Hello, hello, hello! Roll up roll up roll up and welcome to the Triumph of the Now inaugural poetry season. Actually, no, I don’t think that’s correct, I think waaaay back in the Summer of 2013 I first tried to temporarily immerse my readerly toes within the warm waters of poesy, however NOW, #righthererightnow in the post-depression world of whatever this weird life I’m leading is, I’m going to fling my mind and my consciousness under a veritable bus of words, of language, of verse. Fuck prose (for a bit).
Now I’m a poet myself (with verse published here, here and here), it’s time to put a little perspective into my soul and read some other people’s bloody poetry. I’ve got eight collections on the pile beside me on the desk, and I intend to not stop reading poetry until these eight books have been consumed, commented upon and thrown into the literary afterlife that ends in the boxes of books I have in my parents’ garage that I intend to put on eBay at some point, soon, when I actually get round to it and have a week to spare in the West Midlands. NB: if anyone wants to buy a secondhand copy of ANYTHING I’ve ever reviewed here, let me know.
Right. This fresh poetic journey is going to start here with Nearly 30 by Joe Woodhouse, before moving through a couple of books I’ve been gifted, a couple of books I have but don’t remember buying, plus two that I bought while going purchase-crazy in a Cambridge secondhand bookshop a fortnight ago.
Right, that’s enough about the forthcoming plans for the blog, time to get onto Woodhouse.
I’m all about full transparency over here at TriumphoftheNow.com, so it’s essential that I tell you right here, right now, that Joe Woodhouse is a friend of mine – not a close friend, not a best friend, but not an internet friend either: a real life friend who I have known for a long time. Joe and I met in our student drama society and were almost kinda rivals for a Summer when he and I took different [student] plays to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (I think mine got the better reviews, but honestly I don’t remember, it’s not important, I never think about it, I’ve had so many significant achievements since. Anyone wanna invite me on BBC Three for a second time? Will talk on anything, will wear whatever. Or nothing. Will read my poems. Or I won’t.)
Anyway, my undergraduate days were a LONG time ago, and though Joe and I aren’t like godfather-of-each-other’s-children level of friends, we have hung out on purpose, just the two of us, several times over the years, often chatting about and sharing our writing. Thus, many of these poems I have read before in different drafts. There’s your small print, there’s your transparency. Can I just get on with it now, please? Thank you.
Nearly 30 has a pretty simple theme, explained by its subtitle: 29 Poems on Turning 30. The poet, at time of writing the book, was nearly 30 and there are nearly thirty poems, which I think makes for a pretty well-titled collection. Understandably, the theme of ageing is recurrent throughout, and it is in the pieces about physicality and decline that – I felt – Woodhouse was at his most impressive. The other recurring topics are technological change and London’s mix of international cultures.
In terms of form, the pieces are very varied, which has its pros and cons. When tying himself rigidly to a format Woodhouse can sometimes fall onto a weaker image for ease of rhyme and/or syllabic pattern. This is disappointing, because when he does treat structure more loosely, his poems are a playful contemporary update on traditional forms. For example, Woodhouse’s haikus – which he has been writing for years (previously under the pseudonym ‘The London Haiku Project’) – do not stick rigidly to the 5-7-5 format, and are the stronger for it. (He publishes a lot on his Twitter account, look it up.) There are a couple of prose pieces in here too, however these have quite a strong sense of rhyme and rhythm to them, like Flaubert apparently does “in the original French”. There are sonnets, the aforementioned haikus, some free verse pieces, some blank verse pieces and some pieces that are very much lyrics, including the opening poem, ‘The Hamster Gangsters of Hackney’.
This first poem is about a child having her pet hamster stolen by some hooded lads, who are making casual mischief of an evening. This one is very much written as if to be performed, and refers to itself as a “song” rather than a poem. The Hackney setting is one that appears more than once, especially in reference to children, as Woodhouse was a primary school teacher in that part of London for many years. This poem, which recounts an event that is both playful and cruel, is at the lighter end of poems on this theme, with another – very dark – piece about a pupil who has recently discovered he was sold and trafficked as a baby. Actually, it is is the darkest pieces throughout that are most often the most memorable. There’s a haunting piece, ‘Rubber Snake’, about the narrator losing a childhood friend, young, to cancer; there’s a deeply moving poem, ‘The Mountain Railway’, about playing with a grandfather in what appears to be a childhood memory that is revealed to be a much more recent and more weighty experience; while ‘Full-Length Mirror’ bounces back and forth between memories of teenage sex and thoughts of degenerative familial illness. This poem is quite short, but manages to quickly and neatly evoke both heartily enjoyed sex and a hefty fear of physical decay.
Several of the poems in Nearly 30 are about technology, and it is these that I think Woodhouse appears to a) have an axe to grind and b) seems a bit more nearly 50 than nearly 30. Lol.
Smartphones, the internet, telecommunications, are treated here almost always as something bad. There are multiple pieces about people using social media to portray a fake version of themselves, and also lots of pieces about people playing with their phones instead of connecting with the people around them. ‘The Death of Pillow Talk’ is the only poem of this set that – for me – managed to convey the disconnect that Woodhouse is repeatedly stating is an inevitable repercussion of smartphone use. This short piece describes two lovers, lying in bed post-coitally, both of them playing with their phones in silence and not talking to each other. I think that Woodhouse’s point about intimacy being lost is appropriate here, however elsewhere – people on holiday, for example – the smartphone use he is disapproving of has merely replaced different solipsistic activities, like reading a book or a magazine.
I don’t think social media and the wider digital world are big problems, quite the opposite. I’ve written about this in detail for the Huffington Post, about how the increased connectivity afforded by social media enriches, rather than diminishes, our social lives. Would Joe and I have kept in touch without social media? I doubt it. And I can say the same thing for several of my closest friends, they are people who I never would have stayed in contact with, had it not become apparent, digitally, years later, that we lived close by and had maintained similar interests. In fact, when I had my massive mental health crisis last year: a) the majority of people who offered me accommodation while I floundered, depressed and unfunctioning, trying – and failing – to move onto a boat, were people I would not have kept in contact with without social media; and b) it was the fact that people didn’t jeer at me on facebook and twitter that made me realise, “oh wait, no, not absolutely every person I’ve ever met hates me and wishes me harm”. Social media, I think, is a boon. Won’t hear a bad word against it. (Lol, I will.)
Right. Back to the text.
Woodhouse has several pieces in here about moving amongst immigrant communities within London, about the “melting pot” idea of the city, if you will, and these work well. I imagine being a primary school teacher in any large city now gives quite a wide insight into different cultures, and Woodhouse uses the knowledge he has gained well. A trip with a colleague to Ilford High Road is a particular highlight of these pieces, as the narrator marvels with wonder at how different it is possible for different parts of the city to be.
There are playful pieces, funny pieces and sad pieces here, and though I think Woodhouse could have made more of his themes of receding youth/ageing and made less of his somewhat babyboomeresque attitudes to social media, this is an enjoyable, unpretentious, debut collection.