by Paul Summers
Reviewed by Alan Dent
NO HAPPY SHOPPER
Paul Summers hails from Northumberland but now lives in Australia. He was born in 1976 and has published nine collections. Heís also written for theatre , radio and television. This is a substantial collection, nearly two hundred pages, of work drawn from his previous books. He is a varied writer: he doesnít have that one voice young writers are always urged to discover. He can write out of tenderness or sheer disdain with equal skill. He comes into his own, however, when heís writing from the heart of his northern, working-class sensibility. This isnít a matter of taking a political stance. You couldnít call him a political poet in the way Brecht or Neruda were political. Itís more a matter of a way of being and in that he reminds me of Joe Orton. Orton had no need of political ideology because he had the experience of coming from the bottom and enduring the daily humiliations that imposes and astute and sensitive understanding of how his experience had ruined him. He turned his rage into laughter and chose a form which allowed him to make his audiences fall about watching their own corruption and hypocrisy paraded before them. Summers has something of this quality. Like Orton he has a nose for hypocrisy and loathes it.
One of the best poems here is the dinner party. Itís not the kind of thing that wins prizes. Nor would it win Summers an invitation to join Carol Duffy and friends at the Royal Exchange where she holds court as the queen of contemporary poetry. Itís about his visceral, murderous anger at listening to the pretentious wittering of a woman displaying her radical chic. There are very few poems which deal with negative sentiments honestly. No-one likes to admit to being wound up to such a pitch of hatred by something so essentially trivial as silly dinner party chat. There are safer ways to deal with the theme: the kind of ventriloquy for example which allows the poet off the hook by loading all fault onto the subject. Summers is more honest. He takes full responsibility for his feelings. This is how these people make me feel, he says. Itís not pleasant but itís true. Like Orton he refuses to be a hypocrite. And the poem is hilarious for the same reason Ortonís plays are: because straightforward honesty about our disdain for pretension, posturing and corruption is intrinsically funny. Why should this be? According to Bergson in his famous study Le Rire, we laugh at du mťcanique plaquť sur du vivant (something mechanical applied to something living). This explains well enough why the man slipping on the banana skin is funny but not so much why this exchange is amusing:
Husband: Iím going to climb up and clean the gutters.
Wife: Do nothing till Iíve checked the insurance.
This makes us smile, I think, for the reason Ramachandran points out: jokes work by leading us up the garden path. They create an expectation which is subverted or turned back on itself and this is a sine qua non of humour. Ramachandran is interested in this from his point of view as a neuroscientist, the way a particular cascade of neurons stimulates parts of the brain which provoke amusement. We have an expectation that a wife is not going to make cynical calculations about insurance payments when her husband is about to climb a ladder. We expect her to be concerned for his safety. Wives are supposed to love their husbands. The exchange establishes these standard expectations but the wifeís cynicism subverts them and the little waterfall of neurons tickles the right part of the brain. Summersí poem does the same. The title establishes an expectation. We all know dinner parties are supposed to be polite occasions. They are a middle/upper-middle-class convention. They are not frequent on the estates where benefit claimants and the low-paid are ghettoised. Because they are polite and middle-class and because one of their conventions is you donít insult your host, Summersí diatribe of contempt for Verityís poised references to William Morris and other symbols of her liberal, advanced views is very funny. He is the wild boar terrifying the supermarket shoppers, the gorilla who wanders into church, he brings to the dinner party a straightforward way of speaking and being which doesnít belong.
It is precisely one of the functions of middle-class dinner parties to create a protected environment for pretension; people are not merely allowed to boast about Jeremyís internship at the Foreign Office or Felicityís new job at the hedge fund, they are expected to. To be modest, unassuming and self-effacing at a dinner party is as out-of-place as being drunk at a Methodist funeral. But the cleverness of this poem is Summersí self-denigration: he dubs himself a deranged anarcho-syndicalist. He makes no excuse for himself. He doesnít try to write from some false position of superior objectivity. He lets his subjectivity off the leash and thatís another reason itís so funny: working-class subjectivity isnít welcome at middle-class dinner parties. Joe Orton once said, I like plain food, it tastes better. Thatís exactly what youíre not supposed to say between the butter nut squash soup and the minted creamed asparagus. The Joe Orton cookbook suggests you serve the sardines and rice pudding on separate plates. Dinner parties arenít the place to admit sardines and tinned rice pudding are your standard fare. That is what Summers is doing; heís letting slip that he comes from a culture where to brag about your achievements or to drop leaden hints about your cultivated liberal values is disdained. This makes him something of a refreshing rarity among contemporary poets.
Since 1979 it has been not just unfashionable but perilous for your poetic career to set your face against middle-class hypocrisy. But Summers has an unreconstructed sensibility and itís attractive, charming, funny and honest. It might be worth saying, as the association is bound to spring to mind, that the dinner party has nothing in common with the rancid flavour of Abigailís Party. Mike Leigh makes the mistake of setting himself up as a superior consciousness. The implied author of his play isnít a deranged anarcho-syndicalist but a manipulator bringing the audience into his circle, flattering their own sense of superiority. Summers, like Orton, avoids this. He will excuse neither himself nor his audience. Rather, he wants the unadorned truth to be made visible. Not many writers do this because ambition gets in the way.
the dinner party is a very well written poem. Summers is highly-skilled and is like no other poet writing today because he has worked hard to find a way to realize his sensibility poetically. In general, poets are less concerned to do this than to find a niche, to fit with the accepted way of writing. Summersí sensibility is a product of his northern, working-class roots, but itís individual. It would be possible to imitate Summersí practice, but no-one could sound like Paul Summers. He is at his most individual in poems like the dinner party or in the five prose poems in which he assumes the persona of historical characters including god in hey moses, catch this one or poppy day in which he makes fun of a national institution or drinking with dad where in a poem of impressive economy he touches on the tragic estrangement between father and son, the mistakes of Stalinism and the cruelty of a culture which exploits peopleís pride in their work. His touch never fails. Even in the group of poems which end the collection and which are, for the most part, evocations of place and therefore exempt from the raw humour, the anger, the genius for subversion which informs other poems, his skill is consistent.
