I don't own many books of contemporary poetry. It is a rare book that catches my eye and generally after flicking though a couple of pages I know if it's going to be my cup of tea. Once when I was in a pokey wee used book store in Edinburgh I chanced upon a copy of Plain Clothes (1971) by the Scottish poet Libby Houston, her second collection as it happens. I didn't know her and I expect I picked up the book – a hardback no less – because the photograph on the cover looked sad. She was probably going for thoughtful but sad is what I saw.
Houston came to the world's attention following an appearance at The Edinburgh Festival and her first collection A Stained Glass Raree Show (1961) was well received. I'm not sure what she's doing now – information on the Web is a bit thin – but the last book that was published was In Cover of Darkness: Selected Poems, 1961 – 1998. One reviewer had this to say:
Houston’s poetry has continuously flown in the face of convention, vividly conveying the author’s spirited, iconoclastic philosophy, yet remaining resistant to easy classification.
Another review talked of her poetry "scorning fashion and compromise".
The poems in Plain Clothes are a mixed bag. Some are only two or three lines in length; there's a sonnet and a number of musical forms, a 'Transatlantic Rhapsody', a 'Carol for Ephemeral Creatures', the strange 'Alien Pomp' and the even stranger 'Rotting Song'. Oh, and much of the stuff rhymes but certainly not all of it. Some of it is actually quite dark.
But I'm not here to talk about Libby Houston. I'm here to talk about Rachel Fox who is not a Scottish poet by birth but since she lives here we're happy to adopt her. Rachel, a bit of a late starter, has been writing poetry since about 1997 and has just seen fit to publish her first collection, More about the song. I've read her poetry on-line so I'm familiar with her work but I was curious how she would present her first collection.
Like any author she has fears about how her work will be received:
The negative criticisms I am not looking forward to include (a) 'a nice light book of performance poetry' … (b) 'a good editor would have helped this book' … and (c) 'this is nothing new'.
I'll come back to all of these later.
The book is eighty pages long (seventy-three poems including the one of the back cover masquerading as blurb) and is divided into seven sections:
- What's going on?
- Freaking out
- Going round
- Seeing and believing
- Keeping on
The style is varied in exactly the same way as Houston's: short poems, long poems, rhyming poems, dark poems. And, to answer her first fear, yes, there are some light performance pieces but there were few that I could imagine Pam Ayres doing justice to. The most effective piece of this ilk is 'Let me be your fridge magnet':
Let me be your fridge magnet
Let me slip into your home
Like a leaflet for a loan
Hidden in a free newspaper
Or supermarket circular
I'm not proud
Oh how I'd love to be your Baby on Board
Suckered on to your smoothness
I'd feel every bump in your road
Know exactly how much air was in your tyres
If you let me
I could stick faster still
If you'd let me be your fridge magnet
I'd hang on to your cool place
So perky, so keen
I wouldn't let you down
I'd be superficial for you, gladly
Cling to any surface – as long as it was yours
Then I'd ask softly 'do you understand now?
Do you get the message?
Do you read me at all?'
This poem reads perfectly well out loud and just to prove it listen to Fox read the poem here. It doesn't even rhyme! Have you ever heard Pam Ayres read a poem that doesn't rhyme? "I like poets who can aim deep," says Fox, "and yet can still perform to an audience of people (not just poets)..."
She clearly has a strong feeling for musicality of words and for music itself. A lot of the poems, if not out-and-out songs masquerading as poems, certainly reveal her influences, reference to folk clubs, Robert Plant, Björk, Nina Simone, Madonna, Bob Geldof, and a certain teen idol from the seventies:
Number 1 fan
At 6 I loved Donny
Right till death us do part
At 7 I moved on
Oh, the young, cheating heart
Like Libby Houston, Rachel Fox is particularly at home with shorter verse forms and some of these can be biting in their effectiveness. The Freaking Out section opens with this powerful little gem:
What can the matter be?
What can the matter
Is more like it
For me this is the most powerful section including 'Hiding in the toilet of life' and 'Not tonight, Radiohead'. Some of the work here reminded me of Spike Milligan. Yes, Spike could be funny and silly, but he suffered for years with depression and the subject was not one he shied away from in his work even if he sometimes used a light touch to make his point.
