Friday, January 16, 2015

New Year, New Poems, and the Debut Collection

Hot off the press... I'm thrilled to announce that the Arts Council England have offered me a Grants for the Arts award, to help complete, and secure a publisher for, my debut full collection of poems.

I'll be using the grant to buy the time and space to write two sequences, which sometime visitors to this corner of the net will already know a little about: Kopite Sonnets, commemorating the legendary players of Liverpool Football Club from the '50s to the present day, placing them in the wider social and political history of the time; and The Catch, exploring experiences of clinical depression - stigma and despair; hope and renewal - with the added aim of widening understanding of mental illness. The latter will also include a series of free writing workshops to be held in conjunction with Writing Yorkshire.

Initial poems from the Kopite Sonnets include 'This is Anfield', included in my pamphlet For Real, and 'John Barnes', winner of the Offside Stories: The Pride and the Passion competition last year.

Those from The Catch include the title poem, featured as the Guardian's Saturday Poem last year, and 'Hound', also included in For Real.

Really looking forward to making the most of some invaluable time to write, I hope, exciting and vital new poems for both sequences. Watch this space.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Hell of a Distance:
inside the mind of a first-time marathon runner

Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us.
Deena Kastor, 
Olympic Bronze medallist

I’ve learned that finishing a marathon isn’t just an athletic achievement. It’s a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible.
John Hanc, running writer

If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.
Kathrin Switzer, 
women’s marathon-running pioneer

We’re waiting on the tree-lined avenue south of Queen’s Park, Chesterfield. 800 or so of us, penned in and lined up along the street, stood in trainers, vests and shorts, jogging on the spot. Stretching, setting watches. Staring forwards.

The last ten minutes have felt like an age.

One of the organisers, a big bloke with a booming voice and superfluous megaphone, is cracking a joke. Can you hear me at the back there? Have you fallen asleep? He talks about the cash raised for charity, the occasion, the significance. The crowds lined up along the miles ahead.

I try to listen, but I can’t take much of it in. I feel sick, determined, terrified and excited, all at once. My heartbeat pulses, my stomach flutters. I’ve ran enough races now to know what it’s all about. But this one’s different. My hand hovers over the start button on my wristwatch.

The horn sounds – ahead of us, twenty or so frontrunners surge off, feet already thunderous. I follow; we all follow. The crowd roars.


If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be running a marathon, I’d have laughed pretty hard at you.

Back in late ’13, I’d only just taken up running. I was starting to make a habit of it – heading out to clock up a few miles, as much for my state of mind as for fitness. Three or four times a week, taking in the roads and leafy parks and rural edgelands of Sheffield. I was hauling myself out of a dark time in my life, and thriving off the endorphin release, the heart-pumping kick of pushing myself to run. Harder and faster. But I hadn’t even competed in a 5K race yet. Never mind the incomprehensible 26.2 miles that make up the marathon.

Truth is, in the past ten months, I’ve become a bit of a race junkie. Applying myself in training, I’ve come to complete around 20 5K events. I’ve achieved a personal best of around 18 minutes, running faster than I ever imagined. I’ll finish inside the top #10 of a local race that attracts hundreds of runners of all abilities, from those out for a gentle jog with the kids or dogs, to those hitting sub-16 minutes, seriously quick competitors. 5K is my favourite distance. It’s one where you can really open up, balancing the need to leave enough in the tank for a sprint finish, but still run in fifth gear. You feel sick when you finish, and the adrenaline rush is intoxicating.

photo credit: George Carman
I’ve also competed in a few 10Ks. It’s a not dissimilar race, though pushing yourself hard enough while still leaving some to really burn out in the last half-mile is a challenge. Those I’ve done range from the undulating Sheffield Varsity, looping around the landscaped contours of Weston and Crookes Valley Park, to the rural roads and trails of a longstanding club race in hilly Penistone. The highlight has to be the Leeds 10K of July ’14, though, when I finally broke the back of 40 minutes. Exhausted, staggering, on the brink of collapse as soon as I crossed the line, I finished in the top #100 in a city race that counted nearly 8,000 participants. A race that was won by the runner-up in last year’s London Marathon.


