be one of the best new collections that I’ve seen coming out of Picador for a few years. It lacks the intensity and laser-like accuracy of Robin Robertson, and the sardonic theatrical flair of Don Paterson, and has almost nothing of the nature of Annie Freud's more recent discursive, anecdotal style. Yet it rolls confidently off the tongue, more Anglo-Saxon than Latinate, and is not afraid to speak in simile and metaphor, or to shift verbs about the line where necessary, regardless of the shades of Georgian poets conjured up by such methods.

Sounds like critical hyperbole? Just take a look at this from his poem ‘April’ (the cruellest month, let’s not forget, for old Tom Eliot and, before him, Geoffrey Chaucer):

Whatever the leaves were saying must wait:
rain has filled the trees with its own brisk word.
There’s thunder in the darkened slates.
The pond’s green eye rolls heavenward.

You can’t charge a page with the hiss, with this
cooling of the city like a new horseshoe.
Rain in the hair, at the neck and the wrists:
for rich and poor, there’s rain to hurry through.

The boil and spit of pavements: mirrored brick.
Every patch of grass is fiercely lit.

Here Polley claims ‘you can’t charge a page with the hiss’, whilst making a creditable job of it, nevertheless. And he’s not alone in this very British concern with the weather. ‘April’, and the poem which immediately follows it in the book, ‘Rain’, both remind me of one of the best pieces of required writing produced by Ted Hughes in his capacity as Poet Laureate, the epic ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’, where ‘Thunder gripped and picked up the city./ Rain didn’t so much fall as collapse./ The pavements danced, like cinders in a riddle’, and then the magnificent ‘A girl in high heels, her handbag above her head, // Risked it across the square’s lit metals.’ I could also point to Seamus Heaney’s opening poem in Spirit Level, the exuberant ‘Rain Stick’, with its torrential euphony of descriptors. Here at least I find Hughes - and Heaney as a sturdier alternative - but if he is elsewhere in this collection, the influence has been well-integrated enough not to shriek Hughes, even to someone steeped in him, someone for whom Hughes is, quite frankly, a god.

So Polley’s poetry stretches to meet its predecessors, needing to rival them, to leave his footprint in the pastoral tradition. He succeeds in some places, the stronger poems in his second collection overshadowing the weaker ones to such an extent that we barely notice the flaws. Best of all, his poems are articulate; they connect with the reader, want to give back to them. From such auspicious beginnings, a pearl may be grown, the career of a poet forged:

Darling, d’you think you can’t see as you did?
Then find inside this battered tin,
this tin that smells of cold metal and rust,
these steel-rimmed spectacles. Hook them on,
for I want you to see as you did again.
Others have. Those who’ve aged, or lost,
have worn them a while, and regained
lovers or sons, memories or minds,
then returned to their lives, less vague, less blind.

(‘The Prescription’)

* From ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ by Don Paterson (T.S. Eliot Lecture November 2004).
** The closing lines of ‘The Waste Land’. T.S. Eliot’s note on the text reads: “The peace which passeth understanding is our equivalent to this word (shantih)."

Buy Jacob Polley's Little Gods from


Bo said...

WOW!!! I am buying this the instant I get back to Oxford. This is AMAZING stuff. Thanks for writing about it so eloquently and so well, Jane. It knocks 'Paraphenalia' into a cloche hat, as my friend Ian says.

Jane Holland said...

Good stuff, Bo. And there I was thinking no one could be bothered to plough through this nearly 2000 word ramble. I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort simply by saying 'This is good. Buy it.' But then I wouldn't have had an excuse to quote some magnificent Ted Hughes ... it's just pathetic, any excuse, really. I work him into everything. Even my shopping lists:

Sliced wholemeal.
Salmon ('Solemn to stand there in the pollen light/Waist-deep in wild salmon swaying massed/As though from the hand of God.' - 'That Morning', from River)
Baby wipes.

theoncominghope said...

I'm fairly new to his work, but I just featured Jacob Polley in my poem of the day series. He's a wonderful, wonderful poet.