I was going to be reasonably methodical with the ‘Better than Language’ anthology, I was going to write about the poets that really impressed me in fairly rapid succession. I di some forward planning, I identified the bits of Anna Ticehurst’s poems that I wanted to rave about and gave considerable thought to how Sarah Kelly’ work made me feel.
And then I got distracted and went meandering off in other directions (an all too common occurrence) and have only now returned to the anthology. ‘Better than Language’ is a landmark publication because it brings together in one place a concentration of immensely talented younger poets and must be read and argued about by all those who have any kind of interest in the state and nature of British poetry. I know that I have said this before but, in this instance, I don’t have any problem at all with repeating myself.
According to the blurb, Ticehurst was born in Bristol in 1986 and is currently studying to be a secondary teacher at the University of Brighton, she’s had stuff published in Cleave, Quid, Intercapillary Space and Openned so it’s odd that I haven’t noticed her before. The work occupies a unique corner in the wry/clever/exceptionally articulate section of British poetry and should not be overlooked primarily because it does several things very, very well and does them in a way that neither shouts nor whispers. I’ll try and give a few examples of these things:
Regular readers will know that I am very partial to poems that end well, and that I know what I mean about ending well but have a hard time putting this into coherent language. The temptation is always just to quote the ending and then to assume that everyone else will be instantly converted to my point of view. This is a technique that only works for me and is really rather lazy. Because some of Ticehurst’s endings are so accomplished, I’m going to use a couple of them and try to explain how they work so well. This is the end of ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One’:
An analgesic piped through Bloomsbury
brickwork does for all, stirrups the air
through martingal'd vents and pierces the
bubble with the hacking of COPD.
First of all there’s the elegant and intelligent central phrase- ‘stirrups the air / through martingal’d vents’ which is startling in itself but is contrasted with the quite brutal shock of ‘the hacking of COPD’. As the title implies the poem is a wry and angry riff on the many contradictions and apparent hypocrisies of life in the perpetually mediated West and its many insecurities. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is directly linked to poverty, a condition that almost exclusively affects the underclass. It’s also deeply unpleasant with sufferers having to struggle for every breath that they take which is why it is so effective here. The other bonus, I would argue, is that ‘COPD’ is not poetic, not lyrical and is not dressed up here to make it more ‘fitting’. This is a Very Good Thing especially if you share my belief that there’s too much of the poetic in contemporary verse.
Then there’s the ending that doesn’t seem to work at first or second reading but then becomes the best part of the poem. This is the end of ‘Open Season’:
In the Centenary Gardens,
I lose you
push pavements to the back of my eyes,
fighting at losses in the tinted interior,
swallow Optrex and do away
with the periscope only to
silence desires and shove them into little paper bags
to discard like sugar.
On a first reading this felt too stylised for its own good and the last line fell flat almost as if it wasn’t making any effort at all- an example of the unpoetic teetering on to the facile (banal). Then I started to think a bit more about the little papers bags and how exactly sugar might be ‘discarded’ and then things began to speak to me and become very special and completely appropriate.
Most makers of poetry know that the selection of words is a crucial component in the making of the poem because the ‘right’ word is what makes the difference between something that ‘works’ and something that doesn’t. Of course, most of us have our own ideas of what good word choice should produce and mine are no more correct than anyone else but I think I can show why the following are so effective. This is from ‘Sunbathing under Surveillance Camera One”:
date palm oases washing the skins
in salt-water brilliance and free-thinking vacuum pumps in an oxygen tent
flick-knife the opportunity like
kissing a wet dog in the rain
The two words that I’d like to draw attention to are ‘brilliance’ and ‘flick-knife’ because they are both being used in unusual ways and yet provide a more accurate picture of what needs to be said. ‘Brilliance’ also has the effect of encouraging the read to visualise what is being said and how it might differ from other kinds of liquid brilliance. It can be argued that ‘flick-knife’ is over-shadowed by the image in the last line but I would argue that the two complement each other in a very satisfying and compelling way. I’m not sure about ‘free-thinking’ because it feels a bit unnecessary but that’s probably because I haven’t paid sufficient attention to the rest of this very accomplished poem.
Sarah Kelly and the halo effect.
In this instance the halo effect refers to qualities that we like in ourselves that we see in others. It is something managers are told to guard against when selecting candidates for employment, we are likely to select those that appear to be most like us regardless of whether they are the best candidate for the job.
The thing is that Sarah Kelly is writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I didn’t think that poetry is currently too poetic. The other thing is that Sarah Kelly is much better at writing the kind of poetry that I would be writing if I wasn’t making poems out of sketch map labels and Gillian Welch set lists. This does at least have the advantage of not having to write poetic poetry ever again which is a bit of a relief but it’s also a bit weird because I feel as if I know what’s going on in this work at an unusually deep level so I read it as a kind of co-conspirator rather than as an ordinary passer-by.
Obviously, this stuff is absolutely brilliant and will single-handedly save the poetic sort of poetry from itself. It fulfils and surpasses all of the Bebrowed criteria:
- short lines;
- absence of titles;
- absence of big or foreign words;
- a satisfyingly sparse intensity
- exceptional word choice;
- great endings.
So, ignoring the halo effect, I’d like to use a longish extract to demonstrate why this is really essential stuff:
the three leaves
rest like three
feathers I tell you
of and the
triangularity of our
etched on prized
and base that
you turn to
look at my
I could wallow in this stuff for a very, very long time but it is clearly an object lesson on how to do very complicated (and quite profound) things with a deliberately constrained palette. The brevity of each line forces us to think carefully about what the line is really saying and the chosen words build to create an increasingly rich range of emotions through to the brilliance of the last three lines. This is only one extract from a series of consistently impressive poems which really do stand out in tone and skill from the rest of this very impressive collection.
Because of the halo effect, I’ve tried hard to find bits that I don’t like or bits that don’t ‘work’. I have to report that the only quibble I may have is that some of the poems may be too sparse and oblique to attract the attention that they warrant but this is, at best, a tactical quibble and has nothing to do with the merit of the poems as poems.
Better than Language is available from ganzfeld press for a mere ten of your finest English pounds. There is no excuse.