We’re a few miles in, and I feel comfortable – or as comfortable as you can early on, I guess, knowing you’ve over 20 miles left. In all my training with my partner Helen, we aimed for 7:30–8-minute-miling; mornings spent running the converted railway line of Derbyshire’s Monsal Trail, passing dog walkers and cyclists, grinding out a 15-mile-run, a 17-mile-run, then the big 20-miler before a couple weeks of tapering down. But even though this is race day, that first mile felt too quick, and the watch bleeps to confirm it. 6’48”. Take it steady, I think. If you burn out at the half-marathon stage you’ll look like an ass, and what’s worse, it’ll have all been for nothing. The next mile flies by. 6’52”. Damn.

The crowds lining the streets are incredible, cheering as if we were all professionals going for Olympic medals, offering water and jellybeans between the official water and energy-gel stations. Go orange vest! Come on Chesterfield! If only a few people are inspired by this, and decide to put on a pair of running shoes tomorrow for the first time in ages, or maybe ever, it’ll be an achievement in itself – no matter the number of entrants, or the finish time of the first man and woman over the line. I’m caught up in it all, wanting to put on a show, and am running mile after mile between 6’50” and 7’30” pace. Helen is up there ahead of me, 20m, 30m in front, looking strong. Before I know it, we’re onto the bypass, running mile 12 along a cordoned-off lane, traffic speeding next to us, bewildered half-asleep motorists clocking us in the crisp Sunday morning air. I look up at an overpass, give the thumbs-up to a bunch of spectators hanging over the rails, a guy taking snaps with his SLR.

I check the watch. 1 hour 29 minutes in, and less than half a mile till the 13 mark, when those entered into the Half Marathon dig in, hoping to find that sprint finish. We round the corner off the bypass with Chesterfield FC’s Proact Stadium in sight, shadowed by a monolithic Tesco, like a freight ship run aground. On the left, Casa Hotel, where yesterday Helen and I picked up our race numbers. We were feeling under the weather and sorry for ourselves, having caught – and only partly recovered from – some nasty flu bug, wondering if starting a marathon in less than 24 hours might just do us in. Now we’re 13 miles in, the halfway point, and I can see the crowds out for their friends and family and workmates running the Half, cheering everyone on. Not far to go! Almost there! Part of me wishes it were true.

The watch bleeps. A Half Marathon time of 1 hour, 33 minutes. Not bad, I think. Only a couple of minutes slower than the Sheffield Half I ran earlier this year. Except this time, there’s another 13.1 miles to go. But that’s fine. I’m fitter and faster and stronger now. Right?


With the half-marathon runners gone, the race swiftly becomes a much lonelier one. Don’t get me wrong – long distance events are often lonely, in that it’s you pitted squarely against yourself, your angels and demons, as much as your nearest competitors. If you want to win something, run a 100 metres, one runner once said: if you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. What happens in your mind, that powerful ally and most dangerous of enemies, is as important as, and irrevocably tied to, what happens with each and every stride. But this, right now, is more than that; a more literal kind of loneliness. Winding out to the northernmost edgelands of town, there is only the flicker of the nearest runner on the horizon, in front and behind. A fierce sun gleams. Helen must be well ahead now, I think. And how many others – 20, 30, 50 at various points up beyond? Best not to think about position. Focus on your mile times, and keeping one foot in front of the other.

