Review of ‘Sweet Nothings’ -

Roger Caudwell's review of
Hugo Williams’ West End Final  (Faber)
TLS, December 18 & 25, 2009

We are in a watery time when the poetry establishment seems so continually besotted with defining - through what is published and prize-shortlisted - what poetry isn’t, forgetting, to the detriment of us all, what it actually is; or, was. Here’s a definition of poetry which most would immediately understand:

Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning.

And here’s an example of some contemporary ‘poetry’, in this case penned by one of the veteran fashionables, Hugo Williams:

Just as you thought they had disappeared
forever out of your life, setting you free,
there they all were once more

One could reasonably challenge here anyone to define such prosaic writing as poetry, or to argue that it is a legitimate ‘new definition’ of poetry either; even argue that it qualifies as ‘poetic prose’. In order to be ‘poetic prose’, it would have to have something ‘poetic’ about it. It really is a challenge to find in this extract any poetic sense of language. It seems, yet again, an example of the contemporary push towards ‘prosetry’.

One could go on, but the purpose of this article is to basically review a review – yes, you read correctly – in which this choicest snippet is used to to reinforce what is generally a fair-to-positive piece in the Times Literary Supplement on Hugo Williams’ latest TS Eliot-shortlisted slim from Faber. (For those who don’t already know, Hugo Williams is poetry editor of the Spectator and the recently departed freelance columnist of the TLS).

A currently fashionable vogue for anti-nostalgism – slamming 'the past' in order to puff up the spurious superiority of ‘the present’ – so typical of apparatchiks of contemporary 'culture', is echoed in this exceptionally ambivalent TLS review of Williams' West End Final. Under the slightly begrudging title of 'Sweet Nothings', the reviewer bolts mid-article from underwhelmed scepticism to sudden hyperbolic Damascus moments, with remarks, such as the following regarding one of Williams' tropes:
'The word 'plumage' recalls Yeats and his poems about old age, though Williams has none of Yeats's histrionics:
Am I a better person, with a fat arse,
flip-flops and a back-support for the car?
In my wildest dreams I never looked like this.'
The suggestion that the use of one word/image can justify comparison with a whole portion of the oeuvre of one of the recognised 'greats' in Irish poetry is dubious enough, but the snub against the reputation of the latter by the comment that 'Williams has none of Yeats's histrionics' only goes to make one wish that he had, when confronted with another prosaic snippet. To compare, in the context of these extracts, Williams to Yeats, is implausible enough; but to then tacitly disparage the author of such beguiling classics as 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', in order to buff the ego of a contemporary, and via an example of what resembles a piece of nondescript prose (or a stand-up comic's jotting sans punchline), is verging on delusional, not to say self-defeating. Apart from anything else, one feels sure most would sooner have the 'histrionics' of Yeats' time-withstanding later works such as The Twisting Stair and The Tower, than Williams' comparatively limp subject matter and underwhelming style. Here's a snatch of Yeats' 'The Tower':
Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come -
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath - .
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird's sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

Here, again, is the Williams take on aging:

Am I a better person, with a fat arse,
flip-flops and a back-support for the car?
In my wildest dreams I never looked like this.'

Spot the difference...

The reviewer makes other astoundingly unsubstantiated remarks, including: ‘‘In ‘Religion’, he (Williams) offers us a theology of sleep – rivalling Larkin’s theology of water’’. No explanation as to how it does this; we instead have to take his word on it. And; ‘‘Elsewhere... he plays with linear time rather as MacNiece does’. So no breaking new ground in either instance, just some vague ‘rivalling’. Ah, but then the reviewer writes: ‘What is most interesting about this new collection, where it breaks new ground’, but then this epithet is undermined by a rather lame exposition: ‘His poems often use the personal voice, and in a manner so seductively transparent that we are tempted to think that what we have is a direct transcription of experience’. Well it seems we do have that, but why is this supposed to be admired when in other less established poets it would probably be perceived as lazy or unimaginative?

One does get the distinct impression that the reviewer isn’t overly enthused by the poetry under review. He sporadically jabs with phrases like ‘disappointingly flat’, and the beginning of the review itself is very telling: ‘In the end, there is much to surprise us in Hugo Williams’ latest collection...’ The phrase ‘In the end’ does sound a bit as if the reviewer has a subsequent self-placating tic induced by an interminable commission. This detectably lukewarm start must have sent a shudder of trepidation down Williams’ spine as he read it.

The following bit of the review is a real belter: ‘In the opening poem ‘Peach’ we are returned not only to his boyhood ... but also to the same words about it...’ So, Williams has now succumbed to self-plagiarising, or perhaps more psychic copying and merging. The reviewer, in a sort of understated exasperation, then posits the questions, ‘Is Williams running out of themes? Is he entering a Parnassian phase?’ At this point, no doubt, Williams spilt his morning coffee while rigorously stirring a pot of marmalade.

Never has a truer word – judging by the evidence – been said as this by the reviewer, in his, however, un-ironic conclusion: ‘If there is much about the theatre in this collection, there is little theatricality’. But it goes on, straining to salvage poetic credibility from the book: ‘in his poetry Williams never speaks in what he would describe as ‘funny voices’’. He certainly doesn’t – though many might wish he did. The reviewer should have quitted while he was ahead, but unfortunately drags the issue out with a subtly ambivalent close: ‘But the conversational ease of the verse can speak volumes, and the resonances of this collection as a whole run surprisingly deep’. Ok, I understand the ‘conversational ease’, though that’s hardly anything ground-breaking and is more par for the course in contemporary mainstream poetry; but as to whether Williams’ ‘speaks volumes’ is debatable, since it’s barely filled out a volume, this being a highly economical 57pp, which must sport one of the slimmest spines in Christendom.

The erratic switching of tone throughout this curious review, between markedly critical and irrationally flattering, replete with end-to-end exclamations of ‘surprise’ at the alleged merits to this collection, does rather suggest that the reviewer can’t quite make up his mind whether he really rates the work he’s reviewing or not. More curiously, the review itself seems to be like an almost stream-of-consciousness eavesdropping into the reviewer’s mixed impressions, as if he is thinking aloud on paper.

As to the possible merits in Hugo Williams’ West End Final, one has to reserve judgment till they’ve read it properly; though it has to be said, the ambivalent tone of this almost 'token' review doesn’t entirely inspire one to seek the book out. Nevertheless, in spite of a shaky start, it does at least provide sufficiently hyperbolic snippets for quoting on the back of Williams’ next volume. And that’s the main thing.

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