I Knew the Bride, Hugo Williams, Faber, 2014, 65pp, £12.99 (hardback)
Hugo Williams has been called many things in a poetic career stretching back half a century. For the late William Scammell, he was ‘the Bryan Ferry of English poetry … Thom Gunn meets Emily Dickinson … Noel Coward with a dash of Elvis.’ Even as Williams approached pensionable age, Blake Morrison dubbed him the ‘Peter Pan of English poetry.’ But perhaps my favourite thumbnail poetic description was that coined by Michael Hofmann, in his brilliantly incisive London Review of Books critique of Williams’s Collected Poems, published in 2002. Suggesting his work would ‘sit reasonably well’ with that of Wyatt, Wang Wei, Propertius and Sappho, Hofmann called Williams ‘a plain-spoken metaphysical, purveying a teary elegance, clarity in confusion, insouciant reflection, irreducible unguardedness.’ All of these qualities and more are apparent in Williams’s latest collection, I Knew the Bride. But it’s also true that while his poetic style has been extensively overhauled and loosened up since the sometimes starchy, Movement-tinged ironies of his first book, Symptoms of Loss (1965), certain lyrical obsessions remain. The ‘nostalgic, valedictory sadness’ discerned by Peter Reading in Williams’s earliest poems has never really gone away. While often hilariously funny, Williams is first and foremost a poet of loss, almost revelling in the transience and anxieties of love since his earliest work, including the ironically-titled ‘A Happy Thought,’ published before his debut collection: ‘Disaster is the thread/With which I stitch my painful poetry.’ In fact, Williams often seems suspicious of undiluted joy, which always writes white in his lyrical philosophy. (He would surely approve of a dictum by doomed American poet John Berryman: ‘The happier you get the worse you feel.’) In his love-affair-gone-bad volume, Billy’s Rain (1999), for which Williams won the T. S. Eliot Prize, the best poems are those which arrive after cracks start to appear in his extramarital romance, the book’s fraught narrative charting the course of what William Scammell called ‘a happily unhappy love affair.’ A master of the subtle gradations of romantic disappointment, Williams never seems more lyrically acute than when mining the rich seams of personal failure. A plainspoken, existentialist dandy and a rational dreamer, Williams’s heart seems constantly on the point of breaking.
If Williams had a ‘breakthrough’ early poem, it was ‘The Butcher.’ The last poem in his first book, it received the hard-won admiration of Ian Hamilton, the famously thin-lipped and acerbic poet, critic and editor, who became Williams’s first and perhaps most significant literary mentor and an unflagging champion of his work, publishing his poems in the landmark literary magazines The Review and The New Review. As late as 1999, in a Books of the Year round-up for The Daily Telegraph, Hamilton chose Billy’s Rain, highlighting what he called its ‘artless candour,’ while stressing it was ‘actually extremely skilful, in his usual way.’ Introducing the poem on a 2003 CD recording for The Poetry Archive, Williams said ‘The Butcher’ was ‘the first poem Ian Hamilton liked of mine … I’ve always thought of it as the first poem of my own really.’ It was also Hamilton who published Williams’s Poems (1969), one of a series of pamphlets produced by The Review, helping to establish that magazine’s taste for spare, emotionally intense, tip-of-the-iceberg, occasionally gnomic poems. ‘The Butcher’ helped fix the lyrical template for The Review’s poetic house style:
The butcher carves veal for two.
The cloudy, frail slices fall over his knife.
His face is hurt by the parting sinews
And he looks up with relief, laying it on the scales.
(As if to confirm its iconic literary status, Philip Larkin included the poem in The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse in 1973.) Moving from humdrum local detail to interrogative, apprehensive self-analysis – ‘I think he knows about my life’ – the poem establishes some of the distinctive poetic traits developed in Williams’s later work, as the external world of the apparently friendly local butcher is darkly internalised, becoming part of the process of weighing up the inner workings of a relationship:
He writes the price on the grease-proof packet
And hands it to me courteously. His smile
Is the official seal on my marriage.
By the time of his second collection, Sugar Daddy (1970), Williams’s mature poetic voice seemed fully established, with familial, domestic concerns and matters of the heart providing the raw material for a wide-eyed lyricism, and candour replacing the safety net of irony:
In the morning the birds break up our lovemaking.
They treat us like very young children.
They know it will end in tears.
Sugar Daddy also indulged a taste for dreamy poetic self-consciousness, which remains a feature of Williams’ most recent work. An old Etonian, who early on discovered Elvis Presley and biker-poet Thom Gunn, Williams often dispenses a clipped, matter-of-fact ‘English’ lyrical version of surrealism, as in ‘The Couple Upstairs’: ‘We come awake/And talk excitedly about ourselves, like guests.’
