Sometimes I think we all need a little forest glossary

Posted by Ken Edwards on Saturday, September 4, 2010 Under: writing
Nothing has cheered me up quite so much this week as receiving Jeff Hilson's In the Assarts from Veer Books. It's a square book, Denise Riley-style (I love this) containing 68 numbered sonnets, one to a page. No, to be exact, 68 numbered 14-line poems alluding to the sonnet tradition, except that some maybe have 13 lines and a couple are double sonnets. If I sometimes have a gripe with the otherwise inestimable Veer, it is that the type in some of their books is a little too small and ugly, but this is splendidly presented, in a typeface that seems to have been enlarged in such a way as to mime loving reproduction of antique printing.

Essentially, Jeff Hilson is a comic poet. I don't mean to conjure up the cosiness of Betjeman or, heaven help us, Pam Ayres. Think more Charles Bernstein. Or Catullus without the snidiness. Tim Atkins' blurb references the Smiths - not the doleful 80s band but the terrible duo of Stevie and Mark E. Hmm, yes. Atkins' own poetry, including his own stabs at the sonnet tradition, would of course be very much in the frame here. And while we are in the area of New-York-School-updated-given-a-good-kicking-and transplanted-to-Britain, there is the incomparable Miles Champion (where are you now, Miles?).

Anyway, In the Assarts is a riot from start to finish. I have been looking forward to it ever since collaborating 
with Jeff in 2008 on The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (it gets a namecheck in #50a)  and, previous to that, bringing out Stretchers – and it doesn't let me down. An assart is apparently a clearing in a forest, or the act of such clearing for agricultural purposes, and the first poem suggests "Sometimes I think we all need a little / forest glossary / so that game might be driven to us", but we don't really need too much to enjoy this game. There are allusions, yes: to Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, Stephen Rodefer, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Petrarch ("No one listens to Petrarch"), Sonny & Cher, Michael Jackson, Donovan, the Bee Gees, Cromwell. I flatter myself that Jeff got the idea of sampling Sir Thomas Wyatt from me, but he makes more cunning use of this than I did. ("Ken" stands out startlingly in #44, but paired with "Deirdre in the Middle Ages" - oh, that Ken.) I totally empathise with #42 and #43's paean to Ryman's stationery chain, and love the splendid discovery that "Rymans" is an anagram of "Smyrna". And the implication that side two of Tubular Bells is "rubbish" finds favour with me too.

The (mis)match between the sonnet tradition and the way we live now provides much of the comedy: "King Stephen or Stephen King / in the assarts it doesn't /matter which no / he was the worst Bond, my lord". You could call this postmodernism. I won't. The assarts would, however, seem to be the place we find ourselves in, a space hacked and grubbed out for convenience, anywhere and anywhen: "Look at me in that one too, / look here I am showing you the Bronze Age." There is hidden tragedy within this comedy.

In the Assarts by Jeff Hilson is published by Veer Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-907088-18-6 – more information here.


In : writing 

Tags: "jeff hilson" "in the assarts" sonnets 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at