reviewed by Jon Stone
Gift poetry volumes are a much-maligned medium, although they sell considerably better than most poetry books. This is not only because they tend to be published by more commercially-focused imprints, but also because their target audience is that vast contingent of readers who like the ‘idea’ of poetry but have never really read much or felt drawn to explore its full breadth. Having a notion of its cultural importance and its soothing powers but wary of trickery, they feel more secure with famous names like Keats and Shelley – state-sanctioned poetry, ‘proper’ poetry that rhymes – or the assurance that the poems will tackle traditional fare: love and nature, nature and love. These books are designed to live on the coffee table or the bookshelf, to be occasionally picked up for recourse to a particular Shakespearean sonnet or humorous limerick. They generally do their best to deter their readers from thinking poetry might be dangerous or subversive.
But what do we have here? Pighog, a small press and serious publisher of contemporary work, have attempted to revitalise the gift book genre with this pair of winter-themed paperbacks, originally published in the run-up to Christmas but hardly past their sell-by date, given the recent weather. Both volumes mix classic poems (Blake, Dickinson, Wordsworth et al) with sharp contemporary work by a range of poets who are thankfully not Carol Ann Duffy. You can tell from the titles exactly what the predominant motif of each collection is going to be, but the selection and arrangement in each case is judicious, lending just enough variety of tone and voice. That’s not to say that any of the poems are particularly outlandish or shocking. Pighog have opted to play it safe with pieces that are fairly mainstream in character, dominated by description and narrative. John McCullough’s account of homoerotic desire in 'The Other Side of Winter' is the most transgressive either collection gets.
Not for the questing connoisseur then, but why should every book be? In hunting for a different audience, Pighog are facing up to the challenge confronting all small presses and many larger presses, and doing so with panache. If I have one criticism, it’s that Skate is by far the better book, presentation-wise. It begins with a short history of ice-skating and a pair of essays, printed on thick gloss with full colour illustrations and a period painting reproduced across a full-page spread. The print quality is excellent throughout, and the poems in the second part of the book are typeset on a rich blue paper. Celebrity skater Jayne Torvill seems to have tossed out a by-the-numbers introduction which doesn’t even acknowledge the poetry part of the project, but that’s the only low point. By comparison, Ice is a straight-up plunge into the poems with no peripherals.
A clear choice, then, if you only have the one tenner to spend, but for an original gift for a friend or relative who perhaps might be persuaded to spend some more time with contemporary poetry if only there were a gateway drug, both volumes do the job adequately. Get them now and save them up until next Christmas, if necessary.