Miles 15, 16 and 17 pass by. I’m still grinding them out, clocking a good enough pace. Shame the scenery leaves a bit to be desired, affording little in the way of distraction – but then that, in some way, is part of the marathon’s steely psychological and physical test. Or maybe just a cruel joke on the part of the organisers. Looping what seems aimlessly around the deserted Sheepbridge industrial estate, directed by solitary high-vis-clad marshals through a tangle of roads, warehouses and lifeless mounds of earth, I at least get to clock the positions of those immediately ahead and behind, as we pass each other, heading one way then the next. I’m further up the field than I thought. 2 hours, 13 minutes at the 18-mile mark. I start to get ahead of myself. If I keep on like this, I could manage 3 hours 15 minutes. What a killer time that would be for a first marathon. Only 8 miles to go. You can do this, dig deep. What could go wrong?


There is something – ‘condition’ is probably the best word for it – that experienced long-distance athletes call by several names. Most commonly, it is simply referred to as this: Hitting the Wall. In moments of brief hubris and foolhardy cocksureness, I’ll admit, there have been times this past year I’ve doubted its existence. Surely, I’ve reckoned, when I’ve pushed myself to the limit to get around a 10K in under 40 minutes, a Half in an hour-and-a-half, at some point already I would’ve hit this so-called wall? Hit it, and then gone through it – like all those tough times in a race you have to somehow force your mind, which wants nothing more than for you to give in and please god stop, to keep your legs hurtling along.

Mile 19. Mercifully, it seems, we’re finally leaving the grim reaches of industrial hinterland and heading into a standard residential district, all identikit semi-detacheds and smoothly tarmacked streets. Catch is, I’ve just run my slowest mile of the race, and this next one incorporates a bugger of a steady climb, though I can’t know that yet. When it dawns on me, it’s clearly the sort I could handle in a shorter race. But now, approaching the 20-mile mark, it suddenly morphs into a much, much tougher ask.

My running is slowing. Slowing, step-by-forceful-step, to what feels an agonising, almost glacial pace. No matter how much I grit my teeth, soul search for the will to push through what I hope to god is a passing phase, my legs feel simultaneously like lead and jelly, fossilised yet flaccid, my body converting what little glycogen I have left to glucose, drip-fed to exhausted muscles. It’s everything I can do to put one foot in front of the other. To those gathered in the street, stood on their front lawns hoping to see feats of amateur athletic prowess, I must look a sorry sight. Come on son, not far to go! shouts one, cackling to herself. I can’t know if she actually laughed at me, knowing full well I had six miles to do, on top of the 20 already clocked. It’s possible she had no idea how far I’d come, how far I had to go. I think maybe a part of me was laughing at me; chiding and scolding myself.

There are two halves to a marathon: the first 20 miles, and the last 6.2 miles. I’m on a steep learning curve here, the biggest in all my running to date. If that woman existed, and wasn’t a weird projection of my fatigued, broken, increasingly delirious state of mind, she doubtless meant well – cracking her little joke to take the edge off. But nothing is taking the edge off. Mile 20 and 21 take an age to pass, though I remember little of them except the grim flash of the wristwatch, clear numbers against a black-flooded LCD backdrop, confirming two 10-minute miles. Damn.


The next mile includes a track trail through park woodland. Also, the perimeter of a leisure lake that looks, from where I’m running, like some kind of strange oasis, replete with swans and strolling couples and the occasional, out-of-time fisherman; a reprieve after all those miles of unremitting brickwork, corrugated metal, sprawling tarmac. Without my noticing, my pace has picked up again – distraction working its magic, mind mastering matter. Not quite 8-minute-miling, but close enough I think.

As quickly as my faith is restored, though, I start to fall apart again. Alone, exhausted, I’m glad for the sight of Iain, a mutual pal of mine and Helen’s, spectating on the brow of an upcoming hill. How’s it going? he hollers. Bloody awful I mumble, showing my rictus grin. How’s Helen doing? On for a good time? With a previous personal best of 3’10”, it sounds like she might manage even better today. But I can’t think about that now. Another four miles to go, and the three-hour mark is starting to creep up, swift as the distant, thunderous footfall of the lot of us, starting out all those miles and hours back.

