White Elephant Press, 2009 £1.00
Reviewed by Karin Koller, David Floyd and Marcia Menter
The by-line on the cover says “not-light verse by Richard Warren” and this collection of 12 poems does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s certainly not cheery stuff. Mainly written in strict form, this is angry, often ironical, performance poetry.
‘Gone to the Dogs’ is a good example. In two sections each comprising eight tight 4-line verses that pound relentlessly on, the reader/listener can’t help but be caught up in the flow. But what is Warren really saying? In the first section he talks of
The papers sculpt the scandals
The nightmares shape the news
The fascists turn to fashion
The adverts write the rules
Where are the flags of anarchy
and the May of sixty eight?
The sane and sound squat underground
The Mafia owns the state
while the second section begins by telling us
And so things have revolved
to this one available day
on which we may observe
the romance of our decay
and ends with:
We dance about the end of time
We turn in a tighter ring
and beg our gods diminishing
to show us one new thing
I’m left with the feeling I’ve been ranted to, but I’m none the wiser. Is Warren advocating revolution, or just having a good old moan? By the end of the pamphlet I ought to be feeling fired up, but instead I’m tired out.
To be fair I haven’t heard Warren perform his poetry, and the pamphlet says he reads at Poetry Wednesbury. It’s possible I’d appreciate it more on a Friday night, halfway through a second pint of beer, than in the cold light of a sober Monday morning. However, whatever day of the week, for contemporary politicised poetry I’d much rather read Brian Fewster’s collection Sympathetic Magic or any new poem by (or commissioned by) Carol Ann Duffy.
The pamphlet itself is printed on stark white paper, with strong anatomical stylised black and white images drawn by Richard Warren on the cover and in a few places inside. It certainly catches your eye.
Dead Cat Bounce is a simple but tidy A5 black & white pamphlet with a card cover.
Richard Warren’s concept for the pamphlet is well explained by the sub-title to his pamphlet: “not-light verse”. The idea of writing a rhyming poem that at first appears to be darkly humorous but—after a couple of reads—proves just to be unremittingly grim is a good one.
The difficulty with Dead Cat Bounce is that it contains 12 poems and this rhyming grimness is the defining characteristic of nine of them. In this situation, the poet needs to express their unremitting grimness in some unexpected or original ways or even a reader who likes the basic idea receives ever diminishing returns for their engagement.
In the opening poem, ‘The same stuff’, the clash between the poet’s dogged, conversational, world-weariness and the usually jaunty form he employs is quite effective:
It get us nowhere doesn’t it?
Taggings on the the railway cuttings
folders of unwanted writings
cartoons of an octopus at sea
the struggle with the bramble patch
the upper quartile target match—
gets us nowhere far as I can see
By the penultimate poem, ‘57 varieties’, Warren is drawing inspiration from the work of the Heinz Communications Department, replacing their varieties of tinned goods with his varieties of misery. Unfortunately, the misery that Warren describes is tediously non-specific:
Philippa polished the sideboard and shined the varnish clear
The birthday cards grew fewer with every growing year
Uncle Patrick opened his eyes to see if he had a chance
The doctor took a serious look and the nurse avoided his glance
It’s possible (in fact, reasonably likely) that the lifeless tedium of the poem is a deliberate attempt to communicate the horror of lonely, mundane lives but that achievement isn’t much consolation to the reader of a 48-line poem that endlessly repeats its argument rather than progressing it.
Warren’s apparent worldview—that everything’s crap and everything stays the same, apart from the things that should stay the same, which get progressively worse—is not a recipe for personal happiness and fulfilment. But neither is it a barrier to writing great poetry. The art is to express these feelings in a way that surprises, challenges or entertains the reader. Unfortunately, Warren isn’t quite there yet.
Not only is the title un-cuddly, but the cover art is a drawing of a partially flayed skeleton—the poet’s work, and there’s more along the same lines inside. Clearly, Richard Warren is not trying to make us like him. Nor does he leaven his relentlessly bleak outlook with the tiniest mote, mite or particle of cheer. But I’d love to hear this guy read. He’s like Rudyard Kipling on crack:
At the wharf the canary was wheezing its warning
Wrapped up in the phone we weren’t listening, but downing
our cups of fresh confidence whipped up from aerated cream. . .
So begins ‘Smart Money’, a poem about the current financial mess, and even this American reader can see he’s likening Canary Wharf to the canary in the coal mine, and a marvelous likeness it is:
. . .Down from the windows the brokers came raining
We peered unbelieving a blood on the paving
Our long and illiquid investments converted to rust. . .
It’s all true, and it’s so much fun. That’s the thing about rhythmic verse like this. If you’re clever at it, and Warren is, you can say practically anything and keep your audience cheering. His usual forum is Poetry Wednesbury in the West Midlands, where (the pamphlet says) he “reads from time to time.” I can’t get to Wednesbury, but that’s okay. I’ll read his stuff aloud myself, and I defy you to resist doing the same.
I gather from his online bio that Warren has been writing verse for only a year or two, and this may account for the general sameness of his subject matter, namely that the world is not only going to hell but has already arrived there in oh, so many ways. “It all feels futile, doesn’t it?/ Our pick and mix identities/ describing gestures in the breeze/ insisting on our freedom to be free. . ./ pissing in the wind it seems to me” (‘The same stuff’). But though not every line is a pearl, his insights are as good as his ear, and he doesn’t bore me. In places, his social commentary is as trenchant as W.S. Gilbert’s, and I mean that as a very high compliment:
How wonderful that long ago
economies ran healthy
where choirs of orphaned children
carolled gently for the wealthy
(‘Gone to the dogs’)
And there are a couple of mythological poems (which I usually find tiresome)—one about Icarus, one about the Minotaur—that make me think he’s going to come up with new ways to be curmudgeonly. I’ll look forward to that.