MARTIN STANNARD AND BRITISH POETRY



I'm writing this less than a week after reading with - and meeting for the second time - an important British poet. It's sadly necessary to discuss why Martin Stannard wouldn't be so described, by the kind of people who direct the British 'poetry scene'.

Needless to say, this neglect has nothing to do with lacking talent or imaginative reach. Nor has it anything to do with how enjoyable his work is - although, from bitter experience, there seems to be some correlation between how praised poets are and how unrewarding they seem to read.

As Stannard himself asks: 'Is it reasonable that many of our "best" poets are actually no good?' 

Anyway, to make such a claim for his significance, I need to explain my thinking.

To be an important figure, there needs to be a substantial body of work. And a dedication, a commitment to an aesthetic. One which situates the reader, without them needing to know this. In fact, this stance needs to be both deeply ingrained yet unobtrusive.

Recentish poets I'd say show this are: Roy Fisher; Ken Smith; Tom Raworth; Peter Reading; Denise Riley; Ted Hughes; John Ashbery; Jorie Graham. I'd argue Carol Ann Duffy also showed it - but that now her aesthetic comes first - and so deadens - the writing. Ditto for Prynne and Hill.

And, to avoid tedious gender accusations, Rosemary Tonks shows this necessary stance in abundance; as do Plath and Dickinson. Don't mention Su Tenderdake though.

Of course, the writing itself has to be sufficiently good. I'll discuss my own reasons, for why I feel Stannard's writing is. But that alone is not enough: it never has been and never will be. In any age, on all sides, poets are beset by fuckers. This is probably desirable, in the long run. But none of us are here, in the long run (with apologies to Keynes).

In the meantime, a writer like Stannard is caught between the mainstream and the self-consciously experimental. To his credit, he fits into neither:

In mainstream poetry, the technical requirements for form have been switched to something like a demand for niceness, decorum and sensitivity. These provide supposed lyricism, hitched to unrewarding epiphanies and validations of the self (as secretly superior, whilst professing cod universalism or crude identity politics). I've little time to further discuss this - but it does need examples - so I'll presumptuously direct anyone reading to these:

http://www.leafepress.com/litter6/sutton/suttton01.html

http://www.stridemagazine.co.uk/Stride%20mag2010/May%202010/Armitage%20review.htm

Unfortunately, things are far from ideal elsewhere. The non-mainstream world has a weakness for dull and baffling procedures, or recycled 'experiments' - often legitimised within the nightmarish world of critical theory. Stannard himself has recently been eviscerating these - when people use collage and 'textual appropriation', but forget that some poor sod is meant to read the stuff. 

In addition, the British poetry world has also never been much interested in challenging readers' expectations, in terms of content - whereas (with his great appreciation for American poetry) this is something Stannard excels at. It's true, things are slightly more relaxed now. But take a look at any collection which wins a major prize. And ask yourself if you're genuinely
surprised at the content, the things the poems are about.  

Even more unfortunately, the world of 'performance poetry' - in which grandstanding student politics meets unfunny stand-up comedy - exists. A second's perusal of the semi-literate Anne Pericles' work shows where this leads:

'Brothers and sisters we's all in a rage/and all I want is for you to engage/wiv wot I's written on the page/cos I ain't claiming to be no sage/just a poet in a neoliberal age.'

Supposedly the authentic voice of the streets (or some well-heeled 'edgy' London suburb).

Stannard's poetry reviews alone are of huge interest, to anyone who wants to view the British poetry world critically, but also as entertainment - in the same way that people do with popular music or films (and never do with poetry). His book of reviews, Conversations with Myself
(Stride), is almost unbelievable in how fearlessly he attacks some of the supposedly major poets of our times.

What is obvious though, is that Stannard does this not through malice - unless one takes any poking of fun as malicious - but in a serious engagement with poetics. Although it could legitimately be argued that most poets take themselves so seriously, it's essential to laugh at them.

That itself may explain his comparative neglect. British poets expect respectful praise from a fellow poet. They can tolerate (barely) a generously detailed account of why the reviewer found Threnody for Yesterday's Teabags
'an uncomfortable and demanding read'. Any hint that the aforementioned is relentless bilge (and undeserving of the Nandos Prize), well...

Aside from ego, there are three reasons for this hypersensitivity.

First, the misguided idea of solidarity, in the face of indifference. That is, in the absence of any real audience, the poetry world must close ranks and adopt a frosty 'Please. Not in front of the children!' stance towards dissenting voices.

Also, many poets believe that their work - if it has been published - is obviously of a high enough standard to not be summarily dismissed as dull and pointless. Put simply, most poets have an inflated sense of how good they are as writers, because of the supposedly exacting standards poetry demands. Again, this can be traced to a lack of readership. After all, no one in their right mind would assume that, because a film has been released, it must be any good.

