I listened to an interview with Ann Wroe the other day about how she selects subjects for obituaries in The Economist. She said the decision often turns on the question of what life events make a good story. Wroe performs a kind of connect-the-dots exercise of a life between the events, and then connects the life events to the reader.
So what makes a good story in poetry? No matter what the style – freeform, concrete, Shakespearean sonnet — a poem should be relatable to the reader, and speak to the reader in a way that connects the dots. This is why issues of love, relationships, art, the life of writers, and ethics make for good poetry.
In his book, Breeze Block, Jake Hawkey finds plenty on which to draw for a good story. The poem, Emma, for example, takes love, and connects the dots for the reader, using the plainest of language to describe something commonplace, yet spectacular:
“I will love you
with all the simplicity of
how a child draws a house;”
And in Guts of a Piano in the Rain Beneath a Block of Beautiful Brutalist Flats, he writes of relationships:
“A lecturer remarks that I have too many traumatised women in my work. I say I have too many traumatised women in my life.”
There’s the story — love, relationships — and the reader follows the dots Hawkey has so carefully placed. In the same poem, the dots are connected between pop culture and the reader:
“A pop star singing a song claiming their ex doesn’t matter and then another ‘smash’ claiming their ex doesn’t matter even more than last time; their album is titled M8 U DNT MATR.”
What a great comment on love, relationships, and their merchandising.
Matchstick Poem 1is a favourite of mine, however, because it gets meta. (Connect people with the poets and we’ll love you forever!)
“Where do poets buy their blazers?
The poet throws in a few fucks
like we don’t all know he’s living
off his father’s Property Portfolio.”
But the poem that is the most haunting, the one I keep returning to, is The Prince. It deals with the allegations of sexual abuse of underage girls by Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and others, including Prince Andrew. Hawkey has pulled quotations from the Prince’s disastrous interview with BBC Newsnight, cutting and pasting, some verbatim, along with his own original work:
“I have a tendency to be too honourable, but that’s just me. A house like a railway station, which I’m at a loss to explain… I was shot at during the Falklands… I was at Pizza Express in Woking, helping myself to Hot Honey, Pulled Lamb…”
Prince Andrew was flown to Epstein’s private island on Epstein’s private plane, now dubbed the Lolita Express. He claims photographs of him in the company of underage girls have been photoshopped. But even if it can’t be proved that he sexually abused minors himself, did the Prince honestly believe there was nothing wrong with the number of minors present at these gatherings? That he just didn’t know? As they say in law, the more unreasonable a belief, the less likely it will seem to have been honestly held.
One could argue the Prince is an easy target, so inept a public speaker at interview, presenting as arrogant, so confident his privilege would shore up lame excuses for the friendship with Epstein and Maxwell. One could argue that the poem practically wrote itself.
Except it didn’t. Prince Andrew’s choices and conduct have written this story, but Hawkey has crafted the poem from it, giving the subject of sexual abuse the moral outrage it deserves. He and the reader connect the dots. As they say over there, it’s really quite brilliant.