There is a long tradition of poetry set in and about London, one that dates back at least as far as Layamon’s Troy Novant. This idea, borrowed from Geoffrey of Monmouth and kept going by, amongst others, Spenser in his Faërie Queene helped establish a foundational myth that was to prove useful to English imperialism in the centuries that lay ahead. At the dawn of this empire, the city featured heavily in the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, both directly and indirectly, the latter often by locating plays in Catholic courts, to allow comment on the Court of King James. Generally speaking, these plays painted London as a place of corruption and opportunity in equal measure.
In the 18th century, both Dryden and Samuel Johnson continued this tradition when they recast satires by Juvenal as commentaries on what was by then the most populous city in Europe. While extolling the virtues of life in the capital, both poets were at pains to record its underbelly, a world of prostitutes, footpads, young bloods in search of a fight, and chamberpots being emptied out of upstairs windows. In Johnson’s words, London was ‘the needy Villain’s gen’ral Home’.
In the Romantic era, Blake was the city’s chief bard. As a native Londoner who rarely ventured elsewhere, his love of the place was greatly tempered by his vision of its dehumanisation by the Industrial Revolution and he incorporated the city into his apocalyptic vision, adding the idea of a New Jerusalem to the myth. Most of Blake’s fellow Romantics were more committed to rural visions of Englishness, and so his work was a major influence on much of what was to follow in the way of London verse.
In the early 20th century, apocalyptic London lies at the heart of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and later on the major poems of the Blitz: Four Quartets, HDs War Trilogy and Dylan Thomas’s elegies. However, the most significant of all poetic explorations of the London mythos was written after WWII; this was, of course, David Jones’ The Anathemata. Jones’ work was a key influence on many of the British Poetry Revival writers, especially Iain Sinclair, whose book-length poems Ludd Heat and Suicide Bridge bring together many of the themes of the London myth.
These poets, and many others, have established a kind of framework within which any poet writing about London will find themselves constrained to operate, even if they end up rejecting it.
In their writings, London is both sacred landscape and criminal playground. It is characterised by political and financial power, but also by poverty and oppression. Its anonymity both crushes and liberates the human soul.
Whitehall Jackals, Chris McCabe’s 2013 collaboration with Jeremy Reed, was firmly in this line, with the influences of Blake, Jones, Eliot and Sinclair all being evident. In this new collection McCabe harks back to the earlier voices of the Jacobean stage, with the titular sequence comprising a set of nine poems named after Jacobean dramas: The Revenger’s Tragedy, The White Devil, The Changeling, A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The Alchemist, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Duchess of Malfi, Women Beware Women, and The Malcontent. The primary themes running through these plays are love triangles, money and class (many of them feature relationship between noblewomen and their servants), and the conjunction of love and death, éros and thanatos .
These themes are woven through McCabe’s texts, each one an imagined speech by a character who forms one point of that play’s triangle. The poems weave phrases from the plays through overlapping visions of the city now and then, researched on the Internet in a Jacobean tavern from leads provided by the eponymous female spy. The formal constraints that McCabe uses, justifying both margins of the text to create visual boundaries but using left-margin indents and internal spacing to invoke the freedom of open field verse, add to the sense of barely contained and conflicting energies: wealth and financial collapse, creativity and death, reality and play. This is a city on the verge of a riot it doesn’t really understand. ‘I have’ to quote Lovewit in McCabe’s ‘The Alchemist’, ‘a real toy sword but I am in the wrong play’.
The sequence is flanked on one side by a short prose preface called ‘Black Lodge Recorder’ in which poetry is compared to an aircraft flight recorder, a system of inputs and outputs, and on the other by a series of twenty-one short poems, or odes. These display a greater range of formal control than was evident in Whitehall Jackals. They range from prose poems, through free verse and list poems to tercets and quatrains in fairly regularly accented meters. Many of the themes that dominate the Speculatrix sequence resurface here. There is anger:
they took her & hit her in the crotch, even as
the camera turned, I heard a shout
“It’s a girl, it’s a fuckin girl”
(‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’)
dry verbal humour:
Back in the Häagen Daz we made Bang & Olufsen plans
(‘Our Glasnost Love’)
and tenderness in the face of death:
……. Dying is decay, to live practices filth.
There were forty-nine unfinished things in your life
— boyhood dreams included — that you were going to live for.
That’s been nixed : you cannot rise in a state of unfinishedness.
A number of the poems are addressed to individuals, mostly dead ones, and the two poems for the late Barry McSweeney are particularly fine, unpredictable elegies. The poem addressed to book artist and Circle Press founder Ron King is perhaps the most accomplished in a generally highly accomplished collection, with its playful use of expanding structures to create a sympathetically careful unfolding:
Ron King walks me to the estuary & tells me of his son.
Ron King walks me to the estuary & tells me of his son’s death.
Ron King walks me to the estuary & tells me of his son’s death to cancer.
(‘Ron King at the Estuary’)
This book has the air of a poet emerging from the shadows of his influences, finding his true voice and expanding his range, both technically and thematically. I look forward to seeing where McCabe goes next.