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Alan Baker

"Parables for the Pouring Rain" by Paul Sutton, pub. Blazevox Books. 102pp. $16.00

Is it possible to be an outsider in contemporary poetry? This question is prompted by reading this new collection from Paul Sutton. Allen Ginsberg and his fellow Beats were outsiders in 1950s America, where the full force of the law could be brought against them for their writing. In the Soviet Bloc, poets’ work could be banned and their lives threatened. In the present-day UK you can write what you like; poetry isn’t important enough for the authorities to clamp down on it. But there are other ways to be an outsider - you could, like Paul Sutton, espouse right-of-centre views and satirise the “left-liberal intelligentsia”, as you see it, of the arts and poetry world in such a way that it makes it difficult to get your work published and reviewed. It's significant that this book comes from an American publisher. Sutton’s contrarian stance, the awkwardness that refuses to say what people want to hear puts him in a line of poets which includes Peter Reading, Martin Stannard and even, one could argue, Ken Smith. But there is much more to Sutton as a poet than a cussedness and refusal to conform - that is only one aspect of this wide-ranging and varied collection.

The thesis of poet-as-outsider can be illustrated by numerous poems in the book. The opening poem of “Bestiary of Blighty” throws down the gauntlet, with blistering satire, and is effectively a statement of intent for the rest of the book:

          An elite that is ignored feels the need to attack:
          'We who have given so much. Universal suffrage is
          Disastrous – there’s no point granting free speech to
          those who have nothing to say. Censor – unless they address
          our structural inequalities – and I don’t mean my vote mattering
          more than theirs. Trap them in sheds – on all-inclusive holidays. 

Who else writes in this way? There’s maybe an equivalent in Geoffrey Hill in his “Speech! Speech!” phase, but Sutton has none of Hill’s haughty high Anglicanism. Here's an extract from his poem ‘The Death of Psychogeography’:

          A collapse into pointless Wednesday trips on derelict lines
          with some bloke who lost a sandwich but discovered
          Stanley Holloway playing Vlad the Impaler under Hackney
          Marshes or red zones of kebabs in graveyards where
          fake Celtic prophets read Blake and trace ley-lines.

          It was always a scam,
          middle-class desperation
          for authenticity and the
          ramping of property prices.

Such mordant humour is the typical tone of this book. The speaker of the poems is an outsider, a flâneur, stalking the waste lands of twenty-first century England; observing  the decline of a land he still holds a nostalgia for. The poems emphasise the outsider status of the narrator, who sometimes denies he is a poet at all; there’s a poem called “Failed Poet”, and in the poem “Cyclopean”, he says:

          If I was a poet…
           … I’d write loftily on identity…
          Lucky I’m not.

And in the poem “Inorganic” he writes:

          If only this poem would write itself.
          Proof I’m no poet

The cityscape presented in these poems is that of Baudelaire’s transplanted to the outer ring-roads and retail parks of present-day British cities:

          So I book my annual holiday in a motorway Ibis - amidst a migraine
          patchwork of dusty vegetation, flight paths and conveyor belts over graphite lakes.

There’s a certain affection in these poems for the blighted urban landscapes:

          ... I love the pylons,
          motorways into long tail-backs, hidden

          intricacies, pointless diversions.

All of the quotations so far are from the first section of the book, ‘Bestiary of Blighty’ and among the sardonic commentary there’s a clear politics which, as mentioned earlier, puts Sutton firmly outside the pale:

          And ringing every city were high-rises.

          Most had been abandoned after Brexit...

          An army of unemployable artists and academics - deprived of funding and sinecures - moving into           flats once crammed with wage-slaves.

The brief biography of Sutton at the back of the book has a quotation from him, in which he describes “… the liberal intelligentsia’s stranglehold on poetry – the absurd perfection and self-appointed moral guardianship, of language and much else, that they seek. Poetically, this is manifested in the domination (particularly in Britain) of the low-voltage faux-modest lyrical anecdote”. This provides rich material for this poetry; in the poem ‘Faringdon’ he merges it with the liberal-left’s contempt (as he sees it) for the working-class:

          At midnight in these towns a blue nylon rope is meticulously threaded through rougher areas –           head height (health and safety) – accompanied by chanting of poems.

          Kate Clanchy’s Ode to a man with no toes and Kevin Bostock’s A town called bastard.

In the second part of the book, ‘Lyrical’, there’s an altogether more serious tone, an unfashionable patriotism and a sadness:

          In the politics of shame, I have no stake.
          My state a broken playground for addicts.
          Cities the same, for luxury and its fruit.

          (from 'Panthers')

The work here is reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill. This is from 'Emmanuel':

          ... Oh how heartbreaking from
          a tailback to see some old church - I couldn’t bear
          to see Salisbury, the spire so pure in any light and
          there for any generations, carved in autumn mist.
          To cry in the snow and find no one in The Close,
          not a hurrying clergyman straight from Trollope -
          back to what was often poverty, but faith I guess.

That last "I guess" undercuts the solemn tone of the poem and brings it back to the sceptical voice of the poet's persona. In this poem, he writes "I've never written of faith before - how on earth to - / ... though I love the cold stone bleakness, Ely or Salisbury". We have a sense here that the poet has a religious sensibility, but, unlike Geoffrey Hill, is unable to believe; so we're left with a yearning for significance in the cathedrals, but also, earlier in the collection for the ring-roads, pylons and New Towns of urban England. This isn't a major theme of the collection, but is there in the background,  explicit only in the poem 'Emmanuel:

          But I'm proud of English Christianity (though not
          its weaker politicians) the sadness and decline,
          the quiet loss, unoccupied buildings

The third section of the book, "Appalachian or Higher" is an elegy for Sean O’Grady, a former fellow-student of the poet; a finely-balanced sequence that, without a trace of sentimentality, transcribes an account of grief and regret and encompasses a meditation on mortality and the passage of time. It manages to do this in the plainest conversational language without ever seeming prosaic. As in traditional elegy, the speaker reflects on his own life, and on the art of poetry. The sequence gives a touching account of O’Grady’s life, with the description of his separation from his daughter being particularly affecting. What’s impressive about this is that we are given very little information about O’Grady himself, but the little we are given is deftly chosen. The poem, ‘Girls from sad homes’ reflects on O’Grady’s absence from his daughter's life by addressing another type of abandoned child:

          children of junkies; domestic violence witnesses

The poem moves from these girls, who were the poet’s pupils, to concerns for his own daughter to a stolen quotation from Auden via a comment on poetic elegy. The shifts in emphasis and quick turns are achieved with a quietness of tone that expresses the sadness of the poem’s title.

The scope of this collection is illustrated by the switch in mood from the elegy for Sean O’Grady to the final section, which is high comedy. In ‘The Scandal of the Brown Parcels’ we have an extended and very funny parody of Conan Doyle. 

There is a clear world-view expressed in this poetry which, as mentioned earlier, makes Sutton a candidate for outsider status among poets and readers of poetry. But the broad scope of this collection, the humour, pathos and scathing social commentary go way beyond that narrow definition and present us with an important contemporary poet who deserves wider recognition.

Copyright © Alan Baker, 2019