"I am willing to pay due respect to the poetry of George Meredith, of Thomas Hardy, of DH Lawrence as part of their oeuvre, without conceding that it is as good as it might have been had they chosen to dedicate their whole lives to that form of art."
- T.S. Eliot, Introduction to A Choice of Kipling's Verse
In 2010, Keaton Henson made the album, Dear. It is a sort of introverted, post-emo, bedroom-Lo-Fi folk debut which had the strong scent of Bright Eyes, Dashboard Confessional, Damien Rice and Bon Iver clinging to every track. What made it more engaging than a simple pastiche of influences is that, glib as the lyrics often were, he clearly meant every syllable of them. The album found a wide, affectionate audience and deservedly so.
Two years later he followed this up with a vastly superior sophomore LP, Birthdays, which showed an exponential growth in the artist's lyricism and crafting of a soundscape. In the interim between albums he also put on a highly successful art show of his child-like, sinister illustrations.
The latest phase in Henson's career could broadly be described as a disassociation of sensibility then, as he has released an album of instrumental music with the cellist Ren Ford called Romantic Works and a collection of poems titled Idiot Verse with Eyewear Press. When a singer-songwriter separates their musical output and lyrical output, it is hard not to question whether the two strands are strong enough to stand alone.
In the case of Romantic Works, the results are genuinely impressive. The added orchestration of the cello creates a highly effective new dimension to his work and the prominence of piano-accompaniment over the previously favoured guitar-arrangement makes for a richer, more ambient timbre. It is also interesting to see Henson release an entire album as a collaborative project, given that most of his output and persona seems to draw on the ideas of solipsism and reclusion.
Idiot Verse then, is the most risky departure from Henson's roots to date; the mis-guided attempts of songwriters and actors to transition into the world of poetry is an all too familiar sight, and one which is often met with sneering derision from the literary world. Henson is clearly aware of this risk as his eponymous opening poem reads like a creative disclaimer:
'no, it's not meant to be clever or wise / it is feelings penned just as I've seen them / and how can the lines be affecting your soul/ when you're too busy reading between them'
Henson introduces a few key principles for reading Idiot Verse in this poem; firstly, this is going to be an irreverent collection which refuses point-blank to engage with any philosophical posturing and, secondly, this is an unashamedly metrical, lyrical collection of poems. In fact, it is his mastery of metre which is often Henson's greatest asset. Towards the end of the collection, he effortlessly presents 'Sanctuary' in the same incantatory trochaic rhythm of Macbeth's witches:
'as we drive past Lower Slaughter, / I feel the nearness, just a quarter / of a mile to Henson Farm / kindly words and loving arms'
before transitioning into lilting, waltzing dactyls in the next poem, 'Richmond':
'Richmond, you weirdo, I love you to death / tell me of history, spent in your breadth'.
Clearly his musical background has the expected result of sharpening the poet's ear for metre, stress and rhyme. What the lyrical nature of these poems serves to reinforce is the deceptively childish, often naïve voice from which this collection is written and, in this sense, the key influence upon this project is William Blake's Songs of Innocence. Compare the final stanza of Blake's 'Introduction';
'And I made a rural pen, / And I stained the water clear, / And I wrote my happy songs / Every child may joy to hear.'
with the closing stanza of Henson's introductory poem;
'so I'll write it out just as I see it / and just as it sounds in my heart / and pay no mind to those wasting their time / in confusing confusion with art.'
When viewed as a partial response to Songs of Innocence (obviously I'm referring to Blake, not Bono), the collection is an incredibly interesting endeavour. It is hard not to read his depiction of an apocalyptic flat-share in 'They':
'the ones whose eyes hide darker thoughts / than you could ever bear to think / the ones who fight them constantly / and often lose, and turn to drink',
or the domestic conflict in 'An Argument':
'such highly human poetry / is uttered at the door / when she names he a piece of shit / and he names she a whore',
without calling to mind the final cadences of Blake's 'London'.
What I have failed to mention thus far however, and what will further call Blake to mind as well as Leonard Cohen, is the prevalence of Henson's illustrations throughout the book. It is often the done thing for a slim volume of poetry to be fetishistically buffered by luxuriant expanses of blank space around each poem. Henson purposefully violates this empty space with simplistic, grotesque, violent sketches which reach across pages and consistently disrupt the reading experience, often with illustrations which have no obvious link to the poems themselves.
The decision to create such a visual distraction from the words themselves is a bold one and it will not sit well with those in search of a more conservative reading experience. As has been illustrated by Claudia Rankine's Citizen or Anne Carson's Nox, however, there is a growing audience for alternative reading experiences within poetry and Henson's irreverent use of space is refreshing and provides a much needed reminder that a serious collection of poems can amuse you as much as it disturbs you.
Keaton Henson's Idiot Verse reads as though one of the characters from Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy came to life and released their own spin-off collection of poems. It is a dark, anxious, lonely body of work, Trojan Horsed inside playful aural patterns and the occasional punch-line. When held alongside the current poetry scene, it seems a deeply unfashionable book, which is perhaps its most endearing quality; Henson uses Idiot Verse as an extension of his ongoing multi-modal output and in this sense it is a great success.