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
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
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:
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
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
'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'
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
is no good, nor is
becoming a lightning conductor
will draw attention
to your body but not your
plight, and remember
animals get more sympathy
usually. Sending the
Earth hurtling into the Sun
is almost too big, and
stealing the Crown Jewels
would give you more lasting
if they knew it was you
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,
And - above all else - he avoids the unforgivable sin.
He is never boring.