Four for the floor

The Midlands, Tony Williams (83pp, 8.99, Nine Arches)
Ways to Build A Roadblock
, Josh Ekroy (82pp, 8.99, Nine Arches)
, Mark Burnhope (85pp, 8.99, Nine Arches)
, Richie McCaffery (65pp, 8.99, Nine Arches)

Aye up mi duck! Excuse my Midlands twang, I'm in the middle of Tony William's debut collection The Midlands and I'm excited, there hasn't been a Midlands poet of note since D H Lawrence got goat gonorrhoea in Mexico (part time shaman Alan Sillitoe was too busy being a great Midlands author to be a great Midlands poet).

Tony Williams could be next. He certainly has the talent. The Midlands
has a clear sense of place. The poems are well put together and pleasant, with echoes of Louis MacNeice, Edward Thomas, and a healthy dose of Rainer Maria Rilke. These influences wash tenderly over slightly laborious excavations of the Lake poets. The poetry of The Midlands springs from a post industrial beautiful green belt where century old mine shafts still sing, sadly and inevitably, as predicted by Larkin's 'The Explosion', of their own demise:

   On the day of the explosion
   Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
   In the sun the slagheap slept.

   Down the lane came men in pitboots
   Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
   Shouldering off the freshened silence.

However unlike Larkin's poetry, Tony Williams' lacks a certain, necessary, sprinkling of originality. The ghosts of W.H. Auden and all of his friends do loom rather large over The
Midlands, Tony Williams is sobbing, but he needs to sob a little louder.

Paradoxically a strong sense of place can also act as a constraint. What would the Frank O'Hara style town mouse poets like Sam Reverie and Emily Berry think of Tony Williams' country mouse debut? The
Midlands lacks a cutting edge. As a consequence, a beautiful poem like 'Lullaby' may flutter around the Derbyshire dales unnoticed:

   O my son,
   Do not let me hear of the death that awaits you.
   Do not let me see you arrive
   at the white city, whose gates
   record the story of your deeds
   and love

Whereas this football chant, hailing from the famously red and white City Ground (Nottingham) side of the river Trent, shows perfectly how a sense of place can inhibit a poet:

   We hate Derby and we hate Derby,
   We hate Derby and we hate Derby,
   We hate Derby and we hate Derby,
   We are the Derby haters

Though the song is not strictly good, in a formal poetic sense, it still means a great deal to thousands of football fans in The Midlands, and is sung with gusto around the terraces every match day. However it don't mean anything anywhere else, or to people not interested in football. Tony Williams' writing may be heartfelt, it may be evocative, it may even be worthy of praise - the problem is that since the majority of the world has not tuned in to 'The Coal Mining Times' to read the
Midlands, our residents are crying and no one cares.

I can think of nothing polite to say about Josh Ekkroy's book, so I will move on to Species, the second outing of Mark Burnhope, which weighs in four pages longer than Ekroy's awful debut collection. Outstaying one's welcome is the height of bad manners, as anyone who has read Oscar Wilde knows, therefore as a conscientious objector I am obliged to provide the riposte.

85 pages. There are 85 vital leaves of Amazonian rainforest gone just to placate Mark Burnhope's pride. This book is a palace of ego. I forget who said 'there is no art without ego', unfortunately when you have as much ego as Mark Burnhope, the art (in this case - very loosely - poetry) becomes a collection of idiotically strewn together nouns, verbs and adjectives.

'Phantasmantia I: Matins' (!!!) has the indecency to begin:

   Wandering Violin
   Body all toothpick

WTF! That does not mean anything at all. [Yes it does - ed.
] I found a sum total of eight good lines in Species, here are four of the least bad from 'To My Kreeping Krypto-faith, Krampus' (I'm not making these titles up):

   Your title drags the Christ
   Mass through dust; combines grump, Gramps,
   cramp, and pus (St. Paul's sprinter pulling
   a calf, keeling over, footing a fierce blister).

LMFAO? No, not really, Mark Burnhope's concern here would like to be known as God. However because his poetry is so self-absorbed and overloaded with horse manure, the gap between himself and God blurs. Who is God? Who is Mark Burnhope? It's a close call. 

His party trick appears to be shovelling letters around like a snowstorm in Alaska, he does this in an ignorant way, not unlike a gnostic vision of God:

   There is sheep-sky, there is a goat ground
   and she: a toffee-wrapper on the ground.

Who knew ground rhymed so well with ground? Until now, only my cousin in year eight, and I'm not completely confident that the women in his poems really enjoy being typed up as sweet wrappers on the, wait, where's my rhyming dictionary? Oh sod it - ground.

Sometimes it feels like Species exists as a marvellous and daring attempt at domination of the forthcoming penguin vintage edition of codswallop. Mark Burnhope may well see himself as the next Thomas Aquinas, but he's not laying down a challenge to God, he just man with a messiah complex. The existence of Species
is an insult to any Species involved in its printing, bounding, publishing and marketing, God only knows what will become of the unfortunate Species charged with its reviewing.

I first came across Richie McCaffery in my second favourite (hello Rupert!) poetry magazine, The Delinquent. I'm a little smitten. I admire his restraint, his conviction, the simple descriptions of human interaction. Here he is remembering a childhood game of football:

   A ball dribbled in the wind
   in the playground after the bell rang
   turned out to be the globe

The precision of McCaffery's stone crafted world play moves the word around like skilled freemasonry carves into the universes' cruel curves. McCaffery reminds me a little of County Durham's finest Craig Raine. Listen to the Martian poet travelling back to the motherland in 'Flying to Belfast 1977':

   It was possible to laugh
   As the engines whistled to the boil,
   And wonder what the clouds looked like -
   Shoveled snow, Apple Charlotte,
   Tufty Tails ...

Similarly to the Martian, McCaffery does not try over hard. He has learnt from T.S. Eliot, Christopher Reid and Seamus Heaney the art of showing, instead of banging the reader over the head with complex (useless) vocabulary. I don't want to throw this name around lightly, but this is a skill James Joyce used wonderfully well. Richie McCaffery is confident enough in his use of language to let simple descriptions do heavier work. These three lines are about his mother, which, helpfully is what the poem is also called:

            She said being pregnant
   was like spinning a bone-china plate
       on the thinnest stick inside you

is a brilliant first collection, it rides on every eternal wave that a serious and profound poet should ride, and is easily the best of these four Nine Arches titles. I hope Cairn gets the readership and exposure it deserves. A stunning debut, I take my hat off and throw it in the air. Bravo Richie McCaffery.

Dear reader, in ten years time all of these books will be available for 20p be in the bargain bin in Aldi, it there is one, which there isn't. Two of the books deserve it, two of them don't. Not because they are good or bad, but because there is no real market for them. These books exist for their authors and for a few passionate enthusiasts, the reason so few people read modern poetry is because it is too far up its own arse to attract a readership. No one with a social life and a twitter account wants to know what an introverted/dead librarian snarls about. The vast majority of modern poetry is too dense and uninteresting compared with the immediacy of modern life.

Magical poets like D.H Lawrence wrote in celebration of the word, producing writing that entertained, writing that seduced. In conclusion, dear reader, if you're thinking of picking up a pen: raise your game. The market values poets who sell. If a poet can get some clients through the wooden door, that's a winner, if not, good luck.

     Charlie Baylis 2014