About Jack Underwood
Jack Underwood is an active presence across the British poetry landscape: as one of the first four poets as part of the Faber New Poets pamphlets scheme in 2009, as Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, tutor at the Poetry School, regular reviewer for Poetry London and Poetry Review, and founding editor, with Sam Riviere in 2005, of Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives, an influential anthology series. His debut collection, Happiness, was published by Faber in July 2015.
Underwood’s poems are characterized by an endearing buoyancy and frankness in their open interrogation of emotional concepts that never assumes definitive conclusions but, rather, encourages the active, imaginative participation of the reader in the act of framing questions. This is made explicit in ‘A man is dragging a dead dog backwards’, a poem which might stand as a deconstructivist ars poetica, and serves as a profound reflection on the act of reading (or listening):
‘why not try
to understand this thing that you are doing: how the dog came to be dead
and you came to be dragging it, what this means to you and where is it
that you are going?’
Happiness, he writes, is ‘not always usual’, but ‘various and by degrees’ – much like his body of work, which often playfully sets itself out with a provisional use of ‘if’, ‘when’, ‘could’ and ‘let me say’, and yet will still assert emotional transaction, like the ‘the thought of our life / together, yet to come’, even if it’s configured fugaciously as a ‘beam of dust’. As with the speaker of ‘My Steak’, the poems ‘weigh’ and ‘unpack’ the objects and categories to which we assign value in our world, often with a self-deprecating humour. Certain poems (‘Your Horse’; ‘Weasel’) are noticeable for their ability to couch (quasi-)philosophical problems in fabulist or skewed-domestic, surreal situations. Many are fascinated by the layering of ideas (and onions), of thoughts and feelings swallowing their own semantic tails, and probe continuously:
‘God as a dead robin; God as the eye of a dead robin; God as your barely visible reflection in the eye of a dead robin’.
In these recordings one can hear in Underwood’s voice a considered optimism for the possibilities of participation that a poem might contain; reflecting a belief in an empathetic, social discourse. In this way his poetry could be said to share the aims of Michael Donaghy, an influence for Underwood, who wished for his ‘work to have a life of its own and, if it works, [to be] as much “about” the reader’s life as about [the author’s]’. To read or listen to many of Underwood’s works is to witness a poem ‘coming on’ (like the summer in ‘My Sister’), discovering itself, and moreover to feel party to such an event.
This recording was made for the Poetry Archive on 17 February 2015 at Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.