-Reviewed by Rishi Dastidar–
‘Charm’. And immediately, in front of your screens, I see your hackles rise, suspicion in your eyes. For ‘charm’ in the poetic context is dangerous. Very dangerous indeed.
Here is a posit: that ‘charm’ is an even worse word to use in the description and criticism of poetry – even worse than that workshop crutch ‘admirable’. Worse, because ‘charm’ is effectively a synonym for ‘glib’, ‘seductive, in the shallowest possible way’ and worst of all ‘insincere’ – for a poem can be many things, but never, ever that. The words must always be meant.
Charm is dangerous, poetically, let alone anything else.
I do not believe this by the way. Charm is not all bad, far from in fact. To delight, attract, fascinate others – to even control, or appear to achieve something as if by magic – if they are bad things, then I wish to be on the wrong side of them more frequently.
So when I say that not only did I find Hamish Whyte’s Hannah, Are You Listening? charming, but that I was charmed by it also, I do not mean anything other than the highest of praise.
Whyte, a poet new to me, is deft in his craft: his enjambments are unshowy, and mostly work. Rhyme, when it is deployed, brings a smile to the face. And his language has a most wonderful transparency, that allows for feelings to be accurately, comprehensively pinned down – whether that is the simultaneous love and fear that grandparents have for their grandchildren, the notion that clothes might be myths, or the easy pleasure of watching skilful people at work.
A less intense Hugo Williams comes to mind, for example in ‘That Weekend We Forgot About The Dog’:
We were entirely unBritished
by love and lust.
We writhed on the sheets
on the carpet
anywhere that took a back
or a front or hands and feet.
The dog was too good-mannered
to disturb us.
How it got into the fridge
and fed itself
we never found out.
If Whyte does have a failing it is perhaps that, sometimes, his poems seek an epiphany where they might not bear the weight of one. But then, you would keep searching for them too, if you were as good as he is at delivering them. I was caught particularly by the denouement to ‘A Letter To My Long-Lost Uncle’, where an internal discussion about how facts can change memories leads to conclusion that, “I have a picture and a story and that’s enough / in a world that bleats family family, / that asks who do I think I am. / where Google knows nearly everything.” And while there might be points where you think, ah, now you are being too knowing – ‘Ferry to Itea’’s “wine-dark sea and honey light”, there is more than enough good-natured bonhomie and quiet bravado to pull it off.
There’s only one place where Whyte’s charm wore thin for me, and that was in the final poem ‘What The Editor Said’. Now, of course, we all have poems tucked away about the unpredictability, the sheer bloody unfairness of how some our words get seen by the wider world, how other don’t, how some godawful poets make it, while other geniuses remain unappreciated in their lifetimes and beyond. Some of these poems get written down, and some are published too.
But really, do we need to see them? Do we need to read them? In the same way that we should always be suspicious of films about Hollywood or plays about plays, there’s something a wee bit too showy off for my tastes about a poet with a successful track record of publishing – who indeed knows the other side, being a publisher too – sharing a rejection note, however tongue-in-cheek it might be. After all, a large part of the attraction of someone charming is the implicit presence of grace in their handling of the vicissitudes of life, as well as its victories.
But that is a very small cavil over what is an excellent pamphlet. One does hope Hannah has been listening indeed, and is charmed by what she has heard.
And a postscript, lest I have not convinced you of the virtues of charm as a life-affirming good thing: here is photographer Robert Capa’s (and Irwin Shaw’s) note to Ingrid Bergman, when all three happened to be in Paris in June 1945:
Subject: Dinner. 6.6.45. Paris, France.
To: Miss Ingrid Bergman
Part 1. This is a community effort. The community consist of Bob Capa and Irwin Shaw.
- We were planning on sending you flowers with this note inviting you to dinner this evening – but after consultation we discovered it was possible to pay for the flowers or dinner, or the dinner or the flowers, but not both. We took a vote and dinner won by a close margin.
- It was suggested that if you did not care for dinner, flowers might be sent. No decision has been reached on this so far.
- Besides flowers we have lots of doubtful qualities.
- If we write much more we will have no conversation left, as our supply of charm is limited.
- We will call you at 6.15.
- We do not sleep.
Capa and Bergman began their affair three months later.