On Charlie Baylis
I sometimes get frustrated with the standard reviewing process or protocol in that there are normative and cultural presumptions about just how you should do it. The critic sits in judgment; a very influential critic can make or break careers, for instance Harold Bloom has been exceedingly negative and opinionated on Sylvia Plath, whom he takes about as seriously as a Pam Ayres, not that this has dissuaded those hospitable to her work, which biography has the fascinating associations with Robert Lowell and then Ted Hughes, very unlike the style in which Hughes wrote. And this may be one reason a prominent critic might be unaverse to a negative review, a bout of putting the boot in. On the other hand positive reviews can be good fodder for generating blurbs, Lee Child is particularly good at this; and indeed many a magazine will often prefer a positive take, though there might be the downside that they much struggle with complexities or difficulties. On the other hand if you’re JH Prynne the reviews hardly matter anymore. I see a review as a responsive commentary, what you might conceive as a piece of writing about writing. What do poets write? If it’s not becoming and edifying landscapes out of nature, the ever popular pastoral, it might be on how to write a poem. I could imagine thinking I wrote a poem; I had thoughts about how I wrote the poem, and I put those into the poem, and that was the poem.
The topic here is Charlie Baylis, who has been publishing since the chapbook ‘Elizabeth’ in 2015, is poetry editor at ‘Anthropocene’ magazine, and senior editor at Broken Sleep Books, our presenting publisher here, run by Aaron Kent. For those who prefer abstracts or cuts to the chase, the short version is that I think it is very good. To my impression, Baylis is among a relatively small group of very interesting writers right now, has a highly idiosyncratic style that is somewhat unlike anybody else I read. Not getting carried away, it is not a classic, but is strong evidence these days that at some point Baylis will have in him a highly distinctive ‘Selected’. He’s also made it quite apparent that he is into, if you like, art generally and artistic expression and this is all commendable.
Reviewing is of the now, and what I say here may be both a little pedantic and unlike the opinion I might have in say six months. A good place to start is ‘charlie wave’; this is a litany of things the poet espouses to be averse to, or ‘anti’, many playful or of humorous intent, and indeed one thing Baylis is not into is, say, a Geoffrey Hill model of gravitas, with the concluding assertion of being ‘pro charlie’. Before one think this too preposterous of course in the Darwinian, survivalist sense this is inescapable, and in terms of consciousness, it is only my own I can speak fully and responsibly for. Though in form it is also rather like John Lennon’s ‘God’ song, with a long round of things he doesn’t believe in, concluding with ‘I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ that’s reality’.
The contents are in six parts, but bounded by two framing poems, ‘zero gravity’ and ‘absolute gravity’. The very last line is ‘the sky is only green because we’re locked in’. With the colour green, besides the song ‘Bein’ Green, I associate Chomsky’s indicative nonsensical expression ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’. Green is often also associated with melancholy; and indeed with nature, green grass, ‘green’ earth. So this is an interesting place to conclude. ‘zero gravity’ which opens includes the line ‘take these happiness pills for your green stones’. The poem ‘hi…’ has the interesting line ‘do not wake the new world until the new world is ready’.
Other choice expressions would include ‘if someone is very popular or part of a movement/ it is easy to doubt their sincerity’ (‘w else can i tell you about mermaids you don’t already know’). Try also the sharply and unapologetically expressed ‘the city is killing me/ the city hates my poetry/ the city is a fucking nightmare/ sean bonney do not fear’ (‘dystopia’); or ‘dreaming of myself as a cheerleader’ (‘madonna’). Here and there Baylis uses partial or complete repetition over a number of lines, but I don’t see this as unjustifiable or inappropriate.
As I said, Baylis is no advocate of high seriousness; nor is he particularly precious or aestheticized, and his poems seem like objects out there in the world rather than, say, polished still lives. He has a curious and somewhat surprising use of metaphor that can verge on the surreal. The very first lines perhaps give an idea;- ‘a homeless man listening to turbo-folk on the back of an asteroid’. And yes this is unusual, how often do we hear of turbo-folk, is there such a thing (to add to the strangeness there is a genre of this name out of the Balkans), and what do asteroids have to do with earthly predictabilities (‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’?). All inventive and unexpected as a way of setting the scene. Baylis is interested in the persona of the homeless man though the place in which he finds himself is strange indeed. ‘i’m still looking for the perfect lover’ is an intriguing poem title and part three’s title is ‘so you think you’re in love with jennifer’; certainly the poems are relational and there are intimations of romance and what goes with it. The language occasionally does veer off in wild and unexpected metaphors, but in a sense too this simply adds a veneer of colour.
