:: Article

Outside the Academy’s Lustrous Gates

By Max Dunbar.


Bang!, John G Hall, Lulu 2010

For the first time since starting to write here I must make a disclaimer. John G Hall is a personal friend, a good one. I’ve rarely met anyone so full of energy, so full of fire and life. And so my argument that he is one of this country’s greatest living poets may be hard to take on trust. But if I cannot be neutral I will at least be sincere.

It’s a conviction of mine that had John been born in another place and time – America, say – he would now be a regularly published poet, garlanded with awards and recognition, teaching at a university in New York or San Francisco. As he was born in South Manchester, this was never going to happen. The mediocrities who run the arts in this country are good at looking after their own; the UK arts world is a golf club that certainly doesn’t admit big, shambling ex-trade unionists from the wrong side of the tracks. The club has its token working-class northerner in Ian McMillan. So John puts on packed, delerious spoken word nights in Fallowfield and on Oxford Road, edits the radical art magazine Citizen 32 and does free workshops in Fuel Withington and the Cornerhouse. We were in the Cornerhouse, drinking round after round of Corona and Heineken, when John told me he was going to organise an annual retreat on the Isle of Arran off the Scottish coast. I remember laughing – this sounded like another of his crazy drunken schemes. But he did it, and the retreat has proved a success for several years now.

As I’d expect, a lot of poetry in Bang! is political, taking on the abuses of Western governments over the last decade. An arrow-shredded target, you may think, but it’s the way he tells them. From ‘Bush & Blair Ltd’: ‘Sergeant Rock of Guantanamo Bay showed me a post card of Chicago/trying hard to be New York, trying hard to be Berlin in the 1930s/trying hard to be Imperial Rome, trying hard to be the capital of Hades.’ This is antiwar poetry with imagination as well as force, and more passion than the lazy obscenities of Pinter, the ugly, sweeping equivalences of Paulin.

He can be subtle, and thoughtful. ‘The Art Gallery’ made me think of walking across Whitworth Park on a summer’s day, although I don’t think I’ve ever done this. He writes: ‘when this city art gallery was sanctified/Irish navvies dug the Manchester ship canal/and were paid in pints of ale and shillings.’ Now their descendants sit ‘sipping coffee penning poetry/on the back of Impressionist postcards.’ The final stanza asks: ‘is this perhaps at last victory sipped from/the mouth of defeat’ or ‘maybe just the taste of thirty pieces of cake and more small beer’.

This is about change, social and economic, and gives a sense of perspective; the sheer velocity of change, in what has been – take a step back – a relatively short time: and is it all to the good? What have we found? What have we lost? All this, by the way, in a hundred words or so. I can imagine him wandering around the Whitworth one day, on one of his rambling treks through the city, head sparking with thought and association, and thinking all the way home of the best way to get all this down. John Hall has Eliot’s gift of compression. He will show you fear in a handful of dust.

In her introduction to Bang!, the poet Lucy Lepchani writes: ‘These are not necessarily rhythms of metre, but of those bright moments themselves: beads of enlightenment threaded into verse; sudden clear images that appear like pop-ups in the psyche, refreshing one’s awareness to the immediate moment.’ The poem ‘Kid Mind’ is a riot of free association: ‘an Airfix model of Apollo 13/a wasp sitting in a plastic spoon/a lonely moon pulling on the tea’. John’s imagery constantly blindsides you. From ‘The Madness of the X’: ‘That was 25 years ago yet thanks to your hatred I will always/be looking over my shoulder for the flash of your love’s edge.’ Sometimes the lines nail a fundamental human truth. In ‘Hair Lives’, he tells us that ‘age is merely the white tip of death’s iceberg coming towards us under starless darkness and the last laps of the sea.’ Yet John Hall remains an optimist: (‘Open and Close’) ