The Ship of Endurance, Alan Brownjohn
Selected by Stephen Stuart-Smith
The Greville Press, 2021 £7.50
Can a pamphlet provide a career retrospective?
Now in his tenth decade, Alan Brownjohn has maintained a prominent role in British poetry for as long as any living poet, as the title of this pamphlet implies. Its twenty-two poems, chosen by Brownjohn’s former publisher, Stephen Stuart-Smith, purport to provide a chronological sample of the poet’s output from his first (1961) collection onwards. Whether they’re also intended to constitute a ‘best of’ selection is unclear. I suspect they’re simply poems Stuart-Smith is fond of — and hurray for that.
There’s certainly enough variety for the reader, including a playlet with seven voices, a dialogue, character studies, childhood memories, holiday sketches, two linked sonnets, sports and — as befits a former councillor and parliamentary candidate — politics. Brownjohn’s tone of voice throughout is wryly engaging, as in the opening of one of the highlights, the curiously Absurdist ‘Observation Car’:
At last they arranged it so that you just couldn’t see
Out of any train window. You had to focus
On the back of the seat in front, or on the floor,
Or on the obligatory food, wheeled up on trolleys
To where they had strapped you in
The poem continues in the same vein, becoming more metaphysical as it goes.
Fans of cat poems will enjoy the increasingly fraught attempts to teach the moggy of ‘A Bad Cat Poem’ how to use a cat-flap:
And by the autumn still it had not learnt,
While the air was not kindly any more:
The flap on its hinges grated, he outside
Forcing hard the reluctant brute to her inside,
Who received it with aching hands.
Readers may also savour the keen observation in ‘Union Man’:
This lean man, upright at the bar
With the minutes of the last executive
In a thick buff wallet, listening precisely
And working through strategies.
In answer to the question I posed in the title of this OPOI, a long, prolific career surely can’t be adequately summarised in such a slim publication. If, however, it leads readers to further investigate Brownjohn’s many collections, what does it matter?
Copies can be had from: Anthony Asbury, The Greville Press, 6 Mellors Court, The Butts, Warwick CV34 4ST