April 11 2005 . Anna Carlisle
A reviewer of ‘’Safe as Houses’’ claimed that Fanthorpe’s poetry is ‘’rotted in the real world and in ordinary language.’’
How far do you agree with this view?
Although it would be simplistic to say that all Fanthorpe’s poetry is related to the ‘’real world’’, connections certainly can be made in terms of language style and theme that convey everyday life. One of her principal focuses seems to be that of war but never concerning the actual combat: she instead concentrates on the destruction caused on the home front; to the ‘’ordinary’’ people, particularly exploring the influence of war on children. Indeed, her own experience of childhood, one in which she felt she did not ‘’fit in’’ also shapes her poetry, arguably appealing to all her readers who have, most likely, felt out of place at one time or another in their every-day lives. The language used to communicate these ideas is fairly common, rarely in ‘’traditional’’ rhyming couplets and even when taking on the persona of some of the most famous characters in literature, the language she ‘’gives’’ them would not look out of place in our contemporary world.
Of course, Fanthorpe is a modern poet, discussing issues that matter to her so it would not be unreasonable to take the view that her poems are ‘’rotted in the real world.’’ Though it is difficult to make a general judgement about her poems, whether her poetry is ‘’rooted in the real world’’ or not, the title of this anthology, the well-known phrase ‘’Safe as Houses’’ certainly suggests poetry that will discuss issues which are significant today, in a style that is familiar to the reader.
Fanthorpe’s poetry can be categorised into a range groups which are, in themselves, applicable to the ‘real world.’ A prominent collection can be identified as ‘’Unsafe Houses’’, a theme which is relevant to everyday life as feeling safe and secure in you own home is something that is desired by everyone in our modern world, both physically (hence the invention of safety features such as burglar alarms and house insurance) and emotionally as people want a sense of belonging in their home. Poems which refer to this issue include ‘The Dolls Children’, ‘Sirensong’, ‘What, in our House?’ and ‘Last House’ although all take varying approached to the issue so their connection to the ‘real world’ is in differing ways. Fanthorpe alludes to the house being a big part of the occupier, which probably appeals to many readers who own their own property, or indeed, own anything which has particularly importance to them. An outstanding phrase in ‘Sirensong’ is describing destruction as ‘Uncovering private parts,’ illustrating both the physical and emotional affects of having you house destroyed. On one level, it represents to the actual ruin of having the rooms in your house exposed and by using language that relates to the physical body, Fanthorpe also cerates a personal, sensitive reaction from the reader, as if uncovering the house is like uncovering a part of yourself. The idea of effortlessly destroying something that contains all your personal belongings is likely to cause a reaction with many people living in the ‘real world,’ as nowadays the property market as developed to ensure that our houses have material as well as sentimental value, thus words such as ‘sliced’ and ‘fluttered’, which emphasise the simplicity of destroying property is likely to have maximum impact. This theme is reflected in ‘Last House,’ where similar language had been used to describe the cinema during its demolishment: ‘trickle of mortar’; ‘A slice of a wall flops.’’ However, this poem has a much more optimistic approach as although the cinema is being destroyed, ultimately it is not as horrifying as a house being ruined. Perhaps Fanthorpe is making the point that because no-one actually lives in the cinema, it is easier to witness its destruction: it only our ‘real’ homes which we fear will not remain stable.
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Indeed, these two poems show Fanthorpe’s interest in the ‘real world’: in ‘Last House’ she is not describing the film stars in Hollywood but in the cinema where ‘ordinary’ people came and went. By using recognisable quotations from films and emphasising the popularity of the cinema in her language style (oilfields of ketchup; acres of hair) Fanthorpe is ensuring readers clearly recall their experience of going to the cinema and thus appreciate the sentimental value of the building. Likewise, in Sirensong, it is not the destruction on say, the Western Front that is dealt with. Instead it is the destruction on the ‘ordinary’ people left at home, who are rarely thought of when dealing with war.
