Mark Ford’s Six Children

A review of Mark Ford’s latest collection, Six Children and a report of the Days of Roses poetry night in celebration of its publication.

Kit Toda

‘Though unmarried I have had six children’
– Walt Whitman

This strange claim made by Walt Whitman provided the title for Mark Ford’s latest collection, as well as the organising principle of tonight’s Days of Roses readings, in celebration of the publication. Six young artists, all of whom have been taught or influenced by Ford in some way take to the stage before him, while jokes about ‘Daddy’ abound. This theme is particularly relevant for, as Ford mentioned in an interview with us, the poem ‘Six Children’ is one of the few that was directly inspired by one of his student’s essays, which quoted Whitman’s curious statement.

First up is Harriet Moore, the youngest of the group. Although only twenty-years old her poetic voice is thrillingly sophisticated, and she reads with a hypnotic swaying rhythm. As a final year UCL undergraduate, she has been taught by Ford and perhaps it is his teaching of T.S.Eliot that has led to her wonderful line, ‘scalped heads, separately skulled’ , reminiscent of ‘The Hollow Men’.

Anna Kirk, a poet we have previously published, is in the midst of a Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway. Since we published her, her poetic voice has matured considerably but without sacrificing that oddity that attracted us in the first place. Her unusual, disquieting poems combine the twee with the sinister: ‘I leapfrog all the headstones, /hurdle over night and into day’.

Oli Hazzard is again a graduate of the UCL English Department. His poem ‘Contagious Fire’, which we published in 2009 was directly inspired by one of Mark Ford’s poems, ‘Inside’. His witty ‘found’ poem, a mish-mash of definitions of obscure words, is both funny and somehow touching. The definition of ‘a sponge left in the body after an operation’, which occasions laughter in the audience is wickedly followed by the definition ‘one who laughs idiotically’. Touché. He reads, too, a beautiful nature poem in which a ‘dry streambed lies like a pelt’. It is this flair for phrases that catch one’s breath that has stood Oli Hazzard in good stead and earned him a place in new poetry anthologies such as The Forward Book of Poetry 2010 and The Salt Book of Younger Poets.

Next up is Heather Phillipson, one of the Faber New Poets, an initiative run by the famous publishing house to identify and nurture new poets through bursaries, publications and mentorship – in Phillipson’s case, her mentor is, of course, Mark Ford. However her poetry is not much like Ford’s own, his guidance is evidently not the questionable one of recreating his reflection. Her poems tend to be less difficult than Ford’s, her diction simple. Her poem on motherhood is a case in point: ‘Mother, I cannot bear to outlive you’.

Fiona Bevan (www.fionabevan.co.uk) is the only singer-songwriter of the evening and provides a welcome differing note. Her voice is charmingly soft and husky and the lightness of touch is reminiscent of bossa nova. There is something inexplicably nostalgic about her songs; they conjure up a wistful dream world without slipping into irritating whimsy.

The last of Ford’s Six Children is André Naffis-Sahely, whose poems have an immediate charm. One of them, on an ex-girlfriend who exacts a very subtle form of revenge by stealing one record player needle that is impossible to replace, elicits a particularly enthusiastic and sympathetic applause.

The finale of the evening is, of course, provided by Mark Ford. He starts off with a disarming anecdote about the poet D.J.Enright, who told him that he had once gone to give a reading and taken ten of his latest books with him to sell, which he laid out on a table. He then held a reading, which went marvellously, “the audience laughed and wept and all the rest of it”. He went back to the table of his books with anticipatory pleasure: there were eleven. This bitterly funny story is indicative of the droll wit that characterizes both Ford’s work and his reading persona. Ford then self-deprecatingly claims that he has tried to provide satisfaction by including interesting facts in his poems so that ‘although you might not like them, at least you’ve learnt something’.

Six Children does, at times, feel like a poetic metamorphosis of a gentleman’s commonplace book: much of Ford’s eclectic reading – whether it be a website of facts about the passenger pigeon or Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura – is subsumed into Six Children. While he has joked in our interview about how his increasing allusions are due to his having ‘give[n] up’ and started simply taking ‘other people’s works altogether’, he does himself a disservice. Allusive as his poetry is, he never descends into mere ‘name-dropping’ as he self-deprecatingly calls it, and even his translations bear the stamp of his own peculiar diction, a diction whose idiosyncrasies are emphasised in reading by his sharp, exact enunciation.

His work , even at its most explicitly allusive, is also intensely personal. I am glad that he reads tonight one of the most affecting examples of this, ‘The Gaping Gulf’. It is an unusual elegy for his late father, in which this loss is juxtaposed with the curious story of John Stubbs, whose right hand was cut off on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I, as a result of his having written a political pamphlet that offended the Queen:

Cloud-capped, deserted, building and building site
Exchange whispers and winks. I glide half-
Asleep down the alley between them, as if
Adrift on some superannuated schooner. Nearby, on another
Kind of scaffold, John Stubbs gallantly raised his hat to the
+”cheering crowd
With his left hand, and blessed the Queen, while her
Executioner held aloft his right.
++++++++++++++++++++++Then he fainted. I’ve the taste
Of azure and wind in my mouth, and flecks
Of soot and dust in my hair. […]

‘Wooster and Jeeves’ too is informed as much by his childhood in Kenya just after the Mau Mau insurrection as it is by Graham Greene (who provides the epigraph), Shakespeare’s Macbeth and P.G.Wodehouse. The beloved Wodehouse characters are wrenched violently out of their halcyon environment into revolutionary Kenya, resulting in a surreal nightmarish sestina: ‘he set to work some fifty Jeeves/ to clear the bush’.

This ability to rise above mere name-dropping is most evident in ‘Dithering’, which as a cento is necessarily the most constantly allusive. It is also an acrostic (I won’t tell you what the acrostic says, go and have a look!) but this patchwork of famous and not so famous lines from the vast archives of literary history coalesce to form a coherent and beguiling poem.

This is, in fact, something of a synecdoche for the whole collection; Six Children covers a dizzying array of different forms, voices and allusions yet still manages to emerge with a voice of startling originality. Thus it is not a surprise that Mark Ford did not have to suffer a similar embarrassment to that of the unfortunate D.J.Enright; members of the audience came up to him to buy Six Children long after they had all been sold.

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Click here to read the interview with Mark Ford conducted in 2009, in which he talks of around half the poems that comprise Six Children.

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