The definition and purpose of poetry are not subjects unknown to this blog. See here, for example. Many would claim that one of poetry’s chief duties is to arrest the reader with powerful, startling images and statements that invest what was previously seen or known with new meaning, magic or wonder.
This is certainly a service provided by The Havocs, Jacob Polley’s new collection from Picador Poetry; Polley bestows on us, for example, costumed bee-keepers viewed as
and observes that to inhale winter air is to
‘breathe blue knives’.
Those who, as I do, grow joyful at the display of formal ability and dexterity need look no further than this collection, whether it be in the skilfully flexible rhymed iambics of the opening poem The Doll’s House, various novel forms of sonnet or the Anglo-Saxon alliterative style.
Polley is also blessed with the Fenton/Auden-like ability (not to diminish any party by comparison) to produce lines and poems that, employing simple vocabulary, are able to evoke a kind of timeless, enigmatic declaratory wisdom. From A Book of Water, for example:
‘I bought a book of water
its covers bound in weed,
its spine of muscled silver,
its words too quick to read.'
and, as Doll’s House zooms out from the sub-human to the cosmic scale:
‘What happens if you turn away?
Every god has asked the same,’.
Polley frequently unleashes a keen eye and ear on natural phenomena, producing exquisite lyric descriptions of flora and fauna. He can also, however, experiment with language in a discommoding way, especially in the title poem and Virus, both of which blend (deliberate) clichés with a vision of a language that has run riot with peculiar usages; a metaphor for and embodiment of the growing gap between the state of the world and our ability to describe it. The more emotionally engaged poems often look back to the troubling puzzles of childhood and are imbued with a wistful and contemplative tone that is never sentimental.
Little streams of reference and theme trickle pleasantly through the book; the mysterious, riddle-like Hide and Seek prefigures a section of literal riddles about occupations; there is a sequence of poems which looks at the ephemeral nature of human activity from various perspectives, and another which fires off a volley of observations and reflections about the Moon. Despite the conventional and well-worn subject mater of these poems, the precisely unusual vocabulary and imagery redeem Polley's versions from predictability and cliché. There is also a number of poems which echo and reshape the work of other writers: Doll’s House shares themes with Keats’ Grecian Urn, The News can be read as a response to Auden’s Stop All the Clocks and It Will Snow Before Long is an honourable relative of Louis MacNeice’s Snow.
I must quote in full one of the shorter poems which made me purr with appreciation:
A star-cold dark and silence over
which you hold your face
to look as many lovely others
looked and left no trace.
In summary, The Havocs is a wonderfully inventive, beautiful, and intelligent collection, superbly crafted and justifiably endorsed by the Poetry Book Society.