“We Go On”: On the Poetry of Hugo Williams




It isn’t so much what
obstacles we encounter on the way down

 as how we come to a stop
that determines our ultimate condition.

We’re OK, as it were,
so long as we keep falling.

— “Falling,” I Knew the Bride

¤

HUGO WILLIAMS’S POETRY is a poetry of falling — a dispatch from the act rather than a description of its aftermath. There’s a presentism to his work, an in-the-moment existentialism with a brave little smile. The effect is light, but that lightness belies his skill; his clarity and wit are too easily, and unfairly, mistaken for a lack of depth. Writing on John Betjeman, Williams pointed to the former poet laureate of the United Kingdom’s shift away from “admiring the problematical stuff that stood beyond the average reader’s unassisted critical appraisal” toward “the harder, unprotected world of ordinary excellence.” It is out of this world that Williams operates, and he belongs on “that special shelf near your chair” where he himself places Betjeman. The late Karl Miller, a regular publisher of Williams’s poems, once began an appraisal of them with the caveat:

Hugo Williams is a very good poet. But we must not say so. Why not? Because he writes about being a child, about being the son of a film star (Hugh begat Hugo), and about having once (and always) been to a prep school and public school. Because he is not difficult to understand, and is enjoyable to read. And funny.

Williams’s early poems bear the slightly tepid residue of The Movement, which was brought to prominence in an influential 1950s anthology by Robert Conquest. His book-length debut, Symptoms of Loss (1965), carries their tweedy whiff of iambic certainty and blokeish conservatism — forced, stuffy, effortful; it reads like a relic in the light of his later career. This trajectory gives his Collected Poems (2002) the Benjamin Button–ish feel of watching a man crawl out of premature fogyhood into what has become a much-prolonged adolescence. Symptoms of Loss does contain “The Butcher,” however, a poem Ian Hamilton — another early champion and editor of Williams — first latched onto. It is a textbook example of the type of poetry that would emerge from Hamilton’s little magazine, The Review: imagistic, plainly spoken, and “domestic,” with finely observed, empathetic detail (“He is a rosy young man with white eyelashes / Like a bullock”) leading to something uncertain, even ominous: “He writes the price on the grease-proof packet / And hands it to me courteously. His smile / Is the official seal on my marriage.”

Hamilton’s The Review provided a noticeable blueprint for Williams’s work of the 1970s. His take on the journal’s clipped, elliptical “house style” is capable of producing moving, memorable poems, but there is a feeling that here too he was hamstrung by external pressures and influences, playacting under someone else’s direction. Still, he brings something of a French Symbolist color to the cramped, iceberg lyric. The material of the poems is instantly recognizable as Williamsesque: many poems are set backstage or on stage, others at home with wife and child; the poet often wavers in the middle of a romantic dissolution or in a reverie of childhood; and the poet’s dominating, dashing father Hugh stomps about through the verse, either exquisite or waspish. Williams’s obsessions and preoccupations have barely changed, and his obsessive revisiting and parsing is marked stylistically, with lines and even whole stanzas repeated between books, echoing across gaps of several years or even decades. This produces the sense that Williams has surgically removed images to hold them up to another source of light, in case they can finally be understood.

The poems of the 1970s are Williams at his most terse, his most portentous or vatic, as if he’s still busily trying to sound like a poet instead of realizing that he is one. Yet this period also produced plenty of resonant — and, at times, flashingly self-aware — poems, such as “Century Oaks” from Some Sweet Day (1975):

The trees are emptying.
The cold young days rush through them
On their way to power.

Down here
We sweep the dead leaves into bonfires
Lest they betray our sympathies.

The death of Williams’s father seemed to release him from this tight-lipped style and into something more expansive, epistolary, and unguardedly autobiographical. Hamilton’s take on the personal poem precluded the use of circumstantial details beyond hands, hair, and teeth, but a Williams without proper names and objects is at best half-powered, as Writing Home (1985) demonstrated. A large, prosy collection, it feels like Williams’s sprightlier version of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959). “Clothes were a kind of wit,” he notes in its “Dégagé,” and the poems do indeed feel suddenly looser, more stylish, and uninhibited, after years of minimalist corseting. Some sound like letters, or are made of letters composed by his boyhood self or by his father at war. In fact, all of Williams’s poems from here on have something of the letter to them — often personal and direct, but also showing off a little, weighing their confessions, vulnerabilities, and sweet nothings against the need to entertain. One finds many set pieces and sketches in his work, and something of his father’s world of light comedy; entrances and exits are always crucial, as are visual setups and payoffs. It all adds up to a mode of emotional slapstick or “passionate clowning,” as he calls it in “Sugar Daddy.” It’s no coincidence that a poem from West End Final (2009) was about, and in the voice of, the music-hall clown Joseph Grimaldi, a smiling, troubled sufferer turning pathos into a living and making his audience feel better about their own private mishaps.

