I feel pretty confident in making these assumptions about Andrew Hirst. He has probably never won a poetry competition. He has not had a grant from the Arts Council because he’s probably never applied for one. He does not attend a creative writing degree or teach on one either. Rumour has it he is a baker by trade, or a manager at Tesco. Reading his poems, he sounds like no stranger to hardship or hard work. In some respects he might seem creditably Brechtian, were it not for one thing. If December 2008’s Winter Songs event is anything to go by (where Hirst read to 6 people), he lacks an audience. Now he has a publisher, might that slowly change? I hope so.
Frome is published in two pamphlets, each of 12 poems (Frome I-XII and Frome XIV). I wouldn’t be writing this review if I had any doubts that it is the real thing, but I can see the barbed-wire fences the reader might have to climb to access its rewards. The most obvious is something we’ve grown accustomed to call ‘difficulty’. The specific difficulty is not that it outfaces the reader intellectually, but that its approach is far more European than it is British, or at least contemporary British. Hirst has clearly learned his trade from writers many of us don’t read. Soviet Russia’s Osip Mandlestam; Poland’s Zbigniew Herbert; Germany’s Hans Magnus Enzensberger. I can even trace elements from Ancient Greece – not from Homer’s aristocratic epics, but from the farmer-poet Hesiod’s Works and Days. Frome shares with this book an ability to create parables or deliver lessons on workaday themes. And then there is the modern quality – the dramatisation of a reflective sensibility occupying a very complex and fast-changing world.
To go into enough detail to do justice to the sequence is beyond the scope of this review. But here are some thoughts. Why ‘Frome’? I think it’s safe to say that the poems are not about the specific place called Frome. They are using the idea of ‘Frome’ to embody a sense that in the modern world one place is getting to be much like another. It is about the loss of character, the passing of a sense of the local. What do most of us know of Frome anyway? This is a work of inner exile. The poems bear witness to a constantly disappearing city, to the failure of a common dream, to estrangements within families and communities, especially amongst the working class. The speaker (or speakers?) is displaced, outside. He is torn between creative saying and scrupulous silence, between keeping going and giving up the ghost. On the one hand he is concerned about loyalties to family, class and community. On the other he is fiercely independent. This independence sometimes feels like a mechanism for survival. At others, at 5 in the morning (‘XXIV’), it feels bereft.
Above all, this is a sequence struggling to come to terms with the contradictions within our culture, our environment and ourselves. ‘XVIII’ comes up against these in a little parable:
I used to believe the enemy of the people
would soon be ushered out, exposed.
Then at sixteen I was apprenticed
to the trades and there had to quickly
learn an expensive lesson:
It’s no use knocking
even the straightest nail
into a crooked wall
with a crooked hammer.
At times the poems feel like they are speaking to themselves in knotted codes and metaphors. At others they are confrontational, almost defiant. Then, out of the blue, a phrase will arrive that offers the open hand of plain declaration – a declaration that carries a shock of emotion: ‘Even then, to throw down love, to want love more / than anything else…’ (‘IX’); ‘I’m forty two and fed up of looking / over my shoulder…’ (‘XIII’). For those readers who must have beauty as well as fidelity to the hard-won truth, Frome also offers us many wild and delicate evocations of light, of the city’s resilient trees, grasses and birds, and of its changes of season and weather. This sequence reads like little else being written in the UK now. Hard times are ahead for some of us, and it might be that Hirst’s vision offers a rich alternative to the usual distractions. As he puts it himself, ‘poverty sharpens the aim’ (‘VIII’).
Originally published in The Inky (2009). Click here to buy Andrew Hirst’s Frome pamphlets. A short film of Hirst reading two poems from The Frome Primer (near Grimsby docks, October 2010) can be viewed below: