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Faber & The Poetry Society Reading: Eric Berlin, Emily Berry and Jack Underwood

Emily Berry, Eric Berlin, Jack Underwood (c. Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society)

Poetry was necessary on this year’s election night.  As we sat in a beautiful, packed room in Bloomsbury House, Faber’s headquarters, surrounded by first editions and fairy lights, it was easy to forget the news.  We were gathered for an event organised by the Poetry Society, bringing together three of the most innovative young poets – Eric Berlin, Emily Berry and Jack Underwood, to read poems from their collections.

Jack Underwood delivered the most reassuring poem of the evening, Instead of Bad News about a Person I Love, which probes the psychological tendency to chronically imagine the worst possible scenario taking place.  Underwood inverts such catastrophising and instead offers us the possibility of relentless optimism.  The poem is an amusing and therapeutic piece on the prospect of things not always being as bad as they seem.  Appropriately, the poem is also a celebratory exploration of procrastination as a coping mechanism for bad news.  Instead of confronting the problem at hand, the person engages in a series of meaningless and soothing tasks: “I spent that morning cutting white paper into triangles / I spent that afternoon staring at my bits / enamoured. I spent that evening clapping loudly in the garden.”

It is necessary to hear Jack’s delivery to properly appreciate the poem.  His tone has an effortless cadence and whimsy which accentuates the sinuous rhythms of the poem.  For example, one cannot help but chuckle at the unexpected appearance of the cat: “the cat came in, little devil, and I forgave her.”  When Jack reads this, he adds a quick tempo and natural conversational flow to the line, which highlights its childlike playfulness.  Out of the three poets, it is clear he is a natural performer and could have easily had a career as a stand-up comedian.  His preface to the poems, unlike the usual unnecessary preamble, was witty and instilled a sense of the poems before we even heard them.

Speaking to Jack after the event, we discussed Emily Berry’s style of reading.  We agreed that Emily’s delivery resonates with the words of Anne Carson that “poetry must be recited, not performed”.  The reading of poetry must be stripped back so that the poem may speak for itself.  It is clear to see the fact Berry adheres closely to this philosophy.  Unlike Underwood’s confident cadence, Berry is calm and composed in her reading with the natural phonetics of the words producing their own significance, unforced by Berry.  Listening to her recite is hypnotic and lulling, yet the steady, introspective pace of her delivery also allows for reflection on the complex imagery and sensations spawned by the language itself.  Poems which stood out were the pensive Picnic, with such lines as: “watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continuously trying to be whole”, which continued to reverberate in my mind long after she finished her recital.  In addition, Freud’s Beautiful Things is a witty and inventive example of a ‘found-poem’, comprised of single lines taken from Freud’s correspondence, which Berry turns into a collage of alternate meaning.  She explained that this was a way to get Freud to say things she wanted him to say.

More like Underwood, Eric Berlin’s delivery was suffused with a conversational lilt which moved with the ebb and flow of emotions and images in his poems.  The words and verses drifted seamlessly between memories, objects and sensations, the sense of rhythmic tempo accentuated by his smooth American accent.  His poems oscillate between being enchantingly mystical and yet piercingly realist.  Thanksgiving Fair on Market Street and Apparición were two especially affective poems.  He packs these works full of evocative quotidian objects and images which become otherworldly through his microscopic observation, such as Columbus unclenching “moth-eaten parchment” and encountering “soft pretzels”, “samples of Pepto-Bismol” and “the jester in clashing plaids” at the street fair in Thanksgiving Fair on Market Street.  In a similar way, Apparición combines religion and mythology with the seedy underbelly of urban life: “hunger is so often mistaken for prayer”.

Berlin comes from a fascinating background which fuses cultures as well as disciplines.  His grandparents were from Chernobyl and escaped to Philadelphia before WWI broke out.  While in Chernobyl they experienced widespread anti-Semitism as one of the scapegoats following the frustrations felt after the defeat of Russia in the Sino-Russo war.  Alongside this, he has an array of degrees: an MFA in Sculpture from NY Academy of Art, an MFA in Poetry from Syracuse University and a BA in English from Harvard.  All these layers add a complexity and texture to Berlin’s poems.  Firstly, an awareness of history and culture.  Secondly, his affinity with visual art, particularly sculpture, partly explains why his poems are loaded with materials and striking images.  Berlin has recently received the news that he is a finalist in the Manchester Poetry Competition and will be returning to the UK for the ceremony on the 25th of November.

It is apparent that the New York School in some way influences all the poets.  Like their mid-century predecessors, the poets’ work contains a great love of the quotidian and a casual playfulness with language that continues to be concerned with philosophical problems.  Through their energetic pieces, all three poets advocate a child-like fascination not only with poetry but also the world we experience every day.  Like the New York poets, it is futile to unite these very different writers under one definition.  However, their one shared quality is that they inspire a similar sort of excitement for life, language and paying attention.

By Diana Kurakina

Future events from the Poetry Society can be found here.

Happiness by Jack Underwood


‘Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’ is the title of the fourth poem in Jack Underwood’s recently published collection Happiness. Highlighting early on in proceedings that the eponymous state cannot be explored without reference to its antonym, the poem refers with some resignation to the inaccessibility of the emotions of those we believe to be closest to us. Happiness, indeed, is sometimes found only when we are able to hold sadness ‘to the edge of our bed, shutting our eyes/on another opened hour’.

