Gregory Leadbetter

United Kingdom

Gregory Leadbetter is a poet and critic. He is the author of two poetry collections, Maskwork (2020) and The Fetch (2016), both with Nine Arches Press, as well as the pamphlet The Body in the Well (HappenStance Press, 2007), and (with photographs by Phil Thomson) Balanuve (Broken Sleep, 2021). He has written both poetry and radio drama for the BBC, and in 2019 five poems from The Fetch were set to music for piano and voice by the American composer and pianist Eric McElroy. In 2020 his poem ‘Gramarye’ was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. His book Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) won the University English Book Prize 2012, and he publishes widely on Romantic poetry and thought, twentieth-century and contemporary poetry. He is Professor of Poetry at Birmingham City University.


 

Simultaneously timeless and refreshing, Leadbetter's poetry masterfully melds lush physicality with transcendent reflections. Embedded with synaesthetic language, his verses are shaped by a close attention to the active relationship between physical perception and poetic consciousness. The subjects of Leadbetter's poems are eclectic, ranging from shadowy spectres and flowering trees to mask collections and personal loss. Across all of these themes, the narratorial voice is both meditative and incisive—far from being merely descriptive, it centres upon the relationship between the act of perceiving and its impact on poetic language. This poetic approach runs throughout Leadbetter's work and becomes especially evident in the many poems that feature the natural world.

 

This ethos is articulated in Leadbetter's first collection, The Fetch (Nine Arches Press, 2016), through poems such as 'Lifespan' and 'Gloaming' ('Some pith of the gloom/ hits the back of my throat...so I gulp until its salt/ is down to a quiver/ of wings in the nest of my lungs'). But rather than the natural world being anthropomorphized, with birds, plants, and other common subjects being moulded by the human gaze, Leadbetter's language effects a reversal of sorts wherein the narrator allows himself to become absorbed into the images and sounds that he observes. This dynamic is explored in 'Cradle', as the narrator contemplates the sight of a bog:

There's no one here

but me between the sensory trees

and the ecstasy that exceeds its birth

 

as I sink a voice to a singing head,

as a white hand bursts from a limb of ash.

 

Similarly, 'Sea Change' describes a dive to the ocean floor as a sensory journey that recalibrates both the body and the mind to a primordial state:

 

Taste the oceans at their tips. Trust your

seeing tongues as your eyes widen into blindness.

Distil the ink of your blood.

[...]

Your eyes will close into the

pulp of senses.

 

Here, submerging oneself in the ocean depths is way to 'Descale yourself as you cool into the dark', and 'Mould yourself to the tide, reabsorb your architecture'. The metaphorical ocean works upon the narrator's interiority, but he is not passively transported; rather, he willingly dives, aiding and interrogating the work of sensory stimuli through the production of verse. An equilibrium is reached; the natural world and narrator both assuming the role of active subjects rather than objects.

 

From this closely entwined, mutually active relationship between the narrator and observed

objects, it is apparent that Leadbetter's poetry draws influence from English Romantic poetry. Indeed, both of Leadbetter's collections reference a Coleridge quotation in their respective opening pages and allude to Romantic concepts of passive and active states of consciousness through musical metaphors in poems like 'Misterioso':

Now I am the instrument that I play

and I am played by the sound

I make: remade by the touch of the air,

by the rhythm and note of what I say—

as if the world is something I have found

and the world knows that I am there.

 

Leadbetter's second poetry collection, Maskwork (Nine Arches Press, 2020), echoes the musical metaphor of active and passive sensory experiences in 'Musician':

 

I heard it come: the air at work,

the medium lipping my ears and mouth,

spittled fingers circling my skin

to make it ring. I felt the bow

I'd hung at my back grow taut

and the raw strings of what you call

my violin thrill for the kiss:

they braced to meet and make a voice.

 

The meeting point of the night air and the narrator's body is a transformative locus, imprinting musicality upon the narrator's body ('You don't have to believe me, but I can tell/ your body heard. The song gets through./ That's how I got this tune on my tongue.'). The body as a touchpoint for poetic language recurs in multiple poems, including 'Tree Script' ('Turn the key to the mouth/ in your hand, the wand in the leaves/ of your voice, grown to your ear/ from the ground) and 'Gramarye':

I want speech that makes my skin

more than the book I have made

of its membrane

silent as lips

at the mouth

that leans from the air

 

Specifically, a tactile catalogue of images that evoke speech and language builds through the recurring references to mouths, lips and tongues in poems like 'Cara', 'Tuisto', and 'Apple Tree'. The mouth becomes both the point of contact for sensory immersion, as well as the source of poetic effusions. Like in The Fetch, we see the narrator actively seeking assimilation with physical stimuli, with poetic language as the resulting byproduct. This is evident in 'Optics', ('I would not leave the light alone/ until it gave and swallowed me'), as well as 'At Porlock Salt Marsh' ('to know what it is/ to be where I am/ I touch the white stone/ to the tip of my tongue'). To allow oneself to be absorbed into the natural world is represented as a desirable state that

allows a liberation of the senses and loosening of the (poetic) tongue. This free motion between the sensory faculties and poetic consciousness is mesmerizing to witness. From the uncanny spectres of The Fetch to the effulgence of Maskwork, Leadbetter's poetic style sublimates the written word into peaks of heightened perception and sensation.