If you have a reverence for How Things Should Be Done, and a disdain for deviating from standards set by great poets of the past, Hera Lindsay Bird’s eponymous poetry collection, titled like a 90s music album, is unlikely to be the collection for you. That’s not to say it doesn’t play with some romantic themes, or poets (such as in Keats is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind, which is one of a few of Birds’ poems to go viral before the collection arrived in the UK), but to say it innovates with form sounds far too stuffy for a collection with a healthy disdain for the trappings of convention in every way. Basically if exclusively adhering to poetry dryly lauded in dusty rooms by academic arbiters of taste is your darling, Hera Lindsay Bird has killed it off.
I’m joking, and I mean it in a complimentary way, but when browsing some of the backlash against Hera Lindsay Bird, whether under the comment line or in reviews, it does seem to be a charge she has faced before. This collection, written by a younger woman and so inevitably a candidate for the gnashing of teeth, has been accused of magically taking something away from the great men of yore, the grandees of poetry, the seriousness of it all and adherence to norms. And worse, she’s having fun!! In The Dad Joke Is Over, “years of puns have saturated the emotional landscape / a great empire can fall / & laughter can grow up from the ruins.” Poetry is of course not a zero game sum. But perhaps this collection has done something to invite into poetry some new readers previously put off by a genre (at times mischaracterised) or which although has come a long way in reaching younger audiences recently (with tours of high profile dynamic performers, music community overlap, viral hits, its co-opting by mainstream advertising, and strong online presence) but can still be guarded by critical stuffiness, or to readers like me who, with a Masters degree in modernist and postmodernist literature, and a dissertation on poetry, but who still has an anxiety about reviewing poetry online, also feel re-invigorated by her words, the neuron-firing creativity of her imagery, and her tendency to laugh at grand conventions and stuffy prestige. Bird knows what she is doing. “Now I have a masters degree in poetry and no longer wet myself / But I still have to die in antiquated flowers,” declares introductory poem Write A Book. It feels like something genuinely new has broken out, in both its style and self-awareness, and appetite for subversion.
“You stride into council chambers, waving a petition to orgasm.” – Ways of Making Love
Prestige and convention is one of the themes of the collection, which is blurbed on the UK Penguin edition with “this impressive debut has established Hera Lindsay Bird as a good girl……with many beneficial thoughts and feelings……” Some poems within take a good-natured shot at poetry which expresses feelings in nature imagery. “Wild Geese by Mary Oliver by Hera Lindsay Bird” contains the lines “I just don’t think it’s real / to think of geese and feel so beautiful about yourself” and “the night my girlfriend told me she still loved you […] it did not feel like a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” Many of the poems in the collection are about love and sex, or the grief of distance. Mirror Traps is a beautiful example, which I read while on a bus, wishing I was alone so I could wallow in it. “you smile at me & / cool beads float through my heart.” Bird has a preference for similes, chosen for the feelings the images evoke rather than the neatness of the words on the page, and they’re liberally applied. “If you are a dead French aristocrat / I am the suspicious circumstances / surrounding your death,” in If You are An Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh meets a partner at every turn of fantasy, like a Rubiks cube clicking into place, running through scenarios and trying to find a neat fit. “I want to take you to the river which runs behind my house […] but I can’t / because nothing runs behind my house / not even a lonely commercial highway.”
Hera Lindsay Bird also has a tendency to use long trains of ellipses, like ants are eating through the book. Like Rupi Kaur with her trademark brevity and frequent line-breaks, these tells have become parodied online. Whatever you might think of Kaur’s poetry (I think it’s greatly variable), the criticism is frequently over the top in its viciousness and desire to humiliate, with more than a hint of professional jealousy or rage that a younger woman dares to write work that is eaten up by an audience of fellow younger women, setting up camp comfortably outside the houses of formal critique.
Other grumpy comments are perturbed by the overt eroticism of some of the poetry, which reminds me of the tut tutting tweet I received when I posted about reading I Love Dick on public transport. In Mirrors, Bird writes with self-awareness “it’s bad poetry to have a body / and a bad life too.” There’s a lot of humour in this book. A poem on Bisexuality contains lines such as “When a fish crawls up onto land? That’s bisexuality / an ancient sexual amphibiousness,” and ends by spearing the ‘batting for both sides’ cliche with what would be a great one-liner at a comedy club. Heartfelt feelings are often on the flip side of the surreal humour, just like real life. Humour integral to some poems (like another viral poem, Monica, which is about Monica from Friends) where what appears to be a chatting-shit-about-pop-culture monologue shifts into something more melancholy, and in others it’s doled out with a seemingly casual (but likely carefully constructed) flippancy here and there, like sauce added to a burger with a comedy splat, always reminding the reader not to take anything too seriously, poetry included.
It’s a relatable book. It’s relatable to me, with its pop culture references, and its feelings, and especially in poems like Monica which begins (wonderfully) a bit like shower thoughts or a Facebook wall post, that I wade right into until it develops unexpectedly and skilfully and the floor drops out from beneath my sure footing, and I’m left feeling something else entirely. I relate to its weeping and laughter and masturbation and fatigue. It feels like how I relate to it is something I might feel pressure not to write in a more formal review. Relatability is not a quality not so often attached to poetry (other than instapoetry, where the only guardian is the digital algorithm), but is attached to other writers of Bird’s generation, millennial writers who arrived on the scene around the time of self-publishing on internet blogs, a time when their predecessors had no time left for the personal essay or reflective think piece, considering it ‘over,’ or vain, or lacking in depth for not requiring a starched classics education to be able to interpret. I was born in the mid eighties. When I read criticisms of personal narratives in prestigious magazines or cultural criticism websites by writers of a different generation to me, I think… I wasn’t around to read the stuff you got bored of in the 90s, and the world has changed since. We’re seeing a lot of different kinds of writers emerge now. The publishing industry has a long way to go but is making small steps towards addressing racial, sexual, and social diversity, and social media and blogs have helped writers who struggle with representation harness their own audience, including, notably, a number of poets. With a sexually harassing president in the White House it can feel like we’re stuck in the dark ages, but feminism has evolved. Dating has evolved. Skincare has evolved. I want to read personal narratives of the modern day, which feel alive to me in their now-ness and frame of reference which is akin to mine, like this 90s sitcom monologue which gives way beautifully to a reflection on friendship and distance. I want to read more modern poetry which is not about trees or gods.
I have a lot of feelings about the gendered nature of these criticisms too – and on the flip side, how often they suppose writing which is not explicitly non-fiction to be autobiographical, especially from women, like some of the recent responses to Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian in the New Yorker, the worst of which was possibly a BBC Three piece told from ‘the other side,’ which seemed wilfully determined not to engage with the public debate the piece had clearly raised but treat it with “both sides” coverage as though the characters were real people, and the woman character, from whose perspective it was told, or woman author, couldn’t be allowed the final say.
“Hate only hurts the hater, says conventional wisdom /
But conventional wisdom is dead, and I am still alive.” – Hate
I loved Hera Lindsay Bird (the collection), with its freewheeling form, for its defiance of po-faced convention, for reminding me, the reader, to laugh at life and not to take things always so seriously, except in moments of gothic drama, of caskets and candlelight and fur, which again, reminds me of the cultural touchstones of growing up bookish in a teenage era of Livejournal. It’s moving on love, sex, and grief, it’s surreally imaginative, and it’s very self-aware. Reading it is a treat like tipping a whole bag of popping candy into your mouth and feeling little fires everywhere. But remember:
“You can get away with anything in a poem /
As long as you say my tits in it.” – Write a Book