Dylan Thomas’ advice to his first cast of ‘Under Milkwood’ was simple: “Love the words.” It is advice that Armando Iannucci might equally have given to the cast and crew of his excellent “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” It is ultimately an uplifting film; I left the cinema in jubilant mood because I thought the film deftly captured the joy of writing and of language. When I had mentioned to my neighbour earlier in the day that I would be going to see the film, her reply was “Well, it’s different”. I can appreciate why she said that because it’s easier to define it by what it isn’t. It isn’t a slavish adaptation of Dickens’ novel: some characters don’t feature, others enjoy a fate different to that explored in the novel, some even answer back in a kind of gentle Dickensian take on Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author.’ So, I suppose there is plenty for Dickens scholars to take issue with. Having said that, for me, my love for Dickens’ work has always started with the games he could play with language and Iannucci’s film conveys that in spades. You will emerge from the cinema in love with the craft of writing and with the chief tools at our disposal: the words we use.
The “tower of words” that imprisons Dylan Thomas in ‘Especially when the October wind’ enables him to produce such gems as “the wordy shapes of women”; “star-gestured children” and “dark-vowelled birds”; all images I see daily as I walk to the foreshore past the primary school and the village shop. Luke Kennard is a writer who, I believe has the same “syllabic blood” coursing though his veins. His most recent offering (as far as I’m aware) is ‘Truffle Hound’, the first pamphlet published by Verve Poetry Press, an independent press in Birmingham, UK (www.vervepoetrypress.com). The pamphlet focuses exclusively on prose poems, some of which, as it mentions in the acknowledgements section “appeared in other forms”. This appealed to me on two counts. Firstly, I am intrigued by the concept of prose poems. Any attempts I have made at writing them have ended in failure – I haven’t a firm enough grasp on what I want to do with the form and the words. Kennard, however, seems at home with this most slippery of forms. Secondly, the idea that form is a fluid substance we can rework is something that fascinates me and has intrigued countless others through the ages. If you look past the bawdiness of Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, you’ll see that his reference to “warm wex with hands plye” isn’t just an ironic foreshadowing of the comeuppance Januarie receives by means of the duplicate key, made from the impression of the original key imprinted in wax, but a comment on how writing works and how we are forever shaping and reshaping it to tell our tales.
In ‘Truffle Hound’ Kennard begins wending his self-deprecating, self-referential way with ‘Ibuprofen Song’, which starts as self-help and ends with the desperate image of “someone who will say, there, just there, and stop your giant mosquito heart like a door” – and that sets the tone for the pamphlet. You’re never quite sure where the writing will take you. In ‘Some People Are Special Then They Immediately Ruin It’, the final comment about “missing the point” acts as a subtle reminder to readers not to do the same. Amongst the fun and the linguistic hi-jinks, there are moments of terror too. In ‘Ghost Story’, “the sky is page white” which voices our own deep-rooted fear that we won’t be able to record it all, cursed as we are to be “the victim and the perpetrator of every single act ever committed.” ‘Accountability’, the penultimate in the collection, is pure delight with Luke Kennard appearing everywhere you look in different guises, propelling us towards the prize of “ a tiny sachet of popping candy” while the sound we hear is “the last rains of the Anthropocene extinction”. The final prose poem in the pamphlet, ‘Italicise This’ is apparently “a geyser of untranslatable thoughts” and even uses the subsequent white space to prove its point. “If I tried to italicize the way I feel about you the letters would lean so far to the right they’d be invisible”, which indeed they are if the white space which follows is anything to go by.
Reading the pamphlet made me wonder where Luke Kennard is heading next. I found his earlier collection ‘Cain’ immensely powerful in ways I did not expect. The linguistic word play was mesmerising. ‘Book II The Anagrams’ was one of the most inventive pieces of writing I have met in a long while. We should always read the rubric, as it seems to imply – but never in the quiet carriage from Birmingham New Street to Exeter St Davids; the opprobrium I was met with as I shouted a congratulatory “Yes” when I read ”Foot the noun. Whatever it takes. Lord, have mercy. Gospodi pomiliu. Kyrie eleison” will live with me for some while.
I mentioned earlier that ‘Truffle Hound’ was Kennard’s latest offering “as far as I’m aware”. I wonder whether he has plans to produce a longer work in the near future. I read his novel ‘The Transition’ (published in 2017) with interest. In fact, I read it more or less in one sitting, if you count time off for coffee and a ginger biscuit. I even read it on the last bus home, which as a childhood sufferer of travel sickness (at times in the most spectacular way – too much information?) is praise indeed. It is a book that kept me thinking long after I’d finished it. Somehow Kennard had managed to weave into the narrative not just considerations of our shared responsibility on how people get into debt but also on how they can realistically extricate themselves from that mire, without it seeming like a civics lecture. It made me think of how we judge the health of a nation by its material wealth, the money it generates, when really we should measure our health by other means. Why not by the literature we produce? But I digress; it is a finely poised book that is satirical and funny and worryingly convincing. When I finished reading it, I found myself thinking of the ending of Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”
And this brings me full circle, back to love and to loving the words. I have tried, in true post-modernist fashion, to write a review of Kennard’s work without initially seeming to. But then, I’ve just had to explain that, which undermines it all, proving why I should not be let loose on prose poetry and should really stick to the day job. Whatever Luke Kennard chooses to work on next, I will read it with huge interest. He is an immensely talented writer who is not prepared to keep within set boundaries but redefines and rethinks those sometimes spurious divisions. All I can say is “More truffles, Mr Kennard” and soon, please, very soon!