Sunshine: Melissa Lee-Houghton, Penned in the Margins

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There’s a received wisdom in modern poetry that says that you use as few words as possible to say as much as possible; a kind of austerity of the word. Every word has to earn its place in the line, has to be filled with meaning. Hence, you get the narrow, imagistic poetry of William Carlos Williams, and many others have followed on from that. Short lines, intense images and everything “loaded with ore” as Pound would say. It can be brilliant but it can also be thin and distant.

The poems in Sunshine, however, are almost the exact opposite of that. Here’s the first few lines of the first poem, ‘And All The Things That We Do I Could Face Today’:


If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble.

We share baths together because we get bored and it’s cold and

we used to talk but now I just pull sad faces and you sympathise.

I was thinking about abstract things, like what distance means to lovers;

physical distance, emotional distance and the distance

between us in the bath in our heads.


The lines are long and clausal; the subject matter is closely personal and the language emotive. This is not thin poetry; it’s full-bodied and very much in your face. I can hear the objection already: isn’t this just prose cut up into lines? And I can’t think of a good riposte to that, except for Pound’s dictum that poetry should be at least as good as prose; and this is as good as the best prose.

When I read these poems, I can’t help but think of the Ginsberg of Howl and Kaddish. The long sentences give the poems an energy and drive that is rare in contemporary poetry. The subject matter is often confessional, fixing on her own experience of mental illness; it’s often sexually explicit and the language is both direct and metaphorical. Just the reference to porn in the first line will shock some readers.

But this is essentially a poetry of the anti-austere, and in a time when our lives are supposed to be constrained both economically and emotionally, this book comes as a shot in the arm for British poetry. Here’s another quote, from ‘i am very precious’, shortlisted for the Forward prize for best single poem:


 I see all the black marks on the page, the lines

  hallucinations falling off the edge of the world – my tongue

  we haven’t talked about desperation,

  yet you tell me about pornography, girls with death wishes

  attached to their libidos, little warm arrows

  aligned to their supple bodies, inside where the parental hole gapes;


These are just the first few lines of a sentence that goes on for 15 lines, twisting and turning down the page like a swimming-pool flume, full of images and clauses to do with desire and sex, and altogether too much information. I find it glorious and challenging in equal measure.

Not everyone will like this book. Some will be repelled by its explicitness, others by the anti-austere forms; but I think this book is actually part of a kind of unconscious movement among poets who are tired of the austerity of modernism and want to expand the poem, the line, the subjects and the syntax of poetry again.

Steven Waling 


Melissa Lee-Houghton, Sunshine, Penned In the Margins, £9.99



◄ November poetry in Aldeburgh after all with weekend of events in town

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