In 1992, a book—Landlocked—was published in England that contained remarkable and immensely likable poems by Mark Ford. I wanted to write on it, but the journal I was writing for wouldn’t review a book not published in America. Frustrated, I wrote to its unknown author instead, so that my delight at the book would reach him at least privately, if not publicly. The poems in Landlocked were neither decorous (in conventional lyric ways), nor tightly tacit (Philip Larkin), nor historical (Geoffrey Hill), nor demotic (Tony Harrison), nor sensual (Seamus Heaney). They were idiosyncratic and wildly imaginative, and—to use Ford’s own words—“funny peculiar.”
The author was able to do without the long sigh for the European past that had animated modern poetry after World War I; he did not imitate the theatrical tones of Berryman and Plath; he prized (for all his outrageous comedy) a linguistic equanimity both intellectual and fine-grained. Ford is not nostalgic for a lost England, nor does he lament contemporary morals. Instead, he simply acknowledges the modern situation as the inescapable form of life; it is what we are living, and he describes it with dark comedy. Modern existence in modern circumstances cannot be argued with; it simply is, as in the poem “Funny Peculiar”:
I sit down here drinking hemlock
While terrible things go on upstairs.
Sweat creeps like moss outward to the palms,
And time itself seems a strange, gauze-like medium.
Sleep will leave still newer scars each night, or,
Infuriatingly, is a curtain that refuses to close.
On the horizon, bizarre consolations make themselves
Known—a full fridge, a silent telephone,
The television quiet in its corner.
Everything and nothing have become a circular
Geometrical figure, seamlessly joined,
To be wrestled innocently this way and that
Into the most peculiar almost whimsical shapes.
The opening is dégagé in the Frank O’Hara manner—“I do this, I do that”—but sardonic, not joyful. The baffled imagination is charged to include “everything” and “nothing,” objects equally impregnable, seamlessly joined in a perfect figure offering no point of entrance. Yet the resistant circular contour vaguely hovering in the writer’s mind demands to be “wrestled” into new topological forms, the agon of wrestling countered only by the happy whim of making.
The “I” of a poem such as “Funny Peculiar” is a cartoon creation, with his hemlock in hand, and his wrestling in prospect. However, his speech is adult, and intriguing, and funny. (Poetic form is silently present, declaring itself not by rhyme but by resemblances in syntax or rhetoric or sound.) After several other accounts of his circumstances, all in the present tense, the insomniac speaker generates a prophetic imperative: the enigmatic “circular/Geometrical figure” is to be forced, against its own resistance, into peculiar shapes. True of writing, the obligation is as true of life; the genetically given must be insistently…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.