Stride Magazine -


Two 'no sorry's

UNRESTRICTED MOMENT by Peter Dent, £7.95, Stride
GETTING THERE by Matt Simpson, £8.95,
Liverpool University Press

There was a time I felt I could engage with the work of Peter Dent. That was in the days when his poetry, in its turn, had some engagement with traditional notions of poetry – lucidity of meaning, beauty of effect, etc. – and, therefore, at the same time I was necessarily tolerant of his desire to innovate. There is nothing wrong  with, and much to be gained by, innovation within an established tradition of cultural effectiveness. I have never doubted that, say, Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ or Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 94’ could be done differently. But once one passes beyond this into ‘unrestricted moments’ of playing the verbal registers to no purpose other than to hear the tinkle not of life but of the aesthetic bell alone, then it is just like the opening and shutting of a cash register machine without taking any money, or practising with a camera you never load with a film. Consequently, as I say, Dent lost me some time back; and reading Unrestricted Moment leaves me a doubter. Not the reader of writing which ‘persuades the reader to abandon the illusion of thought as a sequence, and to rest the attention, in stillness, on each individual moment…’ No, sorry.

As for Matt Simpson’s latest volume, I have a similar but very different problem of engagement. His is much more the traditional approach to poem-making; and he can write beautifully at times:

          …Dust falls on things
          which have practically forgotten
          what vital roles they played
          in all our bright entanglements…

True, he likes to present life, often, as a rather smell object – whether writing of his beloved city of Liverpool or doing snapshot autobiographical poems of his various travels – but such a bias never matters if it’s well done.

The trouble with this latest book is that it reads like a Selected Matt Simpson, yet one from which his better poems have been excluded. One doesn’t mind a bit of family history navel-gazing, clutches of travel poems, or poems that seek to memorialise friendship, provided it is well done – i.e. made interesting for third parties, namely readers. As Housman argued, it’s all in the way of saying, not what’s said. Thus it is that ‘Funerary Monuments,
Aegina’ works well with its ‘Simple enough distinction. The dead / always seated, the living standing by.’ for

          …it’s easy to imagine
          love streaming through the veins,
          tingling in fingertips.

easy when the writing is well done.

But in this collection, Simpson often loses artistic detachment and we have to endure poor efforts like ‘Whalewatching –
Vancouver Island’, where the writing descends to this:

          Then thar-she-blows! And there they were – orcas!
          skimming and skipping and puffing towards us,
          in their insouciant otherness, exotic unconcern!

          We idled the boat… and three, my god, went underneath!
          I tilted vainly forward, with all the thwarted briny love
          in my seafaring-family veins…


which is Simpson spouting back at the spouting whales an embarrassing gush of sentimentality. So, for very different reasons than those concerning the Dent book, I have to say to these, mostly plodding poems of Matt Simpson, another No, sorry.


                   © William Oxley 2002