I often read poetry books with my poet's hat on, aware of how poems come to be written and the tricks of the trade. My impression is that Tony Williams is rather the opposite of me in that he seems to have lots of ideas and knows how to develop them. 28 of these poems are longer than a page. The shortest poem is 18 lines long. I struggle to add enough words to finish a piece. I also worry about each word I read in a poem - I tend to do close reading even if it's inappropriate to do so.
As an example of my reading tendencies, consider my encounter with "Derwent". It begins with "They are not one, the river in the crook/ of my elbow and in yours". So, are there 2 distinct rivers (the people distant from each other), or is it a "can't step into the same river twice" poem? Why "crook" (in what way might a river be in a bent elbow?) and who is "you" - a particular other or generic "one"? I suspend evaluation as I read on.
Near the end of the first stanza, "There is a reason rivers share their names,/ but it is not that the rivers are one". In stanza 2, "beyond the wide-smiling weir, an idle brick mill no longer part of the river's argument". By now, the idea of river=narration has been established - Time, maybe, or Life or a shared Love. Perhaps there are 2 people at the start, arm in arm, each being each other's river.
Towards the end of stanza 3, the figurative is foregrounded - e.g. the "democratic rain". Stanza 4 continues that trend, beginning with "Be suspicious of what the river teaches:/ brown water cannot be throttled or sued,/ and lovers can't be blamed for why we love them./ It is the godhead's delta", which is a lot of sudden symbolism. Eliot's brown god?
At the end, "Maybe in water's dozing you will drown, unable to respond. That will not matter ... there are always other coming, always themselves and listening, running, rivers returning to the open and generous sea". Ah, a "sea=humanity" poem, individuality of raindrops and river transcended. But what about that crook? Was there ever a significant other? These questions still hang suspended in my "working memory", which struggles to hold everything because it's used to short "lyrics". Why do I bother getting hung up about a word or 2? Because words matter, especially those at the beginning of poems. Why don't I move on when the poem moves on? Because I don't know when I should let go. Why do I assume that everything needs to be interconnected? I don't, but I read a poem assuming that there might be connections.
What's the expected reading strategy? "'But tell me, who are they, these travellers?' (Rilke)" is a list poem in rhyming couplets, e.g. -
The whisper of their feet in grass|
says, 'Now cartographers will pass
and close the landscape of the clouds
to tell where you are not allowed.'
Who carry human skulls inscribed
with wonderment. Who bribed
the watchman with a knife to sleep
and fudge the total of his sheep
Maybe the idea is "If an image doesn't grab you, don't worry - another will be along soon". The effect is cumulative, so the loss of the odd image isn't a big deal. And longer poems allow for more asides. Here's the start of stanza 3 of "A Bouquet for Pauline Viardot" -
Late elevations of tone, a key-change,|
an impresario, spreading his hands wide,
something in his face physically strange,
and the sound of a scuffle in the street outside:
hare with gooseberry sauce - pig's feet -
a rattled old woman clearing her throat -
another three bottle of champagne -
the Empire's stars and the sharp horizon
and the cigar's smoke troubling my heart.
Note first the rhyme-scheme (which is different from that of the poem's previous stanzas). Pauline Viardot was apparently a "leading nineteenth-century French mezzo-soprano, pedagogue, and composer" though that won't help you much in keeping up with the shifting imagery. In contrast, "Laura, a seamstress" seems like whimsy. In the poem after that, "Jack Woolley's Dream", we're in the world of long-running radio soap operas, ending with "It is the vale of lengthening shadow, the bridge/ which takes each soul beyond its Am.". In "Memoir" we're closer to the Martian school of imagery where "Our friend the Watermill clapped slowly,/ grinding the fields' seed between her thighs./ The Jackpot with All holds puked out with its rhythmical crash/ all our days".
