Matthew Paul reviews New and Selected Poems by Cliff Yates (Smith|Doorstop, 2023)
Kidderminster – home of carpets, a sometime-giant-killing non-league football team, and Robert Plant – is where Cliff Yates spent his youth, and the reader of this retrospective will find themselves enjoying his easy-going memories of days and nights in the town as the 1960s tripped into the ’70s:
Your parties are legendary:
videos of Dixon of Dock Green
on a huge black and white television
to the sound of Captain Beefheart, Chicken Shack
and Duster Bennett live at Frank Freeman’s.
(‘Poem on the Decline of the Carpet Industry’)
As well as the madcap teenage bohemianism of Worcestershire, Yates captures the quiet, everyday closeness of family relationships and friendships, including a gentle mockery born of affection. The comical start of ‘Telescope’ leads to a lovely, fraternal conclusion:
November 2am frost. My brother
on a deckchair in the back garden
is dressed for it: balaclava, socks on his hands,
two overcoats and a blanket.
I give him the last of my chocolate
take off my shoes and socks and walk on the grass.
It’s a companion piece to a similar poem, ‘Oakworth’, in which their mother makes a cameo appearance: “She’s staying for Christmas. I leave her on the sofa / watching television in front of the gas fire.” By using the present tense here, as he invariably does, Yates invites the reader right into the scene, like a welcome friend.
This ability to write fine, homely poems about ordinary day-to-day living, usually without exaggerating or fictionalising, is rare. Yates is acutely attuned to what’s going on around him and makes art out of all kinds of unprepossessing matter: buying breathable membrane at Travis Perkins, predictive astrology, a conversation in the rain about bicycles, half-remembered dreams, shoes (an especially fine poem about his father), buying flowers for his wife. One of the book’s many highlights, ‘Baldwin Road’, exemplifies his ability with a cinematic flourish: “Dad cycles up the hill / on his way to work, haversack on his shoulder, / beret pulled low”, while, in a Kitchen-Sink-realism-meets-Blue–Velvet fashion,
Next door but one, the John Denver lookalike
is burying something in the garden, watched
by his new dog, ears back, tail moving.
This is more artful poetry than it initially appears, and Yates must have expended many thousands of hours of effort in making his style so apparently effortless.
Yates is acutely attuned to what’s going on around him and makes art out of all kinds of unprepossessing matter
From the reader’s perspective, it helps greatly that Yates’s philosophy is such a positive one. Like his confrères, Ian McMillan and Peter Sansom, Yates looked westward, to the example of Koch, O’Hara and other New York School poets, for inspiration (and permission, of sorts) to deploy humour – both to raise a laugh and as a vehicle to make, perhaps subconsciously, a serious point: that for much of the time, existence consists of a succession of pedestrian moments enlivened by fun, occasional oddity and, above all, the warmth of human connection.
You might imagine all this to be overly blokey at times, but the joke in Yates’s oeuvre is often at his own expense, particularly in putting up with wisecracks from his wife and children. The comedy in his poetry is frequently disconcerting, surreal and dry, and reminiscent of the slow-paced drollery in Alan Plater’s three 1980s TV serials The Beiderbecke Trilogy. Moreover, one intuits that he believes – rightly, surely – that the comic aspects of living are a crucial part of its beauty. One stand-out poem in this regard is the splendidly-titled ‘I’ve just invented the Tai Chi Sprout Stalk Form’: Yates is practising various Tai Chi moves in the garden when his son, Luke, “opens the back door / and lobs the sprout stalk at [his] head.” This leads to Yates incorporating the stalk into new moves, to which he assigns absurdly funny names such as “Sherbet Fountain Takes Umbrage and Spins”. The names then turn the second half of the poem into a delicious list-poem.
Occasionally, where Yates gives full rein to that endearing daftness, he takes the poem to a different place altogether, as in ‘Kidderminster-on-Sea’, where “You can buy cockles on Coventry Street, fish / for eels off the Swan Centre, cast your net / in Castle Street”. The poem then cleverly wrongfoots the reader by segueing into a soberingly poignant series of remembrances of characters from way back when. Among these is a down-and-out, Charlie, “shouting in greeting your name, a thousand / miles from Poland, the only English you know.” It takes confidence and skill to pull off a trick like that.
The comedy in his poetry is frequently disconcerting, surreal and dry
In the brief selections from Yates’s 2021 Red Ceiling Press chapbook Another Last Word, the silliness quotient is consistently high, to the point of being rather meta: it’s comprised of short monologues by, or dialogues with, his wife, who always leaves an amusingly choice bon mot hanging in the air, as, for example, in ‘DANCE’:
‘It’s great the way we dance around each other,’
I said, ‘when we’re getting the meal on.’
‘We only do that because you get in the way.’
Here, undoubtedly, lies the influence of Geoff Hattersley who has long plied a similar schtick. Elsewhere, Yates is just funny per se, in a nicely understated way, as in another brilliantly-titled poem, ‘The End of the World Again’:
I’m reading Exit Music from the shelf
I always bang my head on coming down the stairs,
we’re sharing a box of Maltesers and wondering
why we have to drive all the way to Cornwall
and rent a cottage in order to live like kings.
Yates’s range of cultural references is wide, and his interest in life and all its facets is deep. As to his poetic techniques, he is ordinarily neither formally nor thematically adventurous, and is instead happy to let the words and their musicality determine his poetic forms and to let his ear and eye dictate the line- and stanza-breaks without any deliberately unsettling or jarring jaggedness. In short, he trusts his material to work its magic. That may sound dull to some readers’ tastes, but this book shows that the results are, in fact, individually and cumulatively uplifting. That sense derives not just from the settings – the psycho-geographical ramblings around the West Midlands and beyond, including several poems set in Paris and other continental cities – but also from how the most incidental, quotidian things might trigger the poems. Sometimes he constructs them from a succession of non sequiturs, in recognition no doubt, that thought-processes, conversations and events don’t always follow logical sequences: ‘Phil and the Tension Wire’, for example, happily moves from examination of the ‘dodgy’ wire, through a diagnosis of the problem and on to an unexpected and delightful nature-note epiphany.
As may be apparent, Yates is not an ‘issues’-driven poet, nor a flashy one, and that makes his style a little unfashionable. In lesser hands, this type of poetry could verge on the bland or complacent. But even when Yates’s poems are at their least consequential (and it has to be said that a few in the book only just about earn their place), they contain more than enough charm and wit to keep the reader engrossed. I’ve resisted the urge to quote more extensively from them because I don’t want to spoil their treasurable surprises. A lot of contemporary poets seem keener to tug at the reader’s heartstrings than to entertain. They might read Cliff Yates’s poems and learn how to do both.
Matthew Paul lives in Rotherham and has worked as a local government education officer since 1992. His first collection, The Evening Entertainment, was published by Eyewear in 2017. He is also the author of two haiku collections, The Regulars (2006) and The Lammas Lands (2015), and is co-writer / editor (with John Barlow) of Wing Beats: British Birds in Haiku (2008), all published by Snapshot Press. He co-edited Presence haiku journal, has contributed to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’ column, and reviews poetry pamphlets for Sphinx. Matthew Paul’s blog is here.