Essay: Maggie Hannan’s Liar, Jones

or, On Stopping Poetry by Charles Whalley

After her debut collection was published by Bloodaxe in 1995, Maggie Hannan didn’t publish another poem.

Liar, Jones is a thin, black book of sharp, dark poems. Each short line is packed with wordplay and internal rhyme. Its best poem is its last, a sequence entitled ‘Dr Roget’s Bedside Manner’. The poem begins with a note telling us that Roget’s Thesaurus (first published in 1852) was compiled by Peter Mark Roget to help him in his medical practice, so that he would be “better able to communicate with his students”. The poem’s six short sections describe different medical predicaments, the doctor pronouncing to his medical students as if he had swallowed a thesaurus, using such a wild array of terms that it’s hard to believe the poor students could follow a word. The range of vocabulary means each diagnosis becomes somewhat horrifying, as we can’t immediately understand what the matter is. Language, instead, is collaborating in a terror of illness, the same terror that it is a doctor’s main duty to dispel: that of being unable to interpret our own bodies, of them becoming incomprehensible and alien to us. For example:

Abysm, from which there
is an exodus of keck and

gurk, and pardon, ouch,
excuse me.

When any diagnosis has the potential to be very bad news, it seems grotesque for it to be so flamboyantly expressed. (I am reminded of the “very literal” doctor in the TV series Arrested Development, who on one occasion announces that his patient, Buster Bluth, will be “all right”, then is puzzled by the family’s expressions of relief. He means that Buster has lost his left hand.) In the third section, the diagnosis begins simply “Doomed.” (“The word is cancer” the doctor adds, helpfully, a few lines later.)

Within these bleak riddles, Hannan’s wicked, dark wit only complicates interpretation further. ‘Dr Roger’s Bedside Manner’ can’t resist, for example, a diversion into an owl impression – “Politic / to isolate – not, to wit, / to woo disaster” – or ending a diagnosis of “syphilis” by warning the contrite patient to expect “loss of face”. The playful surprises in these puns and patterns run entirely perpendicular to the bleak story of the poem; the sound of the poem and the message conveyed exist within entirely different affects. The material surface of the language is increasingly estranged from and irrelevant to its capacity to convey meaning in the usual sense. In the fourth section in this sequence, ‘Intellect’, where the poem reaches its densest and punniest, the condition is diagnosed as “idioglossia”: that is, an idiosyncratic, private language. “Incarcerate the madman”, declares the speaker, as the patient will “hornswoggle, clack – / queer fish – ad infinitum”. As the speaker’s language becomes increasingly wild, this diagnosis appears to apply to doctor rather than patient. And in the irony of the poem’s subject – that, in trying to “better communicate” one may only make it worse – there is the sense of language overrunning its ends, of being fundamentally unsuitable, of playfully slipping into poetry.

Although this idea of poetry as idioglossia might seem like a narrowing – that the more fully language expresses, the more incomprehensible it becomes to others – it opens up some dizzying dynamics of perspective. For example, in ‘Life Model’, another sequence of four, the speaker describes herself as an image being seen; the first line begins “Look”. She describes her own depiction. What’s more, in each of the four poems, the speaker imagines herself as if perceived by four different artists (Egon Schiele, Henri Matisse, Lucian Freud and Cindy Sherman), performing an ekphrastic self-appraisal in the style of each. I’ll have to show what I mean. In ‘Like Schiele’, the poem conjures both the palette and tones characteristic
of Schiele –

This skin’s
a thermogram they read

from: ochre, jade
and puce

– and his work’s contorted, intense postures: “To pull, // to hook myself in space – / akimbo, wanting”. Even the lines are bony. Similarly, in ‘Like Matisse’ there is a “blue line, that smooth / electric shade”, and, in ‘Like Freud’, a “waxy daylight”, with lines that become longer and more relaxed. In these, the speaker, though transfixed, is either bemused or furious at her powerlessness, at how “a brush-tip’s kiss might blight my open eyes”, and how, despite its physicality, her female body seems to belong entirely to the artist who distorts and manipulates it on canvas, rather than to itself.

