I have known Martin for 47 years. I was there in those heady days of the Seventies when everything seemed possible via the small presses and little magazines. Both of us went into higher education in the early 1980s and, out the other end, there was a little arts council money for writing and publishing.
By this time Martin had established joe soap’s canoe as an innovative magazine, soaking up American influences (particularly The New York School of Poetry). Alongside his own publishing, there began the steady stream of poetry collections, many of which I still have and treasure – and must number over twenty by now!
Keeping faith is all and needs to be continually galvanised.
By way of a tribute, here is a short review of Martin’s collection Faith 2009.
“I believe in you because I can’t stop.”
Martin Stannard’s Faith, published by Shadow Train Books, is a ‘must have’ volume of poetry.
The power of its title is of course the weakness of the word, faith.
“...like Homer Simpson said, I wish God
was still alive
to see this: a not madly handsome man, great clouds, moonlight--"
If humanity gave up faith great cathedrals would
lie empty at the centre of our cities and fill with the homeless, and shrines
would overgrow with nettles and thorns; yet, if a lone man loses faith there’s
no one else to hear his fall from the cliff. Of course, this book's faith is
not in or about God per se but the faith in all things poet Martin Stannard
embraces – the word, beginning and end.
At centre here is the individual pitched into an upside-down world, alone, alienated and almost segregated from the familiar objects, furnishings, places and people most near to him. Yet this is no therapeutic meandering for that would suggest the poet is searching for his real self - or his other self - when the act of writing for this poet is the delicious means to know oneself. Faith steps outside the personal and confessional quest to find 'faith' (activity) in the delight of language, of the mind's voice.
Indeed, the muse and the literary tradition require a kind of faith as the catalyst for writing and the historic lineage for both ones reading and writing. What if you lose faith in this? What if you find yourself outside the literary castle, cut off from access to it? Or what if one day the castle appears more mortar than stone?
On an immediate level Faith takes apart the accepted notions of a book of poetry. The appendices are more fictional than the poetry they append.
Appendix 1 Autobiography begins “Anne
Shelton was my mum from 1952 to 1957,” while Appendix 2 is a list of
the poet’s favourite pop bands (’The Blunt Pinks’ being my favourite,
for personal reasons).
The opening poem Welcome begins
Hello, sound of traffic
Hello, my darling
Hello, light from the sky
Hello, my insides
Hello, tap and towel...
Full of child-like optimism this opening poem is followed on the facing page by a minute length play script set in the foyer of a book of poems. Thus Martin Stannard has effectively enveloped his book of poems in compositions and structures from other genres. The playful parameters of his book have been set: this isn’t a dry religious faith we’re going to explore; and this isn't another volume of worthy but dry poetry. This poet can make you laugh as the lump in your throat grows difficult to swallow. Why shouldn't poetry be a play or even play dough?
In ‘My Feet. They Deserve Iambic Slippers’ the poet takes a swipe at meter; or rather he takes a humorous dig at poets and scholars and scholarly poets who still believe set traditional forms can only house poetry. He attempts to scan a line of his poetry (his foot). A collision of iambs and trochees takes place (and the feet don't know themselves at all).
I’ve never quite understood prosody (the study of poetic forms). Actually, I’m absolutely fascinated by the historic study of poetic forms but I sometimes wonder if we’ve yet to enter the 20th Century let alone the 21st .
For Shakespeare, iambic pentameters were not just written for the court, their construction was an engaging reflection of the refined language of that court, of our rulers. In sweeping historical terms, much poetry has been written for the court over centuries, while the first public library didn’t open until the 1840s in Britain and books weren’t available to all until the last century, thereby there existed huge divisions in language (spoken, written and read). Indeed, Shakespeare acknowledged such a division in the register and vocabulary of language used in addressing his audience of underlings and lords.
Even today, dialect and the colloquial use of language makes meter (poetry as a musical score) ridiculous. Around here “chew-ing” (two syllables) is “chewn” (one syllable). And what of commas, full stops and all manner of devices to pause or hurry words on the page?
Irreverently but in playful fun Martin, hand on brow, enters the world of the real poet:
I’m asleep. All of me’s snoozing. My feet
might be touching the foot of the bed
but I’m not sure. It might be
a brick. No. It’s not a brick: it’s one
of those things you stack on top of
one another to make a house. Oh yeah,
it’s a brick.
or perhaps it’s the front end of a horse.
it’s my sleep and it could be
a lugubrious tree. Or sixpence the subject
of an argument in a shop. I ate some cheese
before I came to bed perchance to dream:
& what’s happened to my feet?
Martin uses a range of devices which take us from and to the core of his conversational style: grammatical twists, unexpected line breaks, lists, literary asides and conceits among them.
’A Relation Of Years’ is among my favourites (I’ve read and written enthusiastically about the Coral sequence and the fantastic POEM (I’m home this evening) elsewhere). ‘A Relation Of Years’ is written in the poet's more conversational, relaxed style and though edged with his ever enduring humour it is lonely, dark, clinging to faith:
Blood spilled on the broken tapestry
hills foreign in my mouth as if
uneven speech. I stood there and spat
into the wind and it came back at me
it came back at me and was my failure
with family. All those things I never said and
reached the death bed and thought about all that
had never been said. My mother and my father
and how much I love them and how often
all that had been in my mind had never been
said. But the darkness of dawn never lifted
and the dusk of early evening was the same as
the dawn. Cold and grey
Real faith means all is possible but when following faith religiously all possibility is curtailed; and, in a metaphysical sort of way, if you've the former faith your very words take you where they will:
"I'd only been about 68 miles/and there was a whole world to go."
It is of no surprise that Martin was destined to
return to China, the geographical journey of his metaphysical muse.
This marvellous book is but the transition between England and China, though it owes its influence - its fluent and fluid style - to the New York Poets, Kenneth Koch and Martin's own US contemporaries. Martin is one of the very few contemporary English poets whose work is both challenging and accessible while increasingly universal in outlook.
Keep the Faith.
Copyright © Rupert Mallin, 2022