Lifesaving Poems, by Anthony Wilson

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My initial idea for an introduction to this review of Anthony Wilson’s excellent poetry anthology is now my second paragraph, because it is seemingly a little self-indulgent though a pertinent contextualisation for my appreciation. On reflection, it was obvious I needed to start with this: Lifesaving Poems is an expression of Anthony’s profound love for poetry. Reading this book fills one vicariously with the sheer joy of discovering and experiencing poetry in the way it did for Anthony – and I will continue using his first name as, though knowing him, it is more so because the honest description/confession of the book’s narrative accompaniment to poems elicits this familiarity.

For anyone genuinely attached to poetry – to read and possibly write as well – anthologies are a lifeblood. In reading Anthony’s, I couldn’t help but think of those collections and individual poems that have influenced and affected me deeply over the years, but especially in the beginning of my relationships. I will take this time to mention a few, as my review is essentially a celebration of the importance of memorable poetry anthologies, Anthony’s now added to the collection:

• my first, with handwritten dates – The New American Poetry [‘70], Twentieth Century Love Poetry [‘73], The Penguin Book of French Verse 3 [‘72], The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry [‘75]
• others, not dated, the latter lost! – The Faber Book of Modern Verse, Penguin Modern Poets 10 [or The Mersey Sound], The Children of Albion
• later-in-life anthologies – Emergency Kit [Shapcott/Sweeney], The Fire People [Lemn Sissay]
• texts that I taught/used in the classroom – against the grain [McMillan], Watchers and Seekers [Cobham/Collins], Poems in My Earphone/Life Doesn’t Frighten Me [Agard], Is That the New Moon? [Cope]
• and worth an echoing mention: though having commentaries, they are by the range of poets collected, rather than a singular voice – Lifelines [Heaney]

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And there are so many more, but not for now.

I didn’t mention the wonderful Michael and Peter Benton Touchstones books in my list above because Anthony does this for us in what stands as exemplification for all the wonderful recalls in Lifesaving Poems. The book’s third section ‘Talk in another way’ starts with the John Logan poem The Picnic [new to me, and one of the many joys of reading this book] and it is a lovely poem about growing up, essentially, and Anthony’s recollection of reading this from Touchstones in a school lesson resonates for so many reasons, but it is his appreciative rather than analytical response that engages here, and throughout, as well as the observations that plot his growing awareness of what poetry is and his place within this: ‘I also knew that lines like those quoted above were not the way people spoke. There was a sense that this was language which was both real and artificial at the same time’. His closing paragraph of this commentary is such an empathetic expression of excitement then, and now, as he discovers new poetry.

Another example of what I mean by Anthony’s appreciation rather than analysis is earlier on in the book when writing about the poem Slaughterhouse by Hilary Menos. Here, he is talking about discovery during membership of a writers’ workshop group between 2003 and 2005, Menos a member too. The following illustrates what I mean by the appreciation – it is looking closely at how a poem works, but it is the fellow writer’s celebration rather than critical unpicking: ‘I take great pleasure from the poem’s plain diction spiced with words like ‘rollicking’ and ‘striating’. I love the singsong music of ‘nudge’, ‘truck’ and ‘crush’; and ‘face’, ‘gates’ and ‘race’ masking the ‘necessary force’ and logic of the poem’s grim subject matter. There are also great phrases here: ‘the captive bolt’s blind kiss’; ‘the precise and subtle use of knives’; ‘couched in the companionable chill’.’

This is a book where Anthony’s discoveries really can ignite our own as readers. He presents and comments on the poem Corminboeuf 157 by Robert Rehder who is a poet again completely new to me, originally from Iowa. This is the American state just over the border from where I was born in Nebraska, before I moved to also live in Iowa, briefly. It is, I fully agree, a ‘charming’ poem – about a place in Switzerland. Go figure, as we might have said in Nebraska or Iowa, but not in French-speaking Corminboeuf. Unless we were Rehder who moved to and lived there.

I couldn’t resist that previous, but it is all part of the broad spectrum of detail we pick up in each commentary about the poems presented. As a teacher [and once the student too] I enjoyed reading Anthony’s commentary on discovering Plath – using her poem Mushrooms – in his A-level lessons at school. What unravels here is more about his life in a publishing firm for a short period of time, his own developing writing and widening circle of writing friends and influences, and further information on his experience and appreciation of Plath – her differing tones of writing, for example – and then the poem selected which wasn’t one from that school experience but which had been informed, in part, by it.

