2.Laskey at 60 : Craig Raine
3.Laskey's Kind of Silence : Mark Halliday
4.'Thinking of Happiness' Review : Tessa Lewis
5.Enticements and Traps : Michael O'Neill
Extracts from: Laskey at 60, The North 35, 2004
Director, The Poetry Trust
Michael Laskey lives for poetry. For writing, reading and sharing poems. One of our most dedicated and persuasive ambassadors for contemporary poetry, he's also a rigorous and constructive editor - and I consider myself lucky in the extreme to have worked with him since 1993. The only 'problem' with Michael is that his generosity to poetry sometimes obscures or distracts us from his first and foremost talent.
Laskey poems are potent, challenging, sustaining, and above all convincing - and no poet in the UK today reads his own work better. I offer this as a statement of fact and not hyperbole, based on listening to some 250 poets at Aldeburgh over the last 11 years, and having been part of the riveted audience of 600 for Michael Poetry Prom reading at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in August.
On initial contact, Laskey poems can seem like deceptively straightforward narratives, domestic, even a little mundane. What puts them in a different league is the way they so often also capture the essence of the human condition - the fact that essentially we're here to love, be loved and die. 'The laughter and the tears', as Randall Jarrell put it. And they get there with such a glorious lack of fuss. In fact, for one who doesn't appear to live on the same ego-fuelled planet as the rest of us, Michael's ambition seems to be to hone the art of the understatement.
Take 'The Last Swim' - a perfectly seamless metaphor and for me one of his most resonant poems. It flows so naturally, the tone confiding and the very opposite of portentous, with the language almost ordinary in the extreme. And yet this modest three-stanza poem surely articulates our deepest hope - for a full, active life to be followed by a blissfully oblivious end; and our correlating fear - that death will be a debilitating, terrible process. The achievement of the poem is that you just can't tell where the ostensible subject (the last swim of the summer) ends and the 'real' subject (dying) begins.
I don't really know how Michael does this. It's a gift-turned technique which works again and again in his poems, where the metaphor fits like a second skin, is so fused that it's quite possible to miss the much bigger picture at the first reading. If I had to give 'The Last Swim' the 'Lit Crit' treatment, I'd point out how it's threaded through with rhymes that depend on a build-up of plain monosyllabic 'in', 'on' and 'en' repetitions: 'thing', 'when', 'swim', 'in', 'on', 'done', 'skin'. And the closing alliterative last two lines of f's - 'full', 'future', 'further', 'folded' - would have to be noted. And of course the final pair of words closing up on an end-rhyme - 'crawl' and 'towel' - with their beautifully-judged suggestions of cradle to grave (to throwing in the towel).
But this doesn't begin to convey the depth of emotional honesty that is the Laskey trademark. How beautifully he can both lament and celebrate our human vulnerabilities and mortality. So many of his poems are about 'hope springing eternal' in the face of what he glances at in 'The Last Swim' and what we all know: that the weather will turn, it will get cold, and most of us will have to 'wince' before we're done.
Read 'The Last Swim'
Michael Laskey is his own man. So when I compare him to Larkin and Heaney it is merely to set him in the company where he rightly belongs. The last poem in Permission to Breathe is about Laskey's dead father and the continuing potency of his remembered presence. O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet. Laskey's image for this is the Qualcast lawnmower, whose blades continue to turn for a time after the motor has died.
Two linguistic things to notice here. The brand name is used but not brandished. Laskey is unworried that
the reference will date the poem subsequently. The care is for precision. The second thing to notice is 'died'
- where the double application, the pun, is perfect, simple and unstrained.
Irreproachable, the racket of the Qualcast
coming and going in the cool
of the evening, every so often
running on the spot while he empties
the grass box. This is the man
we've given up kneeling in the window
watching the gate for. So intent
on his stripes that he looks straight through
our headstands, our new backwards skipping.
Though the motor's died, the blades
don't stop at once. We keep back,
do as we're told, don't touch.
It must be overgrown now, the grave.
