The New Wave of Sad Pizzazz: Three British Poets
June 4, 2014
Jun 4, 2014
11 Min read time
Twentieth-century British poetry had many virtues, but it was not overburdened with a sense of style. Putting the case like that, I risk a needless controversy, since “style”—as understood by literary critics—would seem to be precisely what underlies the achievements of, say, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, R. S. Thomas, and even plain old Philip Larkin, to name just five grandees of mid-century British verse. For what follows, I won’t be concerned so much with this venerable, literary meaning of “style,” defined in the OED as “the manner of expression characteristic of a particular writer . . . a writer’s mode of expression considered in regard to clearness, effectiveness, beauty, and the like” (though, since I am discussing writers, I probably won’t be able to avoid it altogether). Rather, I want to talk about style as it is understood nowadays by normal people. I want to talk about it in terms of swagger, savoir faire, and clothes. I want to use the word like the person who says, “Damn, that guy’s got style.”
The three poets I want to look at have this sort of style in abundance. Heather Phillipson, Amy Key, and Camellia Stafford write poems that make the room livelier than it was before you read them. Their three debut collections came out last year, and together they form an advance guard in a new wave of British poetry. All three writers couch tough personal-political questions in effervescent forms and subject matter, flirting bravely with ephemera and frivolity as they go. In November, Key and Stafford launched their collections together in a trendy vintage dress shop in east London, and it is rare to find two new poets in such close cahoots. Their work teems with the ecstasies of friendship, the twinge of nourished heartaches, karaoke nights, London life and sartorial decisions. Both books (Luxe by Key, and Letters to the Sky by Stafford) came out first in opulent hardback covers that testify to the colour-saturated, highly visual poetry within.
Phillipson stands slightly apart, as likely to riff on Heidegger (“German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London”) as her clothes rail. The title of her collection, Instant-Flex 718, gestures to her interest in modernism and abstraction, as does her self-designed cover (she is a practicing, widely exhibited visual artist), on which two pink and green trapeziums sandwich a perfect, purple triangle. Her humour is more surreal and acerbic than Key’s and Stafford’s, but gives way to similar melancholic depths, as in the brilliant final poem of Instant-Flex, “Goodbye. You can take this as my notice.”
For too long, I’ve been passing through one of those periods inwhich significance is found only in dullness. I don’t know what Ineed. I need to get out of these wet leggings and into a dry Martini.
The sylleptic shift between the wet leggings and the dry Martini is the best joke to be found in all three collections, a piece of pure, modern-day Dorothy Parker. Just as deft as the joke’s delivery is how it contradicts the hopelessness of the previous sentence (“I don’t know what I / need”). It smudges at the frustration and despair but can’t erase it altogether. The poem and collection end on a note of deflationary precision, though one that does not want for wit:
Let’s prefer these pointless days while we can. Everything is linked.Everything and nothing, to be accurate.
Accuracy is not so important for Amy Key, whose poems billow and pout with rather more grandeur and sincerity than Phillipson would permit. Key’s “To a Clothes Rail” is a lush, jagged inventory of dresses and desire:
Dress folded as an envelope and posted to meHand-me-down dress taken up, then taken down againThe one worn once, to a partyAge-appropriate dressDress the colour of your skin long underwater
More than most poetry collections, Luxe takes to heart the advice of its epigraph, an aperçu lifted from Preface 1 by Chelsey Minnis: “Poetry should be ‘uh huh’ like. . . ‘baby has to have it. . .’” This is poetry impatient with the vague, well-mannered pleasures of the average modern poem. Most at home with American influences, particularly Minnis and Brenda Shaughnessy, Key’s work knows its own pleasure points and wants to hit them as often as possible. Sometimes the pleasure will be a queasy and synaesthetic one, shadowed by the dark, transitory thrill of erotic love:
My mouth is a glass paperweightto keep our tastes in, like maraschinocherries and water from a zinc cup.(“Brand New Lover”)
But at other times, the poems sing of the purer, enduring pleasures to be had in platonic friendship:
We both know what’s morevirtue than obligation and there’s always a stash of ginin the teapot because at times the obligations necessitateendurance. Not once, but three times I have thought to call you atnight. Check I am still the way I am, and need not be.(“The Trap Laid for the Glittering Life”)
Consistent through these poems is the resistance to mere “virtue” and “obligation,” construed in either the ethical or aesthetic sense. We might be obliged to behave in certain ways (in which case we can fortify ourselves with the “stash of gin / in the teapot”) but nobody is obliged to type up a poem. If you do take such a radical step, then that poem had better cut a dash and give you something that you wouldn’t get from just turning on the radio.
In a brief discussion of these poets, it is possible to go in one of two directions. On the one hand, you might emphasize their gaiety and glitz; their pop culture, fashion and food references, which sometimes seem to come straight out of the Observer lifestyle pages; or the loquacious exclamations and tabulated spaces that punctuate some of their lines. It is this side of their work that immediately jumps out and snags the attention, refreshing and rare as it is. For too long, British poetry was satisfied with dressing down. It loafed about the garden, the pub, or the family home, worrying about class politics and the plight of the honeybee. Through their urban and urbane poetry, Key, Stafford, and Phillipson articulate what feels like a long pent-up dissatisfaction with the weighty, worthy inheritance of Hughes, Heaney, Larkin, et al, with its emphasis on myth, socially constructed identities, and rural or provincial life.
