Exuberant Storytelling

poems for the young at heart
, martin stannard (130pp, leafe press)

Let's begin with a ripe cliche! If you only buy one poetry book this year make sure it's this one. Well, perhaps that isn't so much a cliche as an oft-repeated sales pitch, and it's this shifting from topic to topic in Stannard's poetry, aided by a circuitous, around-the-houses rambling style and a goodly dose of the non-sequitur, which makes his work so utterly entertaining. Don't be fooled though, this is a serious poet, though his notion of serious may not fit the usual descriptions. I've always found his poetry intriguing and full of interest though have to add that, back in the day, I also found his work as a reviewer to be both irritating and obsessively negative. I've since changed my mind about this and now find him to be one of the most interesting poet/reviewers on the scene, singular in his outlook and all the better for it. His poetry has benefited hugely from his engagement with the American poetry scene and his laid-back, offbeat style, which combines the mainstream with the avant-garde, is simply so good to read, entertaining, sophisticated and stimulating, sharp but unpretentious at the same time.

The opening gambit 'One Week in the Life' comprises seven poems - loosely structured around the days of the week - and has the feel of a post-modern rewiring of a description of a puritan agricultural community, it could almost be the text for a film script, setting a scene in anticipation of some future action. There is some neat alliteration which adds humour and adornment to the otherwise pared down style, tending almost to the sombre but with a hint of menace which it's difficult to pin down - 'we have/all seen the fat farmer chasing his fedora futilely across a fallow field' - and while the suggestion of a possible narrative seems closely tied in with the style of the writing itself, the final line of the last poem 'Watching the Cattle', underlines the sense of foreboding which I found throughout the sequence - 'There is something wrong with me. There is evil. It exists'. For some reason I was reminded of Peter Ackroyd's chilling novel Hawksmoor while reading this. It's an unexpected and intriguing intro to a collection of this kind as it's notably different from most of the work which follows.

The bulk of the collection comes under the sub-heading - 'Occasional Poems' - and combines a rich mix of textures and formal devices. Take this piece from the sequence 'Letters form the Light to the Darkness', for example:

     Dear the Day

     I wish you were more handsome.
     Some say you are charming
     but I can't see it: charm,
     as far as I know, is more than
     possessing the ability to act the part
     others expect. Also I do not care
     for the way you come and go.
     The next time you go, please stay gone.

     Yours in the shape of a coming dishevelment,

     “The Fear of Dawn”

His take on
Hamlet, which has little to do with the play except perhaps in the sense of the narrator's total confusion has a wonderfully amusing conclusion and is perhaps? the result of Martin Stannard's job as an English teacher in China:

                                            Well, Horatio,
     there's a damn sight more to this than meets the eye;
     at least, that's what I think I've come to believe.

He also mixes found texts with improvisations to produce rambling narratives which are as much displays of wit and exuberant storytelling as they are
Poetry, as in 'On Death - (slightly extracted from Montaigne)' , so while there's clearly an element of grandstanding or showing off in these collusions between high art and popular culture, there's also a more serious intention here, even if the conclusion is that it's best not to take anything too seriously:

     To philosophise or so I read is to prepare for death
     And thinking about it as the black and white bird alights
     On the balcony to feed on the peanuts placed there
     Especially for him and his friends it occurs to us that
     We once were of the mind that pleasure was our target
     In life or what passes for life in the modern age but
     An argument might be had even between romancers
     Over what constitutes pleasure for it says here
     The pleasures of the mind and body are different
     Which perhaps needs elucidating but this is not the place
     And the black and white bird is flown away and now
     The less flamboyant but more numerous wagtails are
     Arrived to take their share as the afternoon sun
     Bathes in unseasonable warmth …..

The long sequence entitled 'Chronicles' is made up of 23 poems, each beginning with the disarmingly colloquial sentence - 'I've been having a time'. I've previously noted that American poets often have a way of presenting their work in an easy conversational manner as if it's a matter of 'make it up as you go along'. I once saw Robert Creeley read live and he had this ability to perfection, it was simply as if he was engaging the listener in the most interesting details imaginable, yet reporting this in a very down to earth and friendly fashion. Martin Stannard has assimilated some of this technique at least 'on the page' (I've only heard him read live once and can't recall the occasion too well) and there's a charm and immediacy about this kind of writing which is appealing and certainly has the 'feel-good' factor, even on the occasions when the material is lugubrious:

     But I've been having such a time of it lately
     all my plans are under review because they appear
     to have not been properly thought through
     and the outlook appears distressingly cloudy,
     nobody understanding what it's like in here. So
     I go to the cake shop to buy a cake and come home
     with a look that would kill if you could only've seen it,
     there's a persistent drizzle gracing the day
     and at home one glance told me I should dust.
          (from 'Chronicles' (6)')

There's so much variety and experimentation within this collection that the reader can have hours of fun pondering the improbable and admiring the way in which Stannard's adept adaptations of avant-garde techniques fuel his ongoing flights of creative outpourings. The surface may appear smooth and facile but there's a lot going on here and his causal, almost throwaway style belies a serious talent. He also has a great way with introductions. Take this from 'Maps and Plans':

     Maps need to be the right way up. A book called
The World Turned Upside Down turned out to be about
     not what I expected. Do not predict. Maps are to know.

What Christopher Hill may have made of this we'll never know but Stannard's almost facetious jokiness always has a point. He's a maverick and an outsider in the poetry world, not fitting easily into any of the 'square holes', which is probably why his reputation never really took off. This is a shame because as I said at the beginning - if you only buy one poetry book this year make sure it's this one. You won't be disappointed.

    © Steve Spence 2016