Something else I like about this poem is the lost father who emerges in his son's memory. He isn't the usual elegiac cipher. Laskey gives us a real portrait - someone sharp like those blades, a mild martinet, someone a little distant yet beloved by his watchful, wary children, who offer their achievements as tributes and are ignored. It is a touching, very unsentimental poem - touching because it is true to the love, the unrequited love, children sometimes feel for their remote parents. Not worship from afar, but worship from nearby - and tinged with terror. Remember, this is a parent whose appearances are watched for 'kneeling in the window'- a parent whose power partially resides in his remoteness, a remoteness which death has made permanent. So the poem's last line is an expression of guilt - 'It must be overgrown now, the grave' - and an expression of real, unconditional love. Unconditional because conditioned.
'The Lawnmower' reminds me of the Heaney sonnet in the 'Clearances' sequence of The Haw Lantern where he remembers his mother scolding him in advance before they visit Heaney's genial grandfather in New Row: 'Don't reach. Don't point…' Our attachments, our significant attachments, are turbid - as well as ineradicable and as instinctual as the impulse in a homing pigeon. Heaney's mother is also a daughter, 'a bewildered homing daughter'. Love is difficult, habitual but not easy.
Laskey's poem reminds me, too, of Larkin's uncollected poem, 'The Mower' - a very different poem despite the similar title and the presence of death. Larkin's poem uses the lawnmower as a symbol of death, a confident modification of the traditional topos in which death holds a scythe. Larkin's poem is a tempus fugit. What Laskey does share with Larkin - and all good poets - is a lack of embarrassment at the actual, the ordinary, in a poetic context. It is this unblushing readiness to embrace the ordinary which saves poetry from the bathos that comes with the blush.
And we see it again in Laskey's 'Seeing You Off' - a poem which suddenly yet plausibly turns a realistic bus depot into a kind of Lethe, where the No 84 is to take the poet's mother to the other side. (84 is a significant number, I'd say; probably the age of Michael Laskey's mother when she died.) Again, Heaney's sestina 'Two Lorries', in The Spirit Level, uses the bus station as a kind of analogue for the underworld, where the dead are translated. 'After that (a terrorist bomb), I'd a vision of my mother, // A revenant on the bench where I would meet her / In that cold-floored waiting room at Magherafelt…' I think of Deborah Warner's Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni, where a black, oily garage repair sump became the entrance to Hell. The collapse of the extraordinary into the ordinary.
What I love about Laskey's 'Seeing You Off' is the sense of inevitability, the reluctance, and the rueful literalness of the afterlife. His mother has to catch the bus, but it blocks out the sunlight and shudders - and contains not only her own dead parents but also 'Uncle Tony / waving one of his foul menthol cigarettes'. Good poetry keeps its nerve and keeps faith with actual experience. It refuses self-censorship, the editing of experience necessary for elevated rhetoric.
Laskey's Kind of Silence : Mark Halliday
Every poem leads to a silence that comes after the last word. But there are many kinds of silence. A catalogue of kinds of silence-at-the-end would be an interesting way to organize poems - though of course poetry will find infinite ways to complicate and extend any such catalogue. Silences that come readily to mind include silences just before laughter, silences of intense empathy, silences of admiration for deftness, silences of sudden awe or fear (Larkin: 'Now/ Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.')… There is a kind of silence created by some of Michael Laskey's poems that feels unfamiliar to me. I'll call it the silence of the alarmed double-take - a silence in which we suddenly think 'Wait - that was the end of the poem? I wasn't quite ready, I should have been more awake! I've got to read those last lines again.'
But I don't mean mere bafflement. Thousands of poems offer us mere bafflement; few things are easier to write than a baffling poem. Nor do I mean merely the sense of amusing strangeness. As in 'Whew, that was weird.' Nor do I mean the silence in which we feel called upon to work out a careful pattern of symbolic meanings which has been completed.
No, I want to describe a different effect, one which seems close to the heart of Michael Laskey's poetic identity - poems that create a sense of having arrived at the ending a bit sooner and more quietly than we expected. The impact on us is not a jolt, but it's not a prodding to get busy and work it out like a good student, either. It's more like the slightest nudge, as when your close friend has seen something and trusts you to see the meaning of it if you'll just look. At the same time the feeling involves a sense of having been caught out, caught not paying enough attention or not caring enough - you suddenly feel exposed as rather thick - not in intellect but in spirit.
