Oli Hazzard shifts and repurposes clichés about the rainforest in his poetry. Photo: Getty
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Puzzle pieces: finding the patterns in the poetry

Matthew Sperling looks at new poetry collections by Paul Batchelor, Oli Hazzard, and Toby Martinez de las Rivas.

The Love Darg
Paul Batchelor
Clutag, 52pp, £8.50

Within Habit
Oli Hazzard
Test Centre, 48pp, £12

Terror
Toby Martinez de las Rivas
Faber & Faber, 80pp, £9.99

When a new poet published by Faber & Faber starts using ampersands in his poems, you know something is afoot. In recent UK poetry, the symbol has been a stylistic identifier for “experimental” work; for Don Paterson, “the Ampersands” is a derisive nickname for pretentious avant-gardists. Yet in the opening lines of Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s remarkable first collection, Terror, we find ampersands working in the service of a lucid and spontaneous lyricism:

As snow falls, as the first snow of this
 year falls & falls
 beyond all light & knowledge . . .

In the same poem, “Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things”, the spirit of a recent avant-garde poet is invoked:

I pray for the wild ghost of Barry MacSweeney
which has a bird’s throat & thrumming, elliptical wings.

If it’s true that a generation is coming to maturity for which the stand-off between mainstream and experimental poetry no longer holds, then Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s first book, along with the second collections by Paul Batchelor and Oli Hazzard – all of them English poets born between 1977 and 1986 – marks a decisive moment.

The modernist ambitions of Terror are signalled immediately by its typographic strangeness. We get two kinds of title (one large and roman, the other small and italic) with no obvious reason for the distinction; dividing pages with mysterious large dots, perhaps recalling the large dot after the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, and a Latin word underneath (“Ignis”, “Natura”); words that escape from the lines into marginal and interlinear space; and a final poem, placed after the notes, like a hidden track on an album, that consists entirely of punctuation.

This all sounds rather tricksy, but the exciting thing about the book is how unlike most of his contemporaries Martinez de las Rivas seems to be in his seriousness and intensity – a mad monk living among baffled hipsters. (The only writer on the Faber list he resembles is David Jones but Jones was born in 1895.) His poems go deeply into the matter of Britain, digging up buried cultural deposits from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, from early-modern sacred anthems, from religious history. If this reminds you of Geoffrey Hill, it is surely intended to. The sequence of poems that come as prose paragraphs is clearly the work of a writer who has learned much from Hill’s masterpiece Mercian Hymns (1971) about how to twist the language into phrases that seem to come out of nowhere, at once surprising and true. Terror is a bracing performance.

Like Martinez de las Rivas, Paul Batchelor both enjoys an ampersand and finds room in his poems to credit a wide range of poetic forebears. His new book, The Love Darg, elegantly produced by the Oxfordshire small press Clutag, takes epigraphs from, among others, Louis MacNeice, the darling of a whole generation of mainstream lyric poets, and Bill Griffiths, among the more alienating of avant-garde outsiders. This was already the case in Batchelor’s first collection, The Sinking Road (2008), but six years on, his poems have gained a different sort of authority and formal control altogether. The opening poem, “Brother Coal”, begins with a Heaney-esque childhood vision of the “darkness of the coal shed” and follows through with seven stanzas on the “compacted sentiment” and social history of coal:

Fibred, veined, fissured like an icicle –
black, pleated muscle ripped with black blood-crystal.
It stranged my mind that I could never lift
a shovelful or lug a sack – the heft!

There is muscle here but elsewhere Batchelor is capable of a light touch, too, particularly in the cool-headed love poem “The Catch-Up”, which perhaps takes as its formal model the rhyming triplets of Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Mahon and stands up pretty well to the comparison. The publisher’s blurb boldly states: “Batchelor is the most accomplished poet of his generation.” The Love Darg shows that to be a credible claim.

Like Batchelor’s book, Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit is a deluxe, small-press offering from a poet with one previous book with a mainstream publisher. Put together by the east London-based Test Centre, it’s a beautifully printed, large-scale object, the size of an exhibition catalogue, with generous white space around the blue text. It’s not one for reading on the Tube. John Ashbery writes in a preface: “Oli Hazzard’s stunning set of prose puzzles suggests a kit with only a few instructions supplied. We must figure out what to do with it . . .”

So what is to be done? Hazzard’s text has all the components from which people create significance – the raw materials of language, the body and spatial relations: “Here lies | the field across which patterns such as people appeared | to feign intimacy in appearance.” But it’s as if the parts have been jumbled up and speculatively put back together by an archaeologist. The vertical bars in that quotation are part of the text, presented in prose blocks divided by bars into units that seem sometimes conceptual, sometimes phrasal and sometimes a bit random. As we read, the meaning emerges not on the level of primary statement but through secondary implication and pattern-making.

This is more fun for the reader than it might sound. Throughout the book, motifs recur teasingly. Ideas about reproduction and authenticity are important: “I prefer the copies | of masterpieces | over the originals,” Hazzard writes. Limits and boundaries are significant, too, and again the opening poem gives the keynote: “I was intimated across the threshold | of a margin | of a centre.”

Clichés come back in shifted and repurposed forms: “High over | an area of rainforest | makeshift barriers are erected | to distinguish the trees | from the wood to form a thick, impenetrable paywall . . .” Hands and faces stand in for bodies but may be merely stage props: “I extend my hand to shake your | rubber hand.”

Other readers will find their own patterns. It’s not quite clear what Within Habit amounts to but the experience of the poems is exciting even when missing the meaning – and the book is a lovely thing to own and have nearby. Get one while they’re hot.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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