When I embarked on the idea of doing brief reviews of the collections shortlisted for this year’s T.S.Eliot prize, I was not prepared for either the variety I would encounter or the pleasure it has given me. Coming to Glyn Maxwell after Will Harris and Wayne Holloway-Smith is a little like moving from a student degree show to the studio of a master craftsman. And I don’t mean by this to disparage either of the younger poets, both of whom I admire in their different ways. But years of practice at the art leave their mark.
What is immediately distinctive about Maxwell’s work is his attention to form. Take the first two stanzas of The Forecast:
"A day of rain they forecast came and thrown along the window pane was every drop that couldn't stop but dabbed across the light in step"
In the short Youtube interview that preceded the T.S.Eliot Prize readings, Maxwell says that his poems incorporate centuries of formal tradition, and that he doesn’t feel trapped by this – “it allows me to say exactly what I mean because I’ve practised it for long enough”. The two stanzas I’ve quoted contain the recurring elements of regular stanzas, rhyme or assonance, rhythm (here two stresses in each line) and a syllabic pattern (here four syllables per line).
In the same interview he says that a number of poems in the book are a lament on the way things are going in the Anglophone world. The title poem How the hell are you is a case in point. I particularly recommend the Youtube clip of Maxwell reading it. Although it’s written as a monologue it describes the encounter of two old friends who haven’t seen each other for some time. It is deeply moving:
"How the hell are you. Christ you haven't crossed my mind since all the shit we knew turned into shit we hoped was true forget it take my arm and tell me how the hell are you."
The conversational tone is deceptive, as the mood darkens:
"...Plaque there where the thing kicked off here come the same young men in the same lines remember when we never mind Huzzah Forever Glory Be Amen etc. Off they go sunlight glancing off their gear new world of years ago you didn't hear me say that though because I never did how does your bastard garden grow."
The Other Side is about deeprooted social divisions, as were revealed in the course of Brexit:
"The other side took everything we know is true and twisted it and why they pull they shit they do we cannot fathom friend it's why we're asking you."
You will see from both these poems that they have an onward conversational flow helped by the total absence of any punctuation except full stops. Added to these devices, often, is a form of repetition that involves a slight change of context or position, and an adjustment of effect. In the syllabic poem Plainsong of the Undiscovered the words “the dark that you consider/to be dark” occur in the centre of each of the first four stanzas. Similarly, in another syllabic poem, Death Comes to Everyman, the first line in each of the five stanzas ends with the words “the last-night party”. In each case the repetition gives a shape to the poem, underscored by a regular metre – both of these countering the apparently arbitrary line-breaks that are a feature of syllabic verse:
"I hie me to the last-night party show I'd not played any part in hadn't even got around to catching don't to this day know what play it was."
Maxwell’s day job as a teacher of creative writing has left its mark in a number of witty poems dealing with the creative process. Readers of his brief treatise On Poetry will remember the first section, “White” in which he writes “Poets work with two materials, one’s black and one’s white. Call them sound and silence, life and death, hot and cold, love and loss: any can be the case but none of those yins and yangs tell the whole story”. The blank page is the “white” element, on which the poet will be placing his black marks. In this collection the blank page is given a voice in a number of poems – although, of the “page” poems my favourite is Page as Seating Plan at a Wedding, in which the point of view is that of a seating plan pinned up outside the dining-room:
"I heard recited names of the nine tables as if they meant the world, or meant a thing, and I sniffed the eau de this or that, the rain, the mint and smoke, till the long hall was clear but for a booming sound, life all a dream, far sprinkle of applause that seemed to greet a silence, many rooms away from here..."
Great art, then, a sometimes gloomy perspective, and fun for the creative writing crowd. But there is more: two long elegies, one for Maxwell’s father and one for the poet Derek Walcott, under whom Maxwell studied at Boston University. Both of them are moving, but I found the latter particularly so:
"Your empty page was ocean, is still ocean, lapping the ribs of this. If it's a blank page anything like mine it sees no reason to think you won't be back, mistakes the hush for inhalation, waits ecstatically for more. But it isn't coming in, the light, the heat. The handle's not about to turn this scene to us lot sitting where we used to sit, our ballpoints circling what we think you mean, our notebooks gaping wide on a cold and frosty morning."
Maxwell did not win the T.S.Eliot Prize, but he is probably old enough to take this setback in his stride. This collection demonstrates his skill at reinventing the formal poem and imbuing it with meaning and emotion.
How the Hell are You is published by Picador. Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry is published by Oberon Books.