Stride Magazine -



WRITING DOWN THE DAYS by Martin Stannard, 140pp, £9.95, Stride
THE MEMORY OF ROOMS by David H.W. Grubb, 266pp, £11.95, Stride

Judging by the reviews quoted in abundance on the back and inside Stannard’s latest, I get the distinct impression I’m going to be in a minority of non-supercilious non-swooners before I even get started. ‘Yes, serious entertainment’, proclaims one. ‘It would hard to be bored by a Stannard poem’, challenges another. And yet another tells us, ‘He balances a street-slangy way of handling words with a precise and mock-classical mode that evokes laughter’. Then, to cap it all, ‘…he is intelligently silly’.

Cringe-inducing as they are, maybe these quotes are as good a starting point as any? Can they be prodded and poked to see if they stand up as truths, or are they simply another manifestation of the backslapping that undoubtedly exists in some quarters of the small press world, one of which being where Stannard has, reluctantly or otherwise, found himself.

So, is it serious entertainment? Well, yes and no. There’s a lot of ridiculous that doesn’t quite reach absurd, but raises a titter from its lightness of being, of its situational analysis, of its enchanting familiarity of circumstance and theme. It’s certainly easy enough to skip through these pages, line after line, stanza after stanza, poem after poem, cossetted in a cotton wool world of embroidered observation, swaddled in the all too easily absorbed security of an unstated understanding of the unimportance of it all. But then, like daisies forcing their way through a cow-pat, there are gems of such quality as to evoke the wish that the selection had been a little more selective, a little more circumspect, a little more willing to allow a thinner volume of better quality. There again, maybe it’s just the fact that the Stannard opus we’ve come to know, through its myriad magazine appearances over the years, has become a parody of itself – it’s Stannard, so it’ll be a hoot! But try hooting at the maturely metaphoric mellowness of ‘Parts of the world we want to invade’, or find yourself sockless from laughing at his prophetically philosophical positioning in ‘The Burden of Humour’, itself a seeming cry for help. No, Stannard’s work is not as simple as to be able to see it as entertainment, not even as serious entertainment. To do so is to ignore the depth of thought, the strength of belief, scattered to be all but consumed by the morass that self-perpetuates in response to a misguidedly percieved and intellectually vacuous public expectation.

          …beeswax hanging in the air, your voice
          like leaves falling from branches to the grass.
          The matter with this world is converging
          on the pavement, the footprints
          up to your room collecting water, voices
          rising from a disregarded television below.
          What is falling apart is statement.
                    (from ‘Parts of the world we want to invade’)

Is it hard to be bored by a Stannard poem? Is it hard to be bored by a butterfly on a summer’s day? While it’s flitting and fluttering before your eyes, it’s entertaining.  When it comes to rest on a flower, spreading its wings, its power to induce a sense of aesthetic respect is awesome.

          Certainly I remember
          how the evening sun illumined
          the estuary as we strolled complacently
          during The Age of Discovery,
          but times are changed and
          though we wear the cloak of decency
          we know how much is corrupt.’
                   (from ‘The Heart of Stone’)

Does he balance a street-slangy way of handling words with a precise and mock-classical mode that evokes laughter? When it comes to language, there’s no getting away from the fact that Stannard does wallow, at length, in the mundane, the traditionally unpoetic, the colloquial, but this is the age we live in, an age in which to be instantly accessible is to be hip – just look at the dumbing down of the BBC – to be instantly accessible is to be marketable to the largest potential audience – to be instantly accessible is to get the message across to as many as possible in the quickest of times, essential when concentration spans are tumbling and competition for attention in an information society is stiff. And then, if you can, as Stannard can, get it across in such a way as to make it appear as a sub-text from Montaigne, you’ve proffered something that satisfies our subliminal adulation for philisophical titbits and, thereby, provided a packaged momentary experience to leave the mind basking in the luke-warm glow of intellectual self-esteem.

