‘The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible’. This quote from Oscar Wilde, one of Jacob Polley’s favourites, almost seems like a manifesto for this poet of unstable nature, slippery observation, borders and smoke. In spare, musical, muscular language, Polley’s three collections explore what Heidegger called ‘the thingness of things’. His poetry is firmly contemporary, but also rural in its concerns – a modern pastoral.
Jacob Polley was born in Carlisle, Cumbria in 1975, and studied at the University of Lancaster. He arrived on the wider poetry scene quickly, with his first collection, The Brink, published by Picador in 2003 – just one year after he was awarded an Eric Gregory Award for poets under 30. The Brink was a Poetry Book Society Choice, and was shortlisted for both the Forward Prize for best first collection and the T. S. Eliot Prize.
The book is marked by an assurance unusual in a poet not yet out of his 20s. The language is pared-down and visual, and the poems view everyday life through a transformative lens. Polley’s 2002 stint as writer-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust seems visible in poems like ‘Fish’, with its combined note of ars poetica and freezing English lakes:
of its own prehistory,
working fat lips around the off-rhyme
of that jaw; the sturgeon and small fry,
those carried by the Romans,
like new gods . . .
This magical, transmuting view of physical nature starts with the nature of the landscape and the seen, and ultimately becomes a rumination on the nature of the temporal. In ‘The Crow’, Cain, having killed Abel, rolled up his gloves ‘and set them alight. / It was then they were blackened into life, / already at the wind’s throat’. Elsewhere, the gulls are ‘trying to shake themselves out of their sleeves’ (‘The Gulls’). Several of these poems – ‘Drover’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Economics’ – seem to be looking at the nature of masculinity and manhood, especially in the context of tradition. Polley shares this theme, and his general stylistic approach, with contemporaries including Simon Armitage, Paul Farley and Don Paterson.
Food is everywhere; in ‘Friday’, ‘The Book of White Magic’ on the supper table gives up its secrets, ‘flaked easily from the bone’. Charles Bainbridge, writing in The Guardian states: ‘Once again Polley's sense of the miraculous is imbued with violence and danger – the act of creation is a struggle, a risky and difficult venture’. This is made explicit in the opening poem, ‘A Jar of Honey’:
but for the floating knuckle
of honeycomb . . .
The North-South divide is a constant, quiet presence in these poems – expressed partly through the concern with nature, which is ever-present, even in urban settings. Polley comes from the Lake District and is familiar with the same magnificent landscapes that surrounded Wordsworth. It is hard to ignore the ghost of Ted Hughes in his work, as is evident in ‘Fish’. Objects in Polley’s poems are at once tangible and ethereal, concrete and eternal. But Polley’s smoky crow doesn’t share the almost messianic brutality of Hughes’ Crow. The world is allowed to be its everyday self. There are streets and people and dinner plates. Life is most mysterious when it’s most normal.
The Brink established Polley firmly in the centre of UK poetry. In 2004, he was one of 20 up-and-coming UK poets featured in the ‘Next Generation’ promotion, and in 2005 was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for best single poem, for ‘The Cheapjack’. This poem appeared in his second collection, Little Gods (2006), which was followed in 2012 by The Havocs, all published by Picador. The Havocs won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was also shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.
Polley is known particularly for his short poems; he is a master of the aphoristic. A poem from Little Gods takes on all of history in three short-lined couplets:
the buckets and pins,
but not the shafts,
piss-pots, urns and epitaphs,
false teeth; graffiti.
In The Havocs Polley becomes more experimental with form, using more rhyme, and embodying his sense of time in Anglo-Saxon alliteration, and riddle poems. ‘Livings’, in loosely rhyming, unmetrical couplets, poses us four of these riddles, beginning:
through many strangers’ rooms, made strange by what I’ve fought.
‘Dark Moon’, in three stanzas, poses a sort of rhyming dramatic monologue in riddling terms:
My last half, a slice of light.
The last time I was full I climbed
Through the day. I was bright.
The longest poem in this book – very long, for this poet, at just over three pages – is the title poem, ‘The Havocs’. In loose, long-lined free verse interspersed with shorter lines, rhymes and one quatrain, Polley uses an almost Oulipian constraint to evoke the chaos of the everyday world. This poem seems to take his work in a different direction – and even has something of the texture of, say, Kate Tempest’s ‘Brand New Ancients’ – but has its roots in the riddling mode:
Surely there’s an Index into which the havocs are entered,
because every volume I ever borrowed from the library
was missing its nouns.
Havoc pinned to the corkboard, made a note of in the margin,
filed under BUDGET, replied to, enquired about, and
finally made to stand for all the labelled, latch-able,
meshed and moulded, gleamy-as-a-boiled-sweetie
paraphernalia of organisation.
I’ve added havoc to my portfolio.
In 2009, Polley’s first novel, Talk of the Town, a coming-of-age murder mystery, came out, also with Picador. Praised for its poetically charged language, it was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliot Award and went on to win the 2010 Somerset Maugham Award. It was described in the Independent as ‘a disconcerting debut novel about how meaning is constructed from murmur, gossip and half-truth’, and the novelist Chris Cleave said of it, ‘Polley’s language is mercurial, his humour quick and surprising’.
Polley currently lectures at Newcastle University. His fourth book of poems, Jackself, is due out in 2016.
The Brink. Picador, London, 2003
Little Gods. Picador, London, 2006
The Havocs. Picador, London, 2012
Talk of the Town. Picador, London, 2009
Flickerman and the Ivory-skinned Woman. Written by Ian Fenton and Jacob Polley. Dir. Ian Fenton. 2003
Keeping House. Written and directed by Ian Fenton and Jacob Polley. 2015
Polley’s own website
Polley’s profile at The Poetry Archive
Polley’s profile at The Poetry Foundation
Polley’s author page at Picador
Polley’s staff profile at Newcastle University
Interview with Polley on Textualities
Review of The Havocs in The Guardian
Review of Talk of the Town in The Independent
Review of Little Gods in The Liberal
Video interview for the Lyric Festival by Now Then magazine
Polley reading for the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2012
Polley reading at the NCLA in 2015