Paul Sutton, perhaps somewhat of a cult figure in contemporary poetry, is approaching his sixties. His first collection Broadsheet Asphyxia was published eighteen years ago around the time he abandoned working in contract negotiations for offshore gas fields. Since then he has published six collections and a plethora of pamphlets, while teaching English in secondary schools, a job he finds creatively stimulating:
the joys, rages and stresses are exactly the spurs needed for writing. And the insight gained is revealing; of how dull and pointless most ‘mainstream’ poetry seems, to those who don’t have to feign interest.
Sutton is no doubt a little proud of his outsider status, relishing opportunities to decry political and poetical conformism in what he conceives as the ‘mainstream’. His favourite subjects for poems are “decay, violence, crime, gentrification, authenticity, serial killers, humiliation…” so it seems a natural move for his latest offering to be a pamphlet punning on one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. Sutton’s macabre fascination with Jack the Ripper lasts for just the first two poems: ‘Prologue’ and ‘a Man in Acton Wearing a Trilby’, both alluring and unsettling affairs, though the theme of murder does resurface in the pamphlet’s twenty poems.
Outside of Roy Fisher’s city centred writing, Sutton’s biggest influence may well be Larkin, their similarities shine not just in mutual dispensation for ironic humour and poetry of place, moreover they have a pronounced talent for metrical sophistication, a scrutiny paid to the rhythm and beat of syllables and sonants, something of a lost art in contemporary poetry. Sutton’s poem ‘Under Gas’ starts beautifully:
My grandfather’s book on meteorology
starts gently, with him reminding us:
‘We live under a sea of gas.’
‘gently’ picks up the last syllable of ‘meteorology’ before leaning into the mesmerising image of a hazy world ‘under a sea of gas’. Sutton can be a poet of such delicacy, as technically gifted as any of his contemporaries, even the ‘mainstream’ figures he despises. Another particularly mellifluous moment comes in the opening to ‘Mud and Sun’:
Sudden sunlight hits the road
as you drive past what you’ve known –
seen in the rear-view – then gone
the juxtaposition of moving on from the past, physically and emotionally, floats out along the dashes and the repeated, clashing o sounds of ‘known’ and ‘gone’. However while the aforementioned ‘Under Gas’ has a clear focal point for its drooping nostalgia (the memory of Sutton’s grandfather), the nostalgia evoked in ‘Mud and Sun’ lacks directness, the poem features a mystical yearning for a forgotten place. Martin Stannard locates this in his blurb as a ‘sense of loss (but loss of what?) in contemporary Britain.’ The subject matter ties Sutton to Larkin once more while also harking back to the Georgian school, but it is also a point of departure for me. I simply don’t believe in what Sutton is mythologising, his idyllic visions of a lost Britain seem to my eyes constructs about as real as Neverland in Peter Pan, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In ‘Mud and Sun’ Sutton’s craft is sublime but his sentiment misses the mark.
Jack the Stripper also features a ripping pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is rude, puerile and seriously funny, while also demonstrating Sutton’s fine hand for prose. Could it be time for a collection of Sutton’s Sherlock Holmes sagas? I think so. His sharp tongue and acid sense of humour are well suited to satire plus he knows the shimmies and feints of Conan Doyle’s as well as any writer. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is then a highlight of an original, often disarming, addition to the Sutton catalogue.
Charlie Baylis 8th July 2021