Hugo Williams: Collected Poems.
‘ “Write a novel!” Said my father./ “Put everything in! Sell the film rights for a fortune!”’. The advice, in ‘Tipping My Chair’ from Hugo Williams’ 1985 collection Writing Home, seems to have been good, because it turns out that Williams puts more in his poetry than most. Mick Imlah, in the Independent on Sunday, described Writing Home as ‘a classic of creative biography’. His last collection, Billy’s Rain, dealt with the end of a love affair, left the names unchanged, and won the 1999 T.S. Eliot Award. I knew nothing at all about the poet before this review. In fact, having confused him with Hugo Hamilton, I believed him to be an Irish novelist whose most recent book had a stupid title and a bald man with a fish in his mouth on the cover. Reading this Collected, then, has been a revelation in both senses of the word.
From Symptoms of Loss published in 1965 when he was 23, Hugo Williams’ Collected Poems brings together eight poetry collections, only the last two of which were still in print. Throughout, his work is disarmingly lucid and accessible. In early poems he touches briefly on his preoccupations: music, travel and – as the collection Love Life would suggest – his love life, and works like ‘The Butcher’ and ‘Sugar Daddy’ take a glancing look at marriage and parenthood. But it’s the thicker fuller, generally less well-behaved poems from Writing Home onward that find the poet really settling into his subjects. In the opening poem ‘At Least a Hundred Words’ the poet’s younger self rolls a marble along his school desk into the inkwell: ‘then a thirty-year gap as it falls through/ the dust-hole into my waiting hand’. It’s an accurate metaphor for the immediacy with which he brings his childhood to life.
Williams’ 1994 collection Dock Leaves continues his travels back in time, further exploring the lives of his (apparently formidable) father, a soldier and an actor, and his mother, a model for the French couturier Jean Patou. For my money though, 1990s Self-Portrait with a Slide is more interesting in its range, and shows he is not only a funny, serious, unpretentious writer of seamless poetic biographies with an offbeat take on things. (As if that weren’t enough.) In Self-Portrait, Williams is sometimes silly (‘When I grow up I want a thin piece of steel/ inserted into my penis for some reason./Nobody’s to tell me why it’s there. I want to guess!’) but his focus is also more oblique, as in ‘Self-Portrait with a Map of Ireland’, and darker, as in pretty much all the ‘Sonny Jim’ poems. Williams can also ironise his obsession with the past; ‘Worlds End’ features a detailed description of a pair of giant flares (‘Jim’s eyes shine to see the switched-on funky gear’), and the imagination at work here is not merely vivid but kind of surreal.
And then there’s Billy’s Rain. Actually I read this first, and for a while thought it was going to be like finding Raymond Carver’s poetry all over again, though without the imminent death or regret over the alcohol years. Briefer, lighter in touch, and more candid in tone, ‘The Lisboa’ and ‘Nothing On’ feel like studies in inconsequentiality or making it look easy. Then they take their place in the narrative scheme of things and become even better for it. It’s a genuinely moving collection, ‘Mirror History’ and ‘Dangerous Water’ ranking among the best, and one it can only be hoped his ex-girlfriend didn’t read.
Hugo Williams has worked as a journalist and travel writer, and his poems suggest this without ever being anything other than poems. He clearly writes about his life (as well as others’), but it never seems self-indulgent. Not everyone agrees with this. In a recent profile of the poet Robert Potts asserted that the honesty in Williams’ poetry in no way contrasted ‘with the confessionalism in magazines or certain T.V. programmes’. Unless serial adulterers on Trisha have started speaking blank verse, this is a weird argument from the new editor of Poetry Review. It’s almost a testimony to how effortless Williams’ work feels; surely his honesty feels real because he got it right? Other charges arise from the poet’s lack of Big Themes. It’s clear from his material (the parentage, the public school) that Williams is achingly posh, and this can be alienating (can he have been that in love with a woman who kept saying ‘Can you come out to play?’). Sometimes it can make his humour seem overly jolly and his facility with line-breaks somehow well-bred.
These are small criticisms. At a time when brilliant crazy people like Geoffrey Hill are ranting on about the biblical destruction of Culture As We Know It, it feels like a rare thing to find poems so warm and well-balanced and good-natured. Poems which, yes, are often about liking music or just hanging around, but which are so thoroughly good, and which you can read to your friends who swear they hate poetry and not worry about them killing you afterwards, and which they might even like.
Fortnight 19/09 2002