• • •
But there is another direction we might go. Indeed it would be an oversimplification to insist too far on the lively, fabulous side of this new poetry, however much it might dazzle at first sight. These three vivacious poets know plenty about heartache and nostalgia as well; often their vivacity is involved in a delicate, courteous tango with heartache, the two qualities present at the same time, each inflecting the other. Nowhere is this more evident than in Stafford’s Letters to the Sky, which happens also to be the shortest collection of all three, clocking in at a breezy forty-six pages. Its opening poem (“Before a mirror, I kneel to tend my face”) is deceptively cool and material in its celebration of the makeup table’s rituals:
Mantled with blusher, a silken brush swirls,its powder blossoms flower on my cheeks.Sponge applicator plunged through lustredcream strokes lips into a flittering glaze.Candies perfume the next breath’s confetti.
Only with the final stanza’s more loaded and pseudo-religious language does the speaker imply the true vulnerability of her position before the mirror: “Possibilities of colour volunteer my eyes . . . / shades tempt me with matte and shimmer. / I twirl my finger in their haloes applying / one, then another from the palette’s rosary.” (Italics all my own.)
If gorgeous appearances—and the effort to keep them up—require a language of religious submission, then it is fair to ask what emotional longing underlies all that glamour in the first place. Through a deft piece of sequencing, the second poem in the collection (“Corsage”) suggests an answer:
How can a heart be broken like this,when it’s out of fashion to live for someone else.Pop on another outfit, heart-shaped shades.Step out into new love or Horatio Street,where freshly watered hanging basketscry on your shoulder.
This passage exemplifies many of the bittersweet, layered pleasures of Stafford’s work, and could even function as a style guide—in both senses of “style”—for this new wave of sad pizzazz. The first line, candid and unadorned, might have blown in from a soul ballad. The second line toys with the thorny implications of “fashion,” which ought to be a simple matter of deciding what to wear, but ends up influencing everything, including one’s choices about whether it’s OK “to live for someone else.” By line three, we are back within the traditional bounds of fashion, with yet “another outfit”—but the heart-shaped shades pick up the broken heart in the first line and twist it into a cute plastic parody. The shades relieve the melancholic pressure of the poem’s opening and enable a straightforwardly hopeful moment (“Step out into new love or Horatio Street”). This fourth line gets double pizzazz points, since it not only names a hip East London street, but even contains a little sylleptic joke, in that quibble between figurative and literal stepping out, either “into new love or Horatio Street.” But you won’t just find new love on Horatio Street. You’ll also find hanging baskets: exquisite, stylish floral displays, which can’t help but “cry on your shoulder.”
The lipsticked elephant in the room is that all three of these poets are women, while all five of my fusty grandees are male. Does this matter? The truthful answer, most probably, is yes. Reviewing Luxe in the latest Poetry London, Clare Pollard writes, “It’s very feminine, perhaps the definition of gurlesque.” Gurlesque, a term coined by Arielle Greenberg and Lara Glenum to describe a loose school of female American poets writing in the first decade of the new millennium—poets united by a “campy take on feminism,” to lift Pollard’s arguably reductive summary—is a blatant touchstone for Key, from the Minnis epigraph down, and for Stafford too, albeit in a quieter way. Equally one might question whether gurlesque is an entirely apt descriptor for Key and Stafford, when the avowed aim of the movement was to “kick patriarchy in the nuts”: if these two poets do anything to undermine the patriarchy—and they do— they accomplish it while confessing, over and again, to the heartbreaks and co-dependencies that come with desire for the opposite sex. “Oh stranger boy, / your face is like mine,” Key writes in “Whoever You Are You Start Off a Stranger.” And then:
If you see this scarf around my neck it meansunravel this scarf from around my neck.If you see this blanket at my shoulders it meansdrape yourself about my shoulders.
Not so much a kick, then, as a pointed swoon.
Once again it is Phillipson who juts out from this group of three, the sharp apex of an isosceles triangle—like that on her front cover—in which Key and Stafford form the gentler base angles. In “An Encounter in the New Language,” she enters into a discussion about feminism through a figure that makes the poem at once more defiantly political and oblique than anything in Key’s or Stafford’s collections.
Tights don’t help, have no authority, say nothing aloud.All in all, tights have it easy.They’re a mashed-up corporation of legs and feet,indifferent to global events and individual responsibility,like seven proud daughters in an epic of coincidences. . .
This peroration is fitting for a speaker contemplating the “odd regatta” in a washing machine’s drum. Tights here could represent womankind, if you were inclined to view this feminine item of clothing through an allegorical lens—particularly in the two lines before the stanza break, which flirt with the sort of cheap, demagogic language you might hear at a support group or picket line.
Phillipson’s coup is to leap from these funny and pointed, though rather sarcastic, lines to a stanza of more radical ambiguity. With that stanza break, we enter a “mashed-up,” “indifferent” world of “epic coincidences,” where to read into those tights in such a totalizing, allegorical way would be folly. The drum has spun around and disarranged a fleeting pretence at certainty (though, in “seven proud daughters,” a vestige of ideological fire remains). Through such agile destabilizations of tone, Phillipson declares her allegiance not to a particularly female or feminist style of writing, but to a co-ed school of younger British poets—we might also include Sam Riviere, Emily Berry, and Jack Underwood—whose mutable, hip, and ironic work has featured prominently in the journal Stop Sharpening Your Knives.
Phillipson strikes me as the most nuanced and humane writer in this circle. Through every feint and costume change, her work remains clever, generous, tender, and direct. Stop Sharpening Your Knives, and the graduation of several of its leading lights to the venerable Faber list, has lit a fire under the slow-moving British poetry establishment. In common with a different set of fellow travellers, Key and Stafford, Phillipson knows that revolutions can stir in the attention we pay to a pair of tights.
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June 04, 2014
11 Min read time