NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Selected Poems by Mark Ford
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2014)
Mark Ford is a Professor of English in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College, London. He is a British poet whose work is very much informed by poetic influences from abroad, in particular, the work of John Ashbery. It comes as no surprise to read that he made a study of Ashbery’s poetry for his doctorate at Oxford and has many North American connections. He was, for example, a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard during 1983-84, his research interests include the New York based poets from the advent of modernism to the present day, his publications include editions of Ashbery, Ginsberg, Schulyer and Koch and he has published essays on poets such as Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. Running in parallel with this, he also has a declared interest in Parisian culture and he is the author of the first full-length biography in English of the French poet, playwright and novelist, Raymond Roussel.
Ford’s Selected Poems brings together a generous offering of poems from three previous collections: Landlocked (1992); Soft Sift (2001) and Six Children (2011). Ten new poems are also included at the end of the book. The beauty of this edition is that it means that American readers can possess at first hand a substantial selection of his poetry and follow his line of development as a writer of poetry over the past thirty years.
Many of the poems in this volume reflect his research interests. They have a North American undertow seen from a British perspective which makes them refreshingly different from the usual staple diet. Hard to categorise yet engagingly attentive, Ford brings us fast-paced cameos of myth, history and modern life where the narrative leaps from one frame to another in what can only be described as a playful kind of dark comedy.
For me, Ford is at his best when he writes about life in the city. These poems at times slip into the sublime with their rich, surprising language which falls effortlessly off the page through the judicious use of line lengths and line breaks. In "Masse und Macht," walking across Hungerford Bridge which spans the Thames between the South Bank and Charing Cross, the evening scene is expertly captured in the following lines:
blinking, the setting sun
catch and burnish the glass and flanks of the cabs
and buses, the opaque 4x4s
and the low-roofed cars and sleek
crawling across Waterloo Bridge; an almost
empty inbound commuter train clanked slowly
by…In the lull that ensued, the merry busker’s tooting grew
hauntingly erratic, then died
away, and with a dip
of the shoulder I surged on, through a swarm of chattering
language students, all carrying light-blue knapsacks and filling
the air with the straits of their dear
His poems surprise and delight in many ways. I"nvisible Assets," for example, opens with these arresting lines:
After he threw her through a
plate glass window, nature seemed that much closer.
Some are fused with a good dose of humour. The jauntily titled "Early To Bed, Early To Rise" plays on a whole series of mix-ups between names: George and Zbigniew Herbert; Edward, Dylan and and R S Thomas, etc., with some resultant consequence:
On the outskirts of Moscow we failed to distinguish clearly between
Charles and Burl Ives;
Our punishment was to sit through Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible,
Parts I and II, twice.
There is an element of surrealism that runs through some of his work. This, at times, can descend into farce, as in "A Swimming Pool Full of Peanuts" which does not work for me.
Startling juxtapositions, on the other hand, are often his forte. "After Africa" is a fine poem that, despite the repeated pattern of certain lines, does not lose its strength:
After Africa, Surbiton:
An unheated house, and flagstone pavements;
No colobus monkeys, no cheetahs scouring the plains.
Verrucas and weeping blisters ravaged our feet.
From the same poem Ford gives us one of his many delightful one-line evocative descriptions which are testament to his powers of observation:
…snow falling through the halos of street lamps.
In many ways, his poetry is quite conservative: with few exceptions, lines begin with an initial capital letter, punctuation is used throughout, language is sometimes deliberately archaic and echoes of well-worn phrases from the lexicon of English literature abound. At times, his work can sound almost Shakespearean with its measured, didactic tone. Take these lines from "Lower Case," for example:
……..Let no man
Squirrel away what he owns, or thinks he owns, nor, ill
At ease in his own skin, swallow fire and so
This is counteracted by his placement of past events in a thoroughly modern setting and his refusal to pander to the slow, predictable development of narrative that can leave so many poems flawed. There is some experimentation with form, as in "Arrowheads" and the curiously designed poem "Then She Said She Had To Go" where a reading of the left hand column and a reading of the right hand column share the same two words before the last two lines of each stanza. The image in the fourth stanza is particularly striking:
the commuters half-turned
to wave good-bye to
their friends. About their
feet fell the
An interest in classical literature inspires and informs several of his poems. "The Casket" is based on an episode in Book VI of the Metamorphoses by Apuleius; "The Death of Petronius" is adapted from a passage in Book 16 of the Annals of Tacitus and "White Nights" is adapted from various passages in De Rerum Natura by Lucretius.
Ford writes with intelligence and wit in equal measure which makes this book essential reading for anyone interested in sampling innovative and exciting poetry from Britain today.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, essays, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011) The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013) and The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, Bristol, England, 2014).