In defence of Mark Haddon's new poetry collection

Mark Haddon, who won the 2003 WhitBread prize for best novel for his phenomenal Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which was also longlisted for the 2003 Booker, which DBC Pierre won, has his first poetry collection out recently, called The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea. The Guardian reviewer Ranjit Bolt took exception to Haddon’s predilection for long titles. And not only that, Ranjit vilified the entire collection, stating ‘it misses the mark, as nothing could prepare us for the tendentiousness, the unjustified formlessness, the ghastliness, of Haddon's verse.’

Ranjit quotes in its entirety the poem ‘A Rough Guide’ as representative of this. I repeat some of what he wrote about it in particular:

‘Except for being nowhere near as good, this reminds me of the efforts us brighter kids used to come up with at my primary school in the Sixties. We had heard, you see, that poetry didn't have to rhyme and scan. Haddon's mistake (which was ours also, but at least we were only eight or nine) is to think that just writing stuff out like this, anyhow, is the same thing as free verse. It is not. In good free verse, the juxtaposition of words matters every bit as much as in formal verse. In fact, it matters more, because without the glue, the cement, of rhyme and meter, the poet is facing an even tougher task.’

He further wrote: ‘As evidence of Haddon's failure to grasp this fundamental law of modern poetry, the above [the poem] will amply serve. Take 'A Rough Guide' apart and reassemble it in a different order and nothing will have changed. That being so, it fails the acid test of good vers libre. And trust me, the stuff in this book is as interchangeable as the lines in the above poem.’

And, I don’t ‘trust’ Mr Ranjit Bolt.

I beg to differ on everything he wrote about that poem. Though his assertion in the last two lines, “In good verse . . .” holds true, I don’t think he realized this applies to Haddon’s poem, as I’m going to show next.

Here is the poem in full, and, for what it’s worth, here is my acid test of it:

A Rough Guide

Be polite at the reception desk.
Not all the knives are in the museum.
The waitresses know that a nice boy
is formed the same way as a deckchair.
Pay for the beer and send flowers.
Introduce yourself as Richard.
Do not refer to what somebody did at a particular time in the past.
Remember, every Friday we used to go
for a walk. I walked. You walked.
Everything in the past is irregular.
This steak is very good. Sit down.
There is no wine but there is ice cream.
Eat slowly. I have many matches.

In the first line, even though the initial sounds are made up of plosives (‘Be polite’), they are understated. They sound like the speaker is lowering her voice but still maintaining a sense of earnestness. The b and p’s are not voiced. Rather, they are non-stress syllables. After these two comes the first stress syllable, ‘lite’. Then the speedy reading after this, over ‘at the re’ makes me wonder if the person is speaking with a slur. The stress at ‘cep’, the non-stresses at ‘tion’ and ‘desk’ – they all give an image of someone collecting herself. Especially so when the mute consonant at the end of ‘desk’ makes the end-stopping here more poignant, like someone stopping for breath or someone bringing up short.

The second line is full of nasal sounds, like someone is still in her cups: ‘are in the museum’ makes this patent.

‘Pay for the beer’ in line 5, repeats the plosive scheme of line 1, but this time they are in the stress syllables. And this time, the speaker sounds adamant in her insistence, but she softens a little in ‘send flowers’ and in the next line, which has a lot of tongue-rolling sounds.

The next 4 lines talk about the past. And the word ‘past’ itself is repeated and it also sort of circumscribes these lines. The speaker reminisces about the regular walks they take on Fridays. The line with 3 repeats of the word ‘walk’ is interesting. Notice this line has 3 sentences, so that there are 2 pauses. Also, the first and second sentences are similar in structure. However their symmetry belies any congruity. Rather, their separation by a pause between them shows up a contrast, a distance separating them: she and he were walking but not together, and this is affirmed by the line ‘Everything in the past is irregular’. Which, indeed, the pace of this walking was: irregular.

The penultimate line is a slurred rendering of ‘There is no wine but there is’. Then she perks up at ‘ice cream’, with a high-note end stop.

The last line repeats the nasal sounds of line 2, with more labial sounds. The caesura or mid-pause, and ‘many matches’, which puts me in the mind of ‘knifes in the museum’ of line 2: something sinister or naughty is going to happen.

At first, before this posting, after reading Ranjit’s review I was unsure about purchasing a copy of Haddon’s poetry collection. However, after flipping over its pages at Kino yesterday, and liking some of the other poems, especially one about nuns, I decided to get a copy. And, as a bonus I got 20 percent off the full price of RM60 odd.


  1. bibliobibuli says

    You did good here, kid. You should send a copy of this entry to The Guardian!!

    Leon Wing says

    Perhaps, just a link.

    Gilbert Koh says

    I have to say that I found "A Rough Guide" to be a rather unimpressive poem. On the other hand, there were other (and better) poems in the book, so I did not regret buying it.

    Leon Wing says

    Gilbert - Glad you bought the book, and enjoyed the other poems.

    davidbath says

    Wow, this is almost 4 years after the last comment, but I couldn't believe what Mr. Bolt wrote. Did he even try to understand everything? Did he see the humour in it as well whatever the hell he was rambling on about? It's not all genius and it's extremely confusing at times but Go, Litel Bok will always be may favourite poem of all time. I can't say how much it affected me. 'May the god whose thoughts are like a tent of white light/ above the laundry and the pigeons of this town/walk always by your side. My burrow calls. Good night.'

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