Book Review

Poems by B. S. Johnson

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When asked his occupation, or for any kind of self-identification, B. S. Johnson would reply that he was a “poet”. His first poetry collection, published in 1964, showcases his want for honesty, the personal and the felt much more than his first novel, Travelling People, did when published a year earlier.

Although the opening poem, ‘A Dublin Unicorn’ is about the supernatural as real, the collection as a whole is very grounded in the normality of existence – in place and people and feelings, specifically those felt by the poet. A lot are about London, several are about Johnson’s friends and lovers (including one about Kim, the love interest of his autobiographical hero in his debut novel), and quite a few deal with rural Wales. The autobiographical elements of several poems are quite obtuse, but often (what would have been in 1964) somewhat taboo – ‘An Eye for Situation’, for example, is a rather bitchy piece about Johnson rejecting the advances of a homosexual friend. There are also a few great examples of Johnson’s famous ribaldry, such as:

He seemed bored by our
          questions, interested
          more in our women.

There is a lot to enjoy in this small collection, from the description of the Thames as a “knotted condombearing river”, through to the heart-breaking openness of ‘Conditions of Living’, a real highlight being the series of poems that ends the book: ‘Cwm Pennant: A Sequence’. These pieces display with great affection a Londoner’s pastoral appreciation of the countryside – idealising a pace of life, and a way of life, far from his own.

Lots of pieces in here made me smile, more than one that impressed me. Not the best poetry I’ve ever read, but far from the worst.

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