The unicorn of happiness in Underwood’s debut is thus revealed to be roughly what he – and a whole generation of those coming of age in a climate of uncertainty, introspection and irony – have come to know it as: transient, difficult to express with sincerity, and apt to vanish when subjected to direct scrutiny. When it does show up, it is often in small and unexpected ways, such as ‘in the form of two purple/elastic bands round a bunch of asparagus’ in the title poem ‘Happiness’.  This is one of the many images which bears witness to Underwood’s refusal to exclude the mundane, and even the distinctly unpoetic, from the poetic experience. In a lucid essay written for online magazine Five Dials, Underwood argued that poetry requires more than just the description of a revelatory or poignant experience from the poet, but must be predicated on a connection with the reader: ‘No one wants to turn up to a poem only to find someone enthusiastically telling you, ‘It was awesome – you should’ve been there!’ So when, in this collection, we come across ‘smokers/huddled round a lunch hour’, a lover with ‘biscuit hair’ or a figure ‘pausing to move a snail somewhere safer in the rain’, or when a poem notices ‘a smell in the fridge’, far from bringing the poetry party to a crashing halt like an ill-timed ballad on an Ipod shuffle, the reader is invited in, offered to dump their coat in the bedroom and take a lukewarm Corona.

If all this sounds a little too much like poetry for a generation whose experience of life is characterised by relative privilege and organic vegetables, you’re not entirely off the mark. Underwood belongs, as another reviewer has noted, to an emergent school of British poets who share a language which might be called ‘post-sincerity’, in which poems struggle with the opposing impulses to reveal and conceal; to admit the presence of a strong emotion whilst simultaneously undermining earnestness with deliberately mundane and unsophisticated language and imagery, as in ‘Love Poem’, in which the poet is ‘thinking of you and going/itchy from it’. For some critics, this form of expression is alienating, disingenuous and lacking in poetic rigour. Indeed, one high-profile poet (and self-confessedly ‘ancient and sceptical reader’) conjectured that some poems seemed deliberately to be ‘aspiring to invertebracy’, and found fault with a style that is ‘defensive for all its apparent self-exposure’.

However, such an assessment misses the point of all this evasiveness. The collection as a whole sets up a delicate, playful back-and-forth of sincerity and flippancy which ultimately conveys the sheer terror of experiencing and communicating human emotion in a world in which social mores require us to appear largely unflustered by significant life events. ‘Poem of Fear for my Future Child’ is both a terribly funny and very moving portrait of the insecurity of a parent-to-be:

When I think about pushing your pram by the pond,
all the dogs off their leads, nothing between us and
the dark, weedy water, I drown you. I’m sorry

All this fear, like a fizz building in a bad, grey egg,
is waiting for you. All this greenstick, nodular love,
so tense, perversely stored like a bubble in my lungs,
will be here, a huge trembling hand, when you arrive.

Underwood’s true worth as a poet is revealed in his ability to take the profane trappings of contemporary middle-class British life – eggs, asparagus, ‘a white plastic patio/chair’ – and present thoughts and observations within them which achieve something close to the sacred. In ‘An Avoidance’ ‘bad news ticks/in the kettle as it rests’ and ‘fragments of happiness’ are distributed as the lime garnish in drinks at a house party. Moments of clarity in love or life usually disrupt the somnambulism of small happinesses, rather than forming part of them, and give lie to any assumption that Underwood is not capable (to misquote Plath) of loving well and saying it in good lines. In ‘William; at four days old’ the poet, on meeting an infant relative for the first time is ‘uncooked’:

– I can feel my socks being on –
utter, precious apple
churchyards flatten in my heart,
I’ve never been brilliant so scared

For all the initial appearance of millennial subterfuge in irony or whimsy, Underwood’s collection contains several moments of gem-like sparkle, diamond-sharp phrases which cut through the deceit and right the bone. The last couplet of ‘Weasel’, for example, which could otherwise be taken either as an immature love poem or the self-conscious and self-mocking imitation of such, reveals the voice of a graver lover: “was I even hungry once for eating?/Were you ever not the end to all fasts?” These poems invite the reader to engage with their subterfuge and revelations rather than be the passive mirror onto which they are projected, reflecting only the poet’s own image back. They provoke, affect and occasionally weary (as in the case of the three poems which list deliberately quirky and random elements – ‘a crab on the phonebox floor…the waxwork head of Chaplin’) but always invite discourse. And, most importantly, they have something significant to say about the human experience, and they say it well. The final poem ‘Thank You for your Email’ both calls into question the veracity of the poetic imagery of the entire collection and contains its most stark and unadorned confession.

only now I think it was not, perhaps,
a mountain, it was not, perhaps, a shrub on fire, and not
a fighter-jet boring its noise through the sky, and I am
certain now, it was not me, or a wing or body of a broken
bird, but the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself
about, and to my friends, and to my family.

Happiness, Faber & Faber, £10.99

This admission of dishonesty paradoxically forms the strongest and most frank connection yet with the reader whilst simultaneously expressing the fact that happiness through mutual knowledge and understanding is likely to remain elusive given the human capacity for deceit. Perhaps fittingly, this collection ultimately delivers nothing but ambiguity on the subject of happiness, reminding us both to treasure what we have and not to expect its endurance: ‘we know happiness/because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave’.

By Rachel Chanter

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