HappenStance, 2008 £4.00
Martin Reed writes metric verse, sometimes (though not usually) end-rhymed. And he writes it very well. He appears readily to achieve the rhythmic variety that even strict metric patterning allows. The first poem, ‘When People Die’, manages this brilliantly, in six-beat lines. It closes like this:
A journey that I had to make now has no point;
a cue that someone misses; silly jokes unmade;
a soft repeated alexandrine at my ear—
the number you have dialled has not been recognised.
The keys to rhythmic variation include enjambment, and if Reed’s poems have an occasional technical shortcoming then, for me, it is here. When a line-break appears to be entirely determined by count, it can jar. Reed, perhaps, is a little too careless of syntax or the unity of the line, too willing to end lines on weak words—prepositions, or conjunctions. This may be acceptable on occasion, and is commonplace in free verse but often—especially when the verse is unrhymed—it seems to defeat some of the point of regular metre. A line ends just because the metre insists that it must end, and consequently one gets a reduced sense of line and thought working together.
I’m confident, however, that Reed does not share my aesthetic: these are not occasional careless slips. So let me quote some examples to expose my reasoning (and let me choose well-formed fragments, further to show the merits of Reed’s language, despite this issue):
The frog seemed nearly dead, a bladder like
a children’s toy, blown up, about to burst.
(from ‘At Kerthuaut’)
He’ll always meet you here not laid back on
the front room sofa, but alert amidst
the colanders and art, the saucepans and
the Dvorak, Mozart, Beethoven CDs.
(from ‘Vernon’s Kitchen’)
But why should a review of formal poetry focus on technique, merely because it is so transparent? The real question about formal poems is the same as it is for free verse—do they work?
For me, notwithstanding the worry above, these most usually do. The language is interesting and precise. The poems have a very attractive air of disquiet—their main themes are perhaps the counterfactual emotions of guilt, fear and regret, but with a glimpse of redemption or escape. The poems are wise. And their form fits their purpose.
Like all HappenStance pamphlets, The Two-Coat Man is beautifully produced, with a pleasing cover-illustration by Gillian Beaton to match the nifty title.