Book review. Henson, Keaton. Idiot Verse. Eyewear Publishing. 2015. 66 pages.
If you haven’t yet familiarised yourself with the musical works of Keaton Henson, you are about to get a sneak peak through the keyhole of his galaxy. The folk-cum–classical-cum-electro musician’s poetry debut is a softly worded eulogy to loneliness, written in the small hours. Just like his songs, his poetry is a little sad, a little romantic and alternates between vulnerable and passionate. “Dear reader,” he begins. “Please read as though sleeping.” A perfectly adequate intro to a poetry collection best described as dream-like.
The cover, illustrated by Henson himself, portrays a pink melting ice-lolly, or ice cream of some sort, with Henson’s name typed in the colours of the rainbow. It is playful and artsy and sets the tone for what is to come. In the poem “Grow up with me” (a cute alternative to the phrase ‘grow old with me’), Henson takes us to an innocent would-be childhood where the object is asked to spend their adolescence reclaiming their super powers, “run in fields and fear the dark together” and “watch adults drink wine and laugh at their idiocy”. He hints at his childhood again in “Louise”: “The treehouse is still only started // it’s been that way since I was here at age seven”, but this time he has returned to the melancholy known from his song lyrics.
Accompanied by the poems are more illustrations by Henson; childlike drawings of giants with small heads, empty chairs, ladies with hairy armpits and pubic regions and other random scribbles that resembles nonsense you probably drew when you were five and very bored. The drawings give the book the feeling of a diary and help maintain the playful and dreamy atmosphere. It also helps maintain the notion that the poet himself is, frankly put, a little bit odd.
Henson admits early on in his poem “Idiot Verse”: “I’m aware I will not be the first to write stanzas of rhyme of my loneliness (…) so I’ll write it out just as I see it and just as it sounds in my heart”. He does not try to impress with carefully crafted constructed poems, but writes rhyming free verse straight from the heart. Some poems, as short as four lines, “Moon Bride”, “All the Wings”, “Hell” are some of the strongest pieces.
While the music albums Birthdays, Dear and Romantic Works took us to Paris train stations, pillow talk and rainy fields, his poetry follows in that same tranquil pattern. Walks along the Thames, duvet dancing, late night kitchen floor cereal meals, endless tea-making. He is still broken-hearted, still dying, still lying alone in a hotel bed while everyone else is out, having fun. But his poetry is a lot more versatile than his musical lyrics, which are mainly about love gone wrong. He touches upon his touring, his family, artists and the act of reading and writing in general. And like a true Londoner, there are both love letters and letters of complaint addressed to the Smoke.
The poem “Polite Plea” more or less sums up the whole of Idiot Verse; the plea for companionship runs like a red thread and appears sporadically throughout the book, from “Grow Up With Me”, to “Hell” (and life, my dear, is a fleeting affair // so why not spend your one, in mine), to “The One” where the object is asked to love him to death, until the very end in “New Year’s Eve With Tennyson”. Here he charmingly describes a scene where he’s alone on New Years Eve and the legendary poet Alfred Tennyson suddenly appears next to him on a ‘mostly empty chair’. “And I smiled glad to see // (as it’s best so I’ve been told) // that loneliness had company // in such a figure, stern and old”. Perhaps this is where Keaton Henson comes to terms with his loneliness; the cliché is true: you are never lonely with a book!
Idiot Verse is certainly an enjoyable read. It is funny, peculiar, beautiful and sad. However, the sad is more of a melancholy feeling, rather than heart-breaking. That is, I in no way feel with Henson, reading “Regret Me”, (“I’m lonely my dear, forget me // I’m lonely, pretend that you left me”) as I feel with, let’s say, Morrissey, hearing “I Know It’s Over”. The poems where he doesn’t spell out his breakups (in the style of Alan Partridge quoting Christian le Vaux: “lonely… cause you left me”) are the ones making Idiot Verse a treasure. There is quite an interesting person under all that beard. And if we must do that thing where we compare him to the poets who where there before him, we might say T.S. Eliot, but let us not go there, let us just enjoy the fireworks in that cloud-splitting head of his.