Selected Poems by Mark Ford (Coffee House Press, Pbk., £11.80)
In a cartoonish literary sense, poet and critic Mark Ford could easily be portrayed as a displaced, Americanized Englishman, a kind of literary hybrid - one third Larkin, supplemented by two large equal shots of John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. Certainly, Ford's debut collection, Landlocked (1992) bore many of the hallmarks of the New York School. From the start, the poetry was distinguished by stylistic insouciance and a fluid narrative sense. USA critical numero uno, Helen Vendler, an early fan, looking back at his first book, picked up on Ford's poetic heterogeneity in a recent rave review of Ford's Selected Poems in the New York Review of Books (June 19, 2014): 'The poems in Landlocked were neither decorous (in conventional lyric ways), nor tightly tacit (Philip Larkin), nor historical (Geoffrey Hill), nor demotic (Tony Harrison), nor sensual (Seamus Heaney). They were idiosyncratic and wildly imaginative, and - to use Ford's own words - 'funny peculiar.' ' While this suggests Ford was in danger of lacking a distinctive poetic identity, he has managed to carve out his own niche in transatlantic verse over the last twenty years. Early Ford was clearly influenced by the long-lined, effervescent, deliciously flippant work of both O'Hara, Kenneth Koch or Ashbery at his most camp, as in 'Stocking Up':
No one lives in the imagination, or if they do
they probably stink of garlic. What a thought!
Five o'clock. Everyone's pushing off to the country for the weekend.
What a jamboree the streets enjoy, sticky
traffic jams, spouting hydrants, and roofs that catch the red and dying sun.
In a PBS Bulletin note for his 2001 collection Soft Sift, Ford said many of his early poems were composed in America and were marked by what he termed 'a sort of paranoid-cum-freewheeling attitude to life.' Appropriately, his new and ample Selected Poems, blessed with a cover painting by Joe Brainard, is published in the USA by Coffee House Press. Reviewing Ford's debut collection in the TLS, Michael Hofmann quirkily identified the poetry as drawn from 'plunder, cultural junk, white verbiage from a celestial radiogram.' Ian Gregson, meanwhile, praised the poems in Landlocked in the London Review of Books for their 'excitable, exuberant surface,' while also highlighting their Anglo-American provenance: 'It never seems to be precisely the poet who is speaking, the kind and extent of subjectivity involved is uncertain, and the setting is riddled with doubt by Ford's tendency to mingle English and American idioms and cultural references.' The early work also evinces the fairly heavy footprint of Ashbery (a literary friend, who Ford has edited). 'Winter Underwear' - an echt Ashberian title, if there ever was one - betrays the American's typical juggling with kooky narratives and conjoining of disparate realities:
... a fresh snow covers the plains
Above which newfangled aircraft constantly
Maneuver, their vapor trails soft
And brilliant as the white
Winter underwear she is even now pulling on.
But despite the literariness of much of his work, Ford's poetry does offer immediate pleasures to the reader in the itemizing of local detail - 'Pot plants unwatered on the sun deck/ like moaning minnies lie down and die' ('Unpicking the Knot') - while he's also a keen pop culture archivist, from the Velvet Underground - 'And White Light/White Heat blared/From bank upon bank of shuddering loudspeakers' ('Affirmative Action') to the rock reference litany that is 'They Drove': 'Once they discussed/ the pros and cons of having sex/with Bob Dylan - or a Bob Dylan look-alike - in a Buick/while listening to 'From a Buick Six.' ' Bob Dylan, in fact, is referenced several times in Ford's work, from early to late. One poem sadly missing from Selected Poems is 'The Nightingale's Code,' the title alluding to an early outtake version of Dylan's 1966 masterpiece 'Visions of Johanna,' while Ford's last collection, Six Children (2011), contains a famous line from the singer's 'Like a Rolling Stone' within a moving elegy for the poet Mick Imlah, of which more later. Clearly, readers have to keep on their (cultural) toes.
Geographical displacement and literary cosmopolitanism, of course, can often work against a poet's reputation. The example of Thom Gunn is an object example of how an English writer's standing can be undermined by a move to another country and the embracing of such non-English 'exotic' raw material as the USA and its West Coast gay community. But Ford was poetically displaced from birth. The son of a BOAC executive, he was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and only came to England as an eight-year-old, due to his father's itinerant working life. The poet explores this sense of geographical isolation in 'After Africa':
After Africa, Surbiton:
An unheated house, and flagstone pavements;
No colobus monkeys, no cheetahs scouring the plains.
Veruccas and weeping blisters ravaged our feet.
Apart from producing work marked by a sense of physical displacement, Ford is also a poetic sponge, being highly susceptible to his locale, even when the effects are almost imperceptible. He taught for 10 years in Kyoto, Japan, and analysed that experience in his PBS Bulletin note for Soft Sift, commenting that 'though I only managed 10 lines during the 10 years I lived there - the first 10 lines of this book's opening poem - I feel my experiences of Japanese landscapes and cities, culture and poetry, sift softly through the entire collection.' The opening poem in question, 'Looping the Loop,' is indeed almost impossible to identify as being 'influenced' by Japan, other than in a perhaps slowing down of the dizzy, vertiginous mode of his first book, despite the poems' narrative sense remaining prone to sudden twists and turns:
Eventually one hears the cuckoo's call, while friends
Recline in armchairs. Let's off then, backwards through
The fish-eye lens, bone by bone, clean shirts
Soon streaked and torn...
