COMPLETE POEMS 1965-2020
By Michael Butterworth
Space Cowboy Books. 193 pages. ISBN 978-1-7328257-7-2 (hb); 978-1-7328257-6-5(pb)
Reviewed by John Dunton
It’s quite an achievement to keep writing poems for almost sixty years. Or should I say keep writing one poem during that period? Jim Burns, in his introduction to Michael Butterworth’s book, suggests that, though the title refers to “poems” in the plural, what exists is essentially a “complete work” in which what appears can often have substance when seen outside the framework of the book, but gains when seen within it. I’m inclined to take the same point of view.
What Butterworth was doing as he recorded his experiences and thoughts and observations was compiling a chronicle of his life. In a seven-page preface he outlines that life, which over the years involved activities as a poet, science-fiction writer, bookseller, publisher (Savoy Books), magazine editor (Wordworks), family man, and a few other things. There was also what he refers to as the “twenty-four-year war against my publishing house and bookshops” conducted by Manchester Chief of Police James Anderton. If you’ve been around long enough you may remember Anderton. He was the man who thought God spoke through him, and he saw the police as “promoting moral enforcement against ‘social nonconformists, malingerers, idlers, parasites, spongers, frauds, cheats, and unrepentant criminals’ ”. And he was known for his negative comments about gay rights and feminism. With the power of the police behind him he was not someone it was advisable to tangle with and Butterworth suffered a great deal, both financially and personally, from harassment by Anderton’s enforcers. Think of the pressures on a creative personality in these circumstances.
It’s not my intention to pick out specific poems for comment. As I noted above, some can stand alone, and were, in fact, published in magazines in that form. But in the book they are placed alongside what are, in effect, occasional asides, what might be seen as notebook jottings, and small sketches (“All day sitting/Selling shrink wrap/Drinking juice/And not a bailiff in sight”). The overall effect is very much of a life and a mind in movement and responding to the sights and sounds of the everyday and not just major occurrences. The responses can come in a variety of ways, ranging from direct social descriptions and comments to explorations which border on the semi-surreal. Butterworth’s interest in science-fiction and fantasy is in evidence. I recall that one of his bookshops was called The House on the Borderland, the title of a classic fantasy novel by William Hope Hodgson.
Butterworth appears to have settled down with age and his involvement with Buddhism has brought about what he says is some inner peace. “I am no longer dissatisfied”, he reflects, but he also notes that “Despite beatification, I am never far from a maelstrom”. It’s not possible to escape the wider world, whether in the form of family feuds or national and international events. And an awareness of mortality creeps in. Writing about wandering in a woodland near Otley, Butterworth asks “Shall I go amongst these marvels again/Walk among these wonders/My curiosity sated/And have no care?”
This is a very human book. It doesn’t offer any great technical innovations, it’s true, and the structure of the poems can best be described as basic and efficient. The form does what it’s supposed to do and provides the bedrock for what’s being said. Not all of what is said is necessarily significant. The mood can be frivolous or serious and switch from page to page. The reader should ride with it and accept that feelings can change and happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.