came to Martin Stannard's poetry relatively late, when, at a book fair,
I picked up a pamphlet entitled "Easter" (published 1994). The easy,
familiar tone and the quick wit drew me in to what was at first just a
pleasant read. Then, imperceptibly, the poetry took me to to a zone of
wonder and disorientation that was exhilirating. Fast forward twenty-six
years and, by 2020, I had the honour of being Martin's publisher, when
the third title of his that I published, "Reading Moby Dick and Other
Matters", was released. It's a beautiful object (I can say that as the
book design was all Martin's). And the title poem, "Reading Moby Dick"
has all the features I'd been struck by in "Easter" but with an added
sophistication that the intervening years of poetic practice had brought
to it. It opens with a knowing dodgy joke - "Call me optimistic..."
which sets the tone of irreverence and tongue-in-cheek meanderings. The
poem re-enacts the experience of reading a great novel in which your own
reality blurs with that of the work itself; Melville's words blur into
the poet's, the language of the latter morphing into a strange hybrid of
his own idiom and the novelist's. The poem is a masterful piece of work
which, like that little short-run pamphlet from the 90s, takes us to
those undefinable regions that only the best poetry can reach.
I know of several people who found Martin's poetry in the same way that I did and were similarly affected by it; the poet Maria Taylor, for example, told me how her first encounter with it exactly matched mine, though she came to it years after me. We've all been through the same process: the discovery by chance in some small press chapbook or magazine, reading it over a period of years, following its changes in tone and, of course, being influenced by it, both in our poetic practice, and, in my own case, in the way that I read poetry and my ideas about it.
After discovering "Easter", I set out to investigate this mystery (to me) poet. It turned out he'd been the editor of an influential magazine - Joe Soap's canoe - which had published many of my favourite poets, and he'd collaborated with other writers and with artists. At some point I acquired the large-format artbook "From A Recluse To A Roving I Will Go" illustrated in full colour by the artist and print-maker Dale Devereux Barker. I also discovered that - as someone once quipped - Martin Stannard was the only British member of the New York school of poets. It's true that his poetry has the wit, the relaxed conversational tone and the unlaboured complexity of the NY poets some of whom he has been friends with for many years (he did, after all, organise the only UK tour of Kenneth Koch, accompanying Koch on his peregrinations round Britain). At the same time, Martin's poetry stands apart from the New Yorkers in its British sensibility; there's a sardonic resignation in his work at times and the humour can have a notably British tone. I found out - all before I met Martin, which happened about twenty years ago - that Stannard both fits and doesn't fit into UK and American strands of poetry; he's an outsider who goes his own way. This extends from the poetry into the zone of reviewing and commentary; his famous reviews provide an invaluable service in these days of social media, when, because everyone knows everyone else, straight-talking is sometimes in short supply. Meanwhile, Martin's own poetry keeps on coming and it's as good as it's ever been.
So thanks Martin. You'll hate all the fuss, I know, but it had to be done. Happy seventieth birthday and long may it continue.
The Sage Speaks of Poetry
In line with my pursuit of achievement
through non-achievement and action
through non-action, and in keeping with
my knowledge that the The Way is not The Way
and The Path, at least according
to google maps, is not The Path
we think it is, and thanks to my awareness
that a fully annotated edition of my Collected Emails
is as much an illusory goal as a stipend
from the Institute of Poetasters,
I hope one day to study the marrows and sprouts
that Consuela fetches daily from the allotment
in the same way that Martin Stannard
studies poetry, with unaffected ease
and familiarity which yet acknowledges
that beauty and mystery spring
unbidden from the earth and alike
from the pages of "A Hundred of Happiness",
"Difficulties and Exultations", "The Gracing
of Days" and so many other works of beauty
and wonder that make me think that Old Age is indeed
a flight of small birds and a shrill piping of plenty
or maybe just an accumluation of years spent
in pursuit of Nothing which, as The Wise know, is Everything.
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2022