It is a curious thing that of the three judges offering superlatives on the jacket of Hugo Williams’s Collected Poems – Edna Longley, Douglas Dunn and Peter Porter – none is English. And yet Williams, born in Windsor during World War Two, the son of the English actor Hugh Williams, schooled by Life and Eton, a youthful toiler for Alan Ross’s London Magazine, an erstwhile globetrotter and a lifelong London resident, seems as English as they come. (So English, in fact, that he will object that his mother is Australian.) He simply makes it a more interesting condition than others succeed in doing, or else he escapes its limitations altogether.
So many of the ways one thinks of him are paradoxical. In an adaptation of his own phrase (from ‘Sugar Daddy’) he is a ‘passionate clown’. He is certainly one of the funniest poets writing and yet, as he has noted himself, almost all his work revolves around loss. In ease of manner and dandyishness and attention to detail – in poems as much as in person – he is utterly English, yet there is none of the deviousness or the stifling reserve one might associate with Englishness: there is in his writing an uncommon frankness and emotionalism. He is a born lyricist who, seemingly effortlessly, knocks out short poems about feelings but who for decades has followed the demanding, even desiccating calling of columnist – on television, on theatre, on music and, for many years now, on freelancing – without apparent ill-effect. A grasshopper, if you like, moonlighting as an ant. He has unopposably been called, by Blake Morrison, the ‘Peter Pan of English poetry’, even though he now safely clutches (or is in the clutches of) a bus pass. He writes about prep school and childhood, and yet the poems he wrote just out of adolescence, forty years ago, in the manner of the late Movement and especially Thom Gunn, are his starchiest. His poems are full of haircuts and suits, but he is probably the least materialist of poets; or, conversely put, his poems aspire to the lift-off of prayer, and yet they are regularly menaced by prosiness and anecdote. Reading through these Collected Poems, you can spot traces of the dominant period voices one after another – Gunn, Kees, Plath, Larkin, Hamilton, Lowell, Muldoon, Reid – and yet overall he seems relatively unchanging and almost wholly free from external influence. There is probably no quality as antithetical to him as literary pretension – I can’t imagine him using an allusion, let alone writing an ekphrasis or a literary hommage – and yet, probably alone of poets writing now, his work would sit reasonably well with that of a thousand or two thousand years ago: Wyatt, Wang Wei, Propertius, Sappho. He is a plain-spoken metaphysical, purveying a teary elegance, clarity in confusion, insouciant reflection, irreducible unguardedness.
There are many places one might begin with Hugo Williams: symmetry, dexterity, humour, found poems or anti-poems, love, his father (one of his eight books is called Love-Life, another Sugar Daddy), but power seems to me as good a place as any. Not power in any literary sense, of vocabulary or style, but in the negotiations between the ‘I’ of the poems and an external world. Each time, a final imbalance is struck, in which the ‘I’ is discomfited, and this makes the poem. Take the much-anthologised piece ‘The Butcher’, the last poem in his first book and probably the moment at which he became ‘himself’:
The butcher carves veal for two.
The cloudy, frail slices fall over his knife.
His face is hurt by the parting sinews
And he looks up with relief, laying it on the scales.
He is a rosy young man with white eyelashes
Like a bullock. He always serves me now.
I think he knows about my life. How we prefer
To eat in when it’s cold. How someone
With a foreign accent can only cook veal.
He writes the price on the grease-proof packet
And hands it to me courteously. His smile
Is the official seal on my marriage.
This, it seems to me, moves from objectivity (‘The butcher carves veal for two’) through sympathy (‘His face is hurt’) to a form of apprehension (‘I think he knows about my life’) to an unexpected final triumph that is nevertheless mostly submission. The last line, like many in Williams (the range is from brute slapstick to existential despair), is an apotheosis of powerlessness. Meanwhile, the uneasiness and interrogativeness of the poem can hardly be overstated; it is characteristically ready to think the unthinkable. Here, the butcher is co-opted into a ménage à trois. Guilt and embarrassment – the dread familiars of English experience – are at the back, but heightened into something that almost approaches cannibalism, as ‘smile’ recalls ‘slices’, and ‘seal’ ‘veal’. Nor is it any surprise that the idea of ‘scales’ features in the poem: they are needed to register the imbalance I suggested a moment ago. What is being cut into and weighed and wrapped here is the marriage.
