Typically, one expects a poet’s Selected Poems to precede his Collected Poems, the latter acting as a sort of capstone for the literary career. Alan Brownjohn, however, has gone in the opposite direction. Following three editions of his Collected Poems (1983, 1988, and most recently, 2006, also from Enitharmon), The Saner Places: Selected Poems has been published, gathering together Brownjohn’s ‘personal choice of poems’ from twelve books, these presumably being the ones by which he would like to be remembered. Issued half a century after his first book (The Railings, 1961), The Saner Places provides those already familiar with Brownjohn’s poetry with, to quote Enitharmon’s description of the book, ‘an excellent opportunity to renew acquaintance with the most notable work of a writer whose achievement has been central to modern English poetry and its major concerns’ – while also serving as a handy introduction for newcomers.
Reviewing Brownjohn’s 2006 Collected Poems for The Guardian, Anthony Thwaite quotes Brownjohn’s remarks from a 1983 interview: ‘I should like people to read my work and think it was like drinking lemonade, only to find a little later that it was strongly laced. I’d want it to go down like lemonade but to hit them like vodka.’ In the poems, this desire manifests itself as plainness of diction masking wryness, the poems’ sting often revealed only in their closing lines. Consider a poem like ‘Before the Game’, where the stanzas in the first half slowly accumulate a stream of detail that weighs on the repeated ‘to decide who wins the toss’. The poem then pivots on the fifth stanza’s ‘And this, over here, is the twelfth man, / who lent the coin / as a method of being noticed for something’, allowing a series of ironic revelations to unfold in its second half:
It is the custom here that the loser of the toss
keeps the coin as a consolation
for the brutality of Fate.
The owner of this coin did not know of the custom,
or he would not have lent for the purpose
a rare doubloon
of the Emperor Paronomasia IV.
As it spins, he watches it, trying to seem unaffected,
thinking, Will I ever get it back?
The situation is complicated by the fact
that the doubloons of the Emperor Paronomasia IV
have two heads.
The irony in Brownjohn’s poetry is also directed along the lines of social commentary, as in a poem like ‘Bastard’. This poem begins with the insectile image of ‘A bastard creep[ing] out through a crack in some / Until-then immaculate-looking woodwork’, a figure who ‘plans to walk into an Organisation, / To stir things up inside an Organisation. / He is going to Go For It and get others Going’. The rest of the poem chronicles the titular Bastard’s steep ascent to the highest echelons of corporate power (‘up / In an express lift to a penthouse suite already, / And they have an office waiting for him already’) and his equally precipitous fall from grace, presaged by the ‘knowing looks, and ever-widening smiles’ of ‘Assistant Bastards’, just waiting to ‘[move] into the Bastard’s chair’.
Nonetheless, it is the whole ‘Organisation’, from bottom to top, which is indicted as rotten to its very core: ‘all the smallest bastards, / The shareholder’s democracy, have been stirred / To demand a different bastard at the top.’ Fundamentally, everyone is interchangeable in this fickle, corporatised universe (‘This year they’re eager for a different scene, / This year they’re after a man with a different style, This year they’d like a bastard with a haircut’), and as one by one, the ‘dirty, crooked, scheming bastards’ ‘shake their heads with humane and pitying smiles’, the whole edifice of a society built on petty squabbles and tussles for power begins to look worryingly hollow, in spite of its appearances: ‘the sun sets golden, and the immaculate walls / Begin to look like very porous woodwork.’ The overall effect of the poem is thus to render disquieting social implications in a drily humorous tone.
Brownjohn is also not above poking fun at poetry itself. He displays a keen mastery of form and a deft ear for rhyme, alternating between full and slant rhyme to great effect. However, in a poem like ‘Ballad Form Again’, Brownjohn treats the experience of walking in inclement weather as a comic metaphor for writing, declaring at the end of this ballad:
Thought, Shoes which let in water
Should be junked for sterner stuff;
And the same goes for the ballad form:
Enough is enough.
This playfulness also shines through in ‘Seven Old Men on an Inter-city Train: A Yeatsian Poem’. Brownjohn riffs on the imagery of Yeats’s sonnet, ‘Leda and the Swan’, with the titular old men imagining that the factory effluent discharged into the lake has taken on the appearance of swans and debating the image’s symbolism. At one point, the sixth man explicitly states, ‘The poet Yeats loved real swans on real lakes, / And had a penchant for using them as symbols’. The discussion then turns towards what Yeats would have thought of their ‘effluent-swans’ – only for the seventh man, hitherto silent, to interrupt with ‘I think that Crewe is the / next stop’, deflating the moment entirely. Perhaps these seven men reappear decades later in another collection as ‘Seven Sherlocks’, a poem that gently parodies the fictional detective’s exploits in anecdotal fashion.
Ultimately, what is most fascinating about Brownjohn’s poetry is its specificity of everyday detail. Commenting on his Collected Poems, Margaret Drabble writes, ‘Alan Brownjohn is one of the most reliably enjoyable of writers. His poems – some sad, some very, very funny – are the true record of an age.’ The selection from his most recent collection, Ludbrooke and Others, bears out her assessment. The character of Ludbrooke is ‘pedantic’ (‘His 1471’), given to boasting about his sexual prowess (‘His Classic Modesty’) and blithely oblivious to the ways in which his behaviour turns him into a figure of ridicule. Yet Brownjohn also makes Ludbrooke into an oddly sympathetic man. Perhaps all someone like Ludbrooke is looking for is the chance ‘to die in saner places’ (‘My Cricket’), and in the meantime, it is words like Brownjohn’s that will accompany him (and us) along the way:
I am sorry to fear, now it’s dark,
That only the worst lies ahead;
Though the least we could show from now on
Is an odd affirmative spark.
The Saner Places: Selected Poems by Enitharmon, £15.00