To tackle her second fear I have to say I personally would have presented the material differently. There is something of an arc throughout the seven sections going from childhood to adulthood, through good times and bad and there must have been times she was in despair deciding where to put the poems. I might've been tempted to put 'History at 40' at the end of the book and the whole Love section seems a bit late in the sequence. So much, when it comes down to it, is personal preference.
I'll let Fox herself answer any criticism of her editorial choices:
I know there are things a literary editor type person would not have included...about half of the poems probably...maybe more...but I don't write for literary editors or academics specifically...I write for me and for people/readers/listeners right across the board.
Her last fear is not an unreasonable one. There have been so many people writing poetry that it's impossible not to present a poem where your influences are hanging out all over the place for the world to see. I flicked though this collection and immediately thought of Libby Houston. I asked and Fox has never even heard of her.
As for content, yes, it's all been done before, people have been born, lived, made a muck-up of living, fallen in love, even found a smattering of happiness and clung to it for dear life and it'll continue long after all of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. The skill, and this is where Rachel stands on her own, is to make us think about the same-ol'-same-ol':
Roses are red
Violets are violet
Please love me
My life's in the toilet
As a retrospective, looking back on the first ten years, this is a decent enough collection. It shows the length and breadth and depth of an emerging talent. There are some good poems here and a few surprises especially in the depths to some of the 'funny poems'. There are a few that "a literary editor type person" wouldn't have included and a bit more white space around the poems would have been nice. For my money, however, the collection would almost be worth buying for 'She's not there', a poem about the artist Joan Eardley's 1943 self portrait. This is a stoater of a poem. It's not quite Eliot (I don't get most of Eliot, anyway) but it has a voice, a tone that resonates in exactly the same way as 'The Hollow Men'. Here's the final stanza:
The portrait feels like family
Or so I can imagine
We are the not quite whole people
The bits and pieces people
The hundreds and the thousands
At the start I quoted from a review of forty years of Libby Houston's poetry. What I can imagine being written about Rachel Fox in another thirty might well be:
Fox’s poetry has continuously flown in the face of convention, vividly conveying the author’s spirited, iconoclastic philosophy, yet remaining resistant to easy classification.
More about the song is a good start down that road.
I asked her about the title to the collection and she referred me to the poem on page 12, 'The song remains', the last two lines of which are:
Worry less about the cleverness
Worry more about the song
It's a poem about writing poetry, what writing poetry means to her and in this respect she has much in common (in ideals if not exactly techniques) with poets like William Carlos Williams who use plain language. His work is fresh and clear, rejecting sentimentality and vagueness and I could say much the same about Fox's work. Fox comes from an academic background; in Scottish parlance: she's no a daftie and don't treat her like one. Her approach to poetry is a conscious choice, not something she has stumbled into as a rank amateur, but it is also, she says, the only way she feels comfortable writing, as she explains:
I don't like it when the more obscure, academic, difficult poetry is somehow automatically given more kudos than any other poetry - when it is seen as quality writing and anything else is performance or light or doggerel. The academic approach is a valid way of working but why is writing for a wider audience not given as much credit or critical attention? Both types of writing are important if we want to keep poetry a vibrant artform.
This is where the concept of "the song" makes itself apparent in her poetry. She wants to bring the accessibility and communicativeness of songs (the poetry of the common people) back to poetry, to take things full circle if you like. She makes no apology for being a bigger fan of music than of poetry but then there is so much poetry out there that refuses to speak to but a few; music, the song especially, speaks to everyone and that is what Fox aspires to.
Rachel Fox was born in the north of England and now lives in Montrose in Angus. After school she studied languages before flitting through a broad range of jobs until, as he puts it, "she discovered that caring for family full-time was the perfect cover for poetry writing and associated pursuits". She often reads her poetry in public and has even been known to join in when one of her songs is being performed. She can be found on-line at More about the song - rambling with Rachel Fox, her … well, frankly … rambly blog.
More about the song (Crowd-pleasers Press) can be purchased directly from her website.