Heaven in Ordinary: Alan Brownjohn’s poetry of the everyday (a review)

Alan Brownjohn, The Saner Places, Enitharmon Press, 2011

Sometime in my first year as an undergraduate – so 1984/5 –  I was asked to act as host for a day to the poet Alan Brownjohn, at a literary festival in Southampton. I was instructed to meet him at the railway station, told where he should be, when, how to get him lunch, coffee and tea, and where to leave him so that he could join the other writers and poets for a dinner to which the ‘student-hosts’ were most definitely not invited.

I had never heard of Alan Brownjohn before that day and have never met him since. He has no idea, and couldn’t possibly have, of his influence on me. What has stuck with me about Brownjohn since I spent that day with him (and spending a whole day with one person is an intense experience) was his ability to pay attention; and rather more than that, the quality of his attention. Although I was a distinctly unprepossessing 19 year old who had never read, or made any attempt to read his poetry, although I knew nothing about him and didn’t seek to, Brownjohn paid infinite attention to me. In fact he hosted me for the day, giving gracious, attentive welcome to me as he went about what was, after all, a day’s work for him. But I was also able to see how he paid attention to everyone he met, to his audience, the people who asked questions at the end of his readings, the fellow writers over lunch and coffee.

Ever since that day I have eagerly awaited publication of Brownjohn’s collections of poetry and eagerly read them and his many book reviews and newspaper articles. The Saner Places is the latest collection of Brownjohn’s work (now in his 80’s). His poetry displays that ability to see and to listen, to attend to. It confirms perhaps the poet’s but definitely Brownjohn’s vocation as an observer; as one who finds the poetry in the ordinary.

One of my favourite poems in the collection is A202. It epitomizes Brownjohn’s ability to find the poetry in the mundane. For those of us who have lived in south London the A202 is certainly mundane. This poem was published in 1969, sadly not much seems to have changed about the road:

Along its length it despoils, in turn, a sequence

Of echoless names: Camberwell, Peckham,

New Cross Gate; places having no recorded past

     Except in histories of the tram.

 

This is a poem of quiet despair and gloom ending:

      … It leaves its despondent, foul

And intractable deposit on its own

     Banks all the way like virtually all

 

Large rivers, particularly the holy ones, which it

Is not. It sees little that deserves to be undisposed.

It only means well in the worst of ways.

     How much of love is much less compromised?

 

This dark background seems characteristic of many of his poems from this earlier period.  A Garden in Summer (published in 1961), begins with a happy August day but leads to:

 

And in a consciousness of joy the fear returns,

Fear that its wholeness must be too complete, its passing

Begin where even now the trees are still.

 

In the later poems, the despair seems to have receded (or been accepted?).  An Ode to Insomnia (2010), may not seem very much more hopeful but with its beginning “You are the queen of opportunities…” the poet has found some peace with life as it is. This is especially true in a poem to mark the end of the first decade of this century December 31st 2009,

 

Screwing in a low energy bulb,

A token of somebody’s scheme

For empowering me to be good,

And to play my part in small ways

 

Fifteen lines later “When the bulb has brightened” captures perfectly that awkward wait for our contemporary light bulbs. Just as the ‘small ways’ and the ‘low energy’ seems to reflect subtly something of the poet himself.  Here mortality looms large and the poem contains an allusion to Bede’s bird flying in through one window of a great hall and out through another as an image of the briefness of our lives. Here an unidentified bird finds its way onto a Circle Line train, but “It was not out to symbolise / the shortness of our lives … It just took its liberty.”

Brownjohn refuses to be drawn into the pathetic fallacy, but that “it just took its liberty” speaks adeptly of the human condition. I would be very glad to think I had developed even a fraction of Brownjohn’s ability to attend to people. Over the years I have come to the view that to pay attention to someone is as close as it is possible to come to a definition of love.  In my work it is my hope, although I have no doubt I fail often, that every person believes that they have been paid attention to, just as Alan Brownjohn paid attention one day to a very insignificant student in Southampton.

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