Published shortly after the release of his debut novel Travelling People in 1964, Poems is British experimental author/naturalist B.S. Johnson’s first slim volume of poetry.
The majority of the entries found within are written in syllabic verse, a technique in which each line contains a set number of syllables, with stress and quantity then playing a secondary role.
Reprinted below are two examples from the collection, which serve to highlight Johnson’s feelings on key events that occurred that forever altered his life in highly dramatic ways. Say what you will about Johnson and his body of work, but he most certainly was not shy when it came time to get at the heart of the matter.
When, well before the first world war, they dug
the London tube, the problem was to find
a place to dump the excavated clay,
though, graded, sand and gravel could be sold.
To Putney commonland by barge and tug
they brought the wormcasts railways leave behind,
four feet of clay upon the soil; the way
slimy in winter, and strange weeds’ freehold.
When I was six, the problem was to find
a place for the evacuated boy,
out of London danger; they stayed behind,
said Grit, son! and bought me another toy.
Doing the best thing for me, to their mind:
war or parents: which did more to destroy?
As Jonathan Coe points out in his fascinating biography of Johnson Like A Fiery Elephant, being purposefully separated from his family and evacuated from the city during the Second World War was a brutal experience for the then young Johnson to have to endure.
For a Girl in a Book
Kim, composite of all my loves,
less real than most, more real than all;
of my making, all the good
and some of the bad, yet of yourself;
sole, unique, strong, alone,
whole, independent, one: yet mine
in that you cannot be unfaithful.
Here Johnson’s obviously referring to the love interest of his fictional counterpart Henry Henry in Travelling People. Just how much of the novel was autobiographical and how much was fictional is blurry at best, and that was the major reason behind why Johnson would label it a disaster and disown it. The novel has been out of print since its initial publication in 1963.
One other poem of striking note is An Eye For Situation, which Coe takes an in-depth look at in his book. It would take far too long to explain the story here, so I’ll instead direct you to page 70 of that book.
These serious pieces are balanced out with comical, witty poems about seemingly random topics such as marriage, unicorns, and truck drivers. If Johnson didn’t have such a way with words and a unique knack for humor this collection would have been a disaster. As it stands, it’s certainly not perfection, but it does serve as an early indicator of Johnson’s struggles with regards to finding his place as a writer and the burning desire he would continue to nurture over the coming years to always tell the truth, using any and all forms of language available to him.
By B.S. Johnson