Image: Brian Robert Marshall
My book, A Commonplace – Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) was published today, although you’ll not be seeing it immediately as all the physical copies have been impounded by the authorities and are languishing on pallets in a nondescript warehouse on an industrial estate near Sheffield. Yeah, right… The truth is that a combination of furloughing, tardy proof-reading on my part and the worst national shortage of papyrus in the history of small-press publishing has caused a few delays. They’ll be with us soon enough. Please feel free to read other books while you wait.
This delay gives me a chance to ruminate on what my poems in this book say collectively. I emphasise my poems as the book includes a dozen by other poets, which are all very good and say lots of things. Of course you don’t need to know what my poems say collectively, but I do. These days a poetry books needs an angle and it transpires that over the ten years I’ve been writing this book I have failed to identify a proper angle. I’m a bloody amateur, I am, really. First rule of the poetry racket is get yourself an angle. It’s no good saying here’s a selection of my least worst poems of the last decade covering subjects all and sundry. If you’re off to hustle this poetry gear you need to know what’s on your stall and to whom to tip the wink.
Er… so, here’s my angle, here’s what I’m hustling, here’s what on my stall.
I write about my family, about my mum and dad and my granddad and my daughter. My son had poems in previous collections, so he features less, although I love him dearly. And actually some poems for my daughter didn’t make the final cut as no daughter wants her dad to publish such stuff. My sister is mentioned in poems too. She knows about lichens you know, and takes wonderful photographs of butterflies. I write about my relationship with my partner, Lisa, but again, modestly and discreetly. I write about those I loved in my late teens and about my dear friend Tony Whitehead who died far too young. In all these poems perhaps I am also writing about myself, but I can deny that if I wish. So, not much of an angle so far… come on, Jonathan, get with the project.
There are poems about things in which I am interested – about the eponymous Apples and Bricks – but these are really poems about love or politics. I think we’ve said enough about love so let’s talk about politics. When I write about bricks in the poem ‘Brickwork’ I am writing about the generations of workers who built ordinary Britain and who are not much remarked upon. And when I write about Venice in ‘Without Venice’ I am writing about the privileging of the culture of rulers over the lives of the rest of us. I don’t want Venice to sink below the waves but I’d like more of us to rise above them. And in ‘Utopia’, prompted by coming across a brick in a wall (there’s a novelty), I am just plain angry with how things are turning out. And the poems about the English Revolution (that followed/overlapped with the English Civil War) are about the anger that has not gone away. So, here’s an angle: poems about things that are really about the need for progressive politics. Hardly unique and a bit of a mouthful, but we’re getting there.
I also write poems about poems and other writers. Could there be a worse sentence in the English language? (Yes, there can be, for instance, ‘I will now read a long sonnet sequence about myself’). But I like poems and I am interested in writers, particularly the ones gone before us or forgotten. And I am interested in how poems work on us, so I have written about how Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Won’t’ was still able to make my mum nearly cry fifty years after she first read it to me, and how Paul Muldoon’s poem ‘Why Brownlee Left’ caught me unawares thirty five years ago and changed my life. And I’ve written obliquely about the writers of Kyiv, because I was moved and interested in how they worked through such terrible times. So let’s say, a sub-angle is I write poems about how poetry has done its work.
Mentioning Kyiv brings me back to what perhaps holds so many poems in place, which is place. It’s not capriciousness that drove me to include a Gazetteer: I wanted to not only name places but to locate them exactly (with a grid reference if need be). I am of Didcot, my home town. And I am of the Downs (the Berkshire Downs which became the South Oxfordshire Downs in the local government re-organisation of 1974, as you doubtless already knew). I am of the Vale of the White Horse and the River Thames and Wittenham Clumps and the view of Oxford from the Ridgeway. I am certainly of the Ridgeway, England’s oldest road. These physical places become metaphorical, of course, and also place me in terms of my class (I was brought up in a working class household) and my position in my country. Which is why A Commonplace has as its cover art the wonderful painting, The Industrial Henge by Anna Dillon of the late Didcot Power Station (may it rest in peace), the Downs above it and the Vale beyond. And the blue, blue sky of my childhood.
So here’s my angle: I come from a Common Place.