When "Dear Rhino, Love from Hippo" began "With skin like ours, my friend, the usual/ insults of a rivalry descend/ harmlessly as confetti/ or the blossom of trees/ we rub our backs against" I wasn't expecting too much. The gratuitous indents continue throughout the poem, but the imagery grows wilder. In stanza 3 "You doomed swordsman, me cloven-hoofed/ and cackling like a whale. You unicorn,/ me Cadillac bumping up/ against the blonde girl's legs./Whatever happened/ to your ambition to become a freelance illustrator?", then later returning more to the epistolary mode with "So don't get pettish. Sling your keys in the bowl./ We'll put our heads together, become a/ hiprhiponopocetarosmus,/ get a scholarship to university, mend a motorbike". That poem's followed by the 20-line "The Luckiest Man in the World", which I'd never have had the idea for. If I had, I'd never have developed it. I'm baffled. That's followed by "The Photocopier" which is in a different class, though it might as well have been shorn of its line-breaks - "and when the noise comes to tell you the bastard is jammed/ you reach in to the hedge to pluck at a tight and pristine rose ... you are up to your elbows, a general surgeon of Daleks". Life take a turn for the worse, the poem broadening out, as poems do -
In the time you are waiting, stuck on copy 16 out of 20,|
your colleagues turn up to microwave lunches, read memoes,
get promoted past you, get married, have babies, die.
"Stone Pigsties" rings the changes again, using short lines and repetition. "The snail of Masson" is in short-lined rhymed triplets. In "The towns have burned" the rhythm's insistently iambic, as it is in "The Clock in the hall" which is over 4 pages of rhymed couplets -
... The pleasure and distress|
of adulthood, the fudge and mess
I travel with, are held in check
by conjuring that oubliette
where wound-up instruments of mind
can let the universe unwind
The poem pushes beyond nostaglia at the end.
Elsewhere even when there's end-rhyme there's a conversational lilt, a fusion of sound effects rather than a polarised reaction to Formalism - the baby hasn't been thrown out with the bathwater. Similarly, though there are familiar themes, scenes and character types, that familiarity frequently dissolves on further reading. The decorator in the poem of the same name "turned on the radio. All day, fresh brews, fags out the skylight" but he also saw the ghost of a boy "who'd carved Greek letters/ into the polystyrene tiles of the roof/ with a shatterproof rule" [shouldn't 'roof' be 'ceiling'?]. At the end the decorator "sat on the edge of the jacuzzi and wept". And the Midland towns, arrived at when the streets are empty, still have surprizes to offer; a few poems follow a traditional trajectory but many others take unexpected directions (or detours). Typically within a page or so there's more variety of aesthetic intent than in some other poets' oeuvre. Of course, variety in itself needn't be a good thing - too much in a poem can upset readers' expectations of unity and control; too much in a book can disorientate readers - so I wouldn't be surprized if this book divides opinion.
- Sean O'Brien (Guardian) (Williams’s typical inclination is to evoke a category (for example, a half-idealised rural space) and then complicate it ... there is a consistent sense that something urgent is at stake – in part an inquiry into what the imaginative polity of England might now be ... a book of considerable diversity, disinclined to play safe ... a poet of great resourcefulness)
- Katherine Stansfield (Magma) (Rhyming couplets are a regular feature, used with half and true rhymes. I found the couplets that use true rhyme less successful due to their creation of flippancy in poems that seemed to be reaching for a serious tone, but that may well come down to a question of personal taste. Williams’ work is at its best when his humour and imagination are allowed free rein. There are poems in this collection that astonish with their originality.)
- Charlie Baylis (Stride) (I'm excited, there hasn't been a Midlands poet of note since D H Lawrence got goat gonorrhoea in Mexico (part time shaman Alan Sillitoe was too busy being a great Midlands author to be a great Midlands poet). Tony Williams could be next. He certainly has the talent.)
- James Giddings (Dead ink) (The book could do with some restructuring and a trimming down in length; some of the poems by the end feel too ordinary and detract from the early excitement. Despite this, The Midlands is an assured second collection that makes a good first impression, but reveals even more upon revisiting.)
- Penny Boxall (Compass Magazine)