The Road Not Taken Often Enough, 18 Mar 2011
Reading Angela Topping’s poetry, I’m reminded of Robert Frost: not always in the way she writes, but because what she writes demonstrates how she thinks. Like Frost, Topping rejects – seemingly by default – what we tend to call “wilful obscurity”. “No tears in the writer,” said Frost, “no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” There are a few relatively experimental pieces here (‘Johari Whispers’ is one) but more often than not, those tears come from immediately recognisable experiences not obscured by intellectual tricks (‘Coping’, ‘Bypass’, ‘Hospital Visiting’). Those surprises come in language which hits us immediately with an epiphany which, however clever, is relentlessly generous and welcoming. There is no sense that Topping is writing just for fellow writers who ‘get’ this stuff.
That’s not to say the poems are superficial. Like Frost, the clarity of the language – that initial spark – ignites a fire in our imagination which lasts long after our first reading; a poem tempts us back time and again (I’m hesitant to say ‘demands’, but only because Topping wants to inspire, delight, not to prescribe or instruct). The title poem ‘I Sing of Bricks’ juxtaposes something religious, devotional, magnificent (singing) with something mundane and unremarkable (bricks). Its title is an apt one for the pamphlet, which is very often about seeing old, stale things afresh: shoes, a glove, grass, snowdrops (‘Each Blade Singly’ and ‘Three Ways of Snowdrops’ are among my favourite titles here). Topping’s writing is clever, but cleverness is never made a virtue for its own sake; it’s always a means to an end, which is to reach the heart. In ‘How To Capture a Poem’, the poem is made into an unseen, elusive entity which constantly evades capture; wriggles from our grasp whenever we try to pin it down. Topping understands that none of us has a monopoly on what a poem is or should be, does or should do.
Among Topping’s other books and pamphlets is her debut children’s collection The New Generation. Reading this pamphlet, I wonder how blurred the boundaries are – or should be – between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’. Of course, clarity and immediacy are expected in the former, but Topping reminds us that in fact, they’re hardly an enemy of intelligence or depth in all poetry. Frost isn’t trying to make us scratch our heads in ‘Walking By Woods on a Snowy Evening’. He wants to surprise us, delight us, fill us with curiosity about everything being left unsaid in the scene he describes. For the reader, the delight is in becoming like a child ourselves, full of so many questions that we’re bursting.
If the poems in I Sing Of Bricks aren’t wilfully obscure, they’re certainly wilfully determined: to sit among poems like Frost’s, which reach the intellect, but only as a rest-stop on their way towards the heart. Poetically speaking, Topping has taken that road not travelled often enough. So, whether you love poetry already, or wouldn’t normally touch it with a barge pole, that makes her very worth reading.