In observing and recreating this self-estrangement, the speakers in these poems demonstrate something like the way in which, as John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing (1972), a “woman’s self [is] split into two”:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself […]. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

By following through the first three male artists in Hannan’s poem, we have the sense that, as times change, this objectification remains a constant in Western art. Only the style varies.

In the fourth and last poem in this sequence (‘Like Sherman’), however, this dynamic is disoriented and inverted, as the poem explores the artist Cindy Sherman, known for stylised self-portraits in a variety of guises and disguises. In her photos, Sherman uses herself as the subject. The theorist Laura Mulvey, known for her writing on the male gaze, describes Sherman’s work as “de-fetishizing the female body”. Whereas the other three sections are centred on “I” and “my”, ‘Like Sherman’ turns on “you” and “she”, beginning:

That dream you have, the one where you’re naked, and lying
stretched out in the back of your car, embarrassed but bold
as your friend takes the wheel. Are you drunk?

Mediated through the language of cinematography (eg “close-up”, “freeze-frame”), the scene descends into a nightmare, “your” nightmare, of hiding, eating “decaying” food, “crawling […] naked” on a floor of dirt, before ending, abruptly, with the first appearance of the speaker: “I am wearing that dream.” As Mulvey writes of Sherman:

The lure of voyeurism turns around like a trap, and the viewer ends up aware that Sherman-the-artist has set up a machine for making the gaze materialize uncomfortably, in alliance with Sherman-the-model.

Whereas the other three sections limited the speaker within an artist’s gaze, enabling her to articulate her experience only through the artist’s perspective, in ‘Like Sherman’ the speaker can perform as both artist and model. The speaker is therefore freed, just as the long, almost-prose lines of the poem are increasingly free from formal constraints. (Elsewhere in the collection, a character gives their idea of “perfect happiness” as “watching myself on screen in the dark”.) This reversal feels like a righteous vengeance, enabled by the subject’s control over their own representation. And the way in which the poem performs this vengeance reveals how language has the same potential for both domination and liberation.

Liar, Jones seems a challenge to the conventional lyric, in that it implies that subjectivity is stuck within, even secondary to, the language through which it is expressed. If the ‘gaze’ in a poem is about the “I” and the “you” and the dynamics between them, Mulvey’s description of Sherman’s photographs could apply to Hannan’s best poems: they are machines “for making the gaze materialize uncomfortably”. These ideas aren’t and weren’t particularly new, but are realised in Liar, Jones in poems that are innovative and rich, and that are reminiscent, as David Morley has noted, of the work of Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Denise Riley. Hannan’s best poems are acutely self-conscious of their power, of how they create a trap, and challenge the reader on where they situate themselves. As a topic, and as a poetics, this makes Liar, Jones feel challenging and bright.

. . .

Before Liar, Jones, ‘Dr Roget’s Bedside Manner’ and ‘The Vanishing Point’ appeared in the 1993 Bloodaxe anthology The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morley. The New Poetry, according to its editors, aimed to showcase poems that were “fresh”, “risk-taking” and “plural”. Its editors also overtly positioned it as a successor to Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s dour and conservative The Penguin Book of Contemporary English Poetry, published a decade earlier. In 1993, Poetry Review dedicated almost an entire issue to greeting The New Poetry’s publication with measured enthusiasm. As well as running long articles by The New Poetry’s editors, Poetry Review gave space to Morrison and Motion to bemoan The New Poetry’s “boring Introduction” with its “self-congratulatory right-on-ness” (Morrison calls it “Stalinist”), and its deliberate dearth of poets from “London and Oxbridge” (“many of them as marginalised and disprivileged as their provincial counterparts”, Morrison adds sourly).

I first came across Hannan’s poetry in The New Poetry. I bought it secondhand. Its previous owner has written simply “common themes” atop the first blank page, where you might usually write your name. Gloriously, riotously, our friend C. Themes has densely highlighted and annotated many of the pages. They are particularly keen on parsing symbolism, and are clear that these are poems which question “the nature of society”, as they’ve written in a looping, slanted hand under the Preface. Although untouched by my book’s previous owner, presumably for being insufficiently symbolic, Hannan’s poems are startlingly clever, fierce and witty where much else in the book is merely garrulous, calm, or chirpily irreverent. They are challenging, not so much in the sense of being difficult to interpret, although they are that too, but in the sense of being morally defiant. Although most reviews of The New Poetry are more interested in grappling with the ideological and canonical assertions of the anthology’s introduction, Hannan’s contributions were praised by Peter Porter in The Independent and Gerald Dawe in London Magazine. After an Eric Gregory Award and an appearance in an earlier Bloodaxe anthology (The New Lake Poets) in 1990, it was her poems in The New Poetry which, Hannan tells me, led to offers of book contracts, with Bloodaxe becoming the favoured choice.

