Sunday, September 2, 2012

Back to Work

Over the last couple of days, I've been intrigued and beguiled by William Letford's first collection, Bevel (Carcanet, 2012).

A roofer by trade, this Scottish poet is rare among contemporary writers for his engagement with the world of work. I've often thought it strange that literature rarely engages with work, Larkin's hated 'toad', despite the fact that most people spend a good chunk of their lives engaged in it. For all of its faults, one thing that could be said for the literary culture of communist countries was its persistent examination of what it meant to be a worker (even if it didn't always do so very realistically).

Letford's account, however, has nothing to do with the politics of labour, despite the inclusion of one brief poem that compares work to slavery ('A bad day'). The very title of this one piece suggests that this is not Letford's usual attitude to his working life. His writing is, in fact, squarely within the wisdom tradition where, as Rachael Boast points out, poetry has its roots; and it is an existential truth about working life, particularly involving manual work, that Letford is after. In these poems, work is a human instinct ('Waking for work in winter'), a mode of being, and an acquired craft ('Be prepared'; 'Wit is it'), yet at no point does Letford appear to make a direct metaphor for poetry out of the processes of manual work. In fact, in 'It's aboot the labour', the craftsman's incomprehension for the poet's desire to get his poems published is presented not patronisingly as ignorance, but with a sense that he may well be right.

Many of Letford's poems are brief and have the appearance of formal casualness, long relaxed lines giving the impression of prose poetry at times. But these often lead us gently to a killer pay-off that is emotionally arresting without being showy. In other poems, however, he explores the space of the page, introducing concrete elements. There's a gentle humour throughout, but no satirising of his subjects, and it's possibly the poems about human (sexual) relationships that, alongside the poems about work, will repay re-reading. Here the sense of wisdom acquired in the work poems gives way to a world-weariness that seems to preclude lasting relationships, as in his 'Sex poem number 2', where the the couple are described as 'two people rooting around for something beautiful/ so we could grind it/ to dust'.

This is an original d├ębut by a fascinating new voice.

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