Languishing with “The Kids”

Responses to my last blog piece surprised me. As so often, it’s encouraging to find that others are sharing the same experience when you think you’re the only one going through a painful ordeal. In that serendipitous way that often occurs, a day or two after publishing it I came across the term “languishing”, which was apparently first coined by an American sociologist to describe the state of mind that has afflicted many of us during and/or after lockdown. Languishing is a state between full mental health (described by professionals as “flourishing”) and depression. It is characterised by lack of interest and energy, a general listlessness, a feeling of “What’s the point?”

As a result of time, better weather, the books mentioned in my last post and others, I feel I have moved up the curve towards a “flourishing” state of mind. Going to a live concert helped, as well as seeing other people. But I can throw Hannah Lowe’s book “The Kids” into the mix as well. It has received numerous accolades – shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot Prize, and now announced as the winner of the much-coveted Costa overall prize, having already come out as top in the poetry section.

The book is divided into three sections: the first is devoted to the young people encountered by Hannah Lowe while teaching in a London secondary school in the early noughties; there is then a section about teachers she met (including her own mother) when she was at school herself; and a final section starting with a group of poems about her son Rory, before branching off into miscellaneous poems about marriage breakdown and other encounters.

The poems are sonnets, though Hannah Lowe experiments with the form – and in one case (“Ricochet”) shortens it to thirteen lines. Elsewhere she shortens the line length or lengthens it, usually keeping to the overall rhyme scheme – although one, “Technology”, is the merest shadow of a sonnet, with short lines and rhymes abandoned – the only clue to the sonnet heritage being a break after the first eight lines:

"Suddenly, computers,
screens, an electronic pen
so off the cuff,
I'd ping a poem up –
'To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love'
or a drawing of the Pardoner,
an image of an ivory tusk
or a map –

one that showed
the 'heyday' of the British Empire,
the pale blue sea around
the places half those kids
had sort of come from once,
shaded rich and bloody red."

Elsewhere, the purist/traditionalist in me twitched a little at the liberties taken with the form, as in “The Art of Teaching III”:

"How to shake a kid from boredom? Squeeze
their names out like a flannel. Swap their chairs
and split the windows for a freezing breeze,
or zap them with a burning teacher-stare
or fling out questions – the whens and wheres and whys –
or make them role-play, or make them make a poster
and give out coveted supplies (the high-
lighters, the guillotine, the laminator)

or study them – what’s in their bag, their walk
to school, their grandmother in Tower Hamlets
or Istanbul. Or map the way they talk,
their slang. Write a glossary and call it
Multicultural London English – mandem,
wha-gwan, bare good, a'ight, yo whassup fam?"

Much of the attraction of Hannah Lowe’s writing is in the combination of traditional form with up-to-date idioms – here “zap” in the fourth line and the list of urban slang words in the last two. But what interests me here is the rhyme scheme and the line-endings.

In spite of the stanza break after the eighth line (a device used almost invariably, unless the poet splits the sonnet into seven couplets), the sonnet structure here is Shakespearean rather than Petrarchan. The odd-numbered lines in the four quatrains have full rhymes, although the poet allows herself a little latitude with “whys” and “high”. The even-numbered have full rhymes in the first quatrain and half-rhymes in the second and third and the final couplet. There is even more latitude with the half-rhymes: “poster” and “laminator”; “Hamlets” and “call it”.

The problem with this flexible use of rhyme is one of reader expectation. We start reading the sonnet and see full rhymes in all four lines of the first quatrain. Then things loosen up. But the reader doesn’t know whether there’s a pattern or not, and has to check it out, which is a distraction. It may be that the gradual disintegration of the rhyme scheme is itself a device backing up the poem’s theme – the recourse to anything in order to lift the boredom is mirrored by the increasing structural strain on the rhymes. If that is the case, I’m not sure why we have the full rhymes in lines 9 and 11.

What I am saying is that I’m not sure this use of rhyme works.

But in this poem there is an added complication with the line-endings. Normally a line ending would indicate a pause when the poem is read aloud, which gives an emphasis on the first word in the following line, particularly when there is a break in the syntax. I was unsure about the line-break after “Squeeze” in the first line, though it could be the equivalent of stressing and prolonging the sound to echo the sqee-eeze action of wringing out a flannel (having got this far, I found myself wondering about the image itself, which I don’t think is one of her most successful). But breaking “high-lighters” into two in order to have the rhyme of “high” with “whys” struck me as gimmicky.

This is not intended to be a sabotage of Hannah Lowe’s writing, which I enjoyed immensely. But the use of the sonnet form raised questions in my mind about the interplay between rhyme and structure and theme. It was a daring way to go, given the subject matter. It may well be that the decision both to adopt it and to loosen it was intended by Hannah Lowe to show how poetic structures can adapt to modern demands in exactly the same way that she shows the development and adaptation of society in modern Britain.

And most of the time it works well. I loved “The Only English Kid” in the first section:

"When the debate got going on 'Englishness',
I'd pity the only English kid – poor Johnny
in his spotless Reeboks and blue Fred Perry.
He had a voice from history: Dunno-miss
Yes-miss, No-miss— all treacly-cockney,
rag-and-bone — and while the others claimed Poland,
Ghana, Bulgaria, and shook off England
like the wrong team's shirt, John brewed his tea

exclusively on Holloway Road. So when Aasif
mourned the George Cross banner swinging freely
like a warning from his neighbour's roof,
the subway tunnel sprayed with MUSLIM SCUM,
poor John would sit there quietly, looking guilty
for all the awful things he hadn't done."

Here the rhyme-scheme is sufficiently gentle to work without being obtrusive. The poem addresses the problems of multiculturalism with great sensitivity.

Not the least of the attractions of this book is the way in which it addresses both the diversity of the children taught – from the stroppy Janine who is only tamed when she discovers that her teacher is mixed-race like herself to the “posh girls…all lip gloss and ribbony hair” who correct the teacher’s pronunciation of “Pepys” – and the intimate family life seen sometimes from the child’s viewpoint, sometimes from the adult’s. There are endless poems I could quote to illustrate this, but for the sake of space I shall limit myself to “The River”:

"Not another poem about my father,
as though he's been forever running through me,
rising, churning like the Yallahs River
where he was born. That river flooded yearly
so no one could cross. What have I learnt after
all these years of loss? At poetry readings
I perform him, hope for sighs or laughter.
I paint him at casino tables, cooking

Chinese suppers, lying in the spare room, dying.
I want applause, but see the real man standing
at the door. There's something he wants to say.
And nothing's been forgiven. Then I hear
the water rushing down the corridor.
He's swimming hard — but it carries him away." 

How could poetry such as this not touch the heart and help one out of a languishing state?

_______________________________

Hannah Lowe’s “The Kids” is published by Bloodaxe.

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