Distance running is an often lonely, purely solitary pursuit. But to run in the first place, and to really take on the challenge of the marathon, you have to have a big heart. In every sense. When the chips are down, it’s no surprise that runners support one another in the course of a long race – running together, pacing and pushing one another to get the job done. The guy I meet with around 3-and-a-half miles to go is a lifesaver. He is struggling as I’m struggling, and there is an instant, unspoken but completely mutual recognition of this fact – along with an equally mutual level of respect at having come this far. We talk about running, how long we’ve been at it, other races we’ve done. This is his second marathon; his first saw him finish just under the four-hour mark – the result many a first-time marathoner aims to break the back of. The chat is a great distraction for both of us. For the first time in miles I’ve forgotten about the steady pain, the cumulative ache of pushing on and on and on. I check the watch. 5K left to go, and we’re just past three hours in. If we can push ourselves mate, we’re on for three-thirty here.

Easier said than done. With a bit of downhill on our side, we grind out mile 24 in around 9 minutes – not an ideal pace, but I’ll settle for anything that even resembles running at this stage. My feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips are desperate for it all to be over. Now. I try to shut the pain out. I can even manage it for a bit, but then halfway through mile 25, suddenly, I fall apart. I can barely jog. John – by now we’ve gotten round to exchanging names – tries to spur me on: jogging ahead, encouraging me to follow. I try to keep pace. Eventually I catch up, only for him to hit the wall, just as I had those few hundred metres back. We go on like this, dragging each other along, for the next half a mile. Then, with the last full mile finally, blissfully, agonisingly on the horizon, and with around 10 minutes left to manage the sub-3’30” target I’d set myself all those months ago in the first naïve weeks of training, somehow, scraping the barrel of myself, I find something in reserve.


Rounding the downhill just past the imposing shadow of the town hall, things start to fall into place. I click into top gear. I’m not sure how, but it has to have something to do with knowing it’s now or never; that if I manage the 8-minute mile that’s proved so difficult since mile 20, I’ll have achieved something I can properly, seriously be proud of. However much agony I have to go through to do it. Pain is temporary; pride is forever. I run this sort of sporting platitude through my head, alternately dismissing it as fool’s talk, then feeling the absolute truth of it. The fatigue and delirium give way to determination and focus. I push on.

The sight of the north edge of Queen’s Park, a few hundred meters from where this all started, is a shot of relief and an adrenaline kick, all at once. And that sound. The roar of crowds lining the park’s pathways, waving banners, cheering. Willing us home. I’m almost back at square one, the outside track of the cricket field and the pavilion above it, the sight of the finish line as I round the outer path beyond them. 400 metres to go. Back at square one, but like every one of the 332 of us who’ll come to complete today’s 26.2 miles of gruelling race, in every way, I’ve come a hell of a distance.

200 metres to go. Who was it said run the first part of a marathon with your head, the middle part with your personality? And the last part – with your heart. I enter the inner track, overtaking one final runner before I spot the clock. 3:26:45. I am sprinting, dying on my feet. Gritting my teeth, breaking into a grin. Stood on the pavilion, a man with a microphone is calling out my race number. Ben Wilkinson: in 3 hours, 27 minutes and…

I cross the finish line.

first published in Men's Running magazine

Thursday, January 08, 2015

"Heard the one about the guy from Marsden village?":
Simon Armitage's Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014 - review

“How did it get so late?” wonders Simon Armitage in Paper Aeroplane, his new selected poems. It’s a fair question. The recent fanfare of the Next Generation Poets 2014, a promotion touting fresh voices set to dominate British verse, has coincided with Armitage, once poetry’s poster boy for the original New Generation Poets 1994, releasing this hefty retrospective. Twenty-five years have passed since he stunned the poetry world with his debut Zoom! (1989), his voice distinctive, his energetic style fully formed. Since then there have been: 10 book-length collections, a host of novels, plays, translations and memoirs, not to mention a clutch of TV and radio programmes. What surprises is how urgent and contemporary those early poems still read.