This is a contained and delimited expression; go to the end and work backwards. Yes there perhaps we find the likes of ‘your poetry is so pretty I want to lick your ear/ celebrate by pissing in leather trousers from a great height/ onto your wedding cake’ (‘pink mink’). This reminds me of the scene (which is on YouTube) of Michael Douglas pissing into his ex’s oven (with uncooked food in it) at a plush dinner gathering in the movie ‘War of the Roses’. Or try a Roman fountain or the ‘Relax’ video. This is not gravitas but it might be Wallace Stevens, capable of both the profound and the slight, crossed with Charles Bukowski.
The descent to Bukowski might smack of dashed expectations. The air of it seems youthful, and of course it is hardly the time for deep or dense reflections on a long, hard and various struggle of a life. This is not ‘Basic Instinct’ nor ‘Falling Down’. There’s a little bit of a sense of testing the waters. ‘You got your whole life ahead of you’ as William Holden says in ‘Network’. As the epigraph to ‘madonna’ says ‘there’s no art in america’
So it’s a refreshing read. I can’t help but feel that if this isn’t distinctive enough, what else is. I am not generally gratified by the current state of poetry, where the work of a Creeley or Ashbery or O’Hara just seems utterly beyond reach. Beckett marked a kind of point zero. Actually it seems like it’s the publishers and magazines/blogs that are ushering things along;- note the poem ‘neil astley made me scrambled eggs for breakfast’. Michael Schmidt might seem, to some, conservative and irrelevant but he has a thoroughgoing knowledge and great dedication to the world of poetry. Tony Frazer’s Shearsman website at one time included a set of ‘recommended books’ that was remarkably insightful, a bit inspiring and fairly inclusive (not there now, unfortunately).
Girl, I’m leaving you tomorrow, and we must move on. Yes, I like poetry, as a form, a vocation, not that I have seen many impressive poems lately. Perhaps the state of the art now is Plath and Hughes; Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan. Thomas died far too young, he might at one point have seemed a promising poet in the Yeatsian lineage. Dylan started by doing folk covers and of course a mentor was Woody Guthrie. For me Dylan has assuredly hit his stride with ‘Desolation Row’ from ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, when he was 24. Some artists, of course, hit a new lease of life or core period at different points of life.
Now of course we have arrived at a period when multicultural, postcolonial and feminist poetry are all looking to be taken seriously, included. For most with a passing knowledge of poetry, the most impressive and persuasive poets of recent years have been Ted Hughes, still, and Seamus Heaney. These are not bad writers, but it is woefully way short of the whole picture of what poetry is or could be.
To return to a summary moment;- this is easily among the most interesting collections of the past year. Baylis may have his flaws, eg just a hint of playful immaturity and wildly ventured word usages, but then who does not. Why on earth does Prynne keep writing such inscrutable poems. Well, he already has his big statement, and the pithy, little known ‘Land of St Martin’ I have long found unique and beguiling; a sensibility like no other. Baylis’ collection in its distinctive mode I am grateful for, a pleasure to read.
Clark Allison was born in Glasgow 1961, and spent 9 years in California 1983-92. Writes reviews, essays and poetry; reviews at ‘Stride’ and ‘Tears in the Fence’ and poems at ‘Shearsman’ and ‘International Times’, among others; two pamphlets; ‘Temporal Shift/Daubs’ (Trombone Press, 1998) under the name Carl Engerson; and more recently ‘Precepts’ (Red Ceilings, 2020).
Charlie Baylis is from Nottingham, England. He is the Editor of Anthropocene and the Chief Editorial Advisor to Broken Sleep Books. His poetry has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize and once for the Forward Prize, he has also been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award for Best Reviewer of Literature. His most recent publication is Santa Lucía (Invisible Hand Press). He spends his spare time completely adrift of reality.