A Pillow Book, actor, book, Boyd Tonkin, clown, comic, English, family, father, fatherhood, film, Grimaldi, Heavy Father, holiday, Hugh Williams, Hugo Williams, icon, John Field, Kielder, Kielder Water, Larkin, Leontia Flynn, matter of fact, mother, mountain, New York, pathetic, Peach, phone, Poems to My Mother, poetry, Poetry Book Society, Polly Clark, Poor Rude Lines, Profit and Loss, prosaic, review, Seamus Heaney, Slapstick, Someone's Girlfriend, son, straightforward, The Gotham, The Guardian, The Human Monster, The Independent, The Mouthful, TLS, Tony Harrison, Washing My Hands, West End Final, West End Twilight, WiFi
I have just spent a week on holiday with the family at Kielder Water.
Before we went, I checked the website for our lodge which said there was no WiFi or phone signal so I thought this might be a chance to sit down with a few poetry books in the evenings.
I rather optimistically brought five single-author collections with me. In the end, I managed to read two, West End Final by Hugo Williams and Profit and Loss by Leontia Flynn. I think I originally got both of these books via the Poetry Book Society.
First up is my review of West End Final, Hugo Williams’s tenth book of poetry. It’s the only book by Hugo Williams that I’ve read, although a long time ago I did used to read his wonderful column in the TLS so he at least feels like a familiar name!My Review
West End Final has a strong lead character – Hugh Williams, the father of the poet, Hugo Williams. Hugh probably only appears in half the poems at most but his presence is felt like a colossus astride this book.
Hugh Williams was an actor in the early twentieth century. According to the sleeve notes of the book, he is now “as familiar and frequently depicted as Cézanne’s mountain.” Given this is Hugo Williams’s tenth collection, I’m guessing that means his father must have appeared in a fair few poems by now.
In West End Final the focus is on the similarities between father and son and on the unnerving way that Hugo feels he is becoming like his father. In ‘Heavy Father,’ he recounts his father’s incarnations as various screen icons and concludes:
“How he achieved the transformation
from juvenile lead to Heavy Father
without the use of wigs and make-up
is the great mystery
that is currently being revealed to me.”
I suppose this is a sentiment that many men could apply when thinking of themselves and their fathers.In ‘West End Twilight,’ Hugo describes his own appearance in the third-person, saying he looked “old-fashioned actorish” before telling us that:
“Ransacking old letters, he has raided the past
to imagine himself into his father’s life
Despite his frequent appearance in the poems, Hugo’s father can seem like a distant figure sometimes. I didn’t get the feeling theirs was an easy relationship. In some poems, Hugo reveals awkward moments such as his father’s dictatorial attitude to dinnertime in ‘The Mouthful.’
Hugo also writes several interesting poems about his mother, including the touching seven-part ‘Poems to My Mother,’ the centrepiece of which, ‘Someone’s Girlfriend,’ again focuses in on the father:
“Your father and I
were staying at the Gotham, but it wasn’t long
before we moved to the Devil, which was just as well,
I suppose, considering he was still married.”
Hugo Williams’s style is straightforward and matter of fact. The sentences and ideas expressed are simple, readily understood. It’s the kind of style that when done well (think Philip Larkin) can result in the most sublime and memorable poetry.
So I’m sorry to report that Williams doesn’t reach such heights here. There are several poems in West End Final that I’m fond of, but none that I’m in awe of. A good example of what I mean is ‘Peach,’ the poem that opens the collection:
“It was almost impossible to get down.
That was the whole point.
We wanted to eat a peach somewhere interesting.
We wanted to dribble peach juice on the world.”
Beautifully, straightforwardly written, yes. But verging perhaps on the side of trite rather than sublime.The same could be said of ‘A Pillow Book,’ a sequence of twelve poems written from the perspective of a man lying in bed and watching a woman get undressed. Again, I rather liked the prosaic style but felt he didn’t do enough with it:
“I’m not saying anything
until I see everything
you are wearing
lying in a heap on the floor.
Oh dear, that was your last
pair of pants.
What are you going to do?”
I feel a bit harsh quoting snippets of poems and trying to make them stand up as representative of the whole, but what else can you do in a review! In reality, both ‘Peach’ and ‘A Pillow Book’ are poems I am fond of as are many others in this collection. But they aren’t exceptional.
The poems in West End Final that perhaps get closest to greatness are some of the ones that focus on the father-son relationship (back to that father figure again). For this reason I likened Williams in my mind to those other chroniclers of the paternal figure, Seamus Heaney and Tony Harrison.
So to end with, I’ll pick out another of Williams’s poems on the subject of the father – one that’s called ‘Slapstick.’
This poem presents the father (and indeed the son) as comic, pathetic figures and so perhaps more human as a result. The father figure in this instance is the historic performer Grimaldi who is “constantly falling down drunk, / unable to express himself.” The son/narrator tells us:
“I found I had a flair
for parental caricature,
dressing up and spouting
nonsense at everyone.”
Stand Out Poems: ‘West End Twilight’; ‘Slapstick’; ‘Poems to My Mother’; ‘A Pillow Book’; ‘Washing My Hands’.
Killer line: “Of course, I could be wrong about this / and all that is really going on / is you, undressing, / getting read for bed.” (from ‘A Pillow Book’)
Polly Clark, in The Guardian, comments that “Williams’s father makes many appearances, and it is clear that the poet is trying to wrestle himself free of a dominating influence,” and that at its best, his poetry is “a philosophical exploration of what it is to be a real person.”
Boyd Tonkin, in The Independent, thinks that “Williams’s tragi-comic family romance has never sounded deeper or subtler notes than it does in this play-list of a life through 38 poems, long and short, tart and tender.”
John Field, on Poor Rude Lines, says that “Williams’ eye is acute and his disarming economy concentrates the power of his words” and that “reading Williams is a candid, intimate, unsettling experience.”