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Guest Review: Rush on Merton

Philip Rush reviews
Beat Reality by Les Merton and The Moontones

Les Merton, with a Cornish accent smelling of tin and chapel choirs, recites his poems over a laid-back almost ambient backing provided by The Moontones.

I have a soft spot for poems read against music. The largely moribund poetry publishing system in England could be pepped up I think with a little more attention to sound. For years now, many books of new poetry in Spain, for example, have come with accompanying CDs of the poet reading his or her own work. Multimedia in the poetry library? What monster has been let loose?

I love The Blue Aeroplanes. Their guitar-playing is out of sight, for a start, but Gerard Langley’s own poems and his recitals of other people’s - MacNeice’s, notably, and Kenneth Patchen’s - are beautifully voiced and strangely re-invented. And I love the way the guy in Piano Magic - Glen Johnson he’s called I think - recites his understated pieces over avant-garde loops and squeaks. And Adrian Belew’s delivery on King Crimson’s Elephant Man and Theela Hun Ginjeet is nothing short of sublime. Poetry and music.

Les Merton has enjoyed a certain local success with those dangerously cutesy books of poetry you find in tourist towns, books with saucy-postcard covers and brutal rhymes. You might put this CD in your player with a certain trepidation. But Cornwall is not all coves and cornets: Redruth is a grey town with a lonely main street and odd shops which shut down suddenly and stand empty until they become landmarks. There is - well, there used to be, I haven’t checked lately - a charming antique shop at the top, full of art nouveau and Clarice Clift. It rains a lot. I like it.

Merton is trying to capture that side of Cornwall in this selection: the grey, rainy, shut-shop Cornwall away from the holiday crowds.

There are some highlights: “the dialect of sunsets” I like; “from nought to sunset in sixty seconds” I like. So, excellent on sunsets.

And there are some nice structures and shapes. Road Movie works well and knows when to stop. Paint it Grey has a neat feel to it, and though sometimes it’s a bit imprisoned by the rhyme-scheme, maybe that’s the point.

There are some highlights then, but mostly this collection wrestles with cliché and loses by a fall and a submission in the fourth round. Cliché is important and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Young writers and young readers have to work through cliché in order to achieve their own style; teachers who simply cross out clichés in a child’s writing book are missing the point. They’ve got to get through that thing, children.

But poets should be challenging the cliché, using it maybe how Dylan uses an old blues line, subverting it maybe like a serious Roger McGough, or eschewing it altogether. Merton uses cliché like a cricket-bat in the jungle, waving it around desperately in an attempt to imitate something more powerful but ending up defenceless and boxed in. “Uniting every colour and creed in universal meditation,” “borrowed time”, “death casts a long shadow”, “darkness is my blanket”. That kind of thing.

It all gets too much. The subject-matter is as clichéd as the language. It’s like listening to a lurid collection of back-numbers of the Falmouth Packet: a burnt car on the housing estate, youths drinking on the quayside, a tramp urinating in the park. And the Children suffers from this rather terribly: they “glug beer” and “swig bottles of wine” ; they’re “isolated, misunderstood” and when they’re up for it, they spend their evenings “fornicating in the streets”. And, later, in the jazz bar, everyone “hangs loose”.

It’s weird, I think, how all this cliché protects Merton from his readers. I have learnt nothing about him. He sounds like a nice guy. But he has disappeared into someone else, the someone which is expected of him when he wears his ‘beat reality’ teeshirt. The music is fine, diligently lazy and with some nice timbres especially in the percussion and bass clarinet departments. It’s like a fine brick wall or maybe a creosoted fence, against which Merton’s pieces stand out like graffiti.

Rush lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire. He has had poems published in magazines.
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