It comes tight-packed

Sea Level, by Angela Leighton

Like most people who don’t read a lot of poetry I find it incredibly hard to write about. It’s so personal. The usual analogy, one I often make myself, is to say that poetry is a language. If so I barely speak it, and often find myself lost and hoping that I’ve picked up enough of the gist of what’s going on that I’ve managed to order a beer and not an offal platter.

I have in fact once mistakenly ordered an offal platter. I don’t recommend it.

Angela Leighton is a contemporary British poet. Sea Level is her second collection, and as the title suggests it’s shot through with images of the sea, and of nature more widely. The back of the book says too that it draws on the landscape of Yorkshire and East Riding, but knowing nothing of either I can’t speak to that.

Time I think for an example. Sea Level is a 68 page collection with the majority of poems fitting on a single page. I intend to quote three poems in full in this review, which I hope will give a good feel for her work. This first one is for me an excellent example of poem as condensed description. A capturing of a moment or place in language which while not always wholly comprehensible is nonetheless powerful:


From creel-pots’ crochet, dumped networks of nets,
staggered crates, a trailer, bales of twine,
bits and knots and art and old sea stench
under the nightly floodlight’s yellow halo,

saints’ wrack, livings, rot, planking, buoys,
rounding guts of rope, oarlock, airlock,
with acquapac and VHF, and luck,
light, weather, balance, ebb, flow,

something draws us out beyond the jerry’s
throw, its sea-sliced steps and stop, its checked
halt, systoles of dulse, litter, scum,
to falls of sea-room falling wide as we come.

I have and always have had a great love of the sea, and so of ports. Real ports are of course deeply unromantic places, full of smell, mess and odd bits of slime. Even so, I’m drawn to them. This poem captures that for me. The opening paragraph (stanza? I lack the terminology here) captures the chaos of a port. The nets heaped up in piles. The crates and rusting boats (not that rusting boats are mentioned, still I see them when I read it).

With the second paragraph we’re into the territory where poetry can so easily lose us. What is saint’s wrack? Is that something real, or something Leighton made up? What’s an acquapac? VHF? I don’t know, and yet the sense of the language remains powerful and evocative. I no longer quite know what’s being said, but I still understand it (or at least feel that I do).

Then, with the third paragraph, there’s that sense of possibility that the sea always speaks to me of. Ports are of necessity prosaic and functional, but they lead to the sea and the sea leads to, well, to a myriad possibilities of places. That’s the draw, part of it anyway.

So, as I said, poetry is deeply personal For me this poem captures the ambivalence of a port, a harbour. The quotidian mess and dirt and beyond it the draw of something vast and strange. I also love of course little phrases like “sea-sliced steps” where the alliteration helps capture that sense of the sea sliding back and forth over the stone steps leading down to the boats.

Here’s another:


It comes tight-packed, unearthly heavy, fat
with itself, intact. Handled, it crumbles to bits.

I sift and slip a landscape through my fingers,
feeling the way of forests, sun and rain,

trees that lean with the wind, that breathe with it,
and shake a hair of needles to the ground-

a plan of rusty crosses sinking in,
the wood’s crossed fingers teasing out the sun.

Whose land is this? assorted, dry as dust,
evacuated of its light and rains,

yet springy still, as if just stepped-off, live,
on some bare hillside subject to nothing but weather.

Its crumbs fall through my hands. I own the stuff,
its solving composition, settled dross,

the earth grown poor from forests it has lost.
This bit of unsoiled land is on my hands:

the bog’s muck-sweat, hill-weathers’ heavy loads,
the ways of ownership, those famine roads.

Here it’s the physicality that draws me in. As with Harbour this is deeply sensual poetry. Not sensual as in erotic, but sensual as in visual and tactile. “Handled, it crumbles to bits.”. There’s a sense of solidity here that fits the subject matter.

Here poetry becomes an examination of something quite unexceptional: a handful of soil. Leighton leaps from the feel of the peat between her fingers to the landscape it came from, and then to the sorrows of that landscape (“famine roads”). I actually find this much harder to write about than Harbour, as there’s nothing particularly personal to me in this poem. Still, for all it has no personal resonance I still find it curiously intimate. Perhaps it’s that sensuality again.

A final example:


I pay, then climb into the night’s room.
A number tells me where I am
at home. I’ll not remember soon.

Outside, there’s too much light to dream.
The city’s talkative. Sirens scream
in fifths, tuning. Here I’m clean

out of it, free. It lays no claim
to my, my unfound hiding, name,
the puff breath makes. I am the same,

but stranger, keen. I start to learn
my whereabouts by rote, short-term:
a bed, a room, a night, by turn.

