Brian Bilston’s first anthology of poetry contains more than 200 poems, and despite some of them being only four lines long, each one is quite refined and polished. Bilston plays with words like they were Legos – he stacks them up, sticks them together in weird shapes, dismantles them and spreads them out, or creates something totally new from them. And reading poems like these is like diving into a bag of liquorice allsorts – you get what you don’t expect but it sure is enjoyable.
Poetry with a British tang
Despite browsing, I did discover distinct topics and ideas running through the poems, which are noticeable now that the poems are all in one place and not set apart like when he publishes them on Twitter. For one, he refers to British things and celebrities that mainly British people would recognize: he seems not to like Jeremy Clarkson, of Top Gear fame, and columnist Piers Morgan, and the Daily Mail; but he likes Mumford and Sons – the band; garbage collection day is important; he enjoys the University Challenge (a TV quiz show); he loves English poets and literature – and he loves people who also love poetry and literature.
He loves words, that’s clear. He plays with them like a kid with Legos. I think sometimes he just uses a word because it sounds nice to him or he just likes the look of it. He must either have a terrific rhyming dictionary (wish I had the one he’s got), or a mind that thinks in rhymes, working backwards from the last word in the line, or just a massive vocabulary.
Lots of interesting words
There were words I had never heard of (thank goodness for the “look up” function in iBooks) or words that were bent and twisted and oddly used, and surely would not exist in most dictionaries. Does it drive you to Apply Your Little Mind and Think? Yes, surely. Examples:
- In Night at the London Palindrome, which is a play on words of “Night at the London Palladium”, the poem it itself a palindrome. A palindrome is a sentence which reads the same backwards and forwards. In this case, the letters fall between words, so you have to puzzle it out.
- Carpe DMs refers to “carpe diem” which means “seize the day”, but in this poem it means seize the beloved, rather old-school British “Doc Marten” boots.
- The Explosion refers to “Vimto” – that’s a soft drink made in the U.K., presumably something like Coke.
- Acrostic Guitar, a play on “acoustic”, means a verse of which the first letters spell out a word, and in this case, it does.
- How’s Wally refers to a “Malthusian catastrophe”, and, having looked it up, I can say it has to do with “Wally” (or “Waldo” in the U.S.) getting lost in huge crowds of people. And huge crowds of people running out of food.
- In the poem Beard, there’s the word “barbate” – I guessed it would mean hairy or bearded and it does.
- Name Calling only works if you know how to pronounce “Beauchamp”, and “Niahm Cholmondley”. Took me a while to work out.
- In Unforeseen Consequences, he uses “Fibonacci sequency” which I know has something to do with numbers but I couldn’t even understand the explanation.
- And then there is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis” in Logomachy which is an actual word which you can go look up.
Rhyming and humour
Some poems have one rhyme scheme, others a variety. Rhyming, as he writes in the introduction, may be a characteristic of poetry, but he does not do it in every verse: “I do like a rhyme. But not all the time.”
An example of taking rhyming to extreme, in this case to enhance the rhythm, is Leonard Cohen’s lyrics A Thousand Kisses Deep. He uses alternate rhyme in most verses, ABAB, but repeats this in 11 verses, every second line rhyming with “deep”, 25 times: meat, sweet, sleep, heat, sleet, physique, fleet, cleat, deceit, obsolete, unique, street, weak, meek, complete, beat, streak, defeat, sweep, cheek, retreat, keep, Paraclete, heap, leap. The effect is to reemphasize the depth and intensity of the expression of love.
Bilston, does not go as far, but Carpe DMs for instance, starts with a difficult monorhyme (AAAA), then continues in alternate rhyme (ABCB), then no rhyme – just alliteration. And to make the last verse rhyme, he makes up a word, “futilitarianism”. Well, he actually just applies a rule for the formation of abstract nouns. (Rhyme scheme is in square brackets.)
Doc Marten boots, [A]
you take me back to my roots, [A]
when you were in cahoots [A]
with both of my foots. [A]
You have style. You have soul [B]
(air cushioned to make you hover), [C]
with optional steel toe-caps [D]
in case there’s a bit of bovver. [C]
Punks, indie kids, construction workers, [E]
have all worn you most effectively, [F]
sure treaders of carpet and concrete [G]
on office and factory floors respectively. [F]
Dependably Manufactured! [G]
Durably Memorable! [H]
Doughtily Multipurposeful! [I]
Diametrical Moccasins! [J]
To me you are the exponent [K]
of the ultimate in utilitarianism.[L]
To persuade me of otherwise [M]
is an act of futilitarianism. [L]
Bilston says that he supposes that the everyday places and situations that are the subjects of the poem “…are not traditionally regarded as being the stuff of poetry. But there is poetry to be found in anything if you look hard enough.” (p. 12, Introduction)
Meanings and feelings
I feel that some of these “everyday” subjects are still serious enough to be deep. Some of the poems I found spoke directly to me and I had to stop and read them again. They will be remembered. He might fear that he may be;
“…disapprovingly exiled to the bleak, literary island commonly known as Light Verse with the expectation that I spend the rest of my writing career complaining about how I just want to be taken seriously. Well, I don’t.” (p. 12, Introduction)
He wants to be taken “unseriously” especially when he writes about serious things. So, I have seen the seriousness in some of the poems. After all, as the 17th century proverb goes, “many a true word hath been spoke in jest.”
From Read my Lips:
Because something I’ve learnt
as I’ve got older
is that literature
lights up love
and makes it smoulder
From Twelve Haiku
A note left hanging
in the cold night air, dispatched
From Life: A Record
Digital is clinical
cuts air like a surgeon’s knife,
but vinyl has the touch, the feel,
and surface noise of life.
Probably the best of the lot, for me, being touching as well as ingenious is Refugees. It combines emotional appeal with an unusual form – sort of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by way or words. First read it line by line top to bottom, then line by line bottom to top. Promise you will? Go on then.
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
(now read from bottom to top)
Got to love what the man writes, and how he thinks. I’d give my best dictionary to know who he really is. In some poems he sounds like someone who has been unlucky in love rather a lot, and has not done so well at job-hunting either. Or at socializing.
Never mind, Mr. Bilston, apart from being the Poet Laureate of Twitter, to me you are the 21st Century Patron Saint of Poets, granting your inspiration and guidance to all of us small but hopeful poets who struggle to get the words right. You speak to us about the stuff that matters today, like What To Do In the Event of a Gun Attack, and you improve our grammar while you’re at it. Thank you!
This anthology was first published by Unbound, which is a publishing house created by three writers – “Dan [Dan Kieran], Justin [Justin Pollard] and John [John Mitchinson]”. Unbound, the online trading name of United Authors Publishing Ltd, is a privately held international publishing company. It is based in London, U.K.
“On the Unbound website, authors share the ideas for the books they want to write directly with readers. If enough of you support the book by pledging for it in advance, we produce a beautifully bound special subscriber’s edition and distribute a regular edition and e-book wherever books are sold, in shops and online.”
So – crowdsourcing for books. Good idea. Dear fellow readers, go to the website and have a look at what’s on there. The next project looking for future readers might be yours. Judging from the long list of subscribers, Bilston’s book was on many people’s “most wanted” list. If you want to know how the process of getting from Twitter to having his work published went for him, you can read about it in an article he wrote for The Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/brian-bilston-twitter-s-poet-laureate-on-his-print-debut-1.2819450