All writers have their pre-occupations. They are what lure like-minded readers and perhaps turn an audience into a following. The trick for the poet is to home in on themes that are likely to resonate with a wide body of the public – or at least that part of it that reads poetry.
Although Robert Hale’s latest collection is dubbed “Chaos Theory”, taking the title from a piece illustrating how ‘the smallest of lies betrays the greatest of truths’, the realm inhabited by the collection seems less that of Hardy or Priestley (how different might the world have been but for one small snub or misconstrual) and more the byways of Eeyore’s Gloomy Place. This is no bad thing. Amongst poetry readers gloom junkies are a sizeable target market.
This, however, is gloom with panache, in many shades, avoiding monotony by the interspersal of occasional smile-inducing nuggets. The overall result is not, therefore, depressing even though many of the chuckles are hardly light-hearted.
“Dave” is life affirmingly misanthropic, whilst “All Things to All Men” combines misanthropy nicely with the penumbral. “The Monster” skips its ti-tummity way through the field of fraternal childhood psychological torment, the sinister tone enhanced by repetitive nursery rhyme phrasing. Despair for humanity, an undertone in many of the poems, comes to the fore in “Build a Better Mousetrap” and “These were the ways of the Ancients”.
In a couple of instances accusations of preaching to the converted could be levelled given that only a tiny proportion of the likely readership will call for an increase in background music (“The Death of Silence”) or defend the art of the spin doctor (“Balance”). The choice of the sitting duck target, nevertheless, is redeemed by the deftness of the execution.
“Valentine’s Day Poem” and “The Birthday” deliver, in greetings card couplets, identical wry melancholia on the subject of reluctant solitude. Perhaps unexpectedly for a collection where the tone is only occasionally upbeat, these two, along with “10 Items or Less” (a pithy list poem), “Away from the Crowd” and “Contemplating Suicide” are the only obvious concessions to self-indulgence. Mercifully, introspection is resorted to sparingly and when it is done, for the most part, it is done well.
Regretful head shaking is primarily reserved for human experience in general; “Day by Day”, “Liberation”, “Lucky Dip” “A Christmas Song” and the poignant “I Wish I Speak Well English”. Bemusement is also carried off nicely in the eminently performable “Teddy Bear House”. Indeed if a number of the poems were not written from outset with a view to performance they have emerged in this form. In some hands this could imply nothing more than a lowest common denominator couplet fest but the experience of performing seems to have disciplined Hale to consider the importance of accessibility in all of his work without compromising on technique. This has benefitted even those poems not destined for declamation from the stage.
It is testimony to the persuasiveness of the point of view that verse form seldom appears the raison d’être for the poems although this is rigorously worked through in most of the collection. It is only after a second glance that the ABCDE ABCDE scheme of each verse of “Broken English” becomes apparent or the ABCDBCD of “Contemplating Suicide”. The writer’s interest in form is clear from the Haikus and from such experiments as “Stars: a Fibonacci Poem” (I will trust to Hale’s superior mathematical knowledge that the sequence was faithfully replicated) and “Love Sequence”. Structure, however, is nearly always complementary and seldom becomes a distraction unless the point of the poem is the construction.
A highlight of this collection, that contains many more hits than misses, is the potentially depressing “From out of the Deep”, which, as a reflection on senility, is, with typical perversity, verging on the optimistic. Avoiding a second childhood cliché and dicing with a subtly demanding rhyme scheme, the mental state is succinctly commented upon and capped with the epilogue: ‘The depths give back their gold’. Compare this resolution to the more disturbing ‘terrible silence’ of “Broken English”.
Perhaps the only unnecessary inclusion is “Exhibition”. Even though the non-cognoscenti can get the drift, this faux nursery rhyme about conceptual art could be just a little too exclusive. The poem that follows, “Bird-blind”, is much more effective as comic relief, although when the collection goes into its second print run the reader who unconsciously carries out a scansion exercise whilst digesting the verses might be helped by a re-jigging of the last two lines, if only a transfer of the first syllable of the last line to the end of the penultimate. These lines are, after all, the boom boom of the piece.
Above all, the majority of the poems in this collection reward repeated reading. At the very least this makes them value for money. In The Gloomy Place there is not only much food (or thistles) for thought but also a fair degree of perverse amusement. The collection as a whole may not be particularly enthusiastic about an awful lot but then what well-balanced individual would not want to give Tigger a good slap?
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