Such – sometimes wounding, always imaginative – turns and reversals are everywhere, especially in the early poems. ‘Brendon Street’, a droll look at a shady bit of urban renewal (‘At seven, the croupiers bristle forth/With cigarettes, handling lighters./These are the lords of Brendon Street. Their shoulders/Barge against the evening like a ball and chain’), ends with a simile expressive at once of lack of cultural progress, awed stasis and emasculation: ‘I stare out through my tent-flaps like a squaw.’ ‘Open Window’ reads, in its entirety: ‘Voices at night in summer./I lie in bed/And hear them upside down/And think I am in France.’ One poem is called ‘Revolving Stage’, another ‘Impotence’. A sumptuous poem called ‘Holidays’ – its sumptuousness as much a function of its looping, circling syntax as of a carefully placed spatter of decorations – goes:
We spread our things on the sand
In front of the hotel
And sit for hours on end
Like merchants under parasols
Our thoughts following the steamers
In convoy across the bay
While far away
Our holidays look back at us in surprise
From fishing boats and fairs
Or wherever they were going then
In their seaweed headdresses.
The change of subject (the ‘they’ and ‘then’ when they come in the penultimate line are painfully yearning), the strange flexibility of time and space, and the abrupt masque at the end, make it a simultaneously gorgeous and desolating poem, like a conjurer’s display of pulling silks through a ring. There is something characteristically metaphysical about the poem’s enactment of absence (as with ‘And think I am in France’). This wistfulness – beginning with something (‘We spread our things on the sand’) and ending with nothing, though an enriched nothing – is typical. Such things as power, security, normality and presence drain away and something often dreamily unsettling is left behind. Movement swings, disperses, spirals outwards or levitates. Here is another tiny poem, ‘Sussex’: ‘Broken mauve lightning./The rooks/Explode upwards/Out of the mauve bracken.’
After many years of writing these mostly extremely short and wried poems, in books where most of each page was left blank to mimic the echoic disappearance and palpable absences (this was the Review school, or New Review school, and the poems look odd and a little undignified stuffed two or three to a page, as here), Williams began to branch out into other ways of supporting a poem, which are very conspicuous in the chronology of a Collected. Early on in Love-Life of 1979, for instance, there is the poem ‘Bachelors’ (‘What do they know of love/ These men who have never been married?/ What do they know/About living face to face with happiness/These amateurs of passion?’), which toys – as with a loudhailer – with a robust if still intimate theatrical rhetoric. Writing Home (1985) begins with a long choric spree about prep school, called ‘At Least a Hundred Words’:
What shall we say in our letters home?
That we’re perfectly all right?
That we stand on the playground with red faces
and our hair sticking up?
That we give people Chinese burns?
That ‘people’, I’ve always thought, is bizarrely euphemistic, given that the people in question are small boys.
Of all the Review school poets, Williams made the most complete and unexpected break with the tenets of economy, ceremony, care, melancholy and a kind of Oriental exquisiteness. Ian Hamilton published the same body of lyrics over and over again in the space of three decades in The Visit, in Fifty Poems and Sixty Poems, with the slowest and merest, most glacially gradualist additions (and even subtractions); he wrote a Note of plaintive extenuation, saying that while he’d made an effort ‘at getting “more of the world” into my verse: more narrative, more intelligence, more satire, and so on’, it was really no go. By contrast, Williams, who always seemed the most natural of these poets, the only one for whom you felt a poem was actually the work of five minutes (the others were all more considered, more principled, more psychologising, more mannered even), unbent into slackness, reminiscence, dolefulness, performance. Crystalline simplicity dissolved into prosy clarity; moments of adversity or shock or recognition were parlayed into a droll serial martyrdom. (He may be poetry’s Peter Pan, but he is also its St Sebastian.) The necessarily rather anonymous ‘I’ of the early poems becomes a fully developed character, very close to the poet, a habitual fall-guy for the poems, like the further alter ego, ‘Sonny Jim’.
A lot of 1980s and 1990s Williams barely pretends to be poetry. The poems straggle over pages; the lines – revealingly lower-case now – unspool; the line-endings (holy grail to the Review school poets) are ragged; the endings of the poems are often indeterminate; humour and narrative and personality (gags, almost) sing for their supper. What carries the poems is their amusing ease, their talky chronicling of eccentricities and defeats. A light monstrosity takes in the prep-school experiences (‘with red faces/and our hair sticking up’), the amorous pursuits, the humdrum of writing and ageing. This cartoonish clowning, already evident in occasional early poems like ‘Motorbike’ (‘I have a humiliating sheepskin coat/And I lust strangely after a new alternator’), but never much remarked on, becomes a pervasive and – in some outstanding and justly celebrated poems like ‘The Spring of Sheep’, ‘World’s End’, ‘Keats’ or ‘When I Grow Up’ – a dominant and macabre presence:
When I grow up I want to have a bad leg.