Liar, Jones was nominated for Best First Collection in the 1995 Forward Prizes (but beaten by Jane Duran’s Breathe Now, Breathe). It seems even its advocates saw it as an oddity. In a feature in Poetry Review on the prizes, David Kennedy – her editor in The New Poetry – described Liar, Jones as the work of a “major talent”, but mused on the audience it might find, not being obviously “marketable”. Ian Sansom in the TLS was only able to describe the collection’s effects rather than praise them, seeing the book as “nervously experimental” in its “rejection” of “straightforward syntax [and] subject matter”. And Jenni Nuttall in Oxford Poetry, although roundly praising the book as an “unblemished, entertaining debut”, added that it “actually justifies its backcover pretensions”.

Like many others in her cohort of The New Poetry – including Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw, Carol Ann Duffy, W.N. Herbert, Ian McMillan and Kathleen Jamie – Hannan’s poetry was buoyed up in a time eager for new poetry. The Forward Prizes were launched only the year before The New Poetry’s publication; the year after, The Poetry Society and the Arts Council presented the first New Generation Poets to much fanfare. But unlike many of her cohort, Hannan stopped writing. When first reading The New Poetry, I was struck by how many names in there I knew as being still active fifteen years later, and yet how my new favourite was not. Among the other contributors are the parallel trajectories of the familiar poetic career, and yet Hannan’s seems not unfamiliar too: that of the poet who stopped.

. . .

It’s difficult to know how common it is for poets to cease writing after one book like Hannan did. In 1995, one hundred poetry collections were published by Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Faber, Smith|Doorstop, Anvil Press, Seren, Enitharmon, Chatto & Windus, Stride, Jonathan Cape and Picador. Including Liar, Jones, only three were debuts without a later follow-up. (All three such debut poets are women.) Perhaps this says something of the commissioning at those publishers rather than anything else; there are around 450 other publishers and small presses represented in the National Poetry Library’s holdings for 1995, among which there are doubtless many other examples. Then there are of course also poets who stop after more than one collection; 1995 was the year, for instance, that Faber published Harry Smart’s third and (to date) last collection, Fool’s Pardon. There are poets who stop and then restart after a lengthy pause, like George Oppen who, after abandoning poetry for political activism, military service and carpentry in the mid-1930s, resumed writing and publishing thirty years later. And there are those who never publish at all.

It’s a cliché that there’s a great majority who wrote febrile, unseen poems in their adolescence. I did so quite seriously until I was maybe twenty-two, culminating in a long, bookish and sub-Poundian poem about Magellan (we all make mistakes). The cliché is typically deployed to show that the artform is practised much more widely than is believed. But what it also means is that most people’s experience of poetry is not so much that they wrote it once, but that they then stopped. And, further than this, all poets are, it seems, continually in a state of slipping away from their art. Every poem finished, every book published, could be the last one. It seems there is so much of stopping, that everyone is mostly always stopped, that it isn’t actually interesting at all; instead, it should be the starting that astounds me. Maybe the question isn’t why do poets stop writing, but why does anyone start?

. . .

I take the second half of my title, by the way, from the editor’s title given to a 1975 letter from William Empson to Christopher Ricks. The title sticks in my head. It makes poetry sound an evil that must be stopped, which perhaps it is. In the letter, Empson softly rebukes Ricks for supposing that he stopped writing poetry due to the mundane fact of being married. He tells Ricks that he was instead “absorbed in the war”, and that, once fascism was defeated, the political urgency of his pre-war poetry was no longer relevant: “the theme […] had been blown out like a candle”. Although I don’t believe Empson guilty of much self-deception, I don’t think this entirely true. It attributes all to the grand political work and nothing to the quotidian, as if it is the former that moves one to write and not the circumstances of the latter that enable it. It treats poets as actors on a larger stage than the rest of us, indifferent to what Empson’s contemporary Cyril Connolly famously called “the pram in the hall”. It’s a self-deception that is easier for men to perform, who are traditionally accustomed to believe that the raising of children, for instance, need not hold purpose for them. It suggests the mistake of thinking that politics, and doing the right and necessary acts, is something that happens in poems, at rallies and on battlefields, and not in homes and kitchens. (I mean generally. This is unfair to Empson.)

