Jacob Polley was born and grew up in Cumbria. He has published four books of poems with Picador, UK, winning the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry for his fourth, Jackself. He was also awarded the 2013 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, for The Havocs, and the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, Talk of the Town (2009). Jackself was described by the judges of the T.S. Eliot Prize as ‘a firework of a book; inventive, exciting and outstanding in its imaginative range and depth of feeling.’ A poet of the uncanny and the startlingly lyrical, Jacob’s work explores his rural upbringing, the forces of tradition and history, and the power of speech as it approaches song. Jacob has also written and performed drama for the radio, as well as made films and various collaborative public art and performance pieces. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University and lives with his family on the North East coast.
Jacob Polley is the author of four collections of poetry, The Brink (2003), Little Gods (2006), The Havocs (2012), Jackself (2016) and a novel, Talk of the Town (2009). This impressive oeuvre affirms the work of a brilliantly accomplished poet aligned with the English lyric tradition but also departing from it into new territory. There is a distinctly Northern quality about Polley’s work, which draws obvious comparisons to literary predecessors such as Ted Hughes especially in its focus on the chaos and violence of the natural world. There are also parallels and resonances with other male poets such as Paul Farley, Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney. Despite this, Polley establishes his own poetic terrain with his highly musical, incantatory and understated voice. His first collection, The Brink immediately marked him out as a young poet of considerable promise with the ability to unify a sense of the quotidian with other-worldliness.
As the title indicates, the thematic concerns of The Brink are to do with thresholds, edges, borders slipping and sliding into one another, the tangible instabilities of our shifting identities. The memorable opening poem, ‘A Jar of Honey’ sees the narrator comparing the jar, ‘a lit bulb’, ‘a pound of light’ to ‘the sun, all flesh and no bones’ but this comparison is immediately undercut by the final image of ‘the floating knuckle/of honeycomb/attesting to the nature of the struggle’. The act of creation is presented as one that involves necessary engagement with difficulty and human violence. In ‘The Crow’, Polley eerily evokes the Biblical story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, ‘his gloves’ are depicted ‘blackened into life,/already at the wind’s throat’.
Polley’s second collection, Little Gods sees a return to traditional lyric forms but utilised in ways that manage to be unsentimental. The opening poem, ‘The Owls’, which he referred to as ‘a poem that crystallizes a particular, enigmatic experience’ (Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Winter 2006) suggests ideas of metamorphosis and shapeshifting. It uses the portentous image of the owls as metaphors for lost children who are in turn, likened to ‘Little gods’ who ultimately have ‘forsaken us/as we have them! They sit and cry,/glorified, and couldn’t care less’:
I hear the owls in the dark yews
behind the house – children out late
or lost, their voices worn away.
They’ve forgotten their names and wait
to be called again by mothers
who miss them, so they might return
with fingers and human faces.
But their sadness, too, is long gone.
In other poems such as ‘Rain’ Polley demonstrates his gift for image-making, ‘rain that defies rain’s downwardness/and spools past the windows, frame by frame – / film after film of Edwardian rain’. There are also short and tender love poems such as ‘Wild Hyacinths’, ‘Where are we, darling?/ The breeze brings a blue scent’. ‘The Cheapjack’, which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem illustrates Polley’s ear for rhyme and rhythm as well as his relish for colloquial language:
What’ll it cost? Not as much as you think.
What have you got? That’ll do. Here’s my nod,
here’s my wink,
here’s my blood for the ink.
I’m begging you now: my life for the lot.
The Havocs (2012) marks a distinct change in Polley’s trajectory. Although some of his subject matter seems familiar – themes of love, the natural world, the weather, the range of his forms is more ambitious and varied, utilising riddles, found poems, nursery rhymes and ballads. Striking examples of the ballad form are seen in ‘Langley Lane’, where a mother speaks to her son who has been stabbed by ‘a little silver spike’ and ‘The Weasel’ with its moving refrain of ‘white winter flowers’.
Jackself (2016), Jacob Polley’s fourth and most recent collection encapsulates several of the poet’s recurring aesthetic obsessions and concerns: English folklore, the loss of innocence and childhood, the beauty and bleakness of the natural world. As the epigraph to the book makes clear, the title is taken from a line in a Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnet, ‘My own heart let me more have pity on’, which is, ‘Soul, self; come, poor Jackself…’. It is tempting to see the character of Jackself as a version of the poet’s self but typically, the book eludes such a simplistic interpretation. Indeed, in a 2016 podcast for Poetry Review, Polley states, ‘The self is at the root of all my work, but maybe my work springs from the tension between self-expression and concealment, of running the self through a magic lantern and seeing what comes out the other side’. This aptly summarises the way that Polley’s work hovers between mystery and clarity. It also bears a transmuting quality, where the ordinary and the everyday are rendered extraordinary and transcendent.
