"In modern times, poets write parodies about love. They send themselves up. Love poetry has become a form of retaliating first."
E.A. Markham, The Guardian, 13 February 1999
I wrote last week about the American domination of the British National Poetry Prize. Reciprocal transatlantic appreciation continues as, last week, we saw an American judge award an English poet in a prestigious Irish prize.
The fifth annual €10,000 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, or 'the most lucrative prize in the world for a single poem', was awarded to Abigail Parry this year for her poem, 'Arterial'. The poem is a lover's lament and a meditation on the cultural iconography of hearts, spoken from a lay-by on the M4.
There is clear parity between Parry's poem and this year's National Poetry Prize winner, 'Night Errand'. Both poems capture nocturnal, solipsistic, heart-broken moments of quiet desperation. Both poems are situated in lonely yet crowded places, one in the thoroughfare of a shopping mall, and the other on a motorway.
These poems both seem so necessary and immediate because of how they obliquely capture that mime-artist-suffocating-in-a-glass-box feeling that comes with a life lived as a curated online presence with all the unprocessed chaos of the private world kept hidden, secret, offline. 2016 is shaping up to be a year of cultural, political and economic national despair for England and America. It is a year where, in all spheres, emotional sincerity and vulnerable candour is the much-needed salve for the political rhetoric and marketing jargon that fills our screens and speakers and asks us to settle for a broken status quo.
I first met Abi at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Mayfair. It was the Summer of 2010 and we were both there to receive Eric Gregory Awards. Of the five of us who received awards that year, one has gone on to become the editor of Poetry London, one received this year's TS Eliot Award, and now Abi has scooped up the Ballymaloe. I was in intimidatingly good company that year.
That first time I saw Abi at the red-carpeted, high-ceilinged gentlemen's club, she was wearing fluorescent pink dreadlocks and making conversation with strangers whilst doing this sort of enthusiastic half-dance she falls into when telling an anecdote, suddenly swinging from one foot to the other in a dramatic cadence. From a linguistic perspective, Parry's poetry is always half dancing. The disruptive enjambment of 'Arterial' is entirely mimetic of the experience of Parry's inimitable way of holding a listener's attention whilst telling a story:
"At eighty miles an hour, I find it hard
not to think of myself as a rope-bag full of blood
thrown forward faster than it was meant to go -
the ventricles, the veins and valves, the arteries,
whose A is a rude mnemonic, and also means
As much as the language, it's in the line-breaks that Abi's poems get their kick.
In the years since that first meeting with Abi, I have shared many readings, workshops, e-mails and, on one wonderful occasion, late night whiskeys in a garden in Ledbury. I once took a group of my teaching colleagues to a gig I was playing at the Betsey Trotwood and they were all enraptured with Parry's work and her style of delivery. A few of them approached her after the reading asking if she would come to our school and read to the children; she'd excited us about poetry in a way we try to do for the children every day.
I've been privileged to see a bit of the work that has not yet made it out for public consumption and have always found her poems to be gothic, mystic, sinister, incantatory and hauntingly memorable. 'Arterial' feels like something altogether more personal.
There is a canon of sorts behind the scenes of Arterial. There is Brontë's red room, Hughes' jaguar, Plath's resolve, and Angela Carter is definitely lurking somewhere just off the hard shoulder. My favourite moment of allusion in the poem comes in its most confessional moment:
"These are not helpful thoughts,
said the therapist, behind her wedded fingers.
Also - We cannot treat you for a broken heart.
I went away with sertraline instead - a little oil
for a scrapped Tin Man."
The recasting of the famous moment in The Wizard of Oz where the Tin Man has his joints oiled to get him moving as a metaphor for antidepressants is a powerful one. The jolt between Oz and the therapist's office is potent too, and it pulls the rug from under all of the seemingly glib heart images which this poem interrogates and undermines. I also wonder if Seth Macfarlane wasn't somewhere in the poet's subconscious when she chose this image.
In swapping correspondence with Abi recently, she had this to say to on the construction of the poem and has been kind enough to allow me to share it:
"A few years ago, on Valentine's Day, I was listening Bob Dylan on the radio. He acknowledged the occasion by very slowly reading out the annotations to an anatomical diagram of the human heart. It really tickled me, and that tension - between the figurative and the crudely anatomical - has interested me ever since.
Funnily enough, I thought of you when I was drafting this poem. Specifically, I thought of that poem of yours that cautions poets never to invest in beautiful stationery, as anything one tries to write on beautiful stationery turns to doggerel (ed. she is referring to my poem, Stage Fright). I really did write this at Membury service station, and didn't have any paper to hand, and ended up trying to get it all down on a rizla packet. When I ran out of space, I started on the rizlas. I ended up filling the front seat of the car with sad confetti. Anyway - I thought of your poem, and assured myself that I'd given my poem the best possible start in life, according to your logic."
Is Abigail Parry a nationally famous poet? Is she studied in schools? Has her debut collection managed to bridge divides between niche and mainstream audiences? Is she performing to sell-out audiences at the Royal Festival Hall? Have I made a vast sum of money by selling the copy of the Society of Authors Awards programme I had her sign in 2010? If you are reading these words in the year I wrote them, then the answer is 'Not yet.' If you are reading them ten years hence, then the answer is 'I told you so.'Suggest a correction