Soft Sift is also informed by the work of the French writer Raymond Roussel, who influenced everyone from the Surrealists to the New York Poets, several of whom briefly edited a magazine named after one of his works. Ford freely admitted the influence of Roussel in his PBS Bulletin note: 'I think of the extreme formal rigour - or, rather, varieties of rigour - of the poems in Soft Sift as analogous to Roussel's eccentric compositional methods. It came to seem to me as if words, experiences, could only ever hope to enter the looking glass realm of art by first passing through some narrow, predetermined aperture...' Significantly, considering he was a poet noted for 'sifting' his emotional and spiritual experiences within complex, innovatory verse forms, Ford's second collection draws its title from Hopkins, specifically 'The Wreck of the Deutschland': 'I am soft sift/In an hourglass...' The anonymous selectors' statement in the PBS Bulletin - which I suspect was composed by poet and Ford fan Hugo Williams - comments more directly on the book's title: 'It is a good title for Ford's new book, whose poems attempt to follow, not lead the thinking processes, lightly scrambling our brains as they do so...It makes for an unfamiliar but agreeable adventure.' Certainly, Ford's poems eschew ironic closure or neat summations of the human mind. Like Klee, he enjoys taking his lines for a walk, trusting the reader's ability to follow without the aid of a comprehensive road map, as in 'Twenty Twenty Vision,' which incorporates a virtual poetic auto-critique:
Unwinding in a cavernous bodega he suddenly
Burst out: - Barman, these tumblers empty themselves
And yet I persist; I am wedged in the giant eye
Of an invisible needle. Walking through doors
Or into them, listening to anecdotes or myself spinning
A yarn, I realize my doom is never to forget
My lost bearings. In medias res we begin
None of this, of course, adds up to an exactly easy time for the reader. Ford is a highly sophisticated, referential, almost European poet (John Lanchester called him 'one of Britain's least insular...writers'), and there are times when even the most attentive reader of contemporary verse will struggle. Helen Vendler, no less, occasionally admitted defeat in her otherwise adulatory review of Soft Sift in the London Review of Books (November 29, 2001): 'It's not always easy to read Soft Sift, precisely because of its mobility of reference and its condensation of feeling...Ford almost always prefers intimation...to declaration...His poems will in time attract extensive inquisitive comment, precisely because their method is one of intimation, suggestion, hint, fable.' However, despite Vendler's prediction of more than a dozen years ago, and the imprimatur of Faber and Faber, it's arguable that Ford remains better known as a critic-cum-reviewer, editor (he recently produced a well-received anthology about London), and university lecturer, than as a poet.
This fact is regrettable, given that Ford's most recent work remains both highly ambitious but also often grounded in clearer, more easily graspable human narratives. (Vendler believes that 'Ford's poems are almost all undergirded by a narrative (however surreal),' and this certainly helps the novice reader). Although the literary baggage remains heavy in Ford's most recent individual collection, Six Children (2011) - even the title being inspired by Whitman's questionable suggestion that 'Though unmarried, I have had six children' - the book also bears traces of a more pressing mid-life brooding on mortality, as though Kenneth Koch had been reading Hardy'sPoems of 1912-13. For example, the aforementioned elegy for Mick Imlah, 'Ravished,' strikes me as one of Ford's strongest and most powerful poems to date. Set in Bloomsbury, the ambience of the poem is appropriately Eliotian:
Is the night
Chilly and dark? The night is chilly
But not dark. An all but full
Slides above barely visible clouds, and is greeted
By a burst of hooting from an urban
Ford, who edited Imlah's Selected Poems (2010), describes a last orders moment with his poet-friend at the Museum Tavern, in Great Russell Street. As they down their drinks, a youthful crowd of revellers passes by - 'one wearing a/traffic cone/On her head' - while another drunkenly slurs a famous line from Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone. A remembered iconic line of rock poetry - 'like/A complete unknooown' - dovetails into a tender, haunting evocation of his late friend, unmediated by cultural detritus:
... I was picturing the shiny black
Cab he so imperiously
Hailed whisking him west, revving, cruising, braking, gliding
Across junctions, the driver
At length twisting around, awaiting payment, as I veered
And tacked through the eerily silent
Squares of Bloomsbury, towards Euston.
This has something of the elevated, visionary closure of Larkin's 'The Whitsun Weddings' about it, suggesting Ford's poetic instincts are equally attuned to the English lyrical tradition as that of the New York School. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Ford has abandoned his taste for baroque poetic excursions or allusive literary riffing and is about to turn into a mainstream English ironist anytime soon. Six Children is variously inspired by Whitman, Hart Crane, Tacitus, Lucretius, Boethius, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Sappho, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and P.G. Wodehouse. John Ashbery, selecting Six Children as a TLS Book of the Year, called such literary sources 'stepping stones towards fantastic, dreamlike atmospheres,' but the volume also feels rather top-heavy with versions from the classics, which sit rather uneasily with Ford's more jazzy flights of fancy - or maybe that's just this writer's natural antipathy to the 'myth-kitty' poetic tendency. But while it's clear that Ford's freewheeling lyrical spirit remains highly tuned, the poems written since Six Children do feel different; perhaps darker and more informed by an awareness that 'Tempus fugit,' as one later poem begins. The ten new lyrics in Selected Poems explore everything from dark, oppressive childhood memories ('In Loco Parentis'), to the international scourge of email scamming ('Adrift'), to a mugging in Boston ('Show Time'). This generous Selected Poems is the ideal introduction to the work of Mark Ford, a British poet who is, thankfully, no respecter of literary or geographical boundaries. New readers should start here.