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Bevel by William Letford – review


Nicholas Lezard enjoys a poetry collection of transcendental insight

When I got to one of the poems here, I went into a reverie about a primary-school teacher, with misguided keenness, trying to get her pupils interested in poetry, and asking them to write a poem about a farmyard animal of their choice. It need not rhyme or scan. She collects the work, and starts to read out little Billy Letford's poem, about a donkey, because its opening – "What am i looking for? Why am i here?" – looks promising. But she has made the mistake of not reading it all the way through, and quickly gets to the bit about the woman "smelling the shit, possibly her own / that she's thrown over the garden". Oh dear, that's not very nice. And when the donkey says "am bored oot ma nut" ... Well, isn't that a little negative?

Not, of course, that Letford is any longer in primary school. But normally, when poets try to get inside the heads of animals, there is usually less humour in evidence. Though profound boredom is not an unserious matter. And I, for one, will find it hard to look at a donkey – the one in the poem is, internal evidence suggests, in a hot, southern European climate, despite the accent – without thinking to myself of the profundity of its tedium.

Unusually, Letford has a proper job: a manual one, as a roofer. This is going to crop up in every mention of this man's poems for the next 50 years, so there's no trying to get away from it or pretend it's not the case (similarly, Magnus Mills, who also worked as a bus driver, will be burdened doubtless beyond the grave by this astounding fact on his CV). Many of the poems here are about work; the blurb does not shirk from mentioning it; and the very title of this, his first collection, refers to the corner or edge that's shaved off a piece of material either to make it look nicer, or less corner-y, or help it fit with something else.

So it is as if poetry makes things less painful to bang into, or helps life mesh with itself. After all, work on its own is hard: "For thousands of years the great civilisations / considered manual and mundane labour / a punishment. / Then they abolished slavery / and began the slow process of brainwashing the minions." ("A bad day". I like the way you half-hear "millions" in the last word.)

So Letford's poetry, while it has the look of early experimental modernism – that William Carlos Williams/ee cummings thing – has the cadences and accents of ordinary, reported speech, but grants to both voice and ear moments of transcendental insight. His workmate Casey might, with his "aw right", express deep scepticism about the value of poetry, but he is also, elsewhere, Zeus, "framed against the sky, bloated and happy / carrying cement across a tiled roof".

I've gone on about Letford before, at disproportionate length considering how many other contributors there were, when I reviewed an anthology of new poems, and poets published by Carcanet; so it's a pleasure to see this collection come out. I had been waiting for it. That said, I must confess to a mild disappointment which it would only be fair to pass on to you: this is a slim volume, and perhaps over-slim. Those who measure a book's price against the number of words it contains – there are such people – are going to be bewildered by the audacity of charging a tenner for 53 pages of verse, many of which are mostly blank space, and a few of which have only a very few words on them at all ("it rains / it rains / it rains"). But this is a matter of poetry as something like sculpture: having to carve a space for itself in the world, and also chipping away at extraneous matter. The poems have the feeling of work that has been pared down from something much larger, until they resemble netsuke.

There's an indebtedness to Edwin Morgan – not a bad poet to be indebted to; it means Letford works on the page as well as on the ear. You can, though, if you search the Guardian's website, find him reading his work – and so hear for yourself what the fuss is about.

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