If there is a place where his writing might have sagged a little, it would be here. These pieces are less rooted in his individual sensibility, closer to the work of some of his contemporaries, but they are excellently realised. For me, and this is purely personal, they are less interesting than the poems Iíve cited. For what itís worth, this is because, in my view, the physical world has no meaning, in the sense that meaning is intrinsically human. The physical world existed long before us and will continue long after and once we have disappeared, the meanings we attribute will evaporate. The universe will carry on its way and the brief candle of human meaning will have fluttered and expired. Hence, poems about physical place donít mean much to me and I find that poetsí attempts to evoke their mentality or morality through physical place are usually unconvincing. When poets write about nature theyíre usually writing about themselves. I think this is probably true of the poems of place here and I prefer the Paul Summers of the dinner party to the one of pen bal crag.
That isnít to detract at all from the achievement of this collection. Summers is one of those excellent writers who would never have been published without the small presses. Itís easy to understand why big houses donít publish him, intent as they are on pushing poetry which doesnít offend, wins prizes and would be at home at a Buckingham Palace garden party. Summers is the beast our culture denies. Bert Lawrence noted frequently the emotional deadness of the middle-classes. He was, of course, in the uncommon position of having a middle-class mother and a working-class father, the former rather prim and proper the latter easy-going and fond of his sensual pleasures. In poor Lawrence was fought out the bitter cultural battle between what he called life and adherence to respectability. Itís often said of Terence Rattigan (Michael Billington repeats it frequently) that he wrote about the emotional reticence of the middle-classes. I think itís much worse than that. I think itís as bad as Lawrence intuited. Itís not that the polite classes are afraid to show their emotions, itís that the emotions arenít there. Lawrence makes this observation at the start of Daughters of The Vicar. The full range of human emotion is missing from their father. Darwin is right, of course, that a basic range of emotion is present in all cultures and is expressed in the same way but that basic palate of emotional colours should produce many shades.
Most of our emotions donít have names because they are amalgams of feeling. Our minds are culturally made and this happens because our brains respond to the stimuli around us in ways we canít control. Grow up in a pleasant village in Berkshire where all the houses have gardens, most people are well off, thereís a high proportion of graduates, a low crime rate, no drug dealers and the effect on your brain is very different from growing up among the rows of terraces in an old industrial northern town where most people scrape by. Simply to grow up in streets without grass, trees and gardens makes a big difference to how you experience yourself and the world. Our culture denies this because of its ideology of individualism: we are what we make ourselves. Circumstances are not defining. Barrow boys become millionaires. Whatís stupid about this is that a millionaire barrow boy retains all the hallmarks of his origins, however hard he tires to hide them. Alan Sugar may be a millionaire but heís an oik millionaire. David Cameron is a toff millionaire. Oik millionaires are by definition rare exceptions. Toff millionaires are the rule. The fact that the odd oik becomes rich doesnít contradict the fact of inequality nor that it tends to replicate itself. Come from the bottom and your chances of rising very far from it are slim. The essential truth that circumstances are defining and that people do not have some omnipotent capacity to override them is what our culture resists. People do, if the opportunities are there, change their circumstances but if we take Lawrence as an example, he was right to say that little Bert Lawrence of Eastwood was what he always remained even when he became a famous writer rubbing shoulders ( and more) with toffs. Itís true of all of us. Our brains register the colour yellow because of a particular frequency of light. We canít choose whether or not we see yellow. Nor can we choose how the range and character of our emotions is engendered by the circumstances of our upbringing.
All this illuminates the essential point about Summers: heís a working-class lad from the north-east and his sensibility doesnít chime with that of our ruling institutions. This isnít a matter of political affiliation: Andrew Motion is a declared Labour voter, but his sensibility is upper-middle-class. Political ideology is a feeble, flimsy thing compared to sensibility. When you come from the bottom you learn very early, so itís almost a matter of instinct, that things are stacked against you. Though youíve done nothing wrong, you get it in the neck. You keep getting it in the neck and no matter how hard you try to follow the rules, you still get it in the neck. You develop an acute sensitivity for hypocrisy and a simmering disdain for it. If you come from the bottom and youíre highly intelligent and intuitive, like Summers, you can refine and intellectualize these responses. This is what he does. As such, he is dangerous to our culture. If there were a House Unbritish Activities Committee it would be shining bright lights in his eyes. Our culture says if you are as intelligent and gifted as Summers you should make your way, get on, land a job as a diplomat, become a cabinet minister, a professor, a cardiologist, but for godís sake, deny your working-class sensibility. Summers wonít. He likes it. Which is not to say he celebrates inequality or observes some reverse snobbery, but he knows his visceral opposition to the culture that made him, something he explores wittily in happy shopper, is the best thing he has. It makes him genuine. Heíll never be poet laureate or be published by Faber, but posterity will cherish him. When Eliot wrote about dissociation of sensibility what he was picking up on was that Milton was an urban writer and while the poetry of rurality rested on hospitality, that of the city was built on wit. Eliot liked the older form because it spoke of the rights of landed property and the fixed traditions that went with them. He rightly spotted in Milton the stirrings of something democratic and it terrified him. If he could read Paul Summers he would drop dead on the spot. But Joe Orton would laugh and recognize a fellow-spirit. So do I.