It’s a depressing irony that most poetry that sets itself up to be funny actually isn’t funny in the least. Luckily, there are exceptions and Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie is not only funny — it’s intelligent, satirical, and very well written into the bargain.
From the first lines of Film Noir, the humour blends subtlety with farce:
Broken shadows through Venetian blinds.
‘This has the soft note of improvisation:’
I said, ‘our dialogue.’ She missed her cue.
Luke Kennard, at 26, the youngest ever poet to have a collection short-listed for the UK Forward Prize for Best Collection, finds humour in unexpected places, often by juxtaposing images and events in surprising ways. In Autumn Collection, the final lines hint (unintentionally) at his technique as well as summing up the narrator’s depiction of contemporary individualism and uncertainty:
Many of us have our own versions of events
Engraved one over the other on monuments
Erected one on top of the other.
But despite embracing many of the techniques of (post-)modernism in his writing, Kennard isn’t slow to poke fun at them. In The Choir, a man wakes to find a choir stationed round his bed. Like a Greek chorus in a drama, the choir comments on the narrative, but here indulges in a farcical meta-narrative:
That night he pummelled the choir with his fists;
He beats the choir in frustration, but though they are bruised
And bleeding at the lip, they sing with redoubled vigour, sang the choir.
Then they sang, He cannot get to sleep, he cannot get to sleep
In this collection, doctors prescribe “Get Well Soon” cards, a dummy keeps shouting for help after its ventriloquist has been strangled, a prisoner is interrogated by a tabby-cat until he converts to Optimism, and a fictionalised centipede writes a letter which is censored, although there’s disagreement over whether the centipede is a dangerous political figure (or even a surrealist!) or simply a obscene Romantic who invokes freedom of speech in order only to insult it.
Along with the humour, serious subjects slip into view. The poems engage testily with literary theory and fashion, state tyranny, religious cults, and the influence of political agendas on education, and they do so with a barbed wit. These are anything but cringe-worthy jokes dressed-up as sonnets, but they don’t strain themselves to make thunderously profound points either. They are clever, but not too clever for their own good. The writing is strong — an enviable command of rhythm, perfect comic timing, and an eye for memorable imagery: unshelled peanuts pour down a flue “like a throng of ecstatic bald men, dancing,” a man looks into the eyes of another “as if he is peering into a malfunctioning hose pipe.”
The third and final section of the book is made up of prose poems, unsurprising given that Luke Kennard’s debut collection, The Solex Brothers, was entirely devoted to the genre. I particularly liked the Machiavellian wolf who purports to be interested in art and in bettering society, but whose main obsession is clear from the start:
The wolf signs the guestbook: Dear Sir, I enjoyed the exhibition, but would have preferred it if all the pictures had been of me. I suppose your “meaning of life” is different to mine. Wolf x x
In the fourth section of The Elements, a highly entertaining prose sequence that pokes gentle fun at avant-garde poetics, the narrator interviews an “uncomplicated, wholehearted Clod,” who falls asleep after one question. The narrator finishes off:
‘Your work often concludes in paradox,’ I say. ‘Is that intentional or do you genuinely not know anything?’
The book is worth buying for that one alone, but there’s so much here that is richly entertaining and that also engages the brain in the way good poetry should do. I laughed, but was made to think too, and by the time I’d finished, I was ready to start again.
* The Harbour Behind the Movie: £12.99 hardback, Salt, 2007. Also currently available direct from Salt Publications at a 20% discount.