Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Shoestring Press, 2012  £5.00

 

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Peter Daniels and D A Prince

 

Matthew Stewart:
Maurice Rutherford’s Flip Side To Philip Larkin presents an unusual challenge to the reviewer and even the publisher. As a book of poetry that explicitly draws on other poetry, there’s clear danger of accusations of mimicry or pastiche (Shoestring Press reject this in the blurb on the back cover). What’s more, the book draws on no other than Philip Larkin, a poet who already polarises opinion among readers: if you don’t like The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings or High Windows, you’re unlikely to embrace Rutherford’s efforts.

 

At this point, I must set out my personal stall. It might still be unfashionable to say so, but I’m convinced that in a century’s time Larkin will be seen incontestably as the major figure in post-war British poetry. Only now are younger poets beginning to return to his work without being swayed by the taint of his political views. Furthermore, I firmly believe Rutherford has managed to dodge those afore-mentioned possible accusations of parody or imitation. In his Flip Side To Philip Larkin, Rutherford’s verse engages in an implicit dialogue with the original versions that sheds fresh light on both.

 

To my mind, the most outstanding poem here is ‘The Autumn Outings’. Rutherford takes the structure of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ as his point of departure. As a stand-alone piece, this is already exceptional verse, a politically charged narrative of bleak, post-industrial England. However, the context of Larkin’s poem lends it additional texture, enriching the reading experience (joyous weddings now evoke people wedded to grim work).

 

It takes considerable poetic talent to engage with Larkin in such a way and pull it off. Rutherford has that talent. He compares and contrasts both poetries, both lives, both views of society and nation. While Larkin was so fond of his qualifying ‘almosts’ as to undermine himself, Rutherford grasps his own conviction—for example in this pamphlet’s closing lines:

 

The thought that spawned a poem was my own;
the poem isn’t me, it stands alone
and should. Let critics flense us to the bone:
like love, the poem survives, as has been shown.

 

I’ll now be seeking out Maurice Rutherford’s And Saturday is Christmas, his ‘New and Selected’. This critic has certainly been shown.

 

 

 

Peter Daniels:
These poems pay homage to poems of Larkin’s – or, as the blurb says, they “confront” them, but not in any negative or even interrogative way. They are not all direct pastiches, sometimes not even very closely modelled on whole originals.

 

‘The Autumn Outings’ is modelled on ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ but tells a totally different story of a factory closure. There are observations about what work and lack of it will do to a person, though not making any obvious reference to toads, while bringing in references to other images and phrases like Mr Bleaney’s television. The Arundel Tomb’s  “almost-instinct” becomes “What survives?/ Of Us: too early yet to tell.” The Us is opposed to a Them in a way that is closer to Tony Harrison than Larkin.

 

‘Rome is so Bad’ is likewise quite a different poem from ‘Home is so Sad’, following its form closely but the subject looking back to wartime and a “virgin squaddie” finding sex with “Carla – paid in soap/ and fags”, and her bed under a crucifix, a Madonna and, as a final touch, “That Pope.” There is perhaps something of Larkin’s frustrated elegiac mood, though the memory and its setting give it a quite different perspective, and there is more direct meaning behind the religious artefacts than the more arbitrary domestic objects such as Larkin’s “That vase”. The poem is good and enjoyable for itself, but the Larkin referencing is unsettling.

 

Many essays in postmodern intertextuality have been written about this kind of thing, but the territory we are in is entirely un-postmodern. These are just good poems, as well-crafted as Larkin’s own but often with that added question of why any particular poem is echoing a predecessor. The reason seems to be simply that Rutherford likes Larkin, is deeply immersed in his work, it’s his way of starting a poem, and the motivation is simply the availability of a hook like the ‘Home is so Sad’/’Rome is so Bad’ pun.

 

I like that, but I might like it even better if there were more cases of good old-fashioned pre-postmodern stunning irony or perfect metaphorical parallel to make the poem click and the reader go ‘Aaah’.

 

 

 

D A Prince:
In the sub-genre of parody/pastiche literary competitions, are Larkin’s poems the most widely re-used of the twentieth century? Mr Bleaney updated or ‘This be the verse’ adapted to whatever the poet decides to attack –  sometimes these seem the default position of any parodist stuck for inspiration. Isn’t it all too familiar?

 

Maurice Rutherford’s work is different; it does not fit into this sub-genre. While he may sometimes use Larkin’s verse forms, this is not a pamphlet of pastiche but an extended engagement with Larkin’s poetry, a merging of Larkin and Rutherford’s thoughts about what survives of a poet and his work. Rutherford knows Larkin’s work deeply, properly: he can hear the small shifts from irony, to self-mockery, to mockery of the (mis)reader, to truth, and back to irony. It’s a slim pamphlet, only fourteen poems in eighteen pages: the right length. A longer collection might risk sating the reader. This left me wanting more, which is why I’ve just tracked down one of Rutherford’s earlier collections for comparison.

 

The opening with ‘Mr. Larkin’, uses the rhythms and cadence shifts of ‘Mr Bleaney’ but with allusions to other poems worked into it. ‘Toads’, ‘Vers de société’, ‘Church Going’, ‘Love Songs in Age’, ‘Dockery and Son’ slip in as naturally as the metre. It’s a poem for Larkin aficionados – phrase-spotters who share in Rutherford’s relish for Mr. L:

 

This was Mr. Larkin’s bike. He rode
it all round Hull and Holderness, until
his need to scarper faster from the toad
egged him to motoring.

 

Rutherford keeps the unexpected enjambment between the stanzas that propels the poem through to the final ‘I don’t know.’ It sets a high standard for the rest of the collection.

 

The most ambitious poem is ‘The Autumn Outings’, which takes the stanza form and rhythms of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ but applies them to factory closures, pit closures, the old social connections destroyed, “their trade/ in UB40s and P45s”. Here is the last stanza:

 

In brass-lined boardrooms up and down the land
deep in regret
a million more redundancies are planned,
while chairmen’s hiked-up salaries are set,
and Urban Councils chase arrears in rents.
Wideboys, insider-dealers, some MPs
grow richer by a second home in Spain,
a custom-plated white Mercedes-Benz,
that new portfolio. True-blue disease.
The spores of loss, somewhere becoming gain.

 

If this strikes you as too close to pastiche, counter to my earlier claims,
I’ll balance it with the final lines in the pamphlet, from ‘QED’ –

 

The thought that spawned a poem was my own;
the poem isn’t me, it stands alone
and should. Let critics flense us to the bone:
like love, the poem survives, as has been shown.

 

Shoestring’s design matches the wit of the content: the glossy black and white cover bears the outline of a stylised record, a visual reference to Larkin’s love of jazz. It’s a great all-rounder.