Harbour Beyond the Movie
I recall a review years ago of a young poet already hailed across the United States, perhaps across the English poetry-reading world. Praise had risen from the professoriate, the little magazines, the bigger tabloids, and possibly the odd glossy magazine with a brow high enough to publish a poem or two. But of all that I remember only two things: the name of the reviewer was Helen Vendler of Harvard, and Professor Vendler, with a nod to the rising fame of her subject, was not one iota pleased. I no longer remember the poet's name, the title of the book, and not so much as a syllable of the writing. Was it even a he writing, or a she?
The task of rejecting a new poet in print falls now, thankfully, not to me. On the contrary. To be no ‘Hard Stepmother to poets,’ as Sir Philip Sidney called all England not too long before the renaissance of poetry and drama arrived, is a good thing.
Already much lauded and awarded, Luke Kennard has authored, at the age of 26, The Harbour Beyond The Movie with pleasures and illuminations for even the most demanding reader, page after page. And the most demanding reader gets – perhaps – the most from this collection, as many of the poems impress with extraordinary integrity and fecund inventiveness too novel to have found their critic, who would have to live with this work longer than I have in order to write worthy criticism.
An age of Spensers and Miltons is not upon us in the twenty-first century, and neither has one passed away in living memory of the twentieth century. But readers and as writers all poets young and old in the UK and US would do well to read Luke Kennard, a poet of genius. Only the poetry of Maurice Manning—an American not quite twenty years older than Kennard— matches his achievements.
Shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize and wholly deserving of winning it, Kennard’s collection is superb throughout and includes always ambitious and sometimes difficult poetry. If the title proposes an image to capture the human lot of our culture failing our nature, and our nature is to know and to enjoy the res naturae (the works of nature), the book unforgettably returns to the theme over and again. Indeed, it satisfies our need—no doubt a part of us all and as old in theory as Plato and Aristotle—for poetry to represent our nature and even nature herself: mimesis.
Yet, The Harbour Beyond The Movie stands aloof from surfaces or discursive editorial, and from lamenting realism. Whatever else we might call Kennard’s stylish, kaleidoscopic and affecting book, it is objective and unsentimental. It probes that crowd of ideas, notions, and passions which hold us a captive video-watching audience, as Martin Laird has put so well, of our interior life, or of setting in relief the outer world by that inner one, the mind. Often along the lines of dramatic monologue, in contemporary dress, with precursors (not to say models) in Eliot’s Prufrock or Larkin’s Bleaney, Kennard renders the perspective and consciousness of different individuals, not least the ethos, however strange and estranging, of the poet himself. There is a strong and visionary power running through poems, like those of Petrarch’s Rime sparse, of various style, ‘Del vario stile in ch’io piango e ragiono.’ But Kennard’s hard-wrought style works not for bravura effect but for a realism of a higher kind.
Kennard’s is a voice in the way Milton meant voice, in the first two lines of ‘At a Solemn Music’:
Which is to say that ‘Voice’ signifies all that the word assumes of importance: the very words themselves (vox in Latin means, as Milton remembers, both ‘voice’ and ‘word’) of a poem, together and apart, their sound and meaning, distinct but indistinguishable, and all that these reveal of the speaker, who troubles as a poet, to put them into metre. Associated with Homeric sirens, the music of the spheres, and God Himself, voice is a grace to be deeply cherished and reverently used.
That, nothing less, is what Kennard has done in The Harbour Beyond The Movie, his second collection, with novelty springing up perhaps from Milton’s three sources but surely from a mighty and quick imagination and, from time to time, the present day, both subject and collaborator. Thus, we meet in ‘a famous puppy, / A dozen gold pins in her forehead; / A tendency to speak ill of the dead’ a character as vivid as any in prose fiction, the more alive and compelling as a creature called into existence with a modicum of words.
The first virtue of voice is immediate, then continuous: it must charm and persuade from the very start, and never stop. So the great poet Sandy Hutchison: ‘Certainly if you are tone-deaf or cloth-eared in any context you might as well pack it in.’
The question I cannot really address, what does Kennard sound like? is perhaps a moot one since the poet’s mind is too pregnant and agile to admit of classification. The ambition is intuitive: to give free rein—yet reins there are—to observation and imagination. The difficulty is creative, with its own gravity: we dwell gratefully under its force, even if we cannot always place its origin, because we are reading a poet of the most prolific and original art, who repays the attention he attracts.
In an instant of recognition, Kennard writes, in propria persona, ‘I would sooner have no tongue than nothing to say,’ which speaks volumes about the poet’s—all poets’—desire and duty to reality, to mimesis. But Kennard’s very saying, his voice, is properly challenging and well-nigh inexhaustible because it does justice to reality and mimesis and because it comes as naturally to Kennard as breathing. Alluding to Keats, I might as well say what I feel: since Keats, Kennard shows as much talent as any poet his age in the history of English poetry.
made is a thing created. Kennard’s poems are hugely intelligent,
sympathetic, and moving things, in free verse and prose. We love what
we do not understand—the beloved, to begin with, the classics
of literature, art, music, and philosophy, too, pleasing, in Dr Johnson’s
phrase, all and always, on condition of their mystery—and each
of these 33 poems is loveable for being, however straightforward and
oblique, as undeniable and multi-form as life itself. They embody the
deepest gifts for word, image, metaphor, symbol, allegory, and form
patiently and gorgeously. They brim with invention and self-invention.
New, and published just two years after the first collection, The
Solex Brothers, they promise more to come, which is most welcome.