Kate Fox’s popular study of contemporary Englishness, Watching the English, applies not just to our national character but to a lot of contemporary English poetry too. English manners, she says, are either ‘over polite, buttoned up and awkwardly restrained or loud’. After a few drinks, our restraint can result in aggressive behaviour, particularly if our privacy is threatened.’ We fear being ‘straightforward’, she concludes, and ‘aspire to modesty’.
In English poetry, these characteristics translate into a deep unease about political poetry. That is unless it’s performance poetry, in which case poets can express our resentments and frustrations, often wittily, provided they’re not too ‘posh’, ‘middle class’ or intellectual.
Philip Fried, a US poet, whose Squaring the Circle
, is published in unabashed Ireland, may seriously offend these ‘sensibilities’. He’s not only a very political poet, he also writes amusing but challenging poems about religion, science and philosophy. His collection is a great read if you like verse packed with allusions, puns, ideas and word-play. Some English readers may dismiss them as ‘willed’, ‘too forced’ or contrived. Not me, I had fun reading them.
The collection is divided into four parts. The first – Powers of 10 – explores questions about God and the Universe using tropes derived from contemporary science and maths. From time to time, bits of autobiography make their way into some poems. Often, God himself appears, sometimes sounding a little like Ted Hughes’s Crow:
Have I been to Disneyfield, God wonders?
(‘God as Float’)
Then, absent-mindedly, God rubber stamped
Nobody’s passport with the Sun and Moon
God can be both a character in Fried’s home, New York (e.g. ‘God the Busker’, a statistician or a doctor): or the city itself, ‘Doctor, I’m a little bit like Manhatten, / Starting as a settlement at the tip/ Of possibility. (‘God Says’)
After reading these poems, I couldn’t help but wonder if Fried believes in God. On reflection, I’d venture to say that he is agnostic but deeply affected both by God’s presence and his absence; God is ‘’indiscernible at his Director’s desk’. Fried likes poking fun at our conceptions of the deity ‘in his green plastic Gambler’s visor’ (‘Cloud of Knowing’ – the title echoing a medieval English text – and the image referencing Einstein’s comment about Quantum Mechanics – more of that in the collection’s second part). The trinity (i.e. ‘old-time religion’) is explored in his impious but not ungodly poem about carbon paper and ballpoint pens, ‘In Triplicate’.
On one brilliant occasion, Fried himself is God-like:
Express me, I who was not famous like Pi,
Not yet anyway, but a garden variety square
Root of, take your pick, 3.5, or 11,
And so could go on and on and on……….’.
In the second part, – The Quantum Mechanics of Everyday Life – autobiography comes to the fore with family and childhood recollections. The title poem concerns his ninety something mother, who at night imagines she is twelve again, having to dash to the bathroom to avoid a predatory cat. Levels shift in this poem, time dissolves, and it ends up being God’s reply to Einstein on quantum mechanics:
God to Einstein: My universe, my bones,
My house, my rules, my ivories, my tombstones.
The death of his Grandpa, described as the formation of a Black Hole, transforms his relative into ‘the crushed and crushing Patriach’. (‘Event/ Horizon’). School features too, as a system of spiritual and intellectual restriction:
One brooding rebel gnashing teeth to endure
The gentle affixing of A+ like a cure
The third part, Cutting Edge, moves between post apocalyptic monologues – including a parody declaration of independence by cybernetic systems – and pre-apocalyptic satires on US militarism. The technique Fried uses is to describe a process – like invading another country – in terms of something else (like the Passover story, or aeroponics – the airborne bombing version of hydroponics – or recipes like ‘The War on Leeks’). Registers get swapped around, metaphors extended. This is all highly entertaining stuff.
One of my favourite poems from this section is a parody of WC Williams, which tackles the ’no idea but in things’ principle straight on:
So much was risked
A red lopsided
Beside the repo’d
(“no ideas but in things….”)
This poem shows, on the contrary, that ideas (like foreclosure) can become things or define them. Bankruptcy is, after all, even more real to some people than a plum.
‘Interrogating Stress’ is more characteristic of his ingenious but knockabout approach. Stress is the subject of the narrator’s violent, illegal interrogation. In the process, of course, we interrogate stress as a social and verbal construct. We also learn stuff we might not have known about before. For example, I found out (thanks be to both Fried and Google) that the opposite of distress is eustress. Stress is called ’the aphetic / jihadi of PTSD’, a metaphor which is both metaphysical and uncomfortably political.
Arguably, the most interesting poem in this part – and maybe the most discursive – is Posterity Posse. This is an exploration of posterity in ‘the end of history’ era. In true Audenesque fashion, it’s a gathering of elegant and related sayings and verbal games (in fact, at one point Fried breaks posterity down into a series of Scrabble possibilities). Posterity, Fried declares, joining the hubristic present with a non-human future, will be a ‘Mega-dossier, awaiting its alien reader’. Of course, since we live at ‘the end of history’, we must actually be the posterity everyone has been talking about for so long (since the Middle Ages, Fried points out, sharing an interesting etymological fact and showing that the future has a history too). The poem rounds off by breaking down traditional taxonomies in our postmodern, and perhaps soon to be post human, world:
I’ve fled the future to ghost the fugitive moment.
Our connection is real, imaginary and instant
The final part, The World’s Big Show, isn’t, as far as I can see, fundamentally different from the preceding section except that it is more focussed on domestic matters rather than foreign wars and apocalypse. Accordingly, it is the destination for several poems about flags. One uses the form of a mock problem page where various versions of the stars and stripes (a decal, a t shirt etc.) complain about their relationships. The second is about folding the flag, which has to be done in a particular way apparently, and features Apollo, one of a number of classical references in the poems, where mythological or historical figures from the classical world become actors in our own, another Audenesque feature of his work.
This and other poems in this section concern the means by which US society structures our consciousness to accept its war games and destructive consumerism (cf Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ or ‘The Unknown Citizen’). ‘Package Insert’ for example predicates a hypocrisy drug by providing advice about its usage and side effects. Resistance to this establishment mind control is present in the form of his grandmother, watching US all-in wrestling and seeing how the contestants have become ‘avatars’ of American might.
The section and collection ends with a poem ‘Hullabaloo’. Here the microscopic becomes political – with epidermal cells described as agents of health – a trope ( the body politic) that was also used by Auden in his late great poem, ‘Talking to Myself’.
This is a brilliant book, full of fun, controlled anger and dazzling word play. It breaks the rules of English poetry because it enjoys – like many of us who moved on from humble backgrounds – ‘the life of the mind’. Once upon a time, this was the sort of poetry that could only be written by privileged people like Auden. It’s great to see Fried occupy and share a space once reserved for the upper middle class, with such zest, ethical passion and wit.
Jonathan Timbers is a human rights worker and qualified solicitor. His poetry has been published in Neon Highway, Interpreter’s House, Pennine Platform and Oxford Poetry. From 2014-15, he was town mayor for Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd and has spoken about Ted Hughes’s war poetry at Ted Hughes poetry festivals in Mytholmroyd and Mexborough, South Yorkshire. He is one of the few people living in Hebden Bridge who has ever worked in a military tank factory.