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The poet as critic

Andrew McMillan reviews
Dear Boy
by Emily Berry

There’s an interview with the wonderful American poet Matthew Dickman for the Scottish Poetry Library in which he says (and I’m paraphrasing badly here, apologies Matthew) that irony “isn’t horrible” but that it can “only get you so far”. I found this a really interesting idea. Much modern poetry seems too hip, too ironic, too tricksy for its own good- accomplished poems rest on their own surface intrigue rather on their ability to say anything real.  Love is fine but only if we don’t really mean it, only if we’re making fun of it, only if we love ironically. When I was first starting out in poetry, my first pamphlet got reviewed by someone who we won’t name who said, amongst other things, that the tone of the poems seemed too angsty; he was right, but what I took this to mean at the time was that writing love poems to a departed lover wasn’t enough, there needed to be an angle, something tricksy, writing a love poem was too cliché. I was wrong. Emily Berry proves that with this magnificent, arresting collection which is (along with the likes of Oli Hazzard and Hannah Lowe) one of the best debut collections of recent years.
There is a refreshing honesty and directness to these poems; yes, they are quirky but quirky doesn’t have to mean style over substance. Berry gives us both. Style and substance. Sweetness with depth. The final poem of the book, the final poem’s final line, is perhaps best served to sum up the collection:

            I am writing my first political poem which is also (always) about my love    for you

The beloved is the anchor around which everything else in the collection oscillates.  Emily Berry’s other talent is that she is genuinely witty and often very very funny; not funny in a ‘that was a quite amusing line’ sort of way, but genuinely, laugh out loud funny. The first poem of the collection, ‘Our Love Could Spoil Dinner’ is a great example of this wit and humour adding to the depth of a poem’s narrative rather than stealing focus. It’s an easy trick to write a punchline poem, one which subverts the reader’s assumptions on the last line; it’s a harder trick to pull off sustained humour throughout a piece, and Berry manages it here.

In a talk at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Julia Copus talked about the spine of a poem, about a clear line of meaning that runs through a poem and helps to give it shape. It’s a true statement but what Berry has crafted within this collection are poems with spines but also with the acrobatic skill of being flexible. Flexible spines, which move and bend and contort and surprise us, but which never lose control. ‘Letter to Husband’ is a great example of this, and ‘Love Bird’ too, which is one of the highlights of the collection. The spine of the poem (the bird imagery) shifts from the lover to the body and then, ultimately to the concept of love

                                    Love was no bird

‘Two Budgies’ is another highlight of the collection. It has echoes of John Riley about it; fluid, partially connected images anchored together by a direct and stunning last line. In Berry’s poem, a domestic scene flows into a sexual encounter which flows into a memory of the eponymous budgies and then into the stunning last line:

                        don’t say I invented romance where there wasn’t any

As well as investing us in her own personal narrative, Berry has the ability, perhaps only matched by Riviere amongst her first-collection contemporaries, to offer insight, although thankfully never preach, about contemporary culture.  ‘Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame’ captures the contemporary zeitgeist for vintage and transient connections perfectly without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard. It’s the sort of poem which feels like it will be anthologised in decades to come and used as a document to teach about the decade we’re living through. The poem needs to be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated but the opening line:
                        I have discovered the meaning of life and it is curatorial

seems to perfectly capture the contemporary youth culture and the final line

                        every time I think a new thought I can smell an old one burning

 is masterful in turning the poem on its head, shifting it from a mere reportage to a critique. What more could one ask from a poem? ‘Bad New Government’ too manages to blend the personal and the political skilfully.
Faber’s poetry list seems in a really exciting place at the moment, maintaining the great names of the last few generations but building something fresh and exciting for the future. Riviere, Berry and the new Faber New Poets scheme currently underway show a press building a very exciting future for itself.  Berry has the ability to go on to be one of the most respected and accomplished poets of her generation; the poems are accessible but not light, funny but not easily dismissed, loving and sensual without being cliché,  political without being preachy.  Poetry, I think, can be measured by the lines that stay in your head long after reading. “Lover, love was no bird” is one such line for me that is still rattling about between my ears, that I still say to myself out loud when nobody else is around. 

‘The Way You Do At The End of Plays’, another accomplished poem, has an interesting poem near its end:

                        and then the play ended and,            
                        we turned to each other, you know in the way you do at the end of

the “you know” is significant here; Berry is handing power over to the reader; not only does the colloquialism give a familiarity to the narrator, it is telling the reader they already know this image, that Berry doesn’t have to spell it out for them. This is a great act of humility for a poem; having the intelligence and also the generosity to not go for the big image, for the big crescendo but to rather casually hand it over to the reader and make the poem all the more powerful for it.  Constant consideration of the reader, of an audience, is the mark of a great poet. In Berry, that is exactly what we have.

Andrew McMillan was born in South Yorkshire in 1988. His most recent pamphlets are 'the moon is a supporting player' (2011, Red Squirrel Press) and 'protest of the physical' (2013, Red Squirrel Press). Selections of his work can also be found in The Salt Book of Younger Poets and Best British Poetry 2013. Andrew has held numerous residencies nationwide, written plays for Sheffield Theatres and had his commission for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad featured on Radio 4's Today Programme. He is currently working on a first full collection and lectures in Creative Writing at Liverpool John Moores University.


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