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Happy Hour: An Appreciation

Drinkers may be sad to know this is an appreciation of a new poetry collection from Northern Irish poet Andrew Jamison (Gallery Books, 2012) and not a toast of the pleasures of imbibing cheaply from 5-7 pm, perched on stools, scoffing greasy peanuts.  It's not a review, but a brief mention.  Reviews are fine - I publish them and write them - but sometimes, one comes across a book that one loves, and the best thing to say is, I want to share this with you friends.  Happy Hour is not a great title, to be honest.  It does the wonderful book no favours, because it implies a sort of glibness, that the book goes well beyond.  But again, perhaps it signals at some lightness of touch, that is present; to me, it confirms too easily stereotypes of the Irishman in New York, carousing - and indeed, there are poems about New York, and bars, here (Auden was here).  The title is not the point, though.  Jamison is one of the best younger Irish and British poets now writing, judging from this splendid book.

I think the surprisingly impressive thing about these poems is how they explore ideas of nostalgia, love, longing, home sickness, travel, employing almost traditional lyric style (with echoes of Heaney, and Mahon) - but manage to twist free of the commonplace, striking a newly minted tone again and again.  There is a weary classicism in poems like 'Of All Things' which ends: "and the sunlight comes and the sunlight goes/ and the world is a world of all things and shadows."  This philosophy of restatement of the observed obvious, is not simply the strategy of turning the commonplace into the rare, but a witty teasing out of the implications of a lot of what passes for wisdom or thought in poems these days.  Jamison takes the given conditions, and pushes them, rhetorically, that little bit further, showing us he knows poems are true as often as they are also artifice, knowing artifice.  His sense of poetic beauty achieves its height in the two line poem 'Lagan from the Ormeau Bridge' which Muldoon or Heaney would have been pleased to write: "You'll know when a sculler has been on the river:/ the two-oared scuffed water catches, turns silver." Scuffed is the brilliant word here - and note that the light is only described secondhand.  Its effects are given, is all.

Autumn plays a big part in these poems, and only one poem seems really weak to me, with its "zimmer-framing" Old Man Autumn.  Instead, the other poem 'Autumning' is clever and lovely - perhaps the book's key poem, thematically and stylistically, with its "so autumn comes likes summer's broken promise".  Two other very strong poems, ready for future anthologies of the best Irish poetry, are 'Orpheus' and 'The Starlings'.  Surprisingly, Jamison has a lot of time for thinking about popular music, about girls, and about everyday life, in New York, and Belfast, but he also has time, beyond the jazzy colloquial vulgate of things, of the present, to notice and catch how the scuffed is also illuminated.


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Wheeler Light for 'Life Jacket'.

The runner-up is: Daniel Duffy - 'President Returns To New York For Brief First Visit'

Wheeler Light currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Life Jacket

summer camp shirtsI couldn’t fit in then
are half my size nowI wanted to wear
smaller and smallerarticles of clothing
I shrunk to the sizethat disappeared

of an afterthoughtin a sinking ship body
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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.