Issue 9

Autumn 2013


Al McClimens, The Suicide of John Keats, Ivan Brown Publishing, 18pp.

McClimens is a popular act in the South Yorkshire circuit of performance poets. This pamphlet, reflects some of the energy and wit audiences respond to in his live act, as in the sonnet ‘Egress’ which describes the difficulty of encouraging unwanted guests to leave, ending:

But what? In two minutes they had a sign.
It said simply – ‘This way to the Egress’.
Not knowing what this meant we had to guess.

I might have punctuated this differently, but I like the joke, nevertheless, and by not explaining itself, it creates an audience “on side” with the poet, exactly what is wanted in performance, though perhaps the sort of poem one only reads once in a collection.

But the witticism belies a dexterity of form, too. Of the eighteen poems here, eleven are villanelles and the remainder sonnets. Both forms are well-handled. The villanelle, of course, does well on stage because of its repeated lines, and McClimens capitalises on this, as in the volume’s first poem, ‘The John Keats Blues’ with its refrains of ‘Sometimes, y’know, I just think, fuck it all’ and ‘Vodka, vimto, paracetamol!’ Audiences approve such repetitions with the poetry equivalent of fans at a Queen concert when the anthems ‘We will rock you’ or ‘Another one bites the dust’ burst from the amps. 

Does that mean that these poems are merely throwaway wit, built to their rhymes, elbowing out any serious intent? Well, there’s a fair bit of playfulness in the book, yes, but McClimens is also pushing it a little deeper than oneliners. One core idea is a reimagining of Keats. In his introduction he says, ‘what if Keats had better management, an agent, someone to look after his image...what then?’ McClimens, tongue in cheek, puts Keats into contemporary jeans, and pairs him with Hendrix, Cobain, Winehouse. He has a point, in fact – Keats in the contemporary world would have flared and burned in quite a different way from the depression, frustrations and final sense of failure he appears to have felt in 1821. There is nothing comic in the final poem, the title poem ‘The Suicide of John Keats’, which is essentially a lament, recording key details of the poet’s death. It’s not a profound poem, being largely descriptive of the event, but I think there is a real sense of loss within it. Loss, of course, can be well served by the villanelle and perhaps a poem like this will be appreciated by open mike audiences too, given its essential simplicity.

McClimens’ poems emerge from two impulses, I think. On the one hand there’s popular culture, revamped, almost in a Pythonesque concatenation of ideas, through the juxtaposition of cultural references with some hitherto unconnected, usually serious, plane of thought. Result, humour. ‘Dirty Harry Tries to Write a Sonnet’, for example, begins with a clever joke:

I know what you’re thinking. Now did he pen
Six lines or only five?

and manages to sustain the idea, pretty cleverly in my view, throughout. There’s more than punning wit here. It takes real intelligence to build a sonnet about writing a sonnet in a way which is not tired, is able to sustain the Dirty Harry conceit throughout and makes, by my count, three major jokes en route. It’s not the sort of poem we’d publish in Antiphon, I expect, but it is the sort of poem that makes you wish you were an editor of a light verse magazine, because it’d be straight in there.

McClimens’ other motivation seems to be human pathos, a certain wistful regret. ‘The Suicide of John Keats’,  ‘Climbing the Matterhorn’ ‘Until They Break Your Heart’ and ‘Requiem for A Cambridge Moment’ are all wistful, nostalgic, regretful poems. These seem more telling than the comic, more human and more likely to be re-read. True, they touch on different subjects but they nevertheless seem to come from the same mood in the poet, a desire to characterise loss. I did feel that there might be better poems if the formal constraints were perhaps relaxed a little, so looser forms might serve this side of the poet better, but even so the emotional content is clear.

And perhaps that’s why the humour is so prevalent, too. Its use protects the writer from being too closely connected to his subject. So I wonder what removing the witty cultural references might result in, what a less raucous, more considered collection from this poet might look like, with the clever stuff excised and the emotional stuff fully engaged. Which is not to say that it’s not very funny at times: it is. But I get the feeling two poets are working here, and perhaps they should each be given their own separate, opportunity.