Just as importantly, poetry is now a group activity - in some ways a social one. And the groups are made up, almost entirely, of mutually supportive poets. Social media has only increased this tendency. Obviously this leads to networks - there is no other way (and no other audience with which) to get on. Equally obviously, a voce saying that many of the leading poets are rubbish - that most poets are rubbish - is best ignored, attacked or silenced.

I first heard of Martin Stannard when reading Sean O'Brien's extravagant and badly written The Deregulated Muse
(such a dated title - so New Labour). In amongst the bluster and back scratching was this sternly delivered rebuke, to some wretched figure who'd disturbed the New Generation Poetry Court's peace and jollification:

   The epistolary form allows Stannard's heartfelt disapproval
   full rein, without his needing to employ the usual critical devices
   of example and argument. His ultimate court of appeal is
   Common Sense, the refuge of reactionary opinion from Larkin and
   Amis to Auberon Waugh...does he wish to be included in this
   company? The effect is to make the world seem smaller, dimmer
   and less interesting...'

What O'Brien is objecting to is one of Stannard's most brilliant and imaginative critical pieces - his ‘Open Letter to Michael Blackburn' - in which he bemoaned the hyperbole surrounding Selima Hill's silly similes: '...the last night I spent longing for you/was like spending the night with no clothes on/in a Daimler full of chows/with the windows closed./I have decided to calm myself down,/and imagine my head as a tinkly moss-padded cavern/where nothing happens.'

Stannard's view was that: 'If you took all the similes out of it, you'd have bugger all left...if you're not careful they fall out all over the carpet, or if your hands are sweaty, they stick to your fingers, and when someone asks you how you are, you say that you feel like a toilet cistern that's unflushed on the borders of the new Czech Republic. Not because it makes sense, or is apt, but just because it is.'

O'Brien then makes the false claim that Stannard doesn't use textual evidence (his reviews are scrupulous about this), and also that Selima Hill's rushing excess is not some rhetorical blunder but simply 'what things are like
'. Presumably because Sean O'Brien says so - having spent the night naked in a Daimler full of chows! In other words, he's using his dreaded reactionary Common Sense, following his strawman reasoning. Although I'm worried about those chows - call the RSPCA?

Sure, one can say she is using the imagination - but unconvincingly. Stannard's poetry is intensively imaginative, without relying on such hysteria - hence this supposed 'attack' on Selima Hill. It's not personal, it's about poetics. But O'Brien's book is so deeply uncritical, so invested in promoting this new renaissance, that he cannot tolerate either humour or irreverence.

How do I assess Stannard's poetry?

Well, one way is in terms of readability coupled with depth. Or perhaps more accurately - a rejection of pomposity whilst being serious yet playful. The aesthetic stance is from American poetry, of the first and second generation New York poets - especially O'Hara, Koch and Violi. But there's a more melancholic sense of Englishness at work, an inherently more pessimistic mindset. He is expert at being apparently light-hearted then switching into sudden depth - without flippancy:

   One More Brilliant Effect

   would be to explode
   and take everyone by surprise.
   But you could only do that once, I guess,
   and then you'd have had your best and only shot.
   But tearing the covers off books in anger
  is one way, damning the flow of a river
   is another possibility, plunging a town into
   darkness would be good if they knew it was you did it,
   but writing to the paper is a crappy way
   of going about things.
   Ripping your head off in the market place
   would be good if it were raining, eating a dog
   to make a point is another way, calling down
   a plague of rats from the sky is probably beyond us
   these days, but concreting over the oceans
   is perhaps still possible if you're quick.
   Shouting until your mouth bleeds
   is no good, nor is swallowing yourself;      
   becoming a lightning conductor will draw attention
   to your body but not your plight, and remember
   animals get more sympathy than people,
   usually. Sending the Earth hurtling into the Sun
   is almost too big, and stealing the Crown Jewels
   would give you more lasting infamy
   if they knew it was you did it.

      (poem from Writing Down the Days
, Stride, 2001)

Another great strength is an acuteness of detail, yet with a weird sense of openness and indeterminacy. This has in fact strengthened during his ten years in China - without in any way feeling as if he is writing 'about' the place:

   Some of us took a train, others one day woke up
   and discovered somehow their place had been decided for them.
   What discoveries they had unwittingly passed by!
   You might have been enchanted by back gardens and terraces
   and hypnotised by curtainless dens and whores' duvets.

       (from 'FOUR POEMS', poems for the young at heart
, leafe press, 2016)

And - above all else - he avoids the unforgivable sin.

He is never boring. 

     © Paul Sutton, 2016