The poet and author Sophie Hannah: A realist who writes with painful bluntness (photo: Philippa Gedge)
It was recently reported that the World Health Organisation has issued new guidelines on the naming of diseases. Among other recommendations, the WHO suggested that names like “swine flu” and “monkeypox” should be avoided, because they threaten the safety of the animals in question. Some called it a risible case of political correctness; the WHO defended it as a sensible precaution. But Sophie Hannah had seen it coming back in 1995, in her poem “Mountains out of Small Hills”:
Dogs are objecting to the word dogmatic,
the use of certain phrases—barking mad,
dog in the manger. Equally emphatic
are other species. Rats and snakes have had
enough of being symbols of deceit
and treachery. They say there’s no excuse,
and there are fish protesting on the street
at being linked with alcohol abuse.
It’s a truism that the great surrealists turn out to have been great realists all along. Hannah, who is both, writes in two principal modes: ludicrous whimsy and painful bluntness. Commissioned by O2 to write a Valentine’s poem in up to 160 characters (the length of a text), she delivered the following sweet-nothing:
- Blank spaces count as characters. It’s true.
I wasn’t sure. And then I thought of you.
The obvious comparison is with Wendy Cope, except that Hannah is more defiantly extreme. You can imagine a Cope poem about dating the ugly millionaire, but she would get rid of him sooner or later. Hannah’s poems follow things through to their alarming conclusions. They see past artificial poses to the raw emotional material of resentment, projection, delusion and self-justification. “Did you want to end up in a nasty poem?” she asks one ex-lover. (Too late now.)
Some of her poems are nasty, there is no getting away from it; but there are also perceptive poems about nastiness, about the capacity for cruelty and power-games. She is interested in self-help and modern spirituality, but likes to point out that they often advertise a kind of psychological harmony which is not achievable by sheer force of will:
- I do my best, I do my worst
With my specific heart —
God and the Devil got there first;
They had an early start.
“My specific heart” is a very Sophie Hannah phrase: it means not just that the speaker has this heart rather than somebody else’s, but that the heart is itself specific, that it feels a particular thing which isn’t quite covered by the available vocabulary, and which a poet should be trying to pin down. Hannah specialises in saying out loud the practically insane thoughts which pass through the mind at stressful moments, and her candour makes some of these poems (“Skipping Rhyme for Graduates”, “You Won’t Find a Bath in Leeds”) laugh-out-loud funny, and others (“Preventative Elegy”, “In Wokingham on Boxing Day at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill”) genuinely touching.