Moge and Bols
Dan the Dog
Saint-Hilaire and Cuvier
The White Twins
SMITH'S FAMILY FORTUNES
'Every real story contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may be a moral, some practical advice or a maxim or proverb that helps us live better. The storyteller is giving his hearer counsel, which when woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom…'
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
The storyteller doesn't get carried away. In striving to tell the story better, he borrows shamelessly from his rivals, and changes emphasis in response to listener reactions. That's where poetry came from. The oral tradition was a community event. Benjamin thought storytelling was a thing of the past 'as the epic side of truth - wisdom - is dying out'. It could be true for poetry. Most writers of poems nowadays tend to be solipsists, and sulking in our lair makes us peculiar. All the world is in conspiracy against our wonderfulness. The poems are thought to be untouchable, beyond criticism.
Three years ago I began to receive a sonnet a week from Stan Smith. I was one of several contacts he chose to test the work on. His round robin circular offered alternative lines and rhymes, and open house. Some sort of consensus was being sought. I was intrigued. At first, the poems evoked key moments in the lives of the poets (Aeschylus to Lowell) in wartime. His breaking and entering of their state of mind was so intimate that when he got to Byron at Missolonghi I was worried for Stan's health.
Gradually his focus moved to re-imagining the lives of his working-class family in half a square mile in Warrington, Lancashire over five generations, and I knew I was entering a real story, in the Benjamin sense. Drawing on public records as well as family anecdotes, he unraveled the Smiths' history in the context of war, politics and what is called ordinary life. I became so involved in the genesis of the story that I forgot my role as gentle reader and fiercely contested details, verse, social and personal. I was getting to know his family better than my own, and becoming part of it, sitting around a coal fire and sometimes walking on it.
The experience has changed my approach to poetry. I have been made more aware how every syllable in a poem influences the whole. It has predisposed me to poetry with an informational content. Facts can be looked into, checked and evaluated, and sometimes they add up, greater than the whole. I have always been wary of abstract knowledge, and the leap of faith it needs. So much poetry presumes too much. The larger ideas have to be earned to seem inevitable.
The book has now been published. Smith documents his family fortunes with facts and figures mined from long forgotten sources and photographs. The bones of the story have been given new life with the fleshing of verse so vivid and precise that you know he can be trusted with placing the Smiths in the wider world of England's economic and imperial destiny. And you get to know the people too.
Stan Smith's Family Fortunes, Shoestring Press, 2008.