REVIEW by Chris Moss

NWR Issue r35

Selected Poems

by Lloyd Jones

Most published poetry books contain perhaps three dozen poems. Lloyd Jones’ self-published ‘selection’ from three also self-published e-books contains about 140 poems. That’s a lot of versification, and it makes your first thought a not altogether kind one: is this book thick because it had no editor, no honest appraiser?

The poems, which are mainly free verse – or prose laid out in short lines with caps at the front – cover a ragbag of themes: romance, travel/transport, Welsh locations, time, birds, Beowulf, ghosts, snowfall. Tonally, think: cheeky-chap, soft-sarcy Roger McGough, though with less dexterous handling of language, rhyme, rhythm or any of the other components of effective poetry. There’s lyricism but there’s a lot of vernacular too – not of the artful stylised kind (as in, say, Larkin or John Cooper-Clarke) but just plain words and slang dropped in amid the more ‘poetic’-looking diction.

While there is pathos, usually inspired by nature and/or sense of place, such as ‘Soar y Mynydd’, about an epiphany in a lonely landscape (‘somewhere / up high on the moors… we found the doorway to Heaven’), ‘Mirrors’ and ‘Sea eagle’, it is, alone, not enough to sustain the poems. It is a gift to muster a moving image but quite another to extract symbolic or other meaning from it.

Many poems resort to pathos’ natural enemy – bathos – and they do it in the wrong place, right at the beginning. Thus we have unenticing titles such as ‘Spaghettification’, ‘Odysseus Complains About the Publicity’ and ‘Guidance Notes for People Wishing to Design a Golf Course Water Feature’. Joining the Pam Ayres/Wendy Cope school of artful, arch light verses is harder than it might appear, and these poems fall short when it comes to comedy as well as insight.

Many of the poems are just too humdrum to come to life. ‘Secret life of a postman’ contains no secret at all. It is, rather, a metaphor-filled meditation on what a postman looks like to, say, a would-be poet sat in his living room window in the morning (‘A pinball… a darting robin….’), and reads like an early draft. Good poetry always feels necessary in some way. ‘Mahler in Wales’ imagines the venerable composer seated on the poet’s loo, ‘the sliding door / Left slightly open as we talk’. Lovely little images along the way (‘Allegretto moths’ and ‘scuttling minims’) make their own sweet music, but the punchline, that this Gustav wants a ‘nice evening in’ watching a DVD, kills the work the poem had hitherto done. ‘The Martian’s son sends an email home’ is a straightforward derivative attempt, after Craig Raine’s famous poem, to transform the everyday into a kind of puzzle. But the image of ‘oblong spiders’ for mobile phones – which use the ‘web’ (get it?) – doesn’t really work and the image of cats as ‘the ruling elite’ is a cliché rather than a revelation.

Between the ‘light’ verse poems are others that ostensibly deal with more intimate subjects. But most tell us only about the author/narrator. ‘Paper Tigers’ begins as a pervy ‘confession’: ‘I’m in love with them all – / Beguiled, besotted. Those girlie poets, / Vampish on faded Faber & Faber flyleaves….’ It is candour as creepiness (‘their chapped post-coital lips’). But a ‘paper tiger’ is a powerful-seeming person or thing that turns out not to be powerful at all. The title is surely askew, and the poem never finds its clinching idea. In an altogether nastier poem, ‘Go student go’, about a ‘limp’ Casanova returning from a night on which he has once again duped a girl into providing sex so he could ‘notch it on the bedpost’, Jones writes: ‘bet that bit between his balls and his bumhole / reeks of after-sex’. If this is meant to ape William Burroughs-style shock-schlock, it sounds more like some flop of a Daily Telegraph columnist losing the plot in his retirement. Again, the enduring image it leaves me with is of a poet, seething behind his net curtains.

There is a fundamental – and artistically fatal – flaw in Jones’ poetry, which is that he uses it as diary-keeping, as stating the obvious, as spewing out impressions and feelings. Poems, more than prose, require compression, juxtaposition, self-critical contemplation and lots of rewriting from their author to merit concentration from their reader. Lloyd Jones, who has enjoyed considerable success with short stories (My First Colouring Book), novels (Mr Cassini, Winner of the Wales Book of the Year award 2007, Mr Vogel, Winner of the McKitterick First Novel Award 2005) and work in the Welsh language, is not short of access to publishers. That none took this book on is fair indication that the form is not his forte.

Chris Moss is a travel writer.


previous review: Resist: Stories of Uprising
next review: Sliced Tongue and Pearl Cufflinks


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