Mark Waldron Meanwhile, Trees ISBN 978-1-78037029609 Paperback 80pp £9.95
Frankly, this is a task no poet would thank you for, but bear with me. I want to explore some strands in English poetry that are often neglected whilst they are often being celebrated in other terms. Confused? Well, me to, I want to talk about whimsy, that 17th century word that means to be playful, sometimes quaint, fanciful, odd and funny. What is doesn’t mean is trivial. In fact, I’m arguing here that whimsy is a great servant of pathos.
Poets are often frightened of being funny on the page given jokes grow stale, age badly like root vegetables or bags of salad, yet whimsy is the mother of 20th century absurdism, where French writing has twisted whimsy into the philosophical bathos around destiny and agency and left us with some sense of gravitas and haute culture, in English letters it is often used to explore the monstrous with a lightness of touch often in highly-tangential language. Whimsy is, of course, central to surrealism as well as to existentialism. In terms of caprice, it is an elegant engine of lyric expansiveness.
Whimsy is also the best friend of satire and Mark Waldron’s poetry uses it to significant effect, poking fun at our obsessions, banality and sense of purpose. But before I go there, I want to set out my store and contrast Waldron with two other poets — Edith Sitwell and Stevie Smith. You might find these strange bedfellows but both poets are sui generis writers and developed a linguistic world: percussive, postulatory and in thrall to the syntactic music of the poem — that inner structure that builds its sonic world and into which we as readers enter and make of it what we can. It’s a high wire act.
Take a look at this from Edith Sitwell’s poem ‘Metamorphosis’:
The coral-cold snow seemed the Parthenon, Huge peristyle of temples that are gone, And dark as Asia, now, is Beauty’s daughter The rose, once clear as music is o’er deep water.
Now the full moon her fire and light doth spill On turkey-plumaged leaves and window-sill.
Now look at this from Stevie Smith’s poem, ‘Will Ever?’
Will ever the stormy seas and the surges deep, Swinging from left to right over the world, Stay in their idiot pacing, silently sleep In a memorial silence of precreation?
Alas for the crafty hand and the cunning brain That took from silence and sleep the form of the world, That bound eternity in a measuring chain Of hours reduplicate and sequential days.
And now this from Mark Waldron’s poem ‘Uh-Oh Sweet Wife’.
So, you bust us in flagrante, me and my other beloved, myself and my infinite intimate, the world, my mistress world.
Forgive me, but when she lays down her glittery and genteel fuselage softly in my lap I find that I must ruffle and placate her immensity.
What we can see is the use of heightened language cheek-by-jowl with the jocular, the plain spoken and the portentous. The latter often used to comic effect as the personality of the poem collapses on its very gesture of exuberance and transcendence. In fact, this element of hubris is something that informs much of Waldron’s poetic landscape, it’s the pressure valve in many of his best poems, as the reader is spun a yarn about a decadent flâneur collapsing into an interior darkness and, very often, loucheness:
He was thinking, as he rocketed across the Tuileries, top-hat steadied with one hand, cane gripped in the other, and with that coddled little smile still
perhaps he might remake himself from something already half-mutated such as a hotel pool-soaked novel or something whose extra weight, as he would explain to Gaston later, would be promissory, such as the lavish body of a maggot.
This comes from the title poem of Waldron’s latest collection, Meanwhile, Trees — the last line of the first stanza delivering another component of Waldron’s whimsy, the grotesque, often deployed like a depth charge against some current of self-regard.
Like Sitwell and Smith, Waldron’s poems are often the result of their syntax, driven by it as much as controlling it, and this strategy contains risks. The poem in its wild tangents can struggle to hold its form or to maintain its trajectory and denouement. Yet it is something that can be delicious, bold and very funny, while reminding us of mortality:
The first emotion I entertain (as one might entertain a shy and unassuming guest at tea)
was a mild embarrassment at his behaviour. Then, as time went on, I became increasingly
more mortified, until, out of all that itchy awkwardness
there sprang a fragile and unexpected shoot of mirth as a silky stem
might rise proud from a stimulated bean.
Just as with Sitwell and Smith, Waldron’s poetic landscape is informed by the candour of the poet, and the eccentricity and extravagance of the persona brought to bear. The precariousness of this deep relationship between performative persona and, let’s call it, portentously, Weltanschauung, is also part of the work’s tremendous charm and wit, and wit is something Waldron has in abundance.
Meanwhile, Trees is published by Bloodaxe Books and is available now.