While the Review-style lyrical spareness was generally maintained in Some Sweet Day (1975) and the illustrated Love-Life (1979), Williams made a stylistic and thematic U-turn in Writing Home (1985), a collection widely rated as his finest to that point in his career. Described as ‘a classic of creative autobiography’ by the late poet Mick Imlah, Writing Home was partly an exploration of Williams’s boarding school days and also a poetic hymn to his actor-parents Hugh Williams, who starred in such notable wartime films as Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), and Margaret Vyner, an Australian-born beauty, who was immortalised in Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’ – ‘You’re the top, you’re an ocean liner / You’re the top, you’re Margaret Vyner’ – as possibly rewritten by P. G. Wodehouse for a London show. A filial poetic autobiography, Writing Home reveals the poet as a child and adolescent destined never to live up to his parents’ theatrical expectations or feel immune to the often abrasive personality and caustic put-downs of a father, following bankruptcy, who struggled to stay in the limelight after a post-war dip in his acting career: ‘Out of work at fifty, smoking fifty a day,/ my father wore his sheepskin coat/ and went to auditions/ for the first time in his life./ I watched in horror from my bedroom window/ as he missed the bus to London/ in full view of the house opposite.’ (‘Walking Out Of The Room Backwards.’) The book found the poet writing home to the other country of his boarding school past, while also letting some bagginess into his poetic method. As Williams said of Writing Home in Poetry Review (Spring 2014): ‘That was when I really loosened up.’ This loosening up continued unabated in his subsequent books, Self-Portrait With a Slide (1990) and Dock Leaves (1994), Williams getting more humour, sex, slapstick and more of the world into work which increasingly occupied the borderline between poetry and prose. When Williams again produced a themed collection – his widely acclaimed romantic break-up book and T. S. Eliot Prizewinner Billy’s Rain(1999) – the plainness of his poetic voice paid rich dividends in work which memorably traced the arc of a doomed extramarital affair while carrying a considerable emotional punch, couching some of his old,Review-style intensities within a much more spoken lyrical form, as in ‘Sweet Nothings’:
Not her mouth not her chin not her throat.
Not her smell not her skin not her sweat…
None of that any more and all of it still.
All of it still and more and more of it every day.
Not all critics are convinced by Williams’s embrace of a looser, more inclusive poetic style. Robert Potts has called him a ‘one-club golfer … a charming and stylish prose writer (whose) poems don’t think hard (nor) encourage anyone else to.’ For Craig Raine, Williams ‘leaves out the music in poetry,’ adding: ‘The weaknesses of the Williams method – or lack of method – occur when the rhythm has been so successfully repressed that what remains is chopped-up prose … ’ But Williams, who received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2004, has continued to receive more critical bouquets than brickbats for his most recent collections, Dear Room (2006) and West End Final (2009), which continue to circle obsessively around his fraught love life, theatrical family and what admiring critic Adam Phillips called ‘what is so strangely undramatic about our personal dramas’, in poems blessed with a piercing clarity and unfailing readability.
Following the example of William Burroughs and David Bowie, Williams’s later style also embraces cut-ups, the poet risking the accusation of ‘chopped-up prose’ by continually recycling old and discarded lines. This practice continues in his latest volume, I Knew the Bride, which takes its title from Nick Lowe’s song, I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll), the lyrics of which the poet read out at his sister Polly’s wedding reception, the retro rockabilly song later becoming the title of an elegy when she died of cancer in 2004, aged just fifty-five. In the Poetry Book Society Bulletin (PBS) for Spring 2014, Williams explains how he uses the ‘overmatter’ from previous poems as ‘the raw material of a new poem,’ adding: ‘Whenever I feel like giving myself a shock I go back to this midden of overmatter and find another poem waiting. It feels like collaboration.’ There are several examples of such ‘collaboration’ in I Knew the Bride. In an essay explaining how he goes about writing poems (The Independent on Sunday, February 26, 2006), Williams concluded: ‘Every time I go to the front door the strip of carpet in the hall moves forward slightly, towards the door. Every week or so I have to pull it back. Now there’s something I can use.’ Eight years later, this Proustian fragment is indeed reused in poetic form at the close of ‘I Was Like’ in his latest collection:
The orange stair carpet
never seems to be happy
till its forward edge
is sticking out into the street.
Every day I pull it back,
taking hold of one end
and shaking it out
like shaking out
ripples of orange mud.
