Paul Sutton’s Parables for the Pouring Rain draws together recent work from the Oxford based poet. Sutton is an intriguing figure, one of his main concerns, revealing ‘how dull and pointless most “mainstream” poetry seems1’ has left him largely ostracised from “mainstream” poetry. Although no doubt he’s delighted by this ostracism, it is a shame because his poetry is rich and entertaining. Whether Sutton is better or worse than the mainstream he despises is another question, but his poetry is certainly different, which is something to be cherished. Sutton is, at the very least, a poet who deserves to be read.
There are poets who like to show the world at its best, Sutton is a poet who likes to show the world at its worst. This makes for gripping poetry. Elites, in all their forms, are the naturally enemy of Sutton. Opening salvo ‘Authoritarian centre’ demonstrates:
An elite that is ignored feels it needs to attack:
“We who have given so much. Universal suffrage is
disastrous – there’s no point granting free speech to
those who have nothing to say.
At first glance Sutton’s target may seem to be the political class. However, the Helleresque slogan: ‘free speech to / those who have nothing to say’ seems such a glorious backhander to “mainstream” poetry that Sutton’s attack must be multifarious. The poem reaches its crux in ‘I had a friend who married a working-class man. He beat her daily, posted / it online….that’s why I write’ (italics in original). This is all parody. Sutton identifies a weak point: the middle class poet’s glaring need for authenticity, then uses it to make his target look ridiculous. However, as a graduate of Jesus College, Sutton himself is surely part of the elite. Sutton has defended himself from this before, saying his poetry ‘makes no attempt to put me (the “poet”) above these, instead I’m participating2’. Whether he himself is implicated in ‘Authoritarian centre’ is debatable, his criticisms would seem to place him above the credibility hungry poet, rather than equal. Qualms over the moral high-ground aside, what is indisputable is the impact of the poem, it is a powerful start to the collection, proudly lifting two fingers up at anyone looking to be triggered.
“Angry poems” like ‘Authoritarian centre’ only make up a small proportion of Sutton’s repertoire, which might be a surprise to his enemies. Perhaps the mainstay of Parables for the Pouring Rain are lyrical, non-confrontational poems with a bittersweet sentimentality. ‘In a doll’s house’ is short enough to include in full:
In dreams of living with pistols.
We all did, firing at the white walls.
A child doll is brought to me:
tiny, dead-eyed, the only colour
blood up its nose. Then cradled,
her body emerging in warmth;
‘pink-budded life is too simple.’
The poem displays one of Sutton’s go to techniques: to take something delicate: a ‘child doll’ and to expose it to something cruel: the blood up its nose. It is a tale of innocence lost: the white walls are shot, the child doll’s tiny eyes are dead. The speaker protects the child doll, cradling it, nursing it back to life, before the last line scatters the meaning and the reader returns to the top. Why is the speaker so keen to protect the child doll? Is it because of guilt or an honest inclination? Why a ‘child doll’ and not a child or a doll? The poems brevity leaves these questions unanswered but that they are present shows the level of intrigue Sutton creates in just seven lines.
Sutton can be a poet of real human warmth. ‘Inorganic’, the first poem in a sequence dedicated to Sean McGrady, a scientist who Sutton met at university, is luminous:
Long first-term afternoons, Inorganic
lab, Oxford blue into violet. Whirring
magnetic stirrers, heart-ache colours
transition metal ions – surely that’s
magic? Somehow it’s passed me by.
Sutton is wistfully daydreaming about the long lost magic, working in the lab with his friend. His concern like with ‘In a doll’s house’, is with protecting the innocent: ‘Let’s worry/ for children, the damage they suffer’. Sutton writes about McGrady’s daughter, left behind for ‘tenure and funding’ in America. Sutton is not really the angry wasp he labels himself as, but rather a sentimental figure, it is a poem for ‘for evening and tears’, as Dylan Thomas described ‘Fern Hill’. ‘Inorganic’ exposes the soft core of Sutton’s heart. The seething rage that typifies some of his poems and the antagonistic persona which has led to him being labelled a ‘bottle-lobber3’, is perhaps just a protective shield. Sutton is loathe to reveal his tender side, yet he does so again and again, why? Because he values its poetic appeal and moreover because deep down, it shows who he really is.
1 Quote taken from Paul Sutton’s bio http://www.blazevox.org/index.php/Shop/new-releases/parables-for-the-pouring-rain-by-paul-sutton-519/ last accessed 30/4/2019
2 Quote from an interview with Paul Sutton conducted by BlazeVOX last accessed 30/4/2019
3 Comment left under a blog post on http://toddswift.blogspot.com/2011/11/inane.html last accessed 30/4/2019
Charlie Baylis 22nd August 2019