“Heard the one about the guy from Heaton Mersey?” hollers “Snow Joke”, the opener from Zoom!. From the outset, Armitage’s combination of coined phrases, cliche and zippy vernacular with a sharp adherence to meter, rhyme and form, worked to winsome effect, skimming across the living language with unmatched exuberance. Titles like “It Ain’t What You Do It’s What It Does to You” fizz next to frank opening lines: “Harold Garfinkel can go fuck himself” is a gunslinger’s free assessment of one leading sociologist. Here is a young poet as capable of ventriloquising the confessions of drug dealers in “The Stuff” as of figuring poetry itself, in the much-imitated “Zoom!”, as “a billiard ball weighing more than Saturn”.

Armitage’s followup, Kid (1992) reiterated that auspiciousness, not least in a penchant for showy idiom-coining and the apocryphal anecdote. “Brassneck” tells of a couple of rough-and-ready thieves working football crowds: “He keeps his cunt-hooks out of my wallet, / I keep my tentacles / out of his pocket”. But elsewhere, a sober lyric style starts to show, straining for literariness, as in the otherwise tender “At Sea”: “It is not through weeping, / but all evening the pale blue eye / on your most photogenic side has kept / its own unfathomable tide”. Phrase-making, comedy and a sure-footed music are still the exhilarating bait – the businessman in “Robinson’s Resignation” is “bored like the man who married a mermaid”; “Great Sporting Moments: The Treble” squeezes a laugh-out-loud gag into rhyming couplets that explore class conflict. Yet sometimes in Kid, and all too often in its successor, Book of Matches (1993), playful suggestion and nous give way to easy cliche and laboured wit. “I’ve made out a will; I’m leaving myself / to the National Health” proclaims one promising sonnet in an often patchy sequence, before wasting itself in mindless list-making: “They can have the lot, the whole stock: / the loops and coils and sprockets and springs and rods, / the twines and cords and strands, / the face, the case, the cogs and the hands”. This is writing that asks little of a poet of Armitage’s genuine gifts.

To his credit, however, Armitage has clearly taken a hedge-trimmer to most of the overgrowth of his oeuvre, much as he did in the overblown “Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass”, from 2002’s The Universal Home Doctor. He may have come in for flak for inhabiting a poetic persona – street-smart, self-deprecating, no-nonsense – so fully and at times lazily that he has come to parody himself, but this selected poems proves that he has written some of the very best, most memorable poems of recent decades. Dropping the makeweight from uneven collections such as The Dead Sea Poems (1995) and Cloudcuckooland (1997) has left a handful of gems. Consider the cutting stand-up routine of “I Say I Say I Say”; the tongue-in-cheek life advice of “Goalkeeper with a Cigarette”; “The Tyre”, brimful of imaginative play and Hughes-like descriptive panache; and perhaps brightest of all, “Homecoming”, a metaphysical tale of memory and time-hopping intimacy that the great Louis MacNeice would surely have envied. These are major lyric poems by a writer who has had a game-changing influence on his contemporaries, and continues to cast a shadow over younger poets.

After a certain age, a poet’s chief rival is the poet they used to be. Seeing Stars, Armitage’s last collection proper, from 2010, is generously represented here, likely because the poet feels its wilfully surreal, flash-fiction narratives are an overdue departure. But aside its dazzling imagery and a couple of shorter, less showy pieces (including “The English Astronaut”, a sardonic commentary on the national character), its best bits still feel throwaway, circuitous and overwritten. Alongside excerpts from his lively versions of Homer’s Odyssey (2006) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2007), it’s reassuring to find this selected poems close with work from a forthcoming collection, The Unaccompanied (2015). Here, the absurdist excesses of Seeing Stars are tempered, and alloyed to the lightly worn purposefulness that marks Armitage at his best. The mix of mock-antiquated tone and despair in “Poundland”, where “with wire-wrought baskets we voyaged”, “all under the clouded eye of CCTV”, is as entertaining as it is deadly serious social commentary.

