Troupers, Keith HutsonThe cover design is based on a white background, with a band of full cover photography in the bottom third, below this another smaller band of white. There is a line about an inch from the top of the white area and on this, justified right in black caps, quite small, is LAUREATE'S CHOICE. Below the grey line in small lower case italics, also right justified, are the words 'chosen by Carol Ann Duffy'. The tiltle of the pamphlet appears, right justified, in large lower case lettering, just above half way down the page, still on the white background. Below it is the name of the author in small caps. The photograph shows people in an old-fashioned theatre, perhaps music hall, from the view point of someone standing in the balcony. A man with a hat is pushing across one of the rows. A woman has turned back. Others are gesticulating or waving towards what would be the stage if we could see it.

Smith/Doorstop Books, 2018     £7.50

The universal rooted in specifics

There’s an argument (often touted by this reviewer) that the most universal texts are rooted in specifics, that they engage and involve us in a specific context to such an extent that we easily transpose their connotations, suggestions and conclusions to a whole host of elsewheres.

Troupers provides us with one such example. Keith Hutson writes about numerous entertainers here. Many of the poems are elegies, some first-person monologues, but all share one characteristic that lifts them beyond nostalgia, mere character sketches or the capturing of an era.

This characteristic is the poet’s acute awareness of the dynamic that exists between a performer and an audience, whether in a theatre or on screen.

One example of this is in the poem ’Clever Bugger i.m. Bob Monkhouse’, which begins as follows:

Why did we laugh, but never love you, Bob?

The use of ‘we’ is pivotal in this opening line. The reader is immediately invited into the poem, made to feel part of it. (Of course, this is reinforced by the fact that many people in the UK still have personal memories of having seen the comedian on television.) Then there’s the direct address to Monkhouse as ‘you’, rhetorical in tone, consciously addressing someone beyond the grave. And finally there’s the invocation of the entertainer’s first name in the last word (and syllable) of the line. The intimacy of ’Bob’underlines the close relationship between the performer and his audience, emphasising empathy, drawing us into what follows.

Any poet capable of setting a scene, exploring roles, and foreshadowing emotional dynamics — all in the space of a ten-syllable first line — is not only talented but also in consummate control of their linguistic and thematic material.

Troupers is a terrific pamphlet on many levels but for me its main achievement lies in its grounding of specifics within the framework of the universal.

Matthew Stewart