Outside, the sky must save its skin.
It lets whatever the room keeps in
out in waves. The wall’s too thin.

This night my numbered door might win
a lottery, stop an angel, summon
what lies open out there to come in.

The sense here isn’t of hotel as holiday destination, but of business travel. The narrator is alone in the room, and there’s no sense of excitement or anticipation. Instead it captures that mix of insomnia, uncertainty and the knowledge of an unfamiliar place which could include who knows what, but which you’ll likely never get to really see. Perhaps I’m projecting, but then with poetry perhaps that’s the point.

Other poems that stood out for me included a very brief one titled Dusk Chorus capturing the underlying desperation, hunger and territoriality of bird song. Another, At the Vet’s, captures that terrible moment when one stands in a vet’s room as a loved cat is put to sleep. It’s again a very short poem, but for me devastating as I’ve had to do that (thankfully only once so far) and the poem captures the scene with an accuracy that made it unsuitable for quoting. If you own cats you’ll know why I didn’t put that up to be blundered across on a blog. It’s too painful.

Some poems later in the collection lost me, being too technical or too rooted in a terrain I know nothing of. I can relate to poetry without knowing what each word means, but as with any communication there comes a point where one understands so little that any resonance there might have been is lost. That’s ok though. The trick with poetry I’ve found is not to worry that not every poem makes sense. When I studied Italian some concepts came quickly, others took years of study. Why should this be different?

I’ve previously quoted another Angela Leighton poem, here, That poem is freely available online, but also appears in this collection. It’s the poem which made me want to read more by Leighton, so if you missed that post I’d suggest at least spending a couple of minutes with it.


Filed under Leighton, Angela, Poetry

26 responses to “It comes tight-packed

  1. an interesting collection by the look of it Max ,I like poems that have a sense of place the nature based ones of the ones you quote are simply wonderful have a real sense of the subject ,harbour in particular having spent time working in a small fishing village I recognised the place she is telling us of ,all the best stu

  2. Thanks Stu. Interesting to hear that you’ve experience of that environment and recognise it. I really like the collection, but then I liked Angela Leighton’s work the first time I encountered it.

    Poems with a sense of nature. Have you read any John Clare?

  3. Interesting. The first is very intense in sound. I had to read it aloud to fully capture it but I do that whith mst poetry. I feel the sounds reveal the meaning often better. People struggle with poetry because they have no ear for sound, I think.
    I liked the second one best. It is sensual, less sound.
    I signed up for a poetry challenge and will have to do precisely what you did, review a poetry collection. It is even more difficult than reviewing short stories.
    I liked how you did it, the poems give a good feel for her work and why it works as a collection. If you take one out and put it into an anthology, I guess that wouldn’t be the same.
    Poetry is a language, I agree, but not like those we know. I had to learn a bit of Ashanti Twi at uni and it was so interesting because it’s a sound language. There were many words that looked the same on paper but the pronounciation would give them a completely different meaning. We hardly have this in European languages. The grammar was easy but we struggled with the sounds.

  4. I think you feel pretty much the same as me about poetry. I helped a friend self-publish a book of poems last year and while I liked the shape of the text, the meaning often escaped me (aren’t there easier ways to get your point across?). These look good however, but I’d rather be sent a review copy than fork out good money for it.

  5. I don’t read a lot of poetry either. I have Howl by Ginsberg and Kostolanyi’s poems at home but I haven’t read them yet.

    I like your way of reviewing that collection, giving three poems as a sample is a good idea. Unfortunately, my English isn’t good enough to understand them or capture their beauty.

    PS: I didn’t receive your post in my mailbox. Guy missed a couple of mine too, WP’s postman has been on holiday or on strike lately ?

  6. I’m not much into poetry (sadly) but that cover is absolutely brilliant!

  7. Caroline,

    Poetry is I think often best read aloud, though I tend to feel self-conscious doing so. A result perhaps of the horror of reading out loud in class in school, particularly when given McDuff’s lines in Macbeth.

    Reading out “Oh horror, horror, horror” in a Scottish accent is actually extremely hard. You can tell it was written by an Englishman. I still recall the laughter it provoked in class. Is any embarrassment as deep as adolescent embarrassment?

    Ahem. Anyway. I hope to read more poetry. It is challenging, but the rewards are there to merit that challenge.

    Tom, I doubt most poets know their point until it’s written, perhaps not even then, though that wouldn’t apply of course to poems which are technical challenges. Besides, the point of much great literature could probably be got across much more concisely, but not necessarily more rewardingly.

