Flitting between book smarts and wry humour, lyric eloquence and occasionally acerbic bluntness, the poetry of David Wheatley shares much in common with the prose he writes as a respected critic, and for which he is perhaps better known. But if, by his own argument, it is ‘tempting to read the hyphen as a subtraction sign’ in the phrase ‘poet-critic’, his own work tends to disprove this – proof that it is possible to commit to criticism with integrity while also writing memorable poetry. Taking in recurrent themes of home and travel, rural and urban landscapes, and an abiding fascination with all things avian, Wheatley’s poems, in Tim Kendall’s description, rarely go by without some ‘dizzying shift of perspective’. In ‘Riptide’, a Hawk jet coming down in the Humber river is partly envisaged as its original creaturely namesake and ‘its sluggish affront to such predatory grace’, while in ‘Stan’, a chance encounter with a funeral cortege at a pedestrian crossing leaves the poem’s speaker in a moment of darkly comic existential crisis. Wheatley’s is an eye attuned to the telling detail – ‘little ringed plover, shivering into your grey / and white pullover’, lilts the haiku ‘At Footdee’ – but it also zones in on the absurdity of our busy human goings-on. As the narrator in ‘The Owl’ states, observing the wise old bird: ‘Look and learn: don’t just do / something, stand there! Stand still and be wise.’
David Wheatley was born in Dublin in 1970. A first collection, Thirst (1997), was published while the poet was still in his twenties, and earned the Rooney Prize for Irish literature. Misery Hill followed in 2000, a hymn to a street in Dublin, its history and its ghosts, which in many ways set the tone for Mocker (2006) and A Nest on the Waves (2010), in which the post-industrial cityscapes of Wheatley’s adopted Northern England, especially Hull, often prove to be an endless source of fascination and inspiration. The sailor’s art of scrimshaw, for example – of carving illustrations into whalebone – is given a fantastical lease of life in this Archive recording, in the form of a ‘whaler’s mermaid wife’ whose ‘worst imaginings dive deeper, / longer than any plankton-eater’. Elsewhere, an unlikely paean ‘To Wilmington Swing Bridge’ bathetically elevates a scene where ‘the forecast promises shopping trolleys’ and ‘a lost swan / incubates a nest of golf balls’, while ‘Rag and Bone Man’s Mild’, included in the online selection from this Archive recording, tells tales of the eponymous junk trader and his crew. But there are also moments of more sober social commentary: in ‘Migrant Workers’, discreetly rhymed quatrains imagine ‘the children they have yet to meet’ calling ‘here/there home in this/that tongue’.
Whatever the subject matter which makes for each of these poems, though, and wherever they may be set – Ireland, England, Scotland and further afield – Wheatley’s entertaining delivery is as lively as his writing – ‘jumping’, As The Guardian has said, ‘from place to place, idea to idea, the real to the imagined’.
David Wheatley’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:
“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove poetry must ride its own melting” – Robert Frost
“Poetry is the plough that turns up time” – Osip Mandelstam
“This imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon” – Jorge Luis Borges
“I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity” – Ezra Pound
“Les po?tes sont des hommes qui refusent d’utiliser le langage” – Jean-Paul Sartre
“There is poetry as soon as you realize that you possess nothing” – John Cage
“Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand but adds to the stock of available reality” – R. P. Blackmur
“The forms are many in which the unchanging seeks relief from its formlessness” – Samuel Beckett
“If you write poetry, it’s your own fault” – John Hewitt