In the eleven years since Luke Kennard won the Eric Gregory Award for The Solex Brothers, he has released five collections, two pamphlets, a novella and has a debut novel scheduled for release in 2017. It has also been a decade which has seen him become the youngest ever nominee for a Forward Prize, a member of the Next Generation Poets 2014 and, last year, he became the nation's first Canal Laureate.
Kennard's influence on his contemporaries is wide-ranging; it is common for interviewees on Maurice Riordan's podcast to cite him as an inspiration and it is hard not to see Simon Armitage's last full collection as a partial response to Kennard's refurbishment of the absurdist prose poetry of Baudelaire. When Kennard's publisher famously closed their doors to new single-author collections in 2013, the question of where he would take his next project felt just as important as the moment when Tarantino left Miramax for pastures new.
It was a significant event in the poetry calendar then, last Monday, when Tom Chivers' label, Penned in the Margins, launched Kennard's latest collection, Cain, in a private members club named Library. Seven years ago, Chivers and Kennard both launched collections in the dark, sweaty basement of a rock bar called 'The Slaughtered Lamb' whilst stood in front of a red, neon-lit pentagram. It was heartening to see the two of them on stage together again, this time stood in front of a neon-lit sign which read 'Shh... It's a LIBRARY'.
Image © Phil Brown
Kennard's poetry has always hinged on the tension of self-aware, deconstructive wit undermining the desire to achieve emotional honesty. From his debut collection onwards, Kennard's most entertaining works often read like an esoteric, polysyllabic riff on the antagonism between ventriloquist and dummy. His previous creations include the recurring character of 'The Wolf', the sadistic social worker in 'The Murderer' and the asylum-bound poet in 'Planet Shaped Horse', all of whom represent the internal bickering which plagues the creative process.
Cain is an ambitious continuation of this theme, and Kennard's first attempt at a collection which entirely centres around one cohesive concept. The opening sequence depicts an emotional breakdown on the part of the poet which sends him into alcoholic hermitage:
"I grew an unconvincing beard. / I took two weeks' compassionate leave then switched to Laphroaig in my coffee and gave lectures about Imagism and the Beats where my voice was like a distant siren..." (A Stranger's Disaster)
And then, at the poet's lowest ebb, Cain arrives like a sadistic key-worker in a similar manner to the way Hughes' Crow swoops into Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers:
"He presents his papers. This is Cain. / Everyone is very concerned about you. / We have come to make sure you don't do / anything stupud. 'Stupud?' 'Probably a typo,' / Cain says. ' It's probably meant to say stupid.'"
The rest of the sequence follows the destructive relationship between Cain and the fictional 'Kennard' as the two voices attempt to wrangle the poems in opposite directions. The 'Kennard' voice strives for the confessional, for the emotional honesty and soul-searching of poems such as 'Self-Portrait at Primary School' and 'On Being Very Annoying'. We then have the inclination toward the ironic and the pop-culture meta-textuality evoked in Cain's interjections:
'Doing stuff on your phone / means you're not concentrating on the show, / and watching a show means / you're not writing anything coherent on your phone. It ruins both activities - you might as well be dead.' (Binge)
What makes these lines so ironic is that they precede a long, audacious sequence of poems called 'The Anagrams' in which the reader is forced to simultaneously read thirty-one poems surrounded by a bed of tiny commentaries on those poems written in an attention-grabbing red font.
Kennard's long-form 'Anagrams' at the centre of this collection are a piece of formal genius. Each one contains a rearrangement of the letters in Genesis 4:9-12, forming a series of sitcom episodes in which 'Cain' is forced to live alongside 'Father K' and a character named 'Adah'. Each poem is accompanied by a lengthy 'Episode Guide' in which one of the sitcom creators describes a fictionalised account of the creative process that went into the poem:
"Staff writer James Ingram recalls the atmosphere in the room when they realised that the letters b, i, t, c, h, d, i, t, t, o were left over..." (vi)
And then, as expected, an antagonistic schism begins to form between the poems and their accompanying commentary:
"You know, it only occurs to me now that this episode was taking aim at my own episode guides, written and published the same night as the original broadcast date. Mine specifically. Mine, and mine alone." (xxvi)
The idea of viewing the anagram as a type of sitcom, re-casting and rearranging the same combination of characters for comic effect is inspired. Reading the anagram poems in tandem with the self-critical, embittered commentaries upon them feels akin to watching Community in tandem with Dan Harmon's ranting, embittered comments on the production process.
The collection is perhaps at its darkest and funniest in its closing moments. In the penultimate poem, 'Genealogy', the poet is delighted to discover that 'my great-great-uncles were murdered outside a pub in 19th century Cumbria', which means that 'I'm more northern and more working class than my detractors', which is 'very marketable'. What then follows is a poem on this very topic titled 'Shroud for William and Richard Jeffrey', a post-modern echo of Hughes' 'Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar' and a mild lampooning of more recent poets' root-tracing projects. In Cain, Kennard dramatically repurposes the skill he exemplifies better than any poet writing today; he makes deconstruction into a profoundly creative act. Like listening to John Berryman's The Dream Songs being remixed by Stewart Lee, Kennard elevates himself, his craft and his peers by masterfully undermining them.