Is it just my perception or have UK poetry reviews and criticism generally become – with the exception of one completely ludicrous, notorious and discredited outlier – kinder in the last few years? It’s within that context that I was surprised by the tenor and content of Rory Waterman’s review of Keith Hutson’s debut collection Baldwin’s Catholic Geese for the latest issue (#255) of PN Review.
I will declare my interests at this point: Keith Hutson is a friend of mine, whom I met for the first time at a Magma launch at the LR Bookshop shortly before we were both participants on the 2017–2019 Poetry Business Writing School. Keith is also one the editors of Poetry Salzburg Review, who published three of my poems in #34 and will do so again soon in #36. Like Keith, Rory Waterman is a poet whom I admire: each of his three collections has a place on my shelves, immediately to the right of books by his father, Andrew Waterman. Waterman père was a lecturer in English at the University of Ulster when I was a student there in the mid- to late-Eighties, and he had a certain extra-curricular reputation. Waterman fils’s most recent collection, Sweet Nothings, contains arguably his best poem to date, ‘Like Father’, a response, a riposte surely, to the painful, barely readable 12-poem sequence, ‘A Father’s Tale’, in Waterman père’s 1990 collection In the Planetarium, which dealt with his unsuccessful custody battle for the infant Rory.
Waterman fils reviewed Hutson’s debut collection Baldwin’s Catholic Geese for the latest issue (#255) of PN Review but didn’t, to my mind, do it much justice. The collection’s title recalls one of the many obscure and often bizarre Victorian and Twentieth Century Music Hall entertainers which a proportion of its poems celebrate, with pathos and bathos where appropriate. Waterman is right to note that as first collections go it is ‘unusually fat’, but it seems a little peevish to add that ‘it is hard not to feel that this is a superb pamphlet bloated into a chunky collection’, not least because the collection was actually prefigured by just such a pamphlet, Routines. And if one were to be uncharitable, one could argue that to accuse another poet of excessive exposure is not especially prudent if you’ve had three full collections published yourself in the last eight years.
Moreover, the succession of act after act, each with their two minutes of glory, resembles the bloated nature of Music Hall bills. That famous celebration of just such a bill, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’, derives from Lennon’s chancing upon, in a junk shop, a poster stuffed with Music hall acts. (Rob Chapman devotes an excellent chapter in his 2015 masterwork Psychedelia and Other Colours to ‘The Psychedelic Music Hall’, taking in – as well as the Beatles – The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, early Bowie and much else besides.) There are shades of Archie Rice’s over-reaching self-regard in a number of the acts which Hutson highlights: take Professor Cheer, ‘The Man with the Xylophone Skull’:
Let’s hear it for this prematurely bald
headmaster: struck by the disquieting fact
his crown – hit with a brass door-handle – could
resound, a bell, his temples too, he taught
himself to scale an octave, frontal bone
to back, and at the Christmas show knocked out
a carol, Ding Dong Merrily, performed,
he quipped (as teachers do) on high! But what
should have stayed a daft percussion act at school –
festive morale – didn’t.
It’s the accidental discovery of such an unlikely talent, and how Hutson, like a meta-poet, inserts his asides, such as ‘as teachers do’ and what might otherwise be read as an apparently line-filling throwaway ‘festive morale’, which give the poem its authority, from a viewpoint which invites our amusement and bemusement but steers clear of asking us to make any moral judgement. Hutson treads that path with perfect balance throughout the book.
Then there’s the matter of the socioeconomic background to the more obscure artistes: in many cases, entertainment provided them with an escape into a world of money. Hutson distils the life of Joan Rhodes, strongwoman, in the punningly-titled ‘Coming on Strong’:
Three and in the workhouse, ten when you ran,
missing till twenty then, as lean as luck,
in fishnets at the fair, you tore a phone book
up, bent iron bars, broke nails, took four men
on at tug-of-war and won, which led to
lifting Bob Hope while Marlene Dietrich
loved a woman tough enough to keep
refusing King Farouk, who wanted you
to wreck his best four-poster bed with him
still in it.
This is economical, witty writing which moves effortlessly, it seems, through the subject’s biography, and does so within the rhyming and syllabic constraints of an ABBA ABBA ABBA DD sonnet. Yes, ‘-rich’ doesn’t rhyme perfectly with ‘keep’, but sometimes such anomalies are unavoidable in order to make a poem work.
It’s also the case that a significant proportion of the poems are set within living memory, encompassing such subjects as Charles Aznavour, Hylda Baker, The Ray Coniff Singers, Freddie ‘Parrot-face’ Davies’, Les Dawson, Percy Edwards, Dick Emery, Gracie Fields, Frankie Howerd, Anthony Howell’s performance art, Jimmy James, Bob Monkhouse, and the young Hutson’s trips to the cinema to see Doctor Zhivago and Mary Poppins.
Waterman identifies what he calls the book’s ‘central failings: the enjambments are sloppy, the last phrase cliched, and the poem nothing more than its admittedly memorable anecdote’, but fails himself to provide any examples to support his charges. That omission wholly undermines such criticism. For me, they are strange denunciations, because Hutson is a fine formalist, particularly of sonnets, which make up 65 of the book’s 100 poems and which he carves up in an apt variety of ways.
Hutson is especially good when writing about masculinity:
Frank – old classmate,
animal – who, massive at fifteen,
found me half-naked in the changing room,
scooped me up and, singing Diamonds Are Forever,
tossed me like a towel into the showers.
This because I’d joined a cycling club
which Frank decided made me homosexual
The Head suggested Francis can be boisterous.
Hutson deftly depicts Frank’s reduction forty or so years later to a sad man–child creature:
Now, approaching pension age and run to fat,
he’s in the Civic Centre, wringing the neck
of a bell, licensed at last to cause alarm,
make children cling to mums who stoop and flinch.
The image reminds me of the all-American males reduced to pitiful figures in Robert Lowell’s ‘Waking in the Blue’, with its superb line, ‘These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.’ Hutson’s enjambment of ‘wringing the neck/ of a bell’, far from being sloppy, is cleverly done, conjuring up a picture of a man who would be perfectly suited to be a slaughterman; and that ‘licensed’ neatly underlines that Frank is certainly no James Bond.
One might conclude from Waterman’s condescending conclusion – ‘Every poem comes with a sprightly note about its subject, and perhaps the greatest lasting pleasure this book will give you is several hours disappearing down internet rabbit holes as you shadow the author’s impressive research’ – is that what he wants to say is, ‘Jolly well done on the research, but shame about the poems’, which is grossly dismissive. Given that the book’s glowing endorsements come from Carol Ann Duffy, Peter Sansom and Michael Symmons Roberts, Waterman’s verdict is also more than a little against the grain and makes me wonder just how much time he gave to reading the book with care.
My own verdict on Baldwin’s Catholic Geese is that it lays bare, in a way which surely refracts on today’s celebrity culture, how natural an ambition it is to aim for fame and fortune by any, and sometimes bizarre, means; and that to fail in doing so is equally as natural – so few entertainers stay on the top of their game for the duration of their careers and it’s only human for the overwhelming majority to have no more than a fleeting moment in the limelight. That’s hardly an original thought (c.f., for example, ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’), but Hutson explores the highways and byways of that ambition in a rich way that emphasises his subjects’ egos, successes and flaws without ridicule and more often than not in joyous, zestful language.