The poetic creation of an imaginative world and a departure from the lyric ‘I’ of English poetic tradition are clearly evident in Jackself . Here, Polley brilliantly dramatizes a kaleidoscopic array of personas in the character of Jackself and his many other selves drawn from English legend and myths which include Jack Sprat, Jack Frost, Blackjack, Jack O’Lantern, Cheapjack, Jackdaw and Jack O’ Bedlam. These selves combine to tell the uncannily strange, at times funny and extremely moving story of a young boy’s growing up in Northern England, his passage through innocence to experience and his experience of grief at his friend, Jeremy Wren’s suicide. It is a remarkable work which demands to be read aloud and demonstrates Polley’s continued poetic dexterity in wordplay as well as his heightened narrative skills. Reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, Polley creates the ‘lovely lofts of Lamanby’, ‘home of shadows’, ‘heart of the wind’, the Cumbrian childhood home and landscape where Jackself and his anarchic friend, Jeremy Wren engage in various mad-cap escapades, debating matters of life, death and poetry itself. The poem, ‘Les Symbolistes’ depicts the two friends, ‘drunk on white cider and Malibu’. We hear of Jeremy Wren’s troubled upbringing, ‘my dad sniffed fag-/smoke on my breath and made me eat/a twenty pack, then welted me/buckle-first’. At the heart of the collection is the intense exploration of psychic pain, grief and loss from a child or adolescent’s point of view but perhaps characteristically with Polley as is shown in the poem, ‘It’, there is ambiguity as to where one self begins and the other ends:
whole of heart,
tell us what pains you
my hole is bigger inside than out
and the heart of my pain
is a black bull’s heart
/ A Jar of Honey
You hold it like a lit bulb,
a pound of light,
and swivel the stunned glow
around the fat glass sides:
it’s the sun, all flesh
and no bones
but for the floating
knuckle of honeycomb.
as fishing nets, a wedding dress,
rain that defies rain’s downwardness
and spools past the windows, frame by frame –
film after film of Edwardian rain.
Rain as a haunting, rain’s ghost-train.
Rain bleeding black from the cracks in bricked-up chimneybreasts;
rain’s wall-maps, rain’s damp lands, outlined in great stains.
Old rain, the same rain, my father’s father’s cold rain
taken up like a tune, confessed
to the city, hurried into the drains
and the dark and piped under playgrounds and cold-frames.
From the hills comes rain as more river, not falling
but fattening – bales of newspapers, abandoned books,
hemp ropes, rotten logs and fungi: rain feeds.
From the top bar of a five-bar gate hangs
the green world stilled in a water seed,
while the river slides by, echoing and echoey.
Rain as lost shoes; drinkers huddled like rooks.
Rain that’s put paid, done you out of a day. Rain’s patter,
rain’s slang; rain’s bespittling of the spiders’ webs.
Rain’s pillars of smoke, rain’s rooms outside the room
you watch from as rain runs through its embodiments –
a bride swinging like a bell, a lunch-hour factory crowd,
the shadow of a matchstick girl: the smudgy, underdeveloped dead
rain remembers as spaces it once rained around.
Rain’s pencil-leads, rain’s sketchiness,
rain writing, but whatever it tries to read back
drowned out. Rain’s inconsequence to the sea.
A few pins drop, then rain’s loosened like hair,
or it steps with the night clean out of the air.
Rain’s sound is the sound of the day undone,
the rustle of cellophane, someone and no one.
But at dawn, in the silence just after the rain,
the wet black earth of the bare field lies –
frankincense for you and me.
From the wood, a winter fruit
with pips of air inside,
its core like light, like light slowed down,
like nothing, crystallised;
fetched from the dark like light itself,
like light itself grown old:
we touch what can’t survive our touch
but scalds our hands to hold.
/ Every Creeping Thing
By leech, by water mite
by the snail on its slick of light
by the mercury wires
of the spiders’ lyres
and the great sound-hole of the night
By the wet socket of a levered stone
by a dog-licked ice cream cone
by spores, mildew
by the green atchoo
by the yellow split pea and the bacon bone
All the doors must have their way
and every break of day its day
instead of a soul
Jackself has a coal
and the High Fireman to pay
By head-lice powder, Paraquat
snapdragon’s snap and rat-tat-tat
who’s at the door
of the door of the door
it’s Jackself in his toadskin hat