Book review: The Hat-Stand Union, Caroline Bird, Carcanet Press Ltd
October 24, 2013 | 6:57 pm
Before reading this review, please note that Caroline Bird: “won a major Eric Gregory Award in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize in 2001. Her first collection, Looking Through Letterboxes, was published in 2002 (when she was just fifteen). She was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2008 and 2010 for her second and third collections.” And “she was one of the five official poets for the London 2012 Olympics.” Plus, “she is also a playwright. In February 2012 her children’s musical The Trial of Dennis the Menace was premiered at the Southbank Centre, and in the autumn her radical new version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women enjoyed a seven-week run at the Gate Theatre, to wide critical acclaim.” All told, she should be able to survive any negative comment by me.
Because I have a problem with the verse in this collection of poetry. Or lack of it.There is an awful lot of not much attention paid here to the sound of words. Which is a bit of an issue when writing verse.
She married a man called Jerry, who turned out to be
a hat-stand in disguise. She contracted a disease
transmitted by celibacy. She slept in a violin case, smoking
rosin. She lost all pleasurable sensation in her ears.
“Murder your darlings,” wrote Arthur Quiller-Couch, though a lot of later writers took the credit for the epithet. This collection is pullulating with darlings, live and running around. And it dispenses with the rigidities of verse and metre, woohoo, that’s novel. Only, to follow Ezra Pound, if “poetry should be at least as well written as prose,” then you’d hope at least for good prose when the formal resources of poetry are laid aside. Hope on, readers, hope on.
Maybe we ought to update Pound with something like “free verse should be at least as well written as poetry.” Because if you’re not going to stop a line for a rhyme, fine, at least stop it for a reason. If there’s no reason, why are you stopping it? Okay, sometimes it can be for the dramatic effect, or bathetic let-down, of what lies on the farther side of the line break, but Bird doesn’t deliver much on that score either for me. We’ve seen the ending of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” enough times, honestly. We really are over Tennyson by now, Caroline, honest. Maybe there’s an audience out there that still thinks that verse which quotes brand names or fads is somehow streetwise and edgy. If there is, I reckon they ought to get out more. And obviously that audience is free with the Arts Council grants – like the one which helped fund this book.
It’s a shame, because at times Bird pulls together poems that are tight and effective. Take “The Dry Well,” for instance:
In the dry light of morning, I return to the well.
You think you know the outcome of this story.
Sunshine is a naked, roaming thing like hurt.
A well is a chance embedded in the ground.
But then she starts to ramble again and they get lost in the spate:
Any similarity to persons living or dead is
purely coincidental, apart from Andy, you cunt,
there was never a house in St Tropez. Do you
realise Greta used a toasted sandwich machine
to straighten her hair?
There are writers who can do more with the sound of one line than this entire collection manages. And no, it’s not about fixed form versus free verse , or traditional versus modern, or high sentence versus funky colloquial. It’s not about youth. Dylan Thomas wrote most of his most memorable verse in his teens, with all the sense of sound you (and certainly I) could wish for. It’s not about male versus female. Jack Underwood twats similarly. It’s not about verse versus prose poetry. Amy Leach has shown how much hard work it can take to produce really rewarding modern prose poems – and how good the results can be. It’s not about abstract canons of taste. Even scientists have shown how physically, neurologically, real and important the sounds of poetry are. Caroline Bird has simply put her mouth in overdrive with her ears in neutral.
Yes, that was harsh. But I don’t think she’s ever going to develop her gift unless she tackles this. And I think she needs to. And I didn’t start writing reviews for TeleRead to be a yes-boy. So go buy her book and see, if you think I’m being unfair.The Hat-Stand Union