Kind Hearts And Couplets

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.

It is hard not to go on quoting line after line, such is Hannah’s knack for a memorable turn of phrase. Although two of the collections grouped together here, Hotels Like Houses and Leaving and Leaving You, contain too much three-star material, I missed this book when I was away from it and whizzed through its pages at a speed not usually excited by a Collected Poems.

Anthony Thwaite has said Going Out is his last collection. The subject matter — old age and death, memory loss, poetry and poets, the role of violence in history — lends itself to predictable treatment. But several times Thwaite takes hold of an unusual thought and gets under your skin very quickly. He wonders what it was that, in his youth, he found so exciting about George Barker’s poems:

    Absurd and wonderful and long ago,
    Too far now out of sight for me to know
    Whether they were illusion, vision, or
    A truth I had not ever known before
    And have lost since.

That sense of helplessness, of being surrounded by “shadows, hints at shapes of things”, haunts these poems and accounts for their more arresting lines. “Time was I knew when I’d become a bore./Not any more, not any more”, runs the book’s final couplet: a hostage to fortune, but Thwaite on old age is the opposite of boring. Rather than drifting into sombre gloom (“An elegiac stance is always easy”), he evokes a complex inner life in which bitter frustration mingles with a half-understood hope:

    And will we recognise the place when we get there,
    A familiar air
    Smelling like fields we knew,
    And see the true
    Path we must follow now,
    No matter how
    We wondered when we landed here; or where?

Thwaite’s collection, like Hannah’s, has its lulls. But both books demonstrate that fierce emotion is not automatically “restricted” by rhyme and metre, any more than Roger Federer’s upper-body strength is restricted by the dimensions of a tennis racket.

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"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"