Honouring Fathers and Telling Tales
Reading Fatherhood, an anthology from the Emma Press, I found myself reflecting on modern British poetry’s tendency to be respectful and charitable towards fathers. This is a generalisation, of course, derived from a small and unscientific sample of the first poems that came into my head, Heaney’s ‘Digging’ and others, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, Tony Harrison’s more complex but ultimately humane relationship with his parents. Surprisingly, the only account of adolescent conflict with a father I could remember was from John Betjeman’s all but forgotten ‘Summoned by Bells’, written before he became a cuddly national treasure. Nothing I know in British poetry matches the savagery of Plath’s ‘Daddy’. Fatherhood bears out this trend, and this is not intended as a criticism; it’s heartening, when the comedian Russell Kane can make a career out of his relationship with his overbearing father, that so many poets avoid that easy way and strive to find the benign in relationships that were not always perfect.
In her helpful introduction, Emma Wright explains how she and her co-editor, Rachel Piercey, were surprised that so many submissions were about poets’ relationships with their own fathers, typically exploring ‘the impassive twentieth century father’. Certainly, this theme prevails, but the anthology avoids repetition through its varied selection of approaches and interpretations. At the formal end is Martin Malone’s elegant villanelle, ‘Digitalis’, a nod to ‘’Do Not Go Gentle’ and a moving portrayal of a man making one last grasp at his lost youth “Between his first and third heart attack”. In contrast Lynne Hoffman’s ‘my hero’ seems almost childlike with its minimal punctuation and simple diction at the start – “he thought i would should want / the thoughts he thinged and threw” – but tells a touching story of the father standing up to a bully, leaving the child “just a little braver, closer to the sun”.
It’s difficult to avoid the adjectives ‘moving’ and ‘touching’ when commenting on many of these poems, but to their credit they are rarely sentimental and some do portray less than perfect relationships. ‘The Lapse’ by the extremely talented Flora de Falbe, a recent Foyle Young Poet, hints at something unsavoury, with a father who says that “Perfection isn’t infinite/ it lives in boxes: a spelling test, or a marriage”. Richard O’Brien’s ‘Queen Dick’, told in the voice of Richard Cromwell, addressing the late Lord Protector, his father, turns details of historical fact into recognisable contemporary relationship dysfunction – “your disappointment curdling like milk”; at Christmas, the father writing a “treatise entitled/ How to Ruin Everything/ for Everyone”.
Other poems deal with being a father, predominantly the father of an unborn, newborn or very young child. While many address the angsts and anxieties of being a father, and how easily a child can be hurt, most are joyful and the exuberance of twenty-first century fathers contrasts with the buttoned-up-ness of many of their earlier incarnations portrayed here. Again, there’s plenty of variety, from James Harris’s ‘A Hundred Billion’, an almost mathematical account of conception, to the sensuousness of Stevie Ronnie’s ‘Four Years from Now, Walking with my Daughter’ with its wistful imagining of a future beyond the future, “trains, platforms, waving”. In an anthology that occasionally feels dominated by men, women poets hold their own, particularly Rachel Piercey, reworking an Icelandic saga, Katrina Naomi with a sharply observed account of two fathers and Jacqueline Saphra whose wonderful poem ‘Geometry’ encompasses both the fallibility of fathers and the near-impossibility of two people meeting at the right time to create a child.
Fatherhood is beautifully produced with a witty and attractive cover and illustrations reminiscent, appropriately, of Sylvia Plath’s drawings. While there’s little in it that is truly challenging or innovative, it’s a good read, and, perhaps as a present, might engage readers who would not normally be drawn to poetry.
The poems that people remember from their schooldays tend to be narratives, ‘The Listeners,’ ‘The Lady of Shallott’, ‘Abou Ben Adhem’, but in contemporary poetry, plots and character have largely given way to images and show don’t tell. The Other Side of Sleep, edited by Cherry Potts, is a new anthology of contemporary narrative poems from Arachne Press, which demonstrates that storytelling in poetry is not an anachronism, though they’ve come a long way from the ballads of our childhood. Potts has included many longer poems, which are often difficult to place in anthologies; over 150 pages long, this anthology includes only twenty-five poems, the longest of which runs to eighteen pages.
Narrative poetry can veer towards prosiness, but the best of these long poems retain a poetic tightness. Angela France’s ‘Lir’, the saga of a contemporary storyteller, successfully captures the reader’s interest with the rich and developed imagery that length allows. Its structure, regular fourteen line stanzas, supports the pace, so that it never drags. There’s a strong contrast in the appearance of Adrienne Silcock’s much shorter, metaphysical love-story, ‘Rhythms’ which is fragmentary on the page and impressionistic, composed of strong sensory images. Some of the longer poems, such as ‘Robinson’ by Brian Johnstone and Emma Lee’s ‘Voices after a Tsunami’ are sequences, with the poems they contain serving as chapters in a poem-novella. Other poems tell their stories in no more than two or three pages. Inua Ellam’s ‘Faith in a Time of Double-Dip Recessions’ is part fairy story, part morality tale, a chain-reaction told with the energy of falling dominos. ‘A Visitation at the Abbey of Barking’ by Judi Sutherland employs well-crafted pastiche of the speech of a mediaeval nun to deliver a haunting and unresolved anecdote.
There was no introduction in the uncorrected proof I had so it isn’t entirely clear what the editor’s rationale was for selecting these poems. It may be that all that connects them is each author’s take on the concept of narrative, so diverse are they, in form, length and content. Many respond to myths and legends while others relate to the modern world and less epic stories. I tend to be dubious as to whether poetry is the ideal medium for story-telling; prose seems likely to be more efficient in dealing with the mechanics of fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised to see so many poets telling their stories in a way that grips the reader as a good prose short story does, without compromising on the quality of the poetry.
This review was first printed in Issue 4 of Bare Fiction Magazine – November 2014.
edited by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright
Published by The Emma Press (2014)