BAD BOY POET BY SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY (OPEN PEN, 2018)
Reviewed by Scott Manley Hadley
I don’t want to sound overwrought or uncharacteristically positive, but this brand new book of poetry – Bad Boy Poet by Scott Manley Hadley – is one of the most engaging, amusing and moving works of English language literature I have ever encountered.
I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but I don’t believe that ever, in my life, have I felt so seen by a piece of writing. Never have I felt myself so reflected, so known within a book of poems. Bad Boy Poet made me weep, it made me think about myself in uncomfortable yet necessary ways. For me, it effectively functioned in exactly the accessible, emotionally-wrought manner that the poet intended.
Bad Boy Poet is written with an easy simplicity, and as such these poems are rarely “poetic” in the traditional sense (i.e. there is not much “imagery”). In fact, many of the pieces self-consciously veer towards the “anti-poetic”, yet this metapoetic playfulness comes across not as wanky pretentiousness, but instead as an endearing lack of self-confidence. This humility assists with pulling a reader into the close emotional connection that Bad Boy Poet seems to demand.
There are poems here about ageing and sexuality, about dating apps, about personal hypocrisy, about failing to understand oneself and learning to understand oneself better. Bad Boy Poet offers a somewhat uplifting narrative arc through its 70 or so pieces: the voice (a fictionalised Scott Manley Hadley, the poet-self) begins broken, alone, unhappy, and though the text includes a close engagement with the upsetting actuality of familial illness, the first person voice itself seems to end the text in a better position to express and “live with” himself.
This book focuses on a youngish man trying to work out who he is, but contrasting that with the people who he sees around him and the modes of living which he wants to avoid. Can you be a heterosexual man without exhibiting some level of inherent male chauvinism? And if we exist only as our bodies, as our corporeal selves, then how much must we engage with our dirty physicality? Everybody shits, everybody eats, and pretty much everybody fucks and vomits and seeks intoxication (at least from time to time). Bad Boy Poet covers depression and anxiety, lust and hunger, mental illness and medication (as well as self-medication), and tries to keep its meanings accessible and clear throughout. With references to social media and to mainstream celebrity culture, the verse is clearly not aimed at an intellectualising audience: the poet clearly cares more about catharsis than he does about language: this isn’t the kind of cryptic crossword bullshit poetry that leaves the average reader scratching their head, this is the kind of poetry that – a bit too frequently – feels like cut up prose. The poet appears to seek, with his line breaks, a sense of their pronunciation, of physical expression: line breaks are breath marks used for emphasis, rather than punctuation marks meant to add meaning. In this sense, perhaps, I am being less generous than the poet deserves, because the form suits the message. These “confessional-style” poems seek and imply a weighty truthfulness, and though this is not necessarily the case, the persona – however “real” it is – appears fully formed amongst pieces on dog ownership and pooing.
I’ll be honest, I’m struggling to write this without referring to myself by name in the third person, which somehow seems more inappropriate and disallowed than writing about myself in the third person as “the poet”. I don’t have my poetry hat on here, do I? I have my “hipster blogger” hat on, which is also not the hat I’ll have on shortly when I go and do some Wintry errands.
All that talk of hats is odd, feels self-referential. I used to wear a lot of hats, I used to wear a hat almost all the time, feeling that wearing a hat – as a bald man – would help to hide my “shame” and thus render me more socially acceptable. I’m more “at peace” with my baldness now and thus spend much less time wearing hats. Which is good, because bald men who constantly wear hats are often mocked as much as bald men who wear visible wigs. I know that because I mock them myself. There is no “bald community”, there is no solidarity between baldies. Because there doesn’t need to be. Christ, imagine if there was a “bald community”. Some of us aren’t dickheads (I’m not), but many baldies are absolute arseholes.
Anyway, I’m not wearing a hat, but I am in my “reviewer mode” (maybe that would have been better phrasing). I considered writing this review of myself as a poem, but poems are a lot more work than prose. Like prose you can just fucking pour out onto the page, easy like. Poetry you have to think about, edit. Poetry is about using the best words in the best order. I don’t think that’s what prose is inherently for. And I think far too many people approach poetry with a very different attitude.
I hadn’t properly tried to write poetry before 2017, even though I read it regularly. Before I started writing poetry I was the only non-poet I knew who read a significant amount of it. Even then, though, I had an ambiguous relationship with verse, sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. And I never felt like I had enough of a handle on the genre to attempt to write it myself.
In the end, what changed to allow me to write poetry was the way I was reading it.
For years, I thought poetry had to be complicated, complex, difficult. Every time I read poetry I didn’t understand and didn’t like, I felt this was because I was ignorant and at fault. I made a hard rule to never read a poem just once, making sure to enter into a more in-depth relationship with every single poem I read. This (in theory) gave me the time and concentration to attempt a rigorous unpacking of every poem I read. I sought to learn the value and importance of allusion and reference and duplicity of meaning. All that cryptic crossword bullshit that I now feel comfortable dismissing.