Similarly, Williams has repeatedly raided his long-running Freelance column in the TLS for poetic ideas. And while not as hooked on wholesale poetic revision as Derek Mahon, Williams does like to tinker with and redraft earlier poems, often giving them new titles, while also cutting or extending earlier versions. So ‘Twenty Yards Behind,’ a villanelle in the latest volume, dedicated to his ailing rock star friend Wilko Johnson, revisits a poem called ‘Nonsense,’ which previously appeared in a limited edition Williams pamphlet called Honey Hush (2005), complete with a bawdier second line: ‘licking her arse and fucking her from behind.’ Again, ‘Rescue Warning’ in Honey Hush reappears in I Knew the Bride, with its singular pronoun changed to a collective, and retitled ‘Falling.’ There’s also yet another poem called ‘Bar Italia’ in the new book, named after a famous coffee bar in Soho, London, with the same title employed for poems in several collections, stretching back to Love-Life, in 1979. Williams even recycled a newspaper profile of himself by journalist Nicholas de Jongh from twenty-odd years ago, using several verbatim phrases from the article for the poem ‘West End Twilight,’ in his previous collection, West End Final, published in 2009. (Although he would doubtless be appalled by the idea, there’s probably an essay waiting to be written on ‘Intertextuality in the Poetry of Hugo Williams.’)
Appropriately for the scion of a theatrical family (the poet’s brother is stage and TV actor Simon Williams), the domestic world Williams describes in I Knew the Bride often resembles a disorientating stage set, where life’s normal acts and routines assume an unsettling, even nightmarish quality. ‘New Year Poem,’ which opens the collection, is a typical late-Williams study in emotional or psychological inertia:
The day is difficult to start.
I leave it at the top of a hill
the night before. Next morning
I release the handbrake
and the whole rickety contraption
chokes itself back to life.
I come to a stop about here.
As in a painting by Magritte, the day’s chronology is upset – ‘I leave the room for a moment/ and when I come back it is evening.’ This may be the kind of poem Williams classified under the heading ‘senile nightmares’ in one of his last Freelance columns, before illness intervened. Certainly, there are plenty of ‘nightmarish’ qualities in ‘A Twitch of the Mouth,’ a disturbing tour de force in the latest volume, its protagonist ricocheting around his domestic world, thoughts and emotions gripped by a kind of schizophrenic dread:
I’ve been acting strangely again,
ducking my head, spinning round.
I stand out of sight behind a curtain,
crying and laughing to myself.
Pitched somewhere between a Brian Rix farce and Franz Kafka – ‘I run round the room on the furniture./ I lick my finger going through a door’ – the poem can almost be read as a post-modernist riff on Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools,’ which itself possessed a dark theatricality: ‘Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms/ Inside your head, and people in them, acting.’ A lyrical obsessive, Williams again returns to his extramarital affair of the 1990s for the sequence, ‘Now that I’ve Forgotten Brighton,’ its latest ‘Bar Italia’ poem establishing a bittersweet, Brief Encounterish tone:
I linger here, remembering us
braving the weather
on the other side of the glass.
A richly various collection, marked by Williams’s usual sparkling clarity, disarming candour and complete tonal control, I Knew the Bride moves seamlessly from an ekphrastic, commissioned poem, ‘Actaeon,’ inspired by Titian, about old girlfriends exacting sweet revenge on the poet, to brief lyrics charting the anxieties of old loves, domestic dislocation or snapshot remembrance, such as ‘At the Pillars,’ an eight-line elegy for Mick Imlah, set in the Soho bar where Ian Hamilton once held court. Elsewhere, the beautifully judged ‘Garments,’ a version of Cavafy which first appeared in The London Magazine (where Williams worked from 1961 to 1970) dwells memorably on the chasm between our young and older selves, while the title poem is a moving, extended homage to a sister who taught her two older brothers how to dance to Buddy Knox’s ‘Party Doll,’ before ultimately instructing them in the brave choreography of terminal illness: ‘You turned your back on us/ to protect us from your face.’ Understandably, given its weighty subject matter, the closing sequence ‘From the Dialysis Ward,’ about the poet’s battle with kidney failure, has garnered most critical and editorial attention. Ben Wilkinson in The Guardian called the writing ‘resonant and heart-stopping, as the poet’s typically dandyish wit and charisma fight for ground against fear, pain, and growing uncertainty.’ But while the opening poem ‘If I’m Early’ neatly combines the figure of Thomas Hardy overseeing ‘the removal of bodies … to make way for the trains,’ with the poet’s thrice-weekly journey via St Pancras Old Church Cemetery to the Mary Rankin Wing for his life-saving dialysis, there’s also a feeling that what Williams called in his PBS Bulletin statement the ‘ghastly literalness’ of his hospital experience could soon peter out as poetic raw material, something he bluntly admitted in a recent Freelance column: ‘The poetry therapy worked like a dream for the first year of dialysis, but I’m running out of angles, as well as people’s tolerance of needles.’ Indeed, while many of the individual dialysis poems are unflinching and unforgettably harrowing, the bleak subject matter narrows rather than widens Williams’s stylistic options. But taken as a whole, I Knew the Bride reveals Hugo Williams writing at the height of his considerable powers.