I want to limp down the street I live in
without knowing where I am. I want the disease
where you put your hand on your hip
and lean forward slightly, groaning to yourself.
If a little boy asks me the way
I’ll try and touch him between the legs.
What a dirty old man I’m going to be when I grow up!
What shall we do with me?
The mal à propos ‘when I grow up’ and the pidgin-feeling of ‘the disease/where’ are both occasional stylistic features, small, almost subliminal thickenings of verbal interest in the general lucidity.
Where – in a minority of cases amid the more usual knockabout and anecdotal assemblages – the symmetry and metaphysics and rhetorical management of the early poems persist, they are a grateful presence: in ‘Now That I Hear Trains’, ‘On the Road’, ‘Desire’, ‘In My Absence’ and elsewhere. Sometimes you think, ‘he’s remembered to put in the metaphysics,’ but even that supplies a lift from a plane that can seem relentless in its unbuttonedness and jocoseness. In the context of a Collected, what one tends to notice are the departures and the exceptions. The strange domestic animism – at once boisterous and pessimistic – of ‘Desk Duty’ (‘or I wouldn’t be sitting here like this/playing footy-footy with my desk./I’d be upstairs in bed with my bed’). The rare verbal jokes and innuendo of ‘The Spring of Sheep’ – ‘when I visited my girlfriend on her father’s stud’ – where everything seems to be a double entendre. The cultural compendiousness of ‘Postwar British’ and ‘World’s End’, dedicated to Neil Rennie, both of which have something of Rennie’s anthropological intelligence. The deployment, for once, of a more formal vocabulary in ‘Going Round Afterwards’ and the fine elegiac sequence for Hugh Williams, ‘Death of an Actor’, where the form’s appetite for total or totalising statement produces some dazzling phrases, reminiscent of Lowell or Larkin: ‘This stiff theatrical man/With his air of sealed regret’; ‘Now that I am grown,/Now that I have children of my own/To offer me their own/ Disappointed obedience’; ‘for the last time/ On a sizeable man’; ‘I stood there with my drink,/feeling the ingenious glamour/of being cramped, the mild delinquency/of things behind curtains’ (my italics). The little run of Lowell words (from Life Studies and For the Union Dead) in Writing Home: ‘compliant’, ‘seedy’, ‘ring’, ‘orange’, ‘bedroom’, ‘fifty’, ‘chestnut’, ‘suede’, ‘moustache’, ‘glory’, ‘smut’, ‘honeymoon’. The wacky Terry-Thomas fatuity of ‘Self-Portrait with a Speedboat’, a four-page monologue, a cross between Formula One and Those Magnificent Men, that seems to be a kind of revenge on television, on years of watching sponsored sporting drivel:
The three of us hit the Guinness hairpin
at about ninety, sashaying our arses
round the corner post and spraying the customers
with soda water, which they didn’t seem to mind.
You can either go into these things tight
and come out wide, or you can go in wide
and come out tight, depending on your mood.
The renewed intensity of the newest poems, from Dock Leaves and Billy’s Rain, on the end of an affair, say; in ‘Sweet Nothings’, for instance, which has the metaphysics and the plenitude of absence and the end of power, all back in their pomp.
Not her mouth not her chin not her throat.
Not her smell not her skin not her sweat.
No laughs and no jokes and no thoughts.
No words and no desires – none of that any more.
None of that any more and all of it still.
All of it still and more and more of it every day.
The fade at the end of ‘Mirror History’, one of those poems one occasionally comes across that require everything a poet has learned in a lifetime, and take it and use it:
Instead, a faint glimmer appears on the horizon,
as if someone were signalling through mist.
A ghost with a yellow shopping bag
waves to a yellow raincoat
at the other end of a street.
Fuller, more circumstantial, altogether more novelistic than early Williams, this has repossessed the compression and balance and evanescent finality of the early work. ‘Glimmer’ beckons to ‘signalling’, ‘yellow’ to ‘yellow’, ‘ghost’ to ‘street’. Metonymy depletes. Even the street at the end comes out as depersonalised: it is, in a way that strikes me as being not quite English, not ‘the street’ but ‘a street’.