          Living in a particular place on a map does not necessarily mean you
          know where you are. Speaking a specific language does not mean you
          know what you are saying, or what you are talking about. Breathing in
          and out at irregular intervals does not mean you are alive.
                   (from ‘A Few Words of Wisdom’)

Is he intelligently silly? The short answer to this one is, yes, at times, but only when he’s responding to that misguidedly percieved and intellectually vacuous public expectation mentioned earlier. There’s something about raising a laugh in others, whether through the bizarre or the simply comic, that caresses the ego while frogmarching it into the trap of wanting to do it over and over again – other people love us when we make them laugh – they love us for making them happy – we’re happy in being loved. Everyone’s happy. No matter how small, we’ve done our bit to make it a better world. Ask any comedian. In a way, it’s a pity, because Stannard is obviously intelligent, but, in stooping to being intelligently silly, he is demeaning his own potential and too-rarely exposed abilities with worthwhile ideas and the character of language.

          I knew people misunderstood
          but I’d always wanted to be popular
          and much-loved.
                   (from ‘Stuff I Knew’)

So, when all’s said and done, do they stand up as truths, or are they simply another manifestation of the backslapping? Well, yes and no – kind of like life really – nothing’s quite as simple as to be seen as a straight choice between black and white, and certainly not when it comes to Stannard.

Though, there again, if it’s truths you’re after, you couldn’t go far wrong in getting hold of a copy of David Grubb’s The Memory of Rooms, a volume of selected and new poems spanning some forty years. Admittedly, normally, when I see a preface written by the author, I get nervous, thinking that, if the work has to be explained, it can’t be up to much. Grubb’s preface, however, is a completely different animal. If there was space to quote it in its entirety, I would (as I would with many of the poems). In five and a half pages, he writes of truths about poetry with such intelligence and commitment that first thoughts are as to whether any of the following two hundred and forty three pages of poetry that follow could possibly live up to his intentions. The fact that they do, and do so quite astoundingly well throughout, is testimony in itself. Consequently, for me, reviewing the book in any further detail smacks of a redundancy of purpose.

Therefore, at the risk of appearing lazy, but adamant that these are truths, first and foremost, though not exclusively, about his own poetry, I prefer to quote from ‘Writing on Silence’:

There are, naturally, necessary repetitions, examples of concepts interweaving for years, life-studies that reveal themselves in both poetry and fiction, characters and characteristics. The committed reader often detects other things. There are also considerations relating to the poems that were extremely slow to reach completion, longer poems and sequences that normally come in a burst, the examples of lines that have haunted but only gradually found their best context, the enormous influence of people and places in the autobiographical poems, the immense emotional influence the time I spent training as a psychiatric male nurse, the distanced and the displaced, the voices from war zones, the challenge to respond to atrocity and global terror refuting Auden’s dictum. There also appears to be a considerable amount of God-spotting in these writings and more recently a sought for quality of light and silence.

Sometimes the poem is so quiet it is almost silent.

During the process of reading over again and selecting, I have been very much aware of the context of each piece of writing in terms of intuition, the impulse, the voice and the publishing history.

The greatest influences are likely to relate to positioning, subject, philosophy and not actual style.

Yet, these are only four of my many pencil-marked sections in the preface, all of which add up to be greater than their whole and are much more than simply the poet explaining himself – all of what he lays before us is, as he tells us:

          …words as wounds and bared confessions.
                   (from ‘What Are The Poets For?’)

There’s just so much of wisdom, in both the preface and the body of the book, that has so transparently been learnt the hard way, from experience, that, yes, the wounds are left exposed, and so much that has been thought over for as long as it takes to reach a considered opinion or position that it is a confessional, a deeply personal conversation whispered aloud.

          Look at her now, my darling mother,
          as she slowly moves away. Her mind
          is going out. Her smiles are small songs
          that she manages to snatch, to store,
          to make a little sense between us.
          Inside her body the light increases,
          swells past the logic of days.
          She is already dancing somewhere else.
          We visit her. We are children again.
          We long for the toys.
                   (from ‘Look at Her Now’)

But I just can’t seem to say it enough – the preface is so much more than an explanation, a taste of what’s to come, an introduction, a signpost, a statement of intention – it sets out a manifesto for individual and collective action to rid the world of the incipidly shallow guff that passes all too often for poetry, replacing it with words that sing, as Grubb’s do, of intuition and reflection, of knowledge and knowing, of silence and becoming, of insight and inspiration, of within and outwith, of balance and pushing, of motion and emotion. What he says you’re going to get, you certainly get, and in no short measure. So, really, even if you think you can’t afford it, just buy it! Seriously. You’ll be all the richer for having done so.

                    © John Mingay 2001


          Both of these books are available, post free, from
          Stride 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6EW
          [cheques payable to ‘Stride’ please]