For a writer who has often flippantly said that he wanted first to be a rock star, settling for poet instead, Paper Aeroplane proves that popular music’s dubious loss is most definitely British verse’s significant gain.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 8 November 2014 

Friday, January 02, 2015

"For me, he is Liverpool": Steven Gerrard - a tribute

 Today marks the end of a footballing era. The conclusion of a sporting career without parallel or equal. Steven Gerrard, Liverpool FC captain and legend, has confirmed that he is leaving the club to move to America and finish his Premier League career.

Sports commentary is famously full of hyperbole, cliché and empty platitudes - perhaps nowhere more so than football. But LFC manager Brendan Rodgers seemed to put it near perfectly with his reaction to the news. “It is almost an impossible task to find the words to appropriately sum up Steven Gerrard and his importance to Liverpool. This is an era where the word ‘legend’ is vastly overused, but in his case it actually doesn't do him justice.”

A local lad done good, Gerrard was born in the Merseyside village of Whiston, joining Liverpool's academy when he was a kid. He made his first-team debut as a last-minute substitute against Blackburn Rovers in 1998.

Since then, he has gone on to lead a truly dazzling career, defined always by tireless hard work, talent and determination, selfless commitment to his club, and the remarkable ability to turn big games around, seizing victory from the jaws of defeat.

695 club appearances. 180 goals. The UEFA cup. Two FA Cups. Three League Cups. A Community Shield and two UEFA Super Cups. And, of course, that night in Istanbul, when Liverpool found themselves 3-0 down at half-time in the final of the 2005 Champions League. A night when Gerrard wrote himself into the annals of footballing history, inspiring his team to claw the score back to 3-3, and win the trophy on penalties.

But the statistics only tell part of the story. Every Liverpool fan has their own indelible memories of Gerrard, particularly those of us lucky enough to have seen the man play in the flesh, on the hallowed turf of Anfield. I’ll never forget the day me and my brother Sam, stood in the Kop, saw him fire one of his signature perfectly-placed penalty kicks past the keeper to put the Reds 3-2 up against Spurs in 2013. The admiration for his character, ability, flair and graft spreads far and wide. “He is the example of what all midfield players aspire to” said the Italian international de Rossi; “undoubtedly one of the best midfield players in the world” echoed Carlos Ancelotti. Luis Suarez has praised him, simply, as “the best player I have ever played with”. “Is he the best in world?” mused the great Zinedine Zidane. “He might not get the attention of Messi or Ronaldo but yes, I think he just might be”. Even Alex Ferguson has begrudgingly accepted Gerrard’s peerless class. “He has become the most influential player in England, bar none”. “Not that Vieira lacks anything”, the ex-United-manager added, “but Gerrard does more” – a statement with which Vieira himself was inclined to agree. “I can’t think of a striker in the world who has scored as many important goals” said Arsenal and Premier League wonder Thierry Henry, “never mind a midfielder. He, for me, is Liverpool”.

As part of Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’, Thierry Henry is of course himself a major contender for the greatest player of the Premier League era. But his claim that Gerrard IS Liverpool, that man and club are synonymous and deeply intertwined, is one which resonates not just with Reds fans but with any serious football follower, and which puts his Scouse contemporary at the very least his equal, and perhaps his better. While Henry, much like Vieira, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Lampard and Terry, has been an incredible player among many at one of the most successful clubs of the modern era, the successes that Liverpool have enjoyed in the past decade are completely unimaginable without Steven Gerrard. Put simply, over a decade’s worth of Liverpool sides have thrived on his inclusion, and the Reds would not have won half of the trophies they have these recent years without him. Gerrard’s unfortunate slip against Chelsea last season, a cruel twist of fate that all but gifted a goal which led the Blues to a hard-fought, tense victory, was latched onto by critics and detractors as a decisive blow to Liverpool’s race for the 2013/4 Premier League title. But these comments overlooked the way that the incredible run of back-to-back victories preceding that moment had been marshalled by Gerrard, ever the talisman, captain and leader, without whom Liverpool would never have been in the position to realistically hope to lift their first top-division league title in 24 years.