But Empson of course remained in literary circles, continuing his critical work, giving readings and even occasionally writing poems, albeit with none of the fireworks of anything written in his youth. Elsewhere, Empson wrote that “it very often happens with poets that they have this haunting feeling that they are given magical powers which are suddenly taken away from them”. In that same letter to Ricks, Empson recounts being scolded in a pub by a reader of his work for giving up poetry and having “just left us cold”. These admirers at least had Empson’s other writing to console themselves with and the poet himself there to reproach. A more famously severe example of the renunciation of poetry is Rosemary Tonks, who, after publishing two collections in the 1960s – described by Cyril Connolly as having “unexpected power” – moved to Bournemouth, and was out of print until Bloodaxe’s publication of her Collected Poems in 2014. Suffering a series of crises – a failed marriage, burglary, lawsuits, illness and near blindness – Tonks not only stopped writing poetry, but seemed determined to stop being a poet, living under her married name of Rosemary Lightband, burning all of her papers, and following a fiercely individual interpretation of the New Testament. She refused any involvement in or contact with the literary world; in Deaths of the Poets (2017), Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts describe Bloodaxe’s editor Neil Astley “peering through her letterbox” in vain, which suggests some truth of the relationship between poets and their audience. In his introduction to the Collected Poems, Astley notes that, after he’d tried again to send a note to Tonks, she recorded in her diary a “second postcard from Satan”.

Certainly Rosemary Lightband suffered serious misfortune, but her decision to quit writing for a different life was rather too easily romanticised into disappearance, seclusion or death, or at least as good as. Astley pointed out that, when it came to speculation as to what became of Tonks, “mythmakers always required her to be living in poverty”. As Farley and Symmons Roberts wryly note, writers have a tendency to be shocked by her renunciation of poetry because she “gave up a literary career so many people now (as then) long for”. Those no longer participating in what Pierre Bourdieu called the “literary field” become its object. It seems easier to assume that those who quit the books and the readings and the vocation are pitiable and utterly lost, than to accept that the chocolate coins of poetic cultural capital might hold no appeal for them.

Tonks’s two collections, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms and Iliad of Broken Sentences, are bold, brashly metropolitan and sometimes combative; they reel between desire, mockery and accusation almost drunkenly; they are, as Amy Key wrote in Poetry London, “gorged on their own feeling”. This was not universally praised in its time. In the Collected Poems introduction, Astley quotes “Terry Coleman in a Guardian profile” of Tonks: “I have never met anyone who was so hurt by critics”. In one anguished letter, Tonks wrote: “they just smash and smash my poetry.” Astley goes on to speculate that negative reviews of her work may have “affected her willingness to publish or even to write”. I don’t think it’s possible to say whether or not Tonks’ renunciation of poetry was due to the reception of her work, although it would be as good a reason as any. It’s common, I think, to overstate the power of reception on an author in matters like this, perhaps as a malevolent power fantasy on the part of critics. (Tuberculosis then, as now, being strongly associated with poverty, it would have been a fairer society that would have preserved Keats’s health, rather than a kinder reception for Endymion.) It’s a reminder, even so, of how poets are bound up with their audience, who may cajole them in the pub or peek through their letterboxes, long after they’ve stopped writing. After all, editors, critics and readers are all part of the literary microcosm which replicates and reinforces the same hierarchies and prejudices as broader society.

