forty: Stewart Henderson, A Giant’s Scrapbook

This is the other book of poetry that belonged to the original unread/partly read shelf, rescued from a box of books at my folks’ house a few weeks back. Like the other, it was given to me by a family friend, when I left home I think – her handwritten note was still inside the book, which was a lovely reminder. I think I’ll write a (very belated) thank-you note.

An aside: this was published by Hodder & Stoughton, who I didn’t realise ever had a poetry list (they certainly don’t have one now). It’s an enticing thought. Was poetry just a lot more popular/widely published in the eighties?… Also, it’s a horrible cover, but perhaps that’s only to be expected…

I hadn’t heard of Henderson before, but according to the blurb he was well known in the eighties as a performance poet, performing all over the UK and much anthologised (he’s still writing and is well known for his children’s writing, his broadcasting on Radio 4 and his involvement with Greenbelt). ‘Eighties’ and ‘performance poet’ sum up what I didn’t like about this collection: I can imagine it working better live, but on the page it often read like hastily written, stream-of-consciousness prose with a few ‘poetic’ turns of phrase and lots of carriage returns. Plus quite a lot of the poems were rather self-consciously issues-based – and those issues feel rather dated almost twenty years later. Maybe it’s a question of taste – when it comes to poetry, I prefer a much more crafted type of writing, and this much freer style felt rather flat and two-dimensional compared to some of the exquisite work (Sampson, Burnside) I’ve read recently. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison? But at times I did feel disappointed – ‘Gang Rules’, for example, doesn’t follow the glorious upward trajectory promised by the second stanza, descending into banality instead (I thought). Actually I thought a lot of his last lines were a bit too obvious – hammering the point home in an way that lacked any kind of subtlety and sometimes felt a bit mawkish.

All that said, there are some lovely pieces in this book, and I enjoyed it a lot more than it sounds like from what I’ve written above. The opening section, ‘A Giant’s Scrapbook’, was probably my favourite, with some oblique, wry and poignant observations on being ‘the wrong height’. There was some brilliant, surprising and inventive language, and I’d love to hear some of this performed.

Favourites were ‘Assessing Pain’, ‘Correspondence’ and ‘First Steps’ from ‘A Giant’s Scrapbook’, ‘Being Shaved’ and ‘God gives you this day’ – where the informality of Henderson’s writing really shines (‘This giggling day/As the clouds hokey-cokey’). And this, ‘Declaration’ –

And when your voice shakes with age
as all life’s small intentions
enter their ripening slumbers
I will be with you

And when your lips anticipate the coming kiss
which will finally complete
the stretched hours of honing
I will be with you

And when your eyes
disperse once more
the tight clot of my hashed hopes
with your impossible love
I am and will be with you

A Giant’s Scrapbook, Stewart Henderson (Spire/Hodder & Stoughton, 1989)

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