thirty-seven: Sophie Hannah, Pessimism for Beginners

I don’t think I’d heard of Sophie Hannah before this year’s reading experiment, but over the last few months browsing poetry and bookshops I’ve come across her a lot. I gave a copy of Pessimism for Beginners to a flatmate as a birthday gift because it was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and looked fun, and when I read somewhere recently that she’s a master/mistress of contemporary rhymed poetry I thought I had to give her a go myself.

Hannah is a prolific writer – she’s published numerous collections of poetry, is a thriller/psychological crime writer and is responsible for the totally brilliant and charming recent verse translations of some of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books (my favourite is The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My).

But I’m afraid this collection left me, for the most part, rather cold. The poetry is funny, and well written, but after a while the relentless rhyme and metre began to grate on me almost as much as her themes: relationship failures and how rubbish blokes are (ok, I’m grossly simplifying, but that appeared to be the take-home message). I guess her style just isn’t much to my taste, but after the first ten or so pages I began to feel as though I’d eaten too many sherbet lemons: cloyed, with the skin of the roof of my mouth scraped off. It felt as though she only had one emotional tone: sarcastic with a hint of smug. Like the Charlie Brooker of poetry, but not as funny.

That sounds horribly harsh, but it’s just my opinion, and clearly not many other people share it. And she’s obviously accomplished. There were a few that I really, really liked: the pastiches of Milton and Herbert, ‘On Her Tiredness’ and ‘Discipline’, the world-weary ‘Living Without You’ and ‘Limited’, and the melancholy ‘In the chill’. ‘No Ball Games etc’ was probably my stand-out favourite though, with its playfulness, comedy, and the combination of acute observation and absurdity:

sign outside a London block of flats

Honestly, do we have to spell it out?
No tents, space-hoppers, orgies, Brussels sprout
enthusiasts, no sponsored squirrel fights,
no Ayurvedic quacks, no woolly tights,

no weeping for the joy you think you’re owed,
no winking at the house across the road,
dividing rainbows into seven strands
of single colour, no quick show of hands,

no pastry-cutting, origami, chess,
no taking pleasure in your own success,
no sand, no shark impressions, no culottes
no Christmas pantomimes, no liver spots,

no lurking in the shadows by the shed,
no improvised salutes, no olive bread,
no weightless floating with an auctioneer
in the small pond. No ponds. Hope that’s now clear.

Pessimism for Beginners, Sophie Hannah (Carcanet, 2007)

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