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This review is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

MODEST BUT AFFIRMING PETER SANSOM, Selected Poems (Carcanet) £9.95

Peter Sansom is a modest poet and his Selected is a modest selection: 64 poems and one prose piece, occupying not much more than the space of an individual collection; in fact Sansom has extracted them from four previous books plus unpublished work. What has he got to be modest about? Well, he is hardly one for extravagant displays of technique or for the grand statement. One reviewer has referred to his ‘informal metrical sense’, and he keeps his generalisations close to experience; in other words, he makes sure he earns them. The prefatory ‘Poem’, a tribute to a teacher, sets the tone:

What you offered those days in good faith
has taken me this far. Not far I know but
for a boy going nowhere, till now
I have the means to write this at least, – at last, –
from wherever I am to wherever you are.

And teaching is a keynote of Sansom’s life as well as exerting a profound effect on his writing. He is well-known as a writing tutor (‘The Fox in the Writing Class’ is a poem which provides a witty take on the process) and was himself mentored by the poet Stanley Cook. He repaid this by painstakingly curating and publishing Cook’s posthumous Collected: Woods Beyond a Cornfield in 1995. The characteristics of the older poet’s particular angle on reality – his concentration on local detail, his fidelity to place and circumstance, his fascination with the foibles of ‘characters’ – are all to be found in the volume under review. ‘Summer Evening’, for instance, is modelled on Cook’s poem of the same title, and the first line is identical, but with the word ‘transparent’ replaced by ‘opaque’. The resemblance is almost uncanny in the case of Sansom’s ‘Ted Savoury’, the counterpart of Cook’s portrait poems ‘Mr Elvidge’, ‘Mr Salt’, ‘Uncle Baxter’ and ‘A Proper Comic’. There are even lines here which Cook might happily have owned up to:

And if he earned an honest living by cheating,
everyone knew the rules he didn’t play by,
and bought from his van not in spite of but because.

Many of Sansom’s poems are evocations of a working-class childhood in Nottinghamshire. Clearly this is a seam which is not worked out, as evinced by the predominantly nostalgic nature of the new poems here. Long sentences unwind encompassing telling details which, with their dashes of humour and acerbity, prevent a lapse into sentimentality; this from a going-back piece ‘My Town’:

… a sixties precinct with Keymarkets and Syd Booth’s Records,
a dozen bakers diabetes fat determined women
wiry mining-stock men (though my family
were hosiery and Metal Box) and windy market awnings
that tipped rain on you.

His publisher has compared Sansom’s poetry to that of Tony Harrison, but I see it more as the verse counterpart of Alan Sillitoe’s working-class anti-heroes.

A number of family poems all have an authentic feel. Particularly affecting is ‘Joss’, who died as he lived, illiterate. But the poet notes that ‘he closes his book no wiser and no less wise’. And I would also single out ‘My Mother on a Seat Outside a Hospital’:

Too early for the bus, Mum and Aunt Tad
have walked a dozen dark-to-daylight miles
through a wood, by quiet roads,
to sit on a bench beside a flower bed, colours
that release their scents in the evening,
and wait while her husband dies on a ward
already awake, that she might have visited after all.

Death is indeed a sub-theme in the collection. There are two poems in tribute to Dorothy Nimmo (a poet whom Sansom admires greatly and published). One poem I particularly miss is ‘Dying’ (from the collection The Last Place on Earth (2006)), a somewhat Larkinesque piece in its precision of observation and cool, unillusioned tone – the poet has been hard on himself in restricting his choices here as elsewhere.

‘Unillusioned’ is a word one could use to describe Sansom’s oeuvre. Another is ‘ordinary’ but this only to apply to his subjects: if you want to read poems about bingo, sitcoms, going to the dentist, tennis, ironing, biking and supermarkets this is the place for you. And his treatment of these subjects is consistently engaging. ‘On the Road’ is about lorry-driving. In its twenty-six lines it presents eleven reasons in favour of the occupation, and fewer against, but they are placed at the beginning and end and tip the balance against his ever taking it up. This is typical of Sansom’s offbeat ‘humour’ – another word one could use. Lastly and most cogently ‘affirming’ suggests itself. There is a poem about Sheffield at night, there are a number about landscapes, particularly those of the Lake District, and there are the many about people: he presents all these subjects in the round, warts and all, and envelops them in a deeply affectionate gaze.


This review is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

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