'Rereading' is short enough to quote in full:
Dickens for instance
would be something,
Little Dorrit, I'd start with,
a larderful of language,
but for now make do
with the cereal packet:
my choice of three
of a snack tray in tough
easy clean melamine,
The poem ends so soon; its ending has already begun when you've reached 'cereal packet'. You read on to 'dishwasher safe' and then you blink; something has occurred, but what? The snack tray offer has been stretched across six lines - and then the poem has gone quiet and turned its gaze upon you. You can say the poem is only a joke - 'Instead of rereading a huge Dickens novel, I'll just read this cereal packet here.' A joke, yes, but Laskey arranges to make us feel - in the double-take just after the poem's end - how the joke is on us. We do spend absurd portions of our lives reading - and rereading - empty twaddle from the world of marketing, when we could (couldn't we?) be reading great literature. And we won't change this, probably.
'Rereading' creates a frightening sense of how unlikely it is that you will ever reread Little Dorrit (if you've even read it once; I haven't) and how unresistingly you will instead keep on reading trivialities of pop culture, because pop culture has its ways of mesmerizing you. The poem's insidious force depends partly on its penultimate line, 'apparently still' - because we imagine, and feel ourselves to be, the protagonist at breakfast raising his eyebrows, impressed to learn that the melamine is as dishwasher safe as it ever was.
'Rereading' is a small poem, to be sure, but its way of turning out to be more alarming than funny strikes me as very Laskey-esque. 'Close' is a more complicated short poem. A father feels distance between himself and his son who is moving out of the house (or preparing for a long journey), aware that psychological distance will be compounded soon by geographical distance; and he keeps remembering a moment at a store.
Over these last few days
of black ice, iron frost,
of Tim going in and out
packing, hardly speaking,
I keep on finding myself
in that check-out queue again
behind them, my eyes resting
on the child on his mother's hip,
sucking his thumb, half-asleep,
while the fingers of his other hand
twitch and nibble at her neck.
The woman, head turned away,
paying attention to her friend,
seems not to notice any more
than the glazed-eyed baby,
except that she hitches him up
and is holding him now, I'd guess,
just a little more closely.
The poem quietly expects us to make something of the juxtaposition of the queue moment with the situation of Tim leaving home. The poem has the patience to be very specific about the queue moment, in the faith that close enough attention will discover more in it than a simple picture of parental care. The mother in the queue is not quite conscious of the stranger staring at her sleepy baby, and she has no reasonable cause for worry. Yet it is not impossible that the stranger might be dangerous; bad things have been known to happen in stores. So she not- quite-consciously holds her baby 'just a little more closely'.
The father wishes he could hold his son more closely, as if to protect him from any dangers, even very unlikely ones. It's the natural inevitability of this parental impulse that fascinates the father who speaks this poem, the way the mother's motion was not at all calculated, but instinctive. And there's something else. The barely sensed conceivable threat to the sleepy baby came from this very father - he was the stranger. Perhaps what his son Tim must escape, having grown up, is the father, or involves the father, no matter how loving the father may be? 'Close' nudges us to include this notion in our response, because the memory nagging at the father is not just any scene of parental devotion but one in which he himself may have been imagined (unfairly) as dangerous. Thus we become aware of his feeling of being doubly helpless to hold his son closely like an infant, to protect him from a world ('black ice, iron frost') that can be ungentle.
All that is loaded into a short poem which at first seems - I almost want to say pretends - to be not just simple but rather unpointed. It's as if the poem dares us to take it too lightly. Dares us? That sounds aggressive; it's truer to say the poem invites us, where it falls silent, to hear it alertly. The Laskey effect (as I've come to think of it) is of suddenly sensing that more meaning is inherent in 'ordinary' moments than we were expecting.
Mark Halliday is an American poet - he gave a particularly well-received reading at the 2003 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival - and Professor of Creative Writing: Poetry at the University of Ohio.
Review of 'Thinking of Happiness'
Michael Laskey's accomplished first collection, Thinking of Happiness, brings the reader into a familial, comforting world; sorrow, death, and pain do intrude, but always in retrospect and with meaning. Laskey's lightness of touch prevent's his poetry from lapsing into the maudlin, while his formal skill, with frequent full and slant rhymes and often subtle, varying rhythms, engagingly brings his subject matter from the exclusive realm of the private into the personal.
