Poetry and the New Man

This morning I slightly misunderstood the topic of a student’s dissertation, which I misheard as ‘Poetry and the New Man’. It sounded interesting, as I had vague memories of the New Man (caps or not? – no pun intended). A recent BBC online news mag asked ‘Whatever happened to the term New Man?, and defined it as ‘a once radical way to describe a male who wholeheartedly accepted equality in domestic life’, asking ‘But 30 years on, what has happened to the term?’

Lots of students want to do dissertations on ‘the changing role of women’, and the gender switch seemed a refreshing notion. So I was ready to suggest three representative poetry collections by men through which the changing ‘role’ of men would be evident across the contemporary period, meaning from roughly 1970 till now.

These are the three I came up with, with a gap of about twenty years between each one: firstly, Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street (Faber, 1969), in which the male speaker is a student lodger in a working-class street in Hull, observing family life in a detached way (men going off early to work, women pushing prams, going to the shops, coming back from a night out, and so on).

Secondly, Don Paterson’s Nil Nil (Faber,1993), in which the persona clings to the Dundee working-class roots which his education pulls him away from, and writes with fierce and angry tenderness about his father teaching him how to drink a bottle of pop (in ‘Heliographer’) or being patronised by a Hi-Fi salesman (in ‘An Elliptical Stylus’).

And thirdly, one of our ‘Devolved Voices’ poets, Jonathan Edwards’, My Family and other Superheroes (Seren, 2014), which recently won the Costa Poetry Prize. In this book the family is embraced, celebrated, and choreographed as a kind of limitless resource of chaotic and surreal energies, and the father poems are tender without the angst, as this poet too learns how to handle fizzy drinks while cozied up in the dark of the cinema with his father – ‘I sit here in the darkness with my father/ slurping Pepsi’ (the opening of ‘The Death of Doc Emmett Brown in Back to the Future’). Certainly the ‘role(s)’ of men have been changed and pluralized, and, yes, it’s there in the poetry. Two questions: (1) is it a coincidence that all these books are debut collections? And (2) What would be your three poetry collections from the same period on this topic?

Peter Barry

The ‘collapsed lyric’

Recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Nerys Williams’s interview with Alice Entwistle in the book In Her Own Words: Women Talking Poetry and Wales (published by Seren last year). Williams is an intriguing poet whose debut volume, Sound Archive, was well received by reviewers and had pleasing recognition in prize culture – most notably, it was on the shortlist for both the 2011 Michael Murphy Memorial Prize and the 2011 Felix Dennis Prize (the Forward Prize for Best First Collection). But Sound Archive isn’t in any way a straightforward read, as some of the reviews make very clear. Perhaps most notably, Leah Fritz wrote in Poetry Review about how Williams’s poems make music and ‘some kind of sense, perhaps’ – that perhaps being important. Similarly, John Greening, in The Warwick Review, expressed both bafflement and delight in his response to the collection. I think that Williams’s interview in the Entwistle book gives us some useful context for understanding the challenges of her writing when Williams talks about how she is engaged in producing what she calls the ‘collapsed lyric’: ‘You could think of [the “collapsed lyric”] as the expanding and collapsing bellows of an accordion, which sometimes produces a cacophony of dissonance and competing notes, and often only the insistence of one solitary tone.’ In other words, it seems that Williams is aiming both for a certain tonal simplicity as well as the confusions of ‘cacophony’ and ‘dissonance’. A fascinating challenge.

I’m currently in the middle of writing an essay about Williams’s work – which will hopefully form the basis for a Devolved Voices lecture later in the year. (Watch this space!) And it’s this notion of the ‘collapsed lyric’ that is directing my thinking.