Poems, by Brian Jones

According to the blurb, Brian Jones was a 27 year-old teacher, married with two children, when this, his first collection of poetry, was published in 1966.  Domestic circumstances weave through the poems, explicitly, as in those dealing with his wife and children, but also less obviously in the Larkinesque views of suburban dreariness.  If the Swinging 60s were a time of sexual liberation and exciting consumerism, Jones does not seem to have noticed.  ‘Seeing My Wife Go Out Alone’, which starts the volume, suggests a marriage already in decline, and the following poem, in which husband and wife go to a party, is full of nostalgia for the first flush of love, pleading for them to see each other as they did before the rain set in. ‘To a Wife Gone Away’ caps the trajectory.  For the ‘Miss Emily’ sequence, Jones was surely listening to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – Revolver came out the same year as Poems – as he wrote, unless Paul McCartney was reading Poems.  The ‘Bed-Sit. Night’ could have been occupied by Mr Bleaney.

The blurb also says that Jones was a fan of Edward Thomas.  One of the poems is about him, and a thread of rural life runs through some of the others, often focusing on its violence and waste.  Even chrysanthemums which are “exuberant” in the shop soon “flop and shrivel”.  It is unsurprising that two of the best poems in the book both feature death – ‘Death of a Cat’ and ‘My Father’.  He is good at these small-scale pictures.  When he reaches for a bigger effect, as in ‘A Vision of the End from Margate Sands’, the sort of conjunction that Stanley Spencer achieved in setting the resurrection in Cookham, the result is a tired flatness.  The squalor and tawdriness of Margate may put Jones in mind of the end of the world, but one feels that the prospect merely bores him.

However, this is not an unrelieved gloomfest. He may have felt crushed by domesticity, but he is capable of the odd sardonic chuckle at his plight.  Even when he is at his most pessimistic a wry humanism pokes through.  There is pleasure in simple things, such as taming a hedge in a London garden or going for a run.  He can even laugh at himself, for example in the superb ’Stripping Walls’, in which he satirises the dignity of labour, and ends with the realisation that, in cosmic terms, his self-importance is insignificant.   He is also capable of tenderness, particularly when writing about children.  The variety of style, tone and structure makes this a rewarding read, even if you wish he would cheer up a bit.

There is one poem that is intriguing on a personal level.  In ‘The Unlikely Stubborn Patch’ he writes about some scrubland around which housing has encroached:

The houses halt
The path short at the hill’s foot. At the crest
A university rears, startling and white

Jones apparently moved from London to Canterbury (the cathedral is mentioned in one poem) at some point in the 1960s, though possibly after 1966.  The University of Kent at Canterbury, situated on a hill just outside the city, opened the year before Poems was published.  He talks of passing the spot daily, and if he is talking about that campus on that hill, then I think I too crossed that unlikely stubborn patch (resulting, so I was told, from a massive bomb crater), very many times, though later than he did.  Jones’s concern may have been urban sprawl, but suddenly, reading the poem, I was taken back to my time there.  If it is the same place, we are suddenly linked by that same simple act.  If it is not, then the “celestial laughter” that deflates his wall-stripping hubris can have a laugh at me for my sentimentality.

First posted on Goodreads website 16 January 2013

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