Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

"Inventing truth" by Matthew Stewart (HappenStance, 2011)

Poems from "London Magazine", "The Rialto", etc. The number of lines per poem ranges from 5 to 15 (in fact, all values except 11!), most commonly 10, 6 and 8. Stanza lengths vary too - most commonly poems have 2 equally-sized stanzas. The lines aren't long, though it had to be pointed out to me that the poems are syllabics with lines having the same number of syllables - 1 2-syllabled; 3 6-syllabled; 18 8 syllabled and 6 10-syllabled. Iambic lines come and go. The formalism's unobtrusive though - it's a person-centred pamphlet.

All in all it feels like a collection of shorts. Some people aren't keen on such collections. Others look upon them as hit'n'miss like a sketch show - if one doesn't work there's always another coming along. I wouldn't like to read a book of haiku, but none of these have a haiku feel. Some are sketches that say all they need to. Others sound like first or last stanzas of a longer work, or a paragraph from a short story. I'd love to end a story with "Learning the language" or "In exile" - they have the Larkinesque lift that gives the reader the escape velocity to be launched beyond the text.

I'd guess that readers' reaction to these pieces might depend rather on their stance re micro-fiction, syllabics and short poems. Is the need for the same number of syllables per line sufficient excuse for all the line-breaks? Should one pause briefly at the end of each line? When is enough enough? Impressionism gave respectability to what until then would have been considered an un-exhibitable sketch. More recently, Flash fiction has widened the definition of a "finished piece". I wavered in my levels of satisfaction. I liked "Chicken" whereas "Formica" seemed unfinished. I liked "Milko" whereas "La despedida" seemed too slight. "Kleptomaniac" and "Epilogue" didn't work. "You've reached 020 ..." sounded too long for me, yet "01252 .." was fine. I first read - and enjoyed - "Tennis" in "New Walk 2". To me it's Flash (or at least the sort of Flash I'd like to be able to write) because it exhibits the stylistic features that a reduced word-count can commonly cause without taking advantage of line-breaks. I've been known to string a few shorts together into episodic poetry or prose sequence. Maybe that could sometimes have been done here.

That many poems have one or two stanzas is a hint that there aren't many thesis-antithesis-synthesis structures. Endings are usually open, sometimes in a tell-not-show way ("Everything else" ends with "everything else has changed", for example).

A few things puzzled me at first. Was the "San fairy ann" title a sonic rendering of something more meaningful? [ah, Google tells me it's soldier slang - something like Sweet Fanny Adam]. 4 titles are in Spanish. To save you looking them all up -

  • extranjero - foreigner
  • La despedida - farewell
  • callémonos - ???
  • Guisantes al vino tinto - peas in red wine

Nostalgia (which is also a physical distancing, because the author's based in Spain though writes about England) comes through in many pieces and is often demonstrated using food and language.

My conclusion? A few at a time they're a breath of fresh air, making many a short story seem verbose. In a few words they can introduce characters at turning points, the kind which initially seem undramatic but in retrospect either summarise or fore-shadow significant changes in a relationship or person. At the moment I'm unconvinced by the format (I've never really understood syllabics) and in bulk they might dilute each other.

Other reviews

The brevity of the poems was welcomed in the Sphinx reviews - "economy ... restraint ... refreshingly short ... consistently stripped-down frankness ... laconic pulling-back and concealment ... crystalline domestic vignettes and distillations of loves ... pithy"

The nostalgia is praised too - "personal and yet so universal ... sifting the most basic of memories, to tease meaning – invent truth – from his own very personal history ... elegiac pangs ... poems that open up to panoramas of love, family, regret and longing"

He seems to have avoided the potential downsides to these tendencies - reviewers don't feel they want more exploration, nor do they think the work over-sentimentalised.


  1. "it had to be pointed out to me that the poems are syllabics"

    You're not the only one! When I was teaching, I'd occasionally ask a student why he'd put the line break in some strange place, and he'd say in a hurt tone "They're syllabics, didn't you notice?" I have never, ever, noticed that a poem was in syllabics until it was pointed out - I think one does instinctively notice how many stresses are in a line, but who counts syllables? I can believe syllabics are of use to a poet while composing, like any strict form, because by limiting choices they paradoxically free the poet from dithering and prolixity, and may also direct the mind where it wouldn't otherwise have gone. But if they actually want readers to notice the things, they're out of luck.

  2. "I think one does instinctively notice how many stresses are in a line, but who counts syllables?" - Not me. I can believe that syllabics are of some
    use as self-inflicted discipline, but I don't know what effect syllabics are supposed to have on the reader. So why disrupt the presentation just to
    preserve a record of the writing process?
    I don't count the words either (The Red Wheelbarrow's pattern passed me by). I notice sonic effects (beats,
    etc) and visual effects (lines per stanza, etc)

  3. The Red Wheelbarrow has a pattern? No, I never picked up on that either; I was too busy trying to work out what he was getting at with the words and images.

  4. If you're expecting to read more about syllabics, please re-tune to Matthew Stewart's blog