    I doubt they give out review copies of the less well known poets much. My impression is that most poetry sells so little that: (a) it’s expensive on a per copy basis, because hardly anyone buys it and costs have to be covered; and (b) if you do buy a copy you’re probably a meaningful percentage of that poet’s readership. Writing poetry makes writing experimentalist literary fiction look prudent, given the limited readership and negligible financial return.

  8. Emma, I’m rather fond of Ginsberg (in fact I think I have one of his quoted here under the Poetry category). I’ve not read much poetry in translation. That must make translating literary fiction look positively easy in comparison.

    Perhaps the post notice got stuck in your spamfilter? I find that mine occasionally stops random things. I was glad to see Tom’s comment appear actually, since Tom keeps getting caught by my spamfilter here at WP and I can’t remotely see why. I approve him every time of course, but it shouldn’t really happen in the first place.

    Still, it’s free (and generally very good) blogging software, so the occasional misfire isn’t too much to complain about.

    electrizer, isn’t it just? Shame I couldn’t find a larger image of it.

  9. I have Howl in a bilingual edition, that should help. Yes, translating poetry must be a nightmare and it can’t be faithful.

    The post notice wasn’t in the spam box, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t really complaining, I also wonder if I’m doing something wrong that generates bugs in the process.

    PS: you can find big covers on GoodReads, if it’s not where you took this one.

  10. I am anxious about reading poetry, let alone reviewing it.

    It is almost uncanny the way you pick out ‘saint’s wrack.’ For me that was the point where the poem and I parted company, even though I would like to claim some kind of affinity with the sea.

    The second poem you quote appeals to me very much, but I don’t know why. You have the personal implications of the poetry and the more technical details of why it works in perfect balance. Great post. (And I am only envious of your ability in an aspirational kind of a way…)

  11. Great stuff. There can’t be much in the way of anyone doing battle with contemporary poems, let alone blogging about them. This looks very interesting so thanks for that.

    I love poetry but have many of the same reservations. It’s only recently I’ve read a fair bit of all the poets I’d largely put off: John Ashbery (incredible), Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and so on (though I recommend all of those in particular) plus Miroslav Holub, who I’m not sure I quite appreciate as many others seem to. The best new collection of poetry I read was by John McCullough, The Frost Fairs, completely brilliant.

  12. Sarah,

    I do understand, but in the end there’s nothing to be nervous of. At worst one simply doesn’t understand. It’s odd actually how so many of us are nervous of poetry (myself included of course, to a degree anyway). I don’t know why. We’re taught it in school, many of us like poetry we encounter there, but then we stop reading it.

    Whenever I see a survey in the UK of people’s favourite poems it’s always ones that were taught in school, suggesting nobody reads poetry once they leave. It’s odd though. If people can enjoy John Dunne or Stevie Smith at the age of 16 why do most not at 36? Poetry seems to be something that people can enjoy if pushed to engage with it, but which generally they don’t seek out even if they did enjoy it when required to read it.

    I’ve no answers to any of this. It’s odd.

  13. I’ll check out some of those names Lee, thanks. I’ve long had a love for Emily Dickinson.

    My great love was the Metaphysicals, particularly John Donne. I used to be able to recite To His Mistress Going to Bed from memory, and could probably still manage some solid chunks of it. Donne, and many of the other metaphysicals, had this wonderful knack of wrapping what generally amounted to “how’s about a bit then darling?” in words that transformed it into something seemingly profound and beautiful.

    “What needs thou have more covering than a man?”

    If Donne were published today his love poems would still be seen as shocking.

    Almost nobody reads contemporary poetry. I think if I ever want

  14. Max, a friend who runs a second-hand book and music store told me recently that nearly all their online poetry sales happen between 10pm and 2am Friday and Saturday evening.

  15. Why do we stop reading poetry after school? That’s a good question, one I’ve never really asked to myself.
    I used to read poetry when I was in school and not only the mandatory poems. Usually, when I liked the poet we were studying, I read more of him. I used to learn some by heart.

    I think it’s a problem of time and quiet. Poetry can’t be read in a noisy environment, it needs quiet and time and a sheer moment of solitude, just to think, read aloud and let yourself be swallowed by the words.
    When I started my professional life after graduating, I was really busy. I lost those moments, always running after time and spending most of my free time with my partner. (which is good, don’t misunderstand me)

    So I just lost the habit to read poetry. And as Proust points out very well, humanbeings are beings run by habits. Perhaps it’s a good time now to change these habits.

  16. Donne’s wonderful, of course. The Flea in particular (obvious I know). And one about the sun being a ‘busy old fool’ which was magnificent, but I can never remember anything…

  17. You may be right Emma. I think too though that a perception of difficulty puts a lot of people off. It’s easy to fear being found wanting, yet when it comes down to it found wanting by whom.