There are two list poems presented in the book’s second section ‘Ordinariness renewed’, and I am able to align myself wholly with the sentiment expressed in Anthony’s paraphrasing of a comment made by Kenneth Koch: ‘I am a sucker for a good list poem’. The first is The Black Wet by W.N. Herbert, for which he enthuses ‘I love the wordplay at the heart of the poem’s enterprise. The energy it generates reminds me of those music hall entertainers spinning plates’ and I think this kind of appreciation is refreshingly apt in its lively allusion; the second is Prayer/Why I am Happy to be in the City this Spring by Andy Brown, for which he again enthuses ‘There is so much pleasure in this poem. It makes me glad to be alive and to want to continue being so. I think I am secretly jealous of the line ‘birch trees / like Elizabethan ladies / pained white’. I see pallid skin, fragility, the effort of keeping up appearances. Most of all it makes me see both objects in a fresh way. Brilliant’. And it is. And I think it is brilliant to see a shared high regard for list poems championed with this kind of exuberance as well as generosity.

In commenting on the poem Kin by C.K. Williams, Anthony describes the ‘best education in poetry I have ever had’ and I will leave the detail for you to read. I was drawn particularly to the storytelling as well as elucidations here because I like Williams’ poetry but also because Anthony talks about Suffolk, albeit briefly, in the context of attending the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and I visited Aldeburgh quite often when living in Ipswich and beginning to want to be a poet and thus there are these personal links that attract and appeal and engage – links like others that will hook different readers. This commentary also proved interesting because Anthony refers to working there with Michael Laskey and Naomi Jaffa, and it is in the fourth section of the book ‘What it’s like to be alive’ that he presents the latter poet’s Some of the Usual. Yet again, both poet and poem are new to me, so the discovery of this free flowing list poem – moving through the mundane to peculiar to profound to appalling, and so on, has been genuinely rewarding.

I am trusting these personal enthusiasms are tempting those who are reading this.

I will draw this review to a close with two more largely personal references and observations. In the sixth section ‘Questions unanswered’ there is an extraordinary poem presented, ‘Underneath the mathematics of time’, written by an ‘anonymous ten-year old girl’, and it was given to Anthony from the singular person and talent Phil Bowen based on a writing game he used in schools. I love such writing games and the ‘accidents of meaning’ [my phrase] that they invariably produce from students who are animated by the likes of Phil and Anthony, work-shopping in schools, to take those leaps into metaphor and beyond in their writing. In this same section there is another list poem presented, this time a wonderful The Ingredient by the unique Martin Stannard who Anthony describes wittily as ‘Martin is a bit like Paul Scholes in that he has been plying his trade in plain view for ages (at least the duration of Scholes 17-year career), but mostly unfêted and unloved, in contrast to Manchester’s finest’. Anthony continues by saying he doesn’t know much about Stannard or where he lived [I’m not sure this is true…!] so I will take this opportunity to fill in some detail: Martin did live in Suffolk back in the 70s and was a member of the poetry writing group I was in, sending poems to one another by post for comment and support. In one poetic round robin, Martin completely lambasted my work – it was brutal – and quipped that if I continued to write like that I would probably do very well indeed in the future! I think he was wrong on both counts: my work could be pompous at times but worthily earnest on that incipient learning curve, and I have never achieved the success predicted. I mention because I have grown to keenly read Stannard’s acerbic poetry book reviewing, though it scares the hell out of me, and think his consistent poetic output over the years represents some of the most distinctive and finest written. Different experiences from Anthony and me, but we ultimately agree!

That was a long anecdote, but this is my blog and my review and my engagement with Lifesaving Poems. Genuinely closing now, I loved reading The Dog by Christopher North, the history of Anthony’s discovery of this, and his continuing marvelling at the deceptively simple poem; I also enjoyed immensely Anthony’s appreciation of Raymond Carver, probably my favourite writer, and his presenting the poem Prosser and empathetic comments on Carver’s ‘handling of sound to create mood and atmosphere’.

Having survived serious illness himself, it is no surprise that Anthony finishes his anthology with the poem Everything Is Going To Be Alright by Derek Mahon, yet again a poem new to me. Read this, and of course everything else in this life-lifting book, and you will realise it is.

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