Daily Archives: March 30, 2016

Poems for the Young at Heart, by Martin Stannard (Leafe Press, £10)

Martin Stannard has two reputations: as poet, and as literary critic. His reputation as literary critic is akin to that of Brian Sewell walking into an art gallery and frowning or Boadicea sharpening the knives on her chariot wheels. It’s a reputation – one might even say an infamy – that threatens to overshadow his work as a poet. I wonder how many reviewers, themselves previously on the receiving end of a bruisingly honest Stannard review, have gleefully rubbed their hands together at the prospect of a little quid pro quo on a receiving a copy of one of his books.

The benefit of not having a collection out myself is that Stannard hasn’t given me the lit crit equivalent of five rounds with Mohammed Ali, and I can therefore approach Poems for the Young at Heart without an agenda. It’s Stannard’s first collection in over half a decade and clocks in at a significant 130 pages – kudos to Leafe Press for releasing such a hefty and well-produced volume at an affordable price, particularly in a market where a tenner is the standard asking price for collections half this length.

Poems for the Young at Heart starts with ‘One Week in the Life’, an observational piece in which quirky little details are polished to reveal different and enigmatic facets as the week progresses. The setting is rural, the period ambiguous. Something unspoken and possible sinister is lurking just off-screen. I say “off-screen” because the cumulative effect is almost cinematic – reading ‘One Week in the Life’ is like watching some alternative version of Witness as if it had been directed by David Lynch from a script by Michael Haneke. It’s a compelling and weirdly unsettling introduction to the book.

Stannard then delivers a series of so-called “occasional poems”, although the fact that they occupy seventy pages suggests they’re not so occasional. But then again, rug-pulls, surreal humour and a gleeful monkeying-around with the reader’s expectations are his stock-in-trade. Take ‘3 Openings’, which I quote in full:

1.

The tall man opened the door and

2.

The tall handsome man opened his eyes and

3.

The tall handsome ill-advised man opened the can of worms and

In one respect, it’s a one-trick pony: three unfinished scenarios, the pay-off left to the reader’s imagination. What makes it works is the accretion of detail; and that one touch of the unexpected – why does he open the door before he opens his eyes? – is what makes it memorable.

‘3 Openings’ is also worth quoting in full as an example of a short Stannard poem. Many of the pieces in Poems for the Young at Heart are long poems (written in long lines: Stannard is unafraid of the extended, tongue-twisting line) that give his imagination and his pyrotechnic approach to wordplay free range. Personally, I often approach a long poem with a sense of trepidation, wondering if it justifies its length. Certainly, there are enough contemporary poets who use the longer form purely to showboat. Stannard, however, goes big because that’s how his imagination works. As a general rule of thumb, the longer he spins out a poem, the more playful and deliciously offbeat the result. ‘How I Watch a Year Go By’ is a perfect example – and a genuine standout in a collection that doesn’t have a single duff entry: Stannard sets up a subject, a format and an effortless segue from one month to the next, only to happily break his own rules mid-way through as the poem becomes a dialogue between its ongoing composition and its creator. The effect is bold, ballsy and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Two sequences conclude the book. ‘Selections from Dramatic Works’ is a series of variations on a theme, the theme being the stupidity of the male when in thrall to his libido. Each of the twelve dialogues that comprise the sequence is prefaced by a bizarre set-dressing instruction. Again, it’s the combination of the outright surreal and the sense of things-not-quite-said that makes the piece memorable. The collection rounds off with ‘Chronicles’, a series of 23 poems developing from the same opening phrase and building into a demented character study. Imagine an Alan Bennett monologue on magic mushrooms delivered in a tone so dry you’d think it was typeset in sand; imagine that and you’re halfway there.

Poems for the Young at Heart is a full-throttle achievement, a blistering testament to the power of the imagination. Stannard’s voice is gloriously and emphatically his own. He’s out there, at the edge of the globe, trawling the section of the poetry map that’s been left blank apart from the warning “here be monsters”; these poems are his dispatches from the undiscovered.

Neil Fulwood

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, volume 2, Britain 1965-1970 by Ernest Tate (Resistance Books, £13)

Yes, I can feel your eyes glazing over already, but there’s more to this book than you think, not least the many photographs of Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali and Richard Branson at the front of big London marches against the Vietnam War. BRANSON? Yes, the world’s worst balloonist and train operator hung out with revolutionaries in the 1960s. At least Stephen Hawking (pictured likewise, walking with canes) kept his socialist principles.
The local – Nottingham – interest is with the late Ken Coates, one of the key people in the International Group which joined with others to form the nucleus of what became the International Marxist Group, British section of the Fourth International (that’s the Trotskyist one). Pat Jordan, who once ran a radical – and comic – bookshop in St Anns is also there at the start. Pat came to a sad end, some of which is covered here.
Ken Coates went on to be the key person in the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which continues in Radford with a set up involving Spokesman Books and Russell Press.
In this book he features large in a long chapter on the Russell Tribunal on the Vietnam War which pulled together an investigative panel including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The author spends too long discussing the disastrous finances of the Tribunal but at last I started to understand the mercurial Ralph Schoenman who was at the centre of the various controversies around the Tribunal and anti-Vietnam War activity until his (American) passport was taken away, meaning he could not travel to Europe any more.
Opposition to the Vietnam War is at the centre of the book and Tate takes us behind the scenes as he was an organiser of the mass mobilisations in London in the 1960s.
Equally fascinating,but in a car-crash kind of way, are the later chapters of the book where Tate describes the work of the Fourth International when they decided to take to the hills, Cuban style, to ferment guerrilla uprisings in South America. Few of the participants survived. Tate had been sent from Canada to build a group in the UK and returns home, exhausted and broke. Volume one covers his earlier years building the Canadian movement but he is frozen out of his own organisation as it descends into a cult-like grouping. They take a “turn” to industry. Having mostly failed to organise a working class base they substitute themselves for the working class by sending previously professional workers onto the factory floor. Hilariously, he describes holding bi-weekly training sessions on how to be working class (which he was himself) including showing people how to use basic tools so that they were not completely ignorant after they left their middle class jobs.
It’s beyond the scope of the book but his former UK comrades did the same here.
Not surprisingly, it was the beginning of the end.
Ross Bradshaw