In football, as in life, chance and happenstance can be harsh and cruel. But Gerrard is the kind of player who always makes you believe that with enough hard work, craft, belief and persistence, anything might be possible. That is why he has always cut a genuinely inspirational, honest figure in the often shallow-seeming, money-driven world of modern world-class football. It is also why, in the hearts and minds of so many, he is a true sporting legend.

The skipper has described his decision to leave Liverpool as “the toughest of his life”, and one which he has long agonised over. He is likely to play for a club in States, but wherever he moves, he will not play for any side that brings him into direct competition with Liverpool. More here, along with biographical and career facts here.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Write Stuff


Award-winning Reds poet Ben is composing more verse about his beloved Liverpool FC

Reds fan and award-winning poet Ben Wilkinson is composing a brand new short collection of verse dedicated to Liverpool Football Club's greatest players.

Guardian book critic Ben, who was featured in the magazine at the start of the season, recently published a book of poems entitled For Real.

Kitted out in the colours of LFC, the collection won the prestigious Poetry Business Competition, judged by University of Liverpool graduate and Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

More of this feature, and a new poem, 'King Kenny', in the Official Liverpool FC Monthly Magazine, issue 27, November 2014


Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Never have met me, know me well": Glyn Maxwell's Pluto - review

In his witty manifesto “This Is Water”, David Foster Wallace argues that in order to survive the trenches of everyday existence, we should recognise that we have a choice in how we construct meaning from experience. This freedom – to see from differing perspectives, opening the blinkers of self – involves, Foster Wallace suggests, “attention, awareness, discipline, and effort”; the zombifying alternative is “unconsciousness, the rat race – the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” This rings painfully true, but in daily life, it also presents some obvious challenges. Glyn Maxwell’s ninth collection, Pluto, is the work of a writer who properly subscribes to this ethos, and who figures poetry as that fresh look and listen which might, as Kafka put it, smash the frozen sea within – or at least throw the self into serious doubt.

“June I would snog in a heartbeat, pausing only // to think about it”, yearns the title poem’s speaker, before an existential crisis hits home: “Where the hell did she go? / Where the hell did they all go? Where did I go?” The collection has already been described as disclosing “a life of making patterns from the litter of experience”, even as one which “suggests a poet is someone for whom making poems is the only defence against the dark.” That seems rather a doom-laden verdict, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more fiercely self-scrutinising book of poems. Pluto frequently echoes the loneliness of the decommissioned planet it is named after. It certainly awakens the Larkinesque sentiment of being pushed to the side of one’s own life. But what is striking is how successfully Maxwell merges genuine, often painful emotion with a postmodern embrace of ironic cross-examination and reflexiveness. “Where are you?” implores the narrator in “The Case of After”, blunt dissection and bittersweet feeling mingling in the fallout of a love affair:
To you I was what I was, there was no more
to know, I am written down. A faintest tone
of poor endeavour and a stranded song

might cling like moss a while to my inscription
but one moves on and you are all that one.
The pathway’s not so long you’d turn again,

