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:
The tall man opened the door and
The tall handsome man opened his eyes and
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.