I have known Stephen Payne’s poetry for some years, and come to admire its craft, reflection and generosity. To encounter a poet’s work from readings, workshops, magazines and even a pamphlet is different from meeting it in a full collection. (SP has already published a pamphlet The Possibilities of Balance with Smiths Knoll.)
With a full collection the poet has a chance to create their own poetic world where each poem can support and inform the other, not have to stand directly alongside the other poetries. It also simply has more space, I feel the poetic volume of a work increases exponentially with the works length, so a full collection shouts eight times louder than a pamphlet.
SP’s poetic world is in turn interested, keen to interest others, playful, well informed, and tender. It is direct and personal with all of the poems in the collection coming from the poet’s life or work. It is essential poetry, no persona poems or historical sequences here. No struggling for the killer image or hunting through the Thesaurus either. The writing is clear, metrical tending to free verse, sometimes employing syllabics and rhyme.
The star poem of the collection is Making a Living, it is quoted on the back cover with its great opening stanza. Which contains the most striking anecdote from SP’s academic background, and also establishes the poet’s sensibility. I will not give the story away, but there is a point where a young man is standing still, mounted on a bicycle in the middle of a velodrome while the crowd cheer a cycle race. The crowd oblivious to the young man’s achievement. In so many of the poems the poet observes but is always there doing his own thing too. In Maths Teacher he approaches the conclusion to a mathematical proof with his teacher. In Scientific Method he watches his daughter’s intellectual development, but guides her at the same time. SP floats within his poems, giving them a level as he does so.
My personal favourite poems are In the Floating Temple and Feature. In the first poem SP pulls off something quite remarkable in using one reality to inform another completely different reality, while keeping both realities in focus. It is an exercise in extended metaphor which translates the relationship between master and student in an oriental temple into a recognisable western reality, but in doing so brings the beauty of the temple setting with it. Feature has a similar element where a woman overtakes herself, though I value this poem for its implied expression. The poem creates a mood with a few details, a slight sadness which it transforms.
SP is clearly interested in rhyme. I happen to know that at least some of his un-rhymed poems have rhymed in draft. He uses rhyme effectively and with good judgment. This can be seen in particular in the poems Imp of the Perverse and Infract that follow each other in the collection. In the first the rhyme binds the poem together to make the experience of a passing train one whole. In the second the rhyme halts the poem to encourage thought from a reader, and also to support the subject of the poem.
SP is also a good story teller in Guessing Game and The Kinds of Strangers, and one or two of the poems already mentioned, a reader is quickly thrown up in the air, left feeling a little uncomfortable, unsure what the relationships in the poem are, before the jeopardy is skilfully resolved. In almost all the poems there is a smooth natural delivery, that holds a reader’s interest.
The collection does develop and for me the best poems are at the end. In particular To: Linda, a tender eulogy for the poet Linda Chase, which is perfectly judged and encapsulates so many of the collections virtues. And in After the Tram Crash, which seems to allow the mystery of life to speak for its self. I feel the final poem Pier might reflect the direction the poet wishes to go, ably combining the formal and discursive elements of the collection.
The collection is divided into four sections, though the poems are not on a theme, it gives a reader an extra context to read the poems, particularly rewarding on a second read. The title is a reference to scientific method, but after reading the collection I am inclined to think it applies to the poet’s view of the world as shown through his poetry.