Certainly, the idea of giving ‘ordinary’ people a voice is a common occurrence in her poetry. The Children in Ibson’s ‘A Doll’s House’ are not given a voice in the play, so Fanthorpe, in her own way, does it for them. Similarly, ‘Odysseus’s Cat’ (although entirely fictional) gives a voice to the unsaid ‘’hero’’ of Homer’s epic tale. ‘A doll’s Children’ is probably the most complex example of this idea as not only does it deal with the mother’s contempt to being ‘trapped’ in her own home, it also draws in the common childhood experience of not ‘fitting in’. It is obvious both the children and the mother do not feel comfortable in their own homes. By using language from the semantic field of fairy tales, Fanthorpe is using giving an ‘’ordinary’’, familiar feel to the poem as well as illustrating the pressures of being seemingly perfect family. The children speak ‘gingerbread language’ and live in the ‘house that he built’ but then, under this surface we discover that they are ‘afraid’ that some day the will ‘turn gawky’, with ‘hair and blood springing form unchildish places.’ This is likely to have a cringe worthy affect on the reader, although growing up is something that happens to everyone and by blatantly stating it, Fanthorpe is recognising that it is a major event in our ‘real world.’ She is looking at important aspects of an ‘ordinary’ person’s everyday life: the subject of the poem, the children’s reaction to the mother leaving is not that far-flung from many children today who are brought up by a single parent. The language in the last stanza remains in the genre of fairy stories but is laced with aspects of the ‘reality’: an environment you would normally associate with fairy stories such as ‘cake shops’ and ‘dance halls’ are ‘shut’ and shady’, thus Fanthorpe is making the point that in the ‘real world’ nothing is ever perfect.
Indeed, Fanthorpe has incorporated the idea of appearance over reality in her version of Lady Macbeth, who most certainly does not use the Shakespearean language a reader may expect. In my mind, this is the most obvious poem which shows Fanthorpe’s interest in ‘ordinary language’. Keeping the Shakespearean iambic pentameter, Fanthorpe has given her a contemporary language style and a relatively recent feminist stance:
‘No doubt these blood, or sick or shit,
Or other filth women have to handle’
Whereas in the past, women have been viewed as the weaker sex, Lady Macbeth here emphasises the strength of females, demonstrated by language connected to war: to ‘outmanoeuvre’ chores; ‘garrison’ of soap.’ Here she is particularly appealing to women of our modern society who have to deal with a career and domestic chores as well as wishing to remain respectable, like Lady Macbeth.
Fanthorpe does not only explore issues that are relevant to modern day society but she also clearly disapproves of aspects of our present world. In ‘’The Room Where Everyone Goes’, for example, she shows the frivolous attitudes of tourists who when visiting a monastery seem to look at the toilet as the highlight of their visit, failing to take into account the pain and suffering that the monks had to endure. The ‘cold’ language used such as ‘helmet of silence’; ‘frigid stone’ ‘cold, clean men’ describe both the toilet itself and the kind of life the monks had to endure, which we in our protected society can never really appreciate: ‘’the guts and goodness are beyond us.’
In the same way, in ‘Under the Motorway’ by emphasising, through alliteration, the manmade vehicles ‘Renault and Rover’ with the natural ‘Cleavers and clover’, Fanthorpe is highlighting the beauty and power of nature which will always conquer our manufactured world:
‘But Love-in-a-mist and Love-lies-bleeding –
they’re on our side, and they’re succeeding.’
Here she seems to have separated people who care about their environment with people who don’t; clearly she sympathises with nature and perhaps wants to convey the view that we should preserve the environment, an issue which is becoming increasingly topical in our everyday society.
There are different ways to interpret the suggestion that Fanthorpe’s poetry is ‘rooted in the real world and in ordinary language’ but she certainly brings in a range of topical issues into her poetry, exploring themes such as childhood which every one of her readers will have experienced, thus showing us that she has intended for her poetry to be a representation of the real world. She states herself that she has an advantage over younger poets as she has ‘’seen things they haven't all seen’’, suggesting that it is her own personal understanding of the ‘real world’ that have led many of her poems to be ‘rooted’ in our modern society.