Fantasy Modern Poets


Have you ever played Fantasy Modern English Poets ? It’s like Fantasy Football really….only with poets. Who would you pick as all-time Legends ? Who would play in your present day National Squad ? Who would be the no-hopers ?

The Legends more or less pick themselves TS ELIOT is a dead cert . Good at word-play, turns on a sixpence. Everyone knows there’s a really complex game-plan behind “ The Waste Land” but no-one has ever worked it out. What about WH AUDEN ? Crafty (as in full of craft) -imagery that can break your heart. And then there”s PHILIP LARKIN – can be a bit headstrong, a bit aggressive, but just when you think he’s a nutter, he comes out with something delicate and touching.

TED HUGHES would rip the ref’s head off.

The National Squad. Who gets a look in. ? ANDREW MOTION for a start. There’s a neatness in his work, an English restraint which is all the more powerful for what he doesn’t say. CAROL ANN DUFFY because of her range, SIMON ARMITAGE ? Some lovely stuff, sure- but maybe I’d put him on the subs’ bench.

When you come to the Premier League, you’re spoiled for choice. JAMES NASH is guaranteed Premier League material. I go back to his his sonnet sequence “ Some Things Matter” time and time again. NORAH HANSON can’t be beaten for poignancy and observation. And what about MIKE HARDING ? Yes- the folk singer. His “ Daddy Edgar’s Pools” is the best Northern poetry you could wish for.

I have come across a new star OZ HARDWICK– well, new to me. I’ve managed to miss the five collections he’s already published, but his new one “The Ringmaster’s Apprentice” published by Valley Press absolutely blows my socks off. Where to begin ?

He avoids easy answers. The first poem describes him looking out of the train window at a fox which is looking back at him. You could make something big, something portentous out of this, but he leaves the importance of that moment tantalisingly in the air :

‘and, between a bland train and an unconcerned fox
hangs more poetry than I will ever write.”

The balance point of the two lines being “ hangs.”

He looks back to the sixties with an affectionate hat-tip to the Liverpool poets, and to the fifties with a lovely fantasy that Elvis lives next door , smokes a pipe now, and sometimes swivels his replacement hip when he goes down the pub on karaoke night.

More than anything else, I love his strictly economic style. His poems are tough, sinewy- every word earns its keep.
Let me compare these few lines of his on a falcon with something more familiar.

“Cocky and careless. He scrabbled flight
into hard lines, stabbed neat feathers
into a frame stripped bare to electric flex,
soldered eyes like beacons flashing
warnings of height and death”

and this…

“I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.

I know which one I’d choose. And it wouldn’t be Ted.

And finally, what about me ? I’m a poet. At least I’m working on it. Where would I put myself ?

Well, if Andrew Motion is National Squad then I’m Triangle Concrete Conference. Or wherever Stockport County are languishing at the moment.

Some Things Matter

Some Things Matter. jpg

Everyone knows about sonnets- you know- 14 lines divided into an octet, a quatrain and a rhyming couplet at the end. Shakespeare wrote 154 of them ( including the ones in his plays) and Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney were both enthusiastic practitioners. Later on, Milton wrote sonnets, as did Wordsworth, but who reads them nowadays ?

Actually the sonnet has never quite gone away. “ Anthem for Doomed Youth “by Wilfred Owen is a sonnet….had you noticed that ? You don’t, straight away ,because you’re carried away by the anguish and bitterness of the poem. But you check- and it is. The fact that Owen packed so much emotional power, both personal and universal, into such a constricting format makes it even more impressive.Edwin Morgan, Robert Frost and Seamus Heaney have written sonnets as well.

And now I come to “ Some Things Matter” a collection of sixty three sonnets by James Nash, published by Valley Press. James Nash became interested in sonnets after going to a workshop in 2009. Two years later he had written more than 160- and this collection is the cream of the crop.

It’s the best poetry collection I’ve read in years- honestly.

Why ? Let me tell you.

Firstly, the range is immense. James Nash deals with love and loss- the stock in trade of every poet- but he also talks about sending old clothes to the charity shop, gardens, wasps- even a sonnet about bags for life. A sonnet about plastic bags ! That’s brave !

The language throughout is restrained, controlled. It’s emotional and deeply moving in places, but never sentimental. Look at the last two lines of sonnet on old clothes:

“ What if when these garments are gone at last,
I mourn those faded textures of my past”

Notice that he ends on a question. No easy answers here. What about “ mourn”- we mourn for the dead, yes, but also for our younger selves, as we get older. And “ faded textures of my past” sums up, not just a bag of clothes, but our feelings towards a past we can remember, but not return to.

The last point I want to make is about imagery. Good poetry has echoes, resonances, as well as explicit meaning, and James Nash is a master of this difficult art. Look at his Sonnet 24, which is about sitting in the garden one late summer evening “listening to the hidden blackbird’s song.” It’s a wonderful calm moment. And yet it will “ Not be long before the chilly wind arrives” “ Past memories must be hoarded still/ against the darkness and the loss.” Memories will help us carry on “ As darkness falls , and one of us has gone.” He means the end of a summer evening, yes- but he also means the death of a loved one.

James Nash manages to do what few poets can- he puts into words the feelings we all have, and yet are too tongue-tied to express.

Read him.

You can buy “Some Things Matter here: