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.

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