Monday, June 20, 2016

Peter Hughes: Quite Frankly: After Petrarch's Sonnets (2015)

Not many poetry books have more appropriate jackets than this satisfyingly fat volume of disaffected laddish pseudo-rebellious whinges producing strangely potent moments of illumination. Read one or two of these sonnets and you'll chuckle, read ten and you start to wonder if there's more to this than a brilliant stand-up routine, but after say thirty the big poem behind all these instant-hit small poems begins to make itself insistently heard. So, appropriately, here's the start of 31:

well I'm sorry I've been out of touch
with you & me & most forms of the social
for what is it now time escapes me &
on I jog while ducking my own thoughts

like a dyspraxic boxer on acid
or Hercules chugging through the under
growth clawing the shirt of madness from his back


Hughes in the next poem assures us that his masterpiece could be appreciated as far afield as Norwich or even "the rougher parts of Cambridge", before hitting us with a sestet whose casual rhyming is thrown off with a shrug:

But you need to let me have my books back
I can't get on without the old masters
Italian English & American

I don't need all the academic cack
but I need my Dantes & O'Haras
my James both Rileys & Ted Berrigan


Not sure what John James (born in Cardiff) thinks about being treated as an English poet, mind, but obviously he does have that Cambridge connection, at least with the rougher parts. The "Rileys" here must be Peter and Denise. The latter's "A misremembered lyric" lurks beneath the surface of the poem on the facing page:

there are so many versions of Laura...

   ... almost everything evaporates
in the misremembered blues of her eyes
as the Scissor Sisters or was it Johnny

Hallyday so very nearly chanted
Julie London & Ella Fitzgerald
Eric Dolphy in Europe Volume 2

vous êtes formidables Charlie Parker
with strings Sinatra Where Are You
Laura won't you just tell Cincinnati


Most of this refers to the wonderful 1945 jazz standard "Laura" (music: David Raksin, lyric: Johnny Mercer) in which the haunted protagonist cannot quite recall her voice and perhaps only thinks he recalls her eyes. (According to Wikipedia there are more than 400 known recordings.)

Laura is the face in the misty light
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall

And you see Laura on a train that is passing through
Those eyes how familiar they seem
She gave your very first kiss to you
That was Laura but she's only a dream

She gave your very first kiss to you
That was Laura but she's only a dream

At least that's the song recorded by Ella, Charlie, Eric and Frank; and above all Julie London, whose near-accapella version absolutely nails all the complex and even contradictory emotions within the song. Not a bad analogy for what Peter Hughes is about in Quite Frankly.

The Scissor Sisters classic is a different song altogether (won't you just tell Cincinnati?..)

French crooner Johnny Hallyday's Laura is different again,  a song that everybody in France knows and nobody in England does.

"Vous êtes formidables" (You guys are wonderful) is what Johnny tells the crowd as the opening chords strike up: I'm talking about the live recording you can find on Youtube. So it's obvious that Hughes the poet has been constructing this poem by doing an internet search of songs called Laura.

That slightly chilly sense of construction feeds back into what the lover is doing within the poem: his Laura, too, is only partly real, a lot of her is simply his eager imagination seizing on cultural essences and blending them together to compose an adored image.

Let's read some more!


Embarrassing as it may be for a former medievalist to confess, I've never felt the least inclination to spend time with Petrarch's 317 sonnets. Why would you? 317 artificial poems, medievally-courteous (i.e sexism but no sexuality),  in archaic Italian? When I might be reading Shakespeare's 154 sappy masterpieces, the greatest love poetry in English?

I guess I'm playing devil's advocate and I am sure there are good answers to this question.

But for now Hughes' Petrarch is likely to be the only one I know.



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