HappenStance 2010, £4.00

Reviewed by Nick Asbury, Stephen Payne and D A Prince:

Nick Asbury:
The first thing that strikes you about Martin Parker’s collection is a memorable printing error. Every page has the title of the collection printed alongside the page number at the bottom. Except it’s the wrong title. Rather than ‘No longer bjored’, it’s ‘Enough is enough’—a working title which the author dropped at the last minute.

The whole story is explained in a loose erratum slip that comes with the pamphlet, and the tale is naturally told in verse form. It’s a charming way to transform a negative into a positive, and absolutely in character for a poet who knows exactly how to spin lightness out of the messy raw material of everyday life.

Light verse is a challenging form, because it can so easily grate. Even if you successfully wrap up a clever observation in a neat parcel of rhythm and rhyme, you can end up sounding a little too pleased with yourself. The only way round it is to be even cleverer. Surprise the reader with an unexpected rhyme, insight or change of tone, and you can keep the cynicism at bay.

Martin Parker knows how to do all of the above. The biggest appeal is the precision of the phrasing. ‘Climate change’ is a good example:

     When I was young
     July was hot.
     Now it’s not.

     When I was young
     you were hot.
     Now you’re not.

     You and July
     have gone badly awry.
     Why, when I have not?

Like all the best light verse, the joke wins you over first time round, but the craft and artistry means it bears repeat readings. There’s a lovely musicality to it that reinforces the comic logic of the poem, rather than simply acting as aural decoration.

There are plenty of other examples in here. But in amongst them are moments of depth and melancholy, particularly ‘For Nicholas’, which begins as a comical list of the questions young children ask their parents, before ending:

     and why do people sometimes lie
     and tell us things will be all right?
     and where does sunlight go at night?
     and why do children die?

This is using the tools of light verse (repetitive phrasing, perfect rhymes) to deal with the darkest of subject matter, and the effect is wonderful, if saddening. (Typically for this collection, you move quickly from moments like this to an ode on ‘The joy of pastry’.)

If a second edition ever appears, I hope the erratum slip will be retained. But just in case, I’d recommend ordering the first as soon as possible.

Stephen Payne:
I should say right from the start that I have mixed feelings about light verse. My favourite funny poetry doesn't rhyme (Billy Collins, Ron Koertge) and my favourite rhyming poetry isn't funny.

Yet I can sometimes appreciate the special satisfaction of a punch-line clicking into place with a measured rhyme—a kind of three-way closure. And indeed, sometimes a rhyme can be funny all by itself. My favourite example of this latter effect from Martin Parker is the first couplet of 'Lullaby':

     Sleep, my little Polyanna
     in your Dolce & Gabanna.

In fact I think that's my favourite couplet in the whole collection: I like its sense of silliness, and the easy way it pokes fun at a model of parenting as well as the sheer novelty of the rhyme.

Given my predispositions, that I find Martin Parker's verse only rarely this satisfying should not be interpreted as stringent critique—I fully expect lovers of light verse will find plenty to enjoy.

Certainly the verse in this collection is well crafted. Parker uses metre and rhyme with fluidity:

     Since brain and memory
     have long since said goodbye
     I think therefore I am
     does not apply . . .
          (from 'Beyond Descartes')

     and why do people sometimes lie
     and tell us things will be all right?
     and where does sunlight go at night?
     and why do children die?
          (from For Nicholas)

Parker's humour mixes a kind of world-weary self-deprecation('Kiss', 'Valentines') with an unreconstructed seaside-postcard smuttiness ('Tailpiece', 'Cruising the Fjords'). I'm not sure why I was surprised that Sex is such a common theme, but it is and I was.

The poems I like most are those that are most personal, and where I believe in the narrator's insecurity. Those I like least amount to jokes translated into verse (a risk, I feel of slowing the pace of the joke). For example, there's a version of Maurice Chevalier's famous line about old age not being so bad when you consider the alternatives, and 'Absinthe' is aimed squarely at those who enjoy a good groan.

D A Prince:
You can’t keep a good title down, and this one is a winner. We know this, thanks to the 'Erratum Slip' (the equal of any poem in the collection) which takes us through the opposition,and the devious tactics the runner-up title, Enough is Enough, employed to get itself into print:

     it was desperate for survival
     and, despite the best we could do,
     it’s still at the bottom of every page
     from five to thirty-two!

What a lesson in how to deal with rejection! Sink your teeth into the editor’s sock, and hang on: poets have their heads in the air—they won’t notice. Why doesn’t every collection have a Battle-of-the-Titles poem?

But, to the real work, the poems nestling properly between the covers. Parker, who has views on most things—pastry, Norwegian fjords, Chilprufe vests, marriage, memory, women, sex, children, death—is also robust on the subject of poetry—

     Poetry should be short and pacy.
     So cut the crap. Re-think and précis.

—and he takes his own advice, with the majority of poems sitting in the top third of the page. Brevity matters in light verse: eny fule can ramble at length, but it takes a mind finely-tuned to the changing rhythms of contemporary speech and shifts in nuance to create a slim, pared-back, perfect piece of lightness that plays with what we think we know. Parker can do this: look:

     Beer does not cloud the mind for long
     and wine for little longer.
     It’s brandy makes its parts go wrong.

     But absinthe makes the parts go wronger.

That’s the whole of ‘Absinthe’. Nice! And consider the edge of wistfulness in ‘Counting down’:

     Old age is now
     a daily curse.

     But the alternative
     seems, daily, worse.

That’s the trouble with reviewing light verse:  the best of it pleads to be quoted in full. I’d have liked to quote large chunks of ‘The joy of pastry’ (unusually long at a page and a half), rich in double rhyming, but one quatrain will give the flavour:

     It’s a British fundamental and almost sacramental
     in the absolute devotion it inspires.
     It’s the stuff of odes and sonnets, and the pastry that’s upon it’s
     almost worthy of a hymn by angel choirs.

Evidently Mrs Parker’s pastry is better than mine, but most people’s is.  If the title  (the real title, that is, not the feisty little fighter that wouldn’t give up) arouses your curiosity, it’s part of a riff entitled ‘Cruising the fjords’, where being bjored is only alleviated by the delights offered by a sailor called Bjorn. Did this inspire the lyrically happy birds dressed in fishnet who dance across the cover?

Alas, enough is NOT enough—I still want more poems like these. Would anyone like to publish a Collected?