That’s Not a Fishing Boat, it’s a Giraffe:
Responses to Austerity, Ian McMillan
Smith/Doorstop Books, 2019 £5.00
Angry poetry please
Who is this Ian McMillan, anyway, considering this is his fourth pamphlet from Smith/Doorstop?
According to the Carcanet website, he’s one of ‘Britain’s most treasured poets’. He’s the treasure with a South Yorkshire accent who presents Radio 3’s The Verb. He’s Barnsley FC’s poet-in-residence. He’s the Maitre D’ of big literary events like the T S Eliot prize. He sounds like a man of the people, but he knows (and probably grows) his onions. He’s not afraid of Don Paterson. His has more than fifty thousand followers on Twitter. He’s a stand-up poet with an agent: he costs a bob or two.
If poetry success is measured by popular recognition, McMillan is at the top of the pile, right up there with Pam Ayres (except not like Pam Ayres, because he’s won both popular and literary acceptance).
So why didn’t this particular pamphlet win some formal accolade or other? Why hasn’t everybody heard about it?
Here’s a secret: there are loads of first-class pamphlets you don’t hear much about. Also, McMillan’s job is to trumpet the achievement of others, not his own. Besides, this set of poems is mostly not funny, so no use expecting jokes. It isn’t genial either. You can read it without a Yorkshire accent. It’s angry. It’s well-written (no resting on laurels here). It’s political. The startlingly red jacket is the correct colour for the contents.
McMillan’s ‘responses to austerity’ are sharp. ‘The Hard Ship’ is a key poem, and it uses the word ‘weeping’ twice. Valued things get lost even in the gentler pieces, carried away by time and bleakness. Luck, crisps, Rin Tin Tin, the pie-and-pea man’s bell ... they’re all vanishing. In ‘My Austerity Face’, the poet’s lip is fat and bleeding, his eyes ‘reduced to red cabbage / By blubbering’.
There’s wide variation here too: of form and approach and tone and shape. This anger is subtle, playful, sarcastic. There are some fabulous similes.
And shouldn’t more poets be angry right now? Angry on behalf of those who have been (and continue to be) crushed by ‘the Hard Ship’ and ‘pushed / Into the hard water where they flail a little, then settle’.
Austerity is worse than just a bad dream:
Even the fastest train
Can’t bring me back.
Even the biggest bell
Can’t wake me up.