    I say it’s easy because of course I have that fear. If I read a poetry collection and find it obscure, confusing, difficult, does that reflect poorly on me?

    Well, possibly, but no more so than if I fail to understand a novel or film. Poetry somehow though often causes greater caution, perhaps because it’s seen as rareified. It isn’t though, it’s just words on a page and they may speak to us or not.

    Anyway, whether any of that’s correct or not this is a good time to change the habit. Poetry has its rewards, but they’re quiet ones and as you say hard to gain when we’re busy or life is noisy. The other problem of course is a vicious circle. Who to try? With contemporary poetry how many of us can even name that many of them? It’s a bizarrely isolated field, kept isolated by its own isolation. How do we take an interest if we struggle even to know who to be interested in?

    Lee, both favourites of mine. Plus of course the rather wonderful Andrew Marvell. I owe my English teachers a definite debt for introducing me to the Metaphysicals, to Christopher Marlowe and to William Burroughs. Less so for Steinbeck and King Lear, which I still find a difficult play to like.

  18. Max,
    I’m thinking again about Thomas Hardy and his words on poetry in Desperate Remedies. He describes this as a phase as if it were linked to youth (teens, we’d say now). And I wonder if we don’t have that somewhere in our minds too. Poetry belongs to teenage years, a sort of exaltation that suits these tormented years. Something you left behind when you grow up, something you HAVE to leave behind to be a grown-up.

    Plus poetry is the most useless among the useless, Literature. It has no other goal than Beauty. Is there any room for that kind of things in our societies?

    Btw, I can’t quote the name of a living poet either. There must be blogs specialized in poetry. Perhaps reading the classics could be a good start too. And sometimes poets are also singers; a lot of poetry is hidden there, in lyrics.

  19. PS: I can’t help thinking that if Byron were our contemporary, he’d be a rock star and he’d make the headlines like Pete Doherty.

  20. You may be right Emma, both on the (false) link to adolescence and on the utility point.

    People like to kid themselves that fiction is somehow useful. Hence a book is improving, life changing, important, but of course it’s not. It’s art and art needn’t be useful. Beauty is its own reward.

    I’m sure there are some good poetry blogs, but no idea where to find them. Certainly the classics can’t do any harm. It’s not like most of us are so familiar with them that we’ve wearied of them.

    Byron would shock and appal us, yes. I’d probably disapprove of him, but like him if I met him.

  21. Donne was a favourite for a long time, I must revisit.

    Have you ever read Travels With Charley?

  22. I had to google it to find out what it was. I didn’t even know Steinbeck was writing that late. One you’re fond of?

  23. Yes, very much so. I suppose it was inevitable I’d like it: Steinbeck sets off in ‘Rocinante’ (a big custom-made van, basically) to cover and observe, I think, 37 states’ worth of ‘the monster land’. It’s essential reading.

  24. leroyhunter

    Nice review Max, and a great discussion. Like Lee, I don’t think I’ve seen poetry reviewed on another blog – that’s no criticism of the others I read, just to say I also appreciate you doing something different here.

    I liked the pieces you quoted, especially “Peat”. Looking for more info about Leighton, I see one of her poems was reviewed a while ago in the bear-pit that is the Guardian’s Poetry blog. I read that semi-regularly, but never comment, as the discussion is often at a technical level I can’t contribute to, and the eviscerations of each other the commenters dish out are often eye-watering.

    It’s funny how we seem to assume a “graduation” from poetry to prose, like you say there’s an assumed worthiness or sophistication about prose that is totally false. Is it another example of people just reacting against something from school? Yet lyrics and musical use of words are clearly something we all hugely value and enjoy, so it’s strange that poetry is as isolated as you say. I suspect many of those on the inside of the poetry world secretly like it that way, protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

  25. leroyhunter

    PS: to echo 2 of Lee’s suggestions:
    Wallace Stevens is one of my favourite writers full stop – superb.
    And if you have room for another Steinbeck (I also have a bit of an aversion to his fiction) I’d recommend Once There Was A War, a collection of his journalism from when he followed US troops in the 40s.

  26. Trevor of themookseand thegripes has covered a little, but it is largely undiscovered country I grant.

    Interesting comment about the Guardian poetry blogs. I have to admit I’d find that a little intimidating too. I wonder if you’re right Leroy about some in the poetry world though liking the isolation. The sense of being part of a secret, and rather rarefied, world. Perhaps, though if so I’m sure others would rather get the word out a bit more.

    I’ll check out Wallace Stevens, and I’ll look at the Steinbecks. Thanks Lee and Leroy for the recommendations on that front.

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