The point I want to make here is that the writing of poetry isn’t so much a personal business of inspiration, of sitting in some high lonely tower, but a social practice; and that, like any social activity, it is fundamentally linked to the space and humanity which allows it to happen. Pace Picasso, inspiration exists, but it has to find you not working, not caring for someone, not too sick, poor and exhausted to do anything about it. In A Room of One’s Own, which argues famously for that space, Virginia Woolf remarks on the difficulties of writing “a work of genius”: “Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down.” She goes on to point out that, of course, these difficulties are “infinitely more formidable” for women, and even more so for women without wealth or status. The opportunity to write is inseparable from power and freedom more generally; having written poetry, and having submitted poems, and having been published, and having been praised and rewarded, and having been admitted into the anthologies and the canons and the syllabuses, is often more an expression of the poet’s pre-existing opportunity and privilege than of anything to do with their mere written words. And I wonder, in all the examples of poets who stop writing, how much foreclosed opportunity there must be among those who never even started, the mute inglorious Miltons, the Judith Shakespeares, and the broader dispossession and inequity that it represents. With its myriad of causes, stopping poetry is, I think, sometimes a glimpse at a loss of freedom, at the encroachment of circumstances. It is a reminder of the filtering that has already taken place, and of the voices never heard at all.

In his recent book on the poetry business and poetic careers, The Selling and Self-Regulation of Contemporary Poetry, J.T. Welsch describes a new period of “debut-mania”, with a greater number of first collections being published and being recognised by major prizes than in the past. In Welsch’s account, the debut collection represents the moment when a publisher (or prize judge, or blurb writer) confers entry into the community; their power as gatekeeper is reaffirmed as they validate and introduce another. (The editors of anthologies perform similar work.) This ritual may only be performed once, and so the significance of publication wanes after the debut, just as cultural or financial support is less generously available for the ‘emerged’ than it is for the ‘emerging’. After the debut, there’s less at stake for all the other participants in the literary microcosm. Supporting a poetic career for its own sake is less valuable to everyone else, and so requires more of the poet themselves. Welsch notes that, in 2016, Bloodaxe’s submissions page was amended to declare that only poets yet to publish a debut would be considered, that the press had no interest in poets with a book or two already behind them.

As the debut-centric poetry business, and we with it, enters an another recession that will only sharpen inequalities, we must be especially aware of opportunities to write and be published, or their lack, as they are indicative of human flourishing more generally. We may feel we need poetry to thrive, but for most the first need is to survive, then hope that poetry comes afterwards. Although all circumstances are different, all stopped poets are in their own way a clue about poetry’s prosperity, and about ours.

. . .

When I said the ritual may only be performed once, I wasn’t quite being honest. If a poet, after publishing, disappears from literary life, their ‘rediscovery’ by an editor or, say, a critic, provides another occasion for these gatekeepers to demonstrate their powers.

. . .

Liar, Jones follows a sequence about the origins of language with another about the Greek painter, Eleni Altamura, who, after her children died of TB, “burned all her paintings and remained mute for the rest of her life”. Whereas the rest of the collection uses its dense language to startle or amuse, ‘Diary of Eleni Altamura 1821–1900’ conveys a sensory intensity, almost furiously vivid; for example: “A white dog skitters / into a sandsquall”. After narrating the events up to the deaths of Altamura’s children, the sequence ends with the image of a “white lizard”, its darting tongue “stitching silence”. The final section is in the past tense, and so the fiction of its existence should be paradoxical: a voice is speaking about how it came to no longer speak. But it is as if I understand, implicitly, that a poem speaks for its speaker; and that the voice in a poem effectively supplants the figure from whom it is meant to come. I accept the poem’s disembodiment as something inherent to its working. Like the speaker in ‘Life Model’, the voice in a poem seems to view itself from a distance, seems to come right up to the reader and look back from their perspective.

In an email, Maggie Hannan mentioned how, on coming across a poem she had written many years ago, she had the strange experience of not quite recognising it but knowing it to be familiar. This uncanny sense is partly the consequence of time, as writing maintains a trace of our past selves. But, as Hannan demonstrates in Liar, Jones, it is also fundamental to the tricky weirdness of language. All poetry is a stranger to us, even if we were the ones who wrote it down, from the moment it came from our tongues and pens. We notice this most when we stop.

The front cover of The Poetry Review winter 2020 issue is a painting by Anna Jensen. It features images taken from poems in the issue: a petrol pump, a fire and a bison, as well as two dogs pulling a sled and a big blue tent.Charles Whalley is a freelance critic. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:4, winter 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.