But a constantly happy person sounds like an idiot

Book Review: Happiness by Jack Underwood

At the beginning of 2016, I met Jack Underwood in a café in central London, where he was giving a reading. We chatted before and after his performance. In person, he was easy to speak to, bright, funny and likeable. However, he said he preferred not to conduct a face-to-face interview, partly on principle, and partly due to some bad experiences. Instead, he would send answers to questions via email, in a few days’ time.

Underwood is in his early thirties. He grew up in rural Norfolk, after his parents relocated from south London to this eastern English county. “They were young hippies with hardly any money and they wanted to have a garden, keep chickens and pigs and subsist a little,” he explained later. “I was quite an odd child, I think. Emotional, but very outgoing.” Yet he added that he’s “resistant to this kind of reductive biographical self-mythologizing, especially in relation to poems. The conclusions one draws from are always so lazy and speculative.”

Lazy biographical reduction notwithstanding, the poet took a bachelor’s degree at Norwich School of Art and Design, yet he says he went to art school to write. “In those days undergraduate creative writing programs were not very common or well-established, so I decided to do a degree in ‘creative and cultural studies’ at Norwich, where your creative practice could be in either art or writing, or both.”

Underwood followed this with an MA and a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldmiths, University of London, where he now lectures. While on the Norwich course, he met fellow poet Sam Riviere, also now published by Faber, and read a lot of cultural theory.

“I loved it: semiotics, psychoanalysis, poststructualism, rhizomes, all that stuff,” he recalled. “It encouraged us to be very analytical. That’s what art school teaches so well, I think; you invest all this time and energy in stuff nobody in the outside world really gives a crap about, so you’re constantly forced to confront questions about meaning, value, intention in a way that’s often painful, personal, as much as intellectual.”

You can detect this in his debut collection, Happiness. Almost all of the 47 poems display a high degree thoughtfulness and craft. That is craft not in the sense of skillful observance and innovation of poetic forms, but a kind of mental agility, which means Jack’s lines never lag behind the reader’s anticipation or understanding. Take “Some Gods.” It begins as a fun, macabre list:

            God with eagle’s head and five-pointed-star insignia

            on palms of hands; God connected to seven IV drips

            with fire coming out of mouth; God made of warts;

            God with horse’s legs and head of ram reading names

            from a scroll pointing to a hole in the ground;

The pantheon is wild enough to keep a reader’s attention going for fifteen or so of Underwood’s made-up deities. Yet towards the end of the 23-line poem the focus shifts towards the domestic and personal.

           

            …God as a feeling of sudden

            loneliness; God as a cup in your house that you haven’t yet

            recognised as God but drink from nearly every day; God

            as a dead robin; God as the eye of a dead robin; God as

            your barely visible reflection in the eye of a dead Robin.

The same switch is present in “The Ashes,” which begins with the kind of observation that wouldn’t be out of place in a good Sunday newspaper column.

            It’s the first day of the second test of the Ashes series

            and a voice on the radio is describing

            the atmosphere here at Lord’s without realising

            that his voice describing the atmosphere

            on the first day of the second test

            is the atmosphere;…

However, the poet reworks this shared sense of immediacy into a deeper consideration of the unforgiving minute.

            But imagine you knew the objects to hand

            were your last objects: like a TV remote:

            the rubber buttons at the edge of your nail, or

            you’re rubbing its smooth back in your palm;

            you’re clicking open the back and rolling

            the batteries, like two little buddies in there –

            you are alive….

His personal-formal-funny-serious style is present in a more compact way in Holy Sonnets X, one of three works wherein Underwood reinterprets poems by John Donne.

            O drunk DEATH, go home. We like our dying lives.

            Have a big glass of water and think about it:

            I sleep in often. I waste my life like rain.

Donne may have been lauded in his day, yet Underwood believes that the British tend not to like poetry these days. “As a culture I think we’re prone to a journalistic reduction of events into narratives, news ‘stories,’ each replacing the next before we’re able to ask the necessary questions,” he writes. “But there still exists in everyone a perversion towards the unknowable. We want to bring it within reach, without plugging it, or dulling it, and that’s what poems do.”

Much of his poetry achieves this, as it swings ably from the observational, to the comedic to the numinous. Occasionally he hits a bum note, with a phrase that might have been better cosigned to a sitcom script or Twitter. His poems also sometimes display a youthful degree of self-examination that, while presented as self-criticism, may shade into self-regard in some readers’ minds.

Still, these are minor, subjective weaknesses, in a brilliant collection that is not, despite its title, overly concerned with happiness, any more than it is with questions of death, love, religion, or the unknowable, hard-to-express mysteries of human existence.

Is Jack himself even a happy person? “I think people would say I am,” he emailed back. “But a constantly happy person sounds like a bit of an idiot, don’t they? Sometimes you need to be sad, and when sadness arrives you are grateful for it.”