Kitsch and Linguistic Tricks: Paul Stephenson’s “Those People”

“These People” by Paul Stephenson

There is a well-known story about W. H. Auden (I came across it in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) and a conversation he had with a boy who said he wanted to be a poet because he had lots to say. The moral, or perhaps the punch line, is in Auden’s frustration at why the boy wants to be a poet: the most important thing is playing with words. Paul Stephenson, in his pamphlet Those People, seems to be following Auden’s advice. The first thing you notice about the poems here is the nimble use of language.

This is immediately obvious in the pamphlet’s found or overheard poems. There is a page-long list of questions called, appropriately enough, ‘Do You Have Any Questions?’. This is the last question before an exam begins in British schools and what follows is a vertigo-inducing compendium of questions, as if there all the thoughts going through someone’s head in the split seconds before the exam really begins. In ‘Gare du Midi’, Stephenson collects phrases overhead (and some thought, I think) at the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The title repeats that of Auden’s political pre-World War Two poem of the arrival of an insidious briefcase, but today the station is full of the worries of travellers and tourists, as well as the anxiety of some of not being let into the UK.

Other poems play around with language even more, and most especially with sound. In ‘Wake Up And’, Stephenson takes the cliché wake up and smell the coffee and works through the phonetic implications of coffee—coughing and cacophony are just the first two. In a lot of ways, the poem seems similar to the aleatory N+7 practice of the Oulipo group, but it is more wilful. Mostly the sequence of words follows phonetics rather than the alphabet: there is a stanza of words beginning with k and a great couplet in “wake up and smell Cavafy / wake up and smell Cefalonia”. Depending on how you pronounce the c, these are not only close phonetically, but geographically as well: Cephalonia lies next to Ithaca, the name and destination of Cavafy’s most famous poem. For the reader, it feels like having a window into a process of free association.

This use of the everyday or the cliché—and putting it to work—is very much one of Stephenson’s strengths. In ‘Two Tannoys (A Noise Annoys)’, he takes the mundaneness of a station announcements to play with echo and misunderstanding:

If you see fuse anything knee
suspicious please sheepish
report it sleaze rear poor
tit immediately mead
to a idiot member
wham of ember
railway staff
ale waist
fast.

This downward triangular stanza is followed by an upward one and has clear predecessors in George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ or Brazilian concrete poetry. And doubly so: the stanzas are in the form of loudspeakers and in the shape that sound moves outwards from a one. The phonetic repetitions also echo English nonsense verse, but I think this exploration of the misunderstood also has something to do with the experience of being surrounded by non-native words on a daily basis. Stephenson currently lives in Paris and has lived outside the UK for a number of years. And I speak from personal experience—I rarely understand what’s being said over Brazilian public-address system.

In ‘Ashby-de-la-Zouch’, phonetics echo through a poem once again. This time in the sounds and spellings of the strangely named Leicestershire town (there are, disappointingly, no references to the rather louche Baron Zouche for whose family the town is named). The underlinings in the extract below are my own to pick these out:

… The men mostly choose

to work at Deloitte & Touche, drink
Tizer-on-the-rocks, Sunday compete
in ouch!-shouting contests, carry shabby
satin pouches packed with cinders of papers
perused. The chiselled women wear smiles
like snagged zips and ladi-da brooches
confectioned from bashful cockroaches.

This poem is more than just a play on sound though. Stephenson captures the colloquialisms of the pseudo-suburban, very English small town with references to Tizer (a soft drink) and phrases like “la-di-da”. And other poems have more of these: there are references to “Bob-a-job” (doing community in exchange for a donation), “her Ron” or in lines like “with Mick up the Five Bells”—note that the preposition is ‘up’, not ‘in’, ‘at’ or ‘up at’. This is very much everyday, not “poetic”, language.

These touches of the everyday reach a real high point in poems like ‘Birthday Cards’. It begins:

Today you’d be seventy if you hadn’t been
so overweight. We’d all be sending you
funny birthday cards with cartoons of fat men
up to no good in their shed, or dozed off
in a deckchair, fingers laced over their belly.

Much of the poem describes these very kitschy cartoon birthday cards that in the UK, you can find in “Clintons, Smiths, Paperchase”, but the first line—and others throughout the poem—set off a much more serious parallel narrative. The references are often oblique and it’s not clear in the poem who has died, but it is clearly someone very close. And as funny, or grotesque, as the images of a man “wheeling his stomach in a wheelbarrow” may be, there is an inescapable sadness to them that on one level picks apart the very appropriateness of them, but on another is complicit with the jokes (spoiler alert: the poet buys one). As improbable as it may seem, Stephenson manages to explore the deepest of feelings through kitsch. And that is some achievement.

Paul Stephenson, Those People, smith|doorstop books (Sheffield), 2015 (Buy it from the Poetry Business)

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