“Walking Out of the Room Backwards,” a title from Writing Home, speaks more widely to Williams’s concerns. He picked up from Hamilton a sense of poems as possible means of reparation, or ministration — of the poetic address as a place where someone who couldn’t be reached by other means might be spoken to, and ever since Writing Home, he has reached out to all his dead or departed by just such a method.

Hamilton had looked to Thomas Hardy’s elegies to his late wife Emma as a touchstone, and Williams too has something of Hardy’s regretfulness, of his fixation on the passage of time. But his isn’t a poetry of nostalgia or anecdote in the ordinary sense: the way time works in a Williams poem has more to do with his knack for staging — or perhaps restaging — a scene with an innocence, or faux naïveté, which implicates the reader. Often Williams’s poems occur in the present tense, or close to it. We range about the verse with a certain possibility of action, and then come to a realization of the full extent of the mess we’re in at roughly the same time as the speaker does, as in “The Accident” from Dock Leaves (1994):

The cricket ball lingered an eternity
in the patch of blue sky
before returning eventually to earth.

I was standing with outstretched arms
when the full force of the future
hit me in the mouth.

Williams’s combination of touching replay and wistful yearning finds its perfect expression in Billy’s Rain (1999) and its sequel, of sorts, Dear Room (2006). Both are largely to do with an affair, then ended, and Williams’s ability to set a scene with the help of a few concrete details — as in “Interval,” where “[a] couple of cushions on the floor, / the angle of a sofa, / are all we need to know/ about a missing hour” — combined with his talent for time travel, turn the poems into sacraments for the rituals of love. The hopefulness and innocence of the narrator is deeply moving, as in “Nothing On” from Billy’s Rain:

If you carry on
dancing round the room like that
in your sun-tan swim-suit
twirling the hotel’s
complimentary fruitbowl
it won’t be long
till the page fills up
with four-letter words
and I lose my place
in the story of the Creation

The effect on the reader is especially powerful at moments where Williams moves to break the illusion, to step outside the scene and reflect on the hopelessness of it all, as at the end of the first book’s title poem (“Billy’s Rain” is a term for artificial rain which shows up on camera):

When I find myself soaked to the skin, tired,
or merely bored with God’s rain,
the phrase comes back to me.
I’d say it now if I thought you were listening.

Or in “Dear Room”:

As she picks up an old blue dress
and holds it against herself for a moment,
I almost imagine her
staring at me across London,
daring me to blink.

The poems of these two collections are, in their way, unblinking — forcing themselves to look at now painful moments, but also imagining, with no less forceful visual energy, moments of fracture at which the speaker himself wasn’t present:

For I notice it isn’t me
bumping so realistically against her thighs,
leaning forward, whispering in her ear
unscripted obscenities.

Among the elements that have caused Williams to suffer, in life and in poems, has been bodily frailty, first a slide toward “the over-stuffed jeans / of material success” and, later, toward a dialysis ward. He’s been a touchingly restrained elegist since Writing Home, first for his father, then, in West End Final, for his mother — “As we crunch back to the cars, we turn / and see smoke spiralling into the air, / while something difficult is imagined” — and most recently, in I Knew the Bride (2013), for his sister, Polly. The last book’s title poem is one of the finest achievements of his career:

Your hair was tied up
in plaits on top of your head
showing the parting down the back
as you marched out of the room.

It wouldn’t be long
till we were asking you to dance,
practising our jiving
for the Feather’s Club ball at the Lyceum

I Knew the Bride also saw Williams become something of an elegist for himself. “From the Dialysis Ward” has him thinking, as ever, in visual, sometimes semi-Symbolist terms about needling and “dry weight,” perhaps most strikingly in “Zombie”:

I’m technically dead they tell me,
but I remember being alive
as if it were yesterday
[…]
I remember the world above
and what it was like up there,
thanks to a friend
who sucks my blood for me.
He keeps me alive
in the sense that memories are alive.

Knowingly or otherwise, the final two lines seem as good an ars poetica as any for Williams, who has long dealt in remembrance and reanimation, “putting our best foot / backwards, heading for home,” as he writes in “The Time of Our Lives” from Dear Room. Williams’s is an oeuvre which has learned its comic timing from the stage, its elegance from West End theater tailors, and its attack from pop music, all the while upholding a tradition of English verse whose forebears are the plain-dealing, openhearted types, like Hardy and A. E. Housman, risking bareness and sentiment in their “unprotected world of ordinary excellence.” And like Hardy’s and Housman’s, Williams’s work almost refuses the critical dissections courted by modernists, occupying a place on “the special shelf” but deserving of far more than apologetic concession.

The affair of Billy’s Rain was revisited in I Knew the Bride, as if to emphasize that, in Williams, the past is never past. The almost throwaway title “Love Poem” finds itself attached to a concise summation of Williams’s capacity for emotional endurance and arrested constancy:

Experience suggests we go on
feeling the same about everything
no matter what happens. I do anyway.

¤

Declan Ryan’s debut pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series in 2014.


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