It’s not easy reviewing the latest book of a poet you’ve been reading for at least the last quarter century. Stannard’s poetry has been part of my life for a long time; and its trademark sense of humour combined with a kind of resigned sadness at the folly of human life hasn’t changed much in all that time. But why should it? Some people change style from book to book; other stay roughly the same. What matters is not consistency or inconsistency, though; what matters is quality, and in this book it is as high as it ever has been.
The influence of the New York School on his poetry is well-known of course; not least because he’s told us all about it, at great length, in his reviews and other writings. What he takes from them is their ability to be both serious and non-serious at the same time; and something of their formal inventiveness. But he’s also a master of the long sentence, learnt as much from the English Romantics such as Coleridge and Byron. Here’s the first sentence of Permanence:
Nothing’s realistic, especially reality,
so as the winged pig pokes its head out
of the corrugated cardboard crate you keep it in
and takes a look around at the junked vans
by the side of the junked river
and asks in its winsome yet whining way
how come there ain’t no sunshine since you been gone baby
the assumption is that words of wisdom may yet fall
out of the tree we planted a hundred years ago
but what worries me is the way in which
nothing seems to be quite as it used to be…
Always on the verge of falling over itself, the Martin Stannard sentence takes in crazy images and diversions, even managing to quote pop-songs, without ever being either boring or silly. Somehow he manages to stay on point throughout that tumble of clauses and ideas, and never loses whatever thread he’s holding onto.
The blurb on the book describes him as ‘a major British poet’, and is of course, exactly right. You’d look in vain for him, however, in the usual organs of fame (such as it is) in British poetry, because he’s always refused to play that game. In fact, I suspect his rebarbative reviews have served to keep him forever on the margins. Sometimes I find myself violently disagreeing with his opinion about this or that writer who he’s just reduced to ashes in one small magazine or other, or on Stride magazine. Then I go back a couple of years later and think, actually he was probably right…
He’s not really an ‘innovative poet’ in the sense we usually think of that term, and his poems all largely make the kind of paraphrasable sense that the avant garde usually eschew. In this book, he’s taken to using a much longer line than usually, and there’s a fair amount of prose poetry, ‘poetic plays’ (a la Koch’s 1001 Avant Garde Plays) and, at the back, some mock appendices that sort of explain, in a roundabout way (but what a roundabout) his own version of his own poetics. Think O’Hara’s Personism manifesto with even more knockabout wit and self-deprecatory humour than usual.
Martin Stannard is an important poet, who really should be as widely read as any other poet in this country. That he isn’t is partly down to his being in China and his being an awkward cuss; but largely to do with the state of British mainstream poetry. At which point, I’m tempted to name names, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that everyone should have at least one Stannard on his or her shelf. You could do a lot worse than making it this one.