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Reality made difficult.


Invention of Reality
by Anthony Howell

The High Window Press | 136pp | £9.00


ANTHONY HOWELL’S POETRY is dif­fi­cult to review. Not, I hasten to add, because there is anything wrong with it, but because it is constantly demanding to read in the best possible sense, with variety of form and quicksilver language, ranging from the philosophical to the everyday/idiomatic.

Diving right in with the opener to one poem:

‘It’s fucking hard work being a beggar in Paris’

Moving on to the philosophical:

‘You are either taken in by it or you are part of the deception.’

Then there is the mischievous verbal ‘game’ in Opal, where a five-stanza poem riffs on the same words (among them narrower, street, car, gap) to catch a moment of indecision in the activity of driving. The verbal play weaves back and forth, just as the driver does, making the language into a kind of camera-vérité-on-the-page.

Howell’s improvisatory drive might owe much to the principles of modern jazz, but it also harks back to its own poetic ancestors.

Riffing is in fact one of the operative words for this collection; Howell’s improvisatory drive might owe much to the principles of modern jazz, but it also harks back to its own poetic ancestors. The verbal excitement, playing with different poetic and conversational registers, gives the collection the feel of a latter-day Allen Ginsberg — though with a more disciplined attention to form.

However, Howell is no mere retro poet; like Ginsberg, he is bang uptodate with politics – the presence of Palestine, reference to Julian Assange, and a latter-day fierceness about the freedom to be gay. Unlike Ginsberg, he is also a legatee of the confessional poets of the 1950s and 1960s, with his lyrical ‘I’ leading many ‘lyric’ (ie, short!) poems, as in his Vietato Tuffarsi.

Other short poems almost take the imagination’s breath away with sharp observational wit: a sexy poem about a mini-skirt ends with a punning envoi, as in Soupir Ancien:

Tendons arouse
Such tenderness in me.

On yet another hand, are the poems which echo the dynamics of narrative fiction; in Babel, and Society, the political and the poetic jostle linguistic rhythms. The cohabitation of the poetic and the narrative is at its most evident in the opening diary-like extended sequence of poems, Heron of Hawthornden, written during a writer’s retreat at the eponymous castle in 2017. There are 26 dated daily (I assume) ‘entries’, between 20 November and 15 December, of two stanzas each.

The stanzas are, apparently, ‘dizains’, a form new to me. They look like sonnets, but they are ten lines each, and should, perhaps, in tribute to their French origin, be spelled ‘dizaines’. Except that they are not quite. My Google investigation (forgive the shortcut) tells me the form was a favourite of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century French poets, though it was also deployed by Philip Sidney and John Keats. There are rules: one ten-line stanza, ten syllables per line, with the rhyme scheme ababbccdcd. Rules may be for the birds, but they are not for the Heron, or for Anthony Howell, who will always go his own way. The stanzas are ten lines, but ten syllables per line? Each poem/entry has two stanzas. Well, when it’s rhythm and sense driving the lines (with judicious use of enjambement), ten is one number among other numbers of syllables.

Although I have occasionally been intrigued, I have never gone on a writer’s retreat. Supposedly such intervals provide time, solitude and a change of scenery to stimulate writing. I have to confess to something of an ironic puritanism: working at home means silence and solitude (unless one is surrounded by family and other demands); change of scenery? You can always find somewhere to go for the day. So why bother to go away?

Howell’s dizain(e)s provide some answers: a room of one’s own, food provided (a lunchtime basket outside the door), the lure of a monastery/convent atmosphere, with no talk allowed between co-habitants until the evening; the idea that there will be mind-space for what is sometimes called inspiration, sometimes called perspiration, and sometimes a percentage relationship between the two.

In Howell’s retreat, we encounter Penny, Jean, Hamish, Rob, Phil and Wallace, and while we never know what they may be writing, we surmise that Howell himself cannily uses the venue for context and content.

At breakfast on the first day, his chair collapses under him; he paints, he sharpens pencils, he takes day trips away from his bookish citadel. He keeps a poetic diary: trees like spidery sentinels; literary presences haunt: Queen Elizabeth the First, Ben Jonson, while De Quincy lived A mere stone’s throw away. He even manages to get some dancing in.

The idea that reality can be invented is, of course, at the heart of poetry, indeed, of all imaginative writing. And yet, the idea that reality can be invented remains the stuff of materialist irony, while still the imperative of verbal art.

Howell’s belle-lettristic passion for language and its complexities, takes reality as a point of departure and arrival. The title poem mischievously and appropriately sums it up.


Enough of Aeschylus already!
Acting! So illusory.
Your drama one-sided,
A fake, proscenium-bound.

We prefer our Roman way.
Suggestion, concede to rage,
And no hiding death offstage.
The actual looks better in the round.

As I finish this review, pondering on a memorable last line, I delve back into Anthony Howell’s collection, to find:

And me, I could murder an ice cream.

Leaving aside the implications of the metaphor at the centre of that desire, I remember that I am in the comfort of my own (home) writer’s retreat, with the freezer only a few paces away. I don’t need to invent an ice cream; I can get the real thing, in the round.

MICHELENE WANDOR is a playwright, poet, short story writer, reviewer, broadcaster, theatre historian and a musician with degrees from Cambridge and Essex universities and from Trinity College / University of London. She has taught in Britain at the Guildhall School of Drama, London, the City Lit, London, London Metropolitan University and at various universities abroad and currently teaches the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. She is the author of The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing after Theory: Creative Writing Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan). She held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship from 2004 to 2008. Recipient of many awards and nominations, particularly for her radio dramatisations (see her ‘Dramatising Mrs Dalloway’ in the Fortnightly). Michelene Wandor is also an accomplished musician, performing Renaissance and Baroque music with her early music group, The Siena Ensemble. Her latest poetry collection is Travellers (Arc Publications 2021). Her collection of short fictions, Four Times EightyOne: Bespoke Stories, was published by Odd Volumes in October 2022 and her novel, Orfeo’s Last Act, will be published in 2023.

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