Smith Doorstop, £2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Gill Andrews and Helena Nelson
Largo presents a considerable challenge to me. On making notes for this review, I realised virtually everything I was planning to say could apply in varying degrees to the poetry of Bentley’s editor (Peter Sansom), to his stable-mate and blurb writer (Simon Armitage) and to a poet whose work he quotes as an introduction to ‘Barnsley Abu’ (Ian McMillan)—all this despite my hatred of reviews that revolve around listed influences on the poet in question.
My attitude is manifestly unfair but also inevitable. Bentley is emerging within a specific poetic context that he seems to embrace rather than eschew. One immediate consequence is a vast set of comparisons. That said, let’s move on to the verse itself.
This is poetry from Yorkshire, wearing lightly a keen political sensibility, rooted in the everyday and working class, yet simultaneously erudite. The collection’s title piece is an excellent example, invoking classical music and Leeds United. The second stanza provides a useful insight into its projected attitude:
....... . . it was Dvorák’s Largo
.....from Symphony No.9
.....(the Hovis music, to you and me) . . .
The poem is dropping a knowing wink, self-consciously drawing together two layers of cultural awareness, portraying a voice that wants to belong in spite of the separating force of its load of acquired knowledge.
Bentley’s use of language is also significant. Just as he unites those two layers of cultural awareness, so he juxtaposes and intermingles higher and lower linguistic register in an underlining of his ambivalent stance, as in this example from the pamphlet’s long poem, ‘The Two Magicians’:
.....The miners all coming out at midnight.
.....Kev Robinson’s sister going to bed.
.....Porphyro stealing along at midnight.
“Kev” and “steal” (in this semantic context) are contrasting registers, and the effect is forced home by the allusions to miners and Porphyro in a single stanza.
As mentioned above, these same remarks and observations could be used to describe work by Sansom, Armitage and McMillan. So what does set Bentley apart from the afore-mentioned poets? Rotherham instead of Sheffield, Huddersfield or Barnsley? A dash of Paul Muldoon?
Bentley is clearly a skilled practitioner with undoubted mastery of semantics and syntax, but it seems to me his influences weigh heavily on him. If he can shake them loose, there is an excellent poet underneath.
Most of Paul Bentley’s Largo is taken up with ‘The Two Magicians’ series, set in the South Yorkshire world of a teenage boy during the 1980’s Miners’ Strike. The poetry is chock-full of references to other writing. In poem ‘I’, the epigraph is a definition of “Streptopelia decaocto” (the Eurasian collared dove), and the poem ends with a quote from a policeman greeting pickets (taken from an oral history of the strike):
There are extracts from The Smiths and Culture Club lyrics. The teenage Bentley, spying on a neighbour’s sister, is (as I understand it) likened to Porphyro stealing into Madeline’s bedroom in Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. ‘I’ also introduces two recurring phrases: ‘white as any milk’, taken from ‘The Two Magicians’ folksong, and ‘tirra lirra‘. I don’t know whether ‘tirra lirra‘ refers to Shakespeare’s lark in The Winter’s Tale, or Sir Lancelot’s singing in Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, or perhaps to some pop lyric I couldn’t find. I also had difficulty with other allusions. For example, are we being invited to draw parallels between the relationship between police and pickets, and that of cowboys and Indians? If so, this theme feels a little underdeveloped.
But I was transported to the 1980s. The poems have absolute authenticity—I believe Paul Bentley was there and that, through the poems, I am experiencing something of what it was like to be a young Yorkshireman, caught between the romantic world of the poetry he reads in school, and the reality of the Miners’ Strike.
The collection displays a confident use of metre and rhyme. Here is a poet out to impress. But Largo does not wear its learning lightly, and I am torn as to how I respond to that. On the one hand, I found it all rather ‘show-offy’; too much of a puzzle to be unravelled. On the other hand—if the poet has Latin mottos, 17th and 19th century poems, pop and folk song lyrics etc at his fingertips, why on earth shouldn’t he use them—and to hell with the reader who’s too ignorant, or lazy, to find out what they mean. I did find out what they meant, and was glad I did. Largo also had me singing The Smiths songs all the way to the shops—a big plus in my book.
‘Muscular’, that’s what I kept thinking. It’s not an adjective I would normally apply to poetry, though I’ve seen it used. But here – throughout this amazingly energetic pamphlet, I had a sense of Paul Bentley flexing his muscles. Although his range and elasticity is dynamic, you feel he always has something in reserve. Even at his high points, like a fine tenor singer he’s never quite at full strength. It’s what he doesn’t use that gives an additional, unstated sweetness.
Yes, I liked this pamphlet. I like the way its great energy has made it bigger (Smith/Doorstop’s usual format being substantially smaller). You can’t fit this one in your pocket. It doesn’t want to go there. In every sense, it is big.
It bubbles with references – they are all over the place. Allusions and echoes, cultural, historical, literary and personal. On first reading, I was slightly overwhelmed by this. Then I sat back and let it all flow over me, and that worked. I am speaking here of the longest poem in the publication – ‘The Two Magicians’, which I think a wonderful piece of writing. ‘Largo’, from which the pamphlet takes its title, is very brief and very good, but these two pieces are, as they say, chalk and cheese. I am content to live without the third poem, ‘Barnsley Abu (a postcard to Paul Muldoon’—the title alone put me off, and the content didn’t win me round).
But I think Paul Bentley is huge. He’s the sort of character who is bigger than whether or not I care for ‘Barnsley Abu’. He’s big enough to do what he does and sheer propulsion, verve, talent and joy will carry him through and me with him, like James and the Giant Peach. Tirra lirra but this is good. Oh but it’s serious too. I was there during the miners’ strike, I remember the seriousness of it, the fear, the crisis, the black nights, the ordinary humorous people turned tragic. And all that is in this poem too. I’ll end with a taste of it:
King Arthur striking the table
harder, raving and growing more fierce and wild.
New Order: Because we’re rebels.
Talks breaking down. O bide, lady, bide.
Johnny Marr’s guitar screaming, echoing --
mum’s Turn that down I can’t hear myself think!
Two boys on top of the pile, picking coal.
Me thoughts I heard one calling: Child
There was a women’s picket arranged for Creswell . . . The police were mesmerized at first. We got up to the pit gates, then all these vans came flying by. They tried to keep us in one spot, so we started walking up and down. One of the inspectors was getting a bit uppity. ‘You stay there, you say nothing’. But this time we did say something.