Autumn almanac

It feels like a long time since I’ve rambled on about what I’ve been up to, so here goes.

As well as reviews for Sphinx, I’ve written two 2,000-word essays, which will appear in the next few months. Both involved a lot of intense reading, of course, which was more enjoyable than my routine reading, probably because it was consciously more purposeful. (Not that I ever read as passively as, say, I watch the telly, but the older you get the easier it becomes to tune out, of course.)

In an average week, I guess I read two poetry collections (and/or journals), but I rarely get so engaged with any of them that I read them straight through again immediately after. That happened to me last week, though, when I read Country Music by Will Burns, published by Offord Road Books. It wasn’t that (m)any of the poems were so individually brilliant that they jumped out at me; rather it was their cumulative power, how they are beautifully crafted to cohere with one another and form a whole. At their best, they have that quality which Michael Donaghy’s poems had, of seeming both impeccably honed and effortlessly natural. Like Donaghy, Burns is a bit of a muso (the Chilton of the Chilterns perhaps?) as attested by the title of his collection, his collaborations with Hannah Peel, and his appearances on the eclectic bills of Caught By the River shows. His poems make reference to the late great Townes Van Zandt, Chet Baker, Warren Zevon, Merle Haggard (twice) and Elvis. I especially enjoyed a trio of sonnets – ‘Bastard Service’, ‘True Service’ and ‘Wild Service’ – which convey an unexpectedly edgy edgelands feel to (presumably) Buckinghamshire. Above all, there’s just a simpatico, warmly melancholic tone about his poems which makes me enjoy them so much.

A week or two before the same thing happened with Stephen Payne’s equally exceptional The Windmill Proof, published by Happenstance. Stephen has a brilliant gift for form, derived, I think, from close attention to the poetry of Frost in particular. Again, though, his tone is so charming. I am in awe of Stephen’s cleverness, but, as in his first collection, he wears his erudition lightly. And for every poem which involves mathematics or physics there’s another delightful one which involves, for example, a random encounter (‘The Mousetail Man’), swimming (‘The Pool’ and ‘The River Swimmer’) or bowls (‘Crown Green Bowls’). The Happenstance online launch for the book, incidentally, was by far the best and warmest poetry event I’ve attended this year.

A few poems in to Speechless at Inch (Smith Doorstop), the first full collection by James (Jim) Caruth and I have that same feeling of reading a book which I know I’ll want to re-read in order to take a closer look at how the poems tick.

Other collections I’ve enjoyed in the last six months or so, since Lyn and I upped sticks to Rotherham, include these: The Historians by Eavan Boland (Carcanet); Boy in Various Poses by Lewis Buxton (Nine Arches); Beautiful Nowhere by Louisa Campbell(Boatwhistle); The Years by Tom Duddy (Happenstance); do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossom by Rachael Matthews (The Emma Press); Tigress by Jessica Mookherjee (Nine Arches); Fury by David Morley (Carcanet); The Long Habit of Living by M.R. Peacocke (Happenstance); The Coming-Down Time by Robert Selby (Shoestring); and Letters Home by Jennifer Wong (Nine Arches).

Of older collections, I’ve especially enjoyed The Never-Never by Kathryn Gray (Seren), Berg by Hilary Menos (Seren), The Brink by Jacob Polley (Picador) and After Nature by WG Sebald, tr. Michael Hamburger (Hamish Hamilton), the pleasure of which I had been deliberately deferring for ages.

It would also be remiss of me to mention a trio of excellent books by poetry friends of mine: Marples Must Go! by Greg Freeman (Dempsey & Windle); Key to the Highway by Chris Hardy (Shoestring); and the remarkable and marvellous When Listening Isn’t Enough by Rodney Wood (self-published, but that’s the loss of publishers out there).

Now I have a stack of what look like wonderful books, plus the latest issue of 14, to keep me busy in the next while.

On the actual poetry-writing front, in roughly as many months I’ve written only five poems which will make the cut if and when another collection of my poems appears, but I tell myself it’s all about quality not quantity.

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