Pikestaff Press, 2005 - £3.00
We little realize what we owe
To things like hymns we hate…
These lines from ‘Background Music’ sum up Robert Roberts’ feeling about the past. Whether we like it or not, it has made us what we are. Those school assembly hymns may seem “old and dull”, but dullness has been be a virtue since “Classics professors preened themselves/ On ignorance of Greek.”
That last quotation is from ‘Castaway Ballad’, where Roberts allows himself the luxury of a rant. Mostly he is sober and measured (but not dull, actually). I like his ‘Waiting For The Painters To Go’, in which he watches the “patient pedantry” of the craftsman, so much slower than his clients who would normally slap on a bit of gloss
In our impatience to have done and skip
What seems so pointlessly laborious.
That “patient pedantry” seems to come from another age, and doubtless there are misguided souls who’d consider Roberts’ careful technique and expert rhyming to be old-fashioned. Well, he is himself ironically aware that the old is not valued by everyone. In ‘Hundredth Birthday’ the old lady who has been through so much gets less attention from her relatives than the telegram from the Queen. ‘Telemachus’ is a dramatic monologue for Odysseus’ son who must pretend to look impressed when “The old man witters on about the war.”
The young may not appreciate the old, but Roberts knows what to admire—the “honest craftsmanship” of Ford Madox Brown, or of “The Last Augustan”, George Crabbe, author of “Those Tales of men and women as they are.”
Like Crabbe’s, Roberts’ poems are rooted in decency and honest craftsmanship. His subtitle says that this is “a final selection.” I hope not.
The Common Reader says of Precarious Footholds:
This collection was easy to read and I found happiness and sadness in the poems. ‘Hundredth Birthday’ was a poem about a happy occasion. Roberts sets the scene before giving the details about this woman’s real life which seem to be forgotten or unknown. There’s a real sadness in the last lines:
…what people most
crowd round to see is the telegram from the Queen.
Other favourites were ‘Especially For’, ‘Beyond Repair’ and ‘Enchantment’