Imbalance

Michael Hofmann

  • Collected Poems by Hugo Williams
    Faber, 288 pp, £20.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 571 21233 6

It is a curious thing that of the three judges offering superlatives on the jacket of Hugo Williams’s Collected Poems – Edna Longley, Douglas Dunn and Peter Porter – none is English. And yet Williams, born in Windsor during World War Two, the son of the English actor Hugh Williams, schooled by Life and Eton, a youthful toiler for Alan Ross’s London Magazine, an erstwhile globetrotter and a lifelong London resident, seems as English as they come. (So English, in fact, that he will object that his mother is Australian.) He simply makes it a more interesting condition than others succeed in doing, or else he escapes its limitations altogether.

So many of the ways one thinks of him are paradoxical. In an adaptation of his own phrase (from ‘Sugar Daddy’) he is a ‘passionate clown’. He is certainly one of the funniest poets writing and yet, as he has noted himself, almost all his work revolves around loss. In ease of manner and dandyishness and attention to detail – in poems as much as in person – he is utterly English, yet there is none of the deviousness or the stifling reserve one might associate with Englishness: there is in his writing an uncommon frankness and emotionalism. He is a born lyricist who, seemingly effortlessly, knocks out short poems about feelings but who for decades has followed the demanding, even desiccating calling of columnist – on television, on theatre, on music and, for many years now, on freelancing – without apparent ill-effect. A grasshopper, if you like, moonlighting as an ant. He has unopposably been called, by Blake Morrison, the ‘Peter Pan of English poetry’, even though he now safely clutches (or is in the clutches of) a bus pass. He writes about prep school and childhood, and yet the poems he wrote just out of adolescence, forty years ago, in the manner of the late Movement and especially Thom Gunn, are his starchiest. His poems are full of haircuts and suits, but he is probably the least materialist of poets; or, conversely put, his poems aspire to the lift-off of prayer, and yet they are regularly menaced by prosiness and anecdote. Reading through these Collected Poems, you can spot traces of the dominant period voices one after another – Gunn, Kees, Plath, Larkin, Hamilton, Lowell, Muldoon, Reid – and yet overall he seems relatively unchanging and almost wholly free from external influence. There is probably no quality as antithetical to him as literary pretension – I can’t imagine him using an allusion, let alone writing an ekphrasis or a literary hommage – and yet, probably alone of poets writing now, his work would sit reasonably well with that of a thousand or two thousand years ago: Wyatt, Wang Wei, Propertius, Sappho. He is a plain-spoken metaphysical, purveying a teary elegance, clarity in confusion, insouciant reflection, irreducible unguardedness.

There are many places one might begin with Hugo Williams: symmetry, dexterity, humour, found poems or anti-poems, love, his father (one of his eight books is called Love-Life, another Sugar Daddy), but power seems to me as good a place as any. Not power in any literary sense, of vocabulary or style, but in the negotiations between the ‘I’ of the poems and an external world. Each time, a final imbalance is struck, in which the ‘I’ is discomfited, and this makes the poem. Take the much-anthologised piece ‘The Butcher’, the last poem in his first book and probably the moment at which he became ‘himself’:

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