Family relations provide Laskey's most fertile thematic ground with a particular focus on a parent's deep identification with his children's joys and fears or the inability of grown children to understand or communicate with their parents. In 'A Change of Clothes', the fears of his parents' refugee past enter the poet's idyllic childhood in the form of a suitcase filled with clothes for the family and passports in English and Polish , that is kept hidden under their bed. But these provisions have lost their significance for this new generation, unburdened by the past or a foreign accent. More important was the wallet, hidden at the bottom of the case, containing £25 that over the years, needing this and that, I gradually spent, each time really meaning to pay it all back. Poems about fishing and fishermen, filled with the elation and terror of being surrounded by nature's elemental forces, counterpoint Laskey's poignant if tranquil domestic poems. 'On the Roderigo (H135) lost with all hands in 1955' recounts a crew's last moments on a ship far off the coast of Iceland. The alternating fluid and thumping rhythms recreate the sensation of a pitch ship buffeted by swells and squalls. Then pitched into fear by an unforeseen fall in the temperature: sprindrift, spray not draining away but forming a skin calluses on deck, clinging to the rigging and the winch…
Thinking of Happiness is an unselfconscious and unflinching celebration of a poet's world that refreshingly avoids illusion without lapsing into fierce disillusion.
From : Enticements and Traps, Michael O'Neill
Deryn Rees-Jones : Signs Round a Dead Body
Michael Laskey : The Tightrope Wedding
...... Rees-Jones has a poem about Sizewell B in which she finds it, deceptively, 'nothing more than ordinary'. The poem's understatement is quietly, if overtly, menacing, and conveys the dystopian fear that 'all human error, pain / was quietly taken care of, here'. Michael Laskey brings in the same place at the end of a poem about 'a couple' whose walk will take them 'home through the trees / that eclipse Sizewell B's clean white dome'. It's a typical Laskey effect, glancingly suggesting that the couple's contentment (which the poem has just fallen short of celebrating) is based on a selective response to their environment. Laskey himself is accomplished at creating a poetry that deliberately excludes or plays down its true subject. His poetry can seem ingenuous in its focusing on the detail of everyday life: he's evidently a caring parent, for instance, and enjoys the slight frisson of the role-change involved in writing poems about making marmalade, doing the washing, and wanting to be heard playing the piano 'when you come home'.
But Laskey's best pieces have at their heart some stick of emotional dynamite waiting to blow up: some matter that can't be talked about fully, or some developing awareness best not stated explicitly. His poems, thus, are likely to be speaking about seemingly inconsequential things: the effect is double in that the seemingly inconsequential turns out to have its own significance, even as it also frequently serves as a form of displacement. In 'The Day After', it's the title and the conclusion ('It's sometimes too soon / to speak about things, but you've got to eat') that makes the speaker's painstakingly prepared 'leek and potato soup' an emblem of the need to endure and enjoy. 'Picking raspberries with My Mother' gives more space to the serious matter (an impending operation) that shadows the raspberry-picking. With effortless control of tone the poem captures the tug between the son's anxiety and the mother's refusal to 'be pressed', before finishing with a thank-you note 'from Tim' for the 'Delicious raspberries', very possibly a mischievous nod towards Williams' poem about the plums.
Laskey is good at not making a tragedy out of the potentially tragic. He has, in a minor key, a quasi-Chekhovian gift for getting at that co-existence of the mundane and the serious more often found in life than in art. He is able to suggest the way experience swirls on, just when it seems about to shape itself into a definable structure, and, conversely, he seems to find latent meaning in what might seem mere accident and incoherence. Accordingly, his own structures mostly eschew rhyme, float towards and away from the iambic, and prefer the metonymic to the metaphoric. Larkin is a presence, but Laskey is less drawn towards 'long perspectives' and less sharply formal. 'The Apple Trees', for instance, starts 'So much I don't know', recalling Larkin's 'Ignorance', which begins, 'Strange to know nothing, never to be sure / Of what is true or right or real'. But Larkin drives pointedly towards a generalisation about the fact that 'we spend all our life on imprecisions', while Laskey - partly because Larkin's been there before - lets his bigger meanings inhere in the amplifying but brief restatement: 'So much I don't know that the trees / better not be depending on me'. Larkin, we might feel, offers an imaginative satisfaction, that of being definitely precise about imprecision, that is less evident in Laskey, a poet who uses a mix of nuance and reticence. And yet Laskey's style has its own accuracy and, for the most part, the reader learns to depend on, and to admire, his artistry and insight into feeling.