"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
wrestling the perfume of frying eggs,
a trace of whisky orbits the sun.
it is bastille day and the pale sky shrinks.
an ash-tray is slowly filling.
the old man with no fingers remembers
the shriek of the circular saw;
his belligerent jumper straining at the seams
a leaking prostate dampening his spirits.
he had once had a trial with blackburn rovers,
he is dying of something he cannot spell.
[from Union, Smokestack 2011]
This is by Paul Summers. I’m a dedicated fan of Summers, whose new collection Straya is out this month, but no-one would call his poetry cosy. This one is typical. It’s written entirely in lower case, populated entirely by working-class northern English men doing something mundane.
Poetry is often about the extraordinary, the elevated; the moment of great emotion, the moment that shakes you up (as Andrew Greig’s sea journey shook him up yesterday). This one is a moment so ordinary it might go completely unnoticed. The poet notices it, because that’s our job, and records it in plain language. Don’t mistake the vernacular for the unskilled. There is power in clarity. This poem is machine-tooled and its form works with its subject to leave a bitter aftertaste.
Why the lower-case? Perhaps because this poetry needs to be completely stripped of pretension and correctness. Where EE Cummings did this to refresh language, here it feels like a challenge to the reader; Alright so there’s no capitals, who makes the rules round here anyway? As the poem makes clear, life doesn’t respect grammar so why should poetry? But we still have punctuation and line breaks. There are italics wherever there is a brand name or (as here) a newspaper title, so we aren’t left confused or without guidance. Most of the couplets hold a single sentence. Line breaks are straightforward, following the sense of the words.
The words themselves are not flashy, with the exception of ‘belligerent’ which might be there to suggest ‘belly’. That would fit with the pun on ‘leaking prostate’ and ‘dampening his spirits’. There’s more wry humour in the date. It’s Bastille Day, the day of revolution but clearly no-one here is storming the barricades. Otherwise, most of what we’re told is physical. We have a flavour of whisky and fag ash, a copy of The Sun and the smell of fried egg. Or rather, the perfume – not odour or even scent, but perfume. This poem is not judging the customers’ dietary choices nor offering them up for our judgment. It’s happy to accept a fried egg as a sensory pleasure.
Effective poems often have a central event or character that stands for something else. That’s the meaning of the old saw, ‘Show don’t tell’. The old man with no fingers – no frills, no further description – stands for all who suffer injury or insult in their work. The trial with Blackburn Rovers stands for what might have been, in his life or perhaps in yours. And that killer last line, savage in its precision. Is Summers judging him for his lack of scholarship, or attacking the society that judges him for it?
In his book On Poetry, Glyn Maxwell says
I think a poem you read has to meet the same criteria as a person you meet: did it mean anything to you, matter to you, affect you? If it didn’t do those things you won’t remember it long.
He doesn’t say that you have to like the person, or be comfortable with the poem. Does Summers’ poem affect me? Yes it does. The last line affects me almost physically, because it makes me feel not only pity but shame. I write for a living, I read the Guardian and dammit, yes I do judge people all the time for poor spelling or for reading The Sun. This poem holds me to account for that. It shows me something ugly about myself, and something about other people which I need to be reminded of. So it matters to me, and I do remember it. Poetry can achieve as much by discomfiting a reader, as by confirming her prejudices.