and not so wide you even could. Were there
more, not a future tense but a case of After …
“You master form you master time” Maxwell wrote in On Poetry, his recent volume of essays-cum-ars-poetica (TLS, November 23, 2012). As in earlier collections – from Time’s Fool (2000) and its nightmarish time-travelling train journey, to Hide Now (2008), where our fourth dimension “expands to wonder at the point of it” – Pluto finds Time hounded and hounding, personified as a “slum-lord”, laughing at lovers in a fluctuating amour that was “always nearly over”. Whether overtly or not, Maxwell’s bravura formal skill has forever been part of a face-off with, and an attempted bulwark against, that element which gives us what it will, but rarely what we desire. In Pluto, preoccupied with loss of all kinds – family, home, friendship; but above all, love – it meets head-on with passion and grief, to coruscating effect:
Never have met me, know me well,
tell all the world there was little to tell,
say I was heavenly, say I was hell,
harry me over the blasted moors
but come my way, go yours.
Punningly titled “The Byelaws”, this paradoxical list of parting imperatives sets the metaphysical tone. Formally crafted, yet forever on the brink of metrical collapse; earnest and echt, but with an eye for poetry’s artifice and contradictions: Maxwell excels at casual delivery of complex philosophical thinking. “The Window”, an elegy for a departed friend, achieves some concise evocations of camaraderie and childhood (“To walk till home is all of the horizon / and the world sits on the window-sill again”); but it also develops the conceit into a heady treatise, as dedicated to honouring the addressee’s memory as it is to poking fun at “verse as separate / from other verse as what, / a pane of glass rained-at / from its neighbour-pane of glass rained-at.” Satirical, but also questing, the poem posits how “the whole of science / waits”, since “astonishment, the infant’s blink, / made way for recognition / every bit as blank.”

The ideal immediacy of address that Maxwell seems to be after here – “the sound of light arriving at the moment”, as he has grandiosely put it elsewhere – might seem at odds with his burnished, guileful forms. Acolytes of the New York School’s more freewheeling excesses would certainly argue as much. Yet we only need think of Keats’s “This Living Hand” or Robert Frost’s “West-Running Brook” to know that the feverish care inherent to rhythmical craft can lead to the most intimate, urgent, provocative poetry. Where Maxwell differs from his lyric allies, however, is in his engagement with the genuinely experimental side of the so-called avant-garde. Plenty of poets can conjure a voice with a contemporary edge, but few have a gift for demotic speech as mocking as it is accurate:
August went hey man so I went hey man,
anything going down later? And we just smoked
and trod our shadows. One of us said those chicks
were really hot I’ve a horrible feeling I did.
Immersed in traditions belonging to both sides of the Atlantic, Pluto often reads as an unholy mix of Edward Thomas, John Ashbery, e.e. cummings and T. S. Eliot; unholy because of what – as a book of mainly long poems – it devilishly pulls off, while retaining narrative coherence. The yearning and timewarping intensity of “Dunwich”; the blank page figured as an unforgiving mountain in “This Whiteness”; “Birthplace” and its hometown merry-go-round of nostalgia: all are the work of a poet who, having moved beyond a preoccupation with technique that rendered some of his early poems flat and superficial, is now producing witty, serious, dazzlingly reflective and stirring writing. It is poetry that few of his contemporaries can rival.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, December 13 2013

Thursday, November 20, 2014

For Real among the TLS's Best Poetry Pamphlets 2014

The entries for this year’s Michael Marks Poetry Pamphlet Awards provide strong evidence that small presses are producing some of the most engaging, innovative and accomplished poetry being published today.

Good to spot a round-up review of the best pamphlets of the year in this week's Times Literary Supplement. Andrew McCulloch's wide-ranging piece takes in memorable slim volumes including Christopher Reid's Yesterday’s News, Blake Morrison's This Poem, Mimi Khalvati's Earthshine, Michael McKimm's Fossil Sunshine, Matthew Sweeney's The Gomera Notebook, Ian McMillan's Jazz Peas, and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch's Lime and Winter

An honour to see my pamphlet For Real included in the mix:

“I can’t make you feel what I felt” (David Foster Wallace), one of the epigraphs to Ben Wilkinson’s For Real (Smith Doorstop), is a challenge to which Wilkinson rises with considerable success ...

You can read more in the print edition of the TLS, and copies of For Real are available through this site, £5 with free postage.