Amongst the difficult poems that after two, three, four readings, still left me cold, I also managed to find poetry by writers like Sharon Olds, Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine that I LOVED on the first read. Rereading these poems – the ones that I wanted to (rather than felt obliged to) reread – I found they opened up into works of truly spectacular art. I was rewarded for giving them extra attention, but when I reread wanky, swanky, butch, blokely, cock-comparing, “intellectual” poetry nothing new emerged.
Oh, I would say to the dull, smug male poets: I get that you’re using an Ovid reference here, I see the allusion to Henry IV, I clock the Hitchcock nod: but what does it add? Poetry can be clever-clever but that doesn’t make it good. Poetry can be complex and filled with meaning and allusion but can still be utter shite: just because something has hidden depths doesn’t mean it isn’t shallow. Like the shit bits of Joyce: they’re clever, but so fucking what? Just because something intimidates with its intellect doesn’t mean it’s worthy of attention: just because you have to work to understand meaning doesn’t mean that said meaning is worth the effort.
Now, don’t worry, I’m not saying that the only good poetry is poetry like the kind I write (which I will freely admit is often formally “bad” poetry #BadBoyPoet), but I will assert the following: Poetry that doesn’t have human, emotive, heft behind it is bad poetry.
Whether that “heft” is grief or loss (see Sharon Olds), whether that heft is institutionalised racism (see Claudia Rankine), whether that heft is a gripping human narrative (for example Anne Carson’s reimaginings of classical stories), or even – I won’t pretend I’m over it – a weighty ability to define a developing social strata and lifestyle (Howl, Howl, secret hero of my bookshelf) the poems that have hit something in my body, in my mind, are poems that are trying to DO something, SAY something, BE something, not dull poems that are just, like, a collection of pleasing words and images. Eurgh.
I will be blunt about this: right now, the most commercially successful poet in the world is a BAD poet, and many of the poets who defend her are also – formally – bad poets. But it doesn’t fucking matter, does it, because what these poets do is create writing that actually fucking speaks to people. These “Instagram poets” – however you want to term them – write poetry for normal people, not for [other] [overeducated] poets. Be bitchy with me for second and think about which of your [social media] friends are into these kinda poets: they’re not the smart ones, are they? No, but – and this is the crucial bit – they’re the kind of people who would NEVER have bought a book of poetry a couple of years ago.
The most popular poetry, right now, seeks a universality, one that offers personal experience in return for empathy, one that champions catharsis and, I dunno, a sense of hope that people have (tbh) ALWAYS looked for in verse. When I first started writing poems it was a cynical decision based on the fact that I was seeing poetry EVERYWHERE which I knew I could write as good, if not better, than. One of the first poems I wrote (when I started writing verse on a near-industrial scale) was an aggressive dismissal of the validity of this popular, optimistic, verse. That was wrong of me, and I no longer stand by the vitriol I – well over a year ago – expressed.
Poetry that is structurally or linguistically unexciting can still be successful, if what it intends to do is what it does. It doesn’t matter if your writing isn’t literary if you weren’t trying to write “literary” verse. I suppose the space where this argument falls apart is when you consider the overconfidence of some of these poets, who sometimes do behave as if the cultural/emotional/political value of their poetry means it has “literary value”. Just because something is constructed using words doesn’t mean it is literature, just like not everything covered in paint is a painting. Maybe I’m wrong here and the general consensus is that most single colour walls are a conscious attempt at artistic expression.
However a person expresses themselves is valid; however anyone chooses to empathise with others is valid; however anyone seeks connection is valid (provided it doesn’t injure anyone else). Because because because…
Should we “literary types” redefine “Poetry” so that these mega-selling poets can count as “good”? Because, by all traditional analysis of poetry, they are not (and neither am I), but given their sociocultural impact, they cannot be dismissed.
Should I stop referring to myself as a bad poet? Or is it important for me to not take myself too seriously? Would more confidence damage my poetic voice and thus my tone, my style, my vibe? If I decided that being able to make people cry and make people laugh with my writing – which I have always considered to be my aim – means that I’m a good writer, a good poet, then that changes the way I see myself, the way I am.
I’ve already stopped writing poetry about how boring poetry is, now I know it doesn’t have to be. Maybe the next stage in my personal growth is to accept that the poetry I write is not inherently bad. But to write poems and not prewarn readers that it is “bad” means asking people to take my writing seriously, which is braver and harder and possibly beyond me.
I’m very pleased with this collection, it does what I wanted it to do. If you like the sound of it, or if you don’t, please buy a copy and support independent publishing. Remember, the better publishers do, other writers, the more likely they are to publish a book that might include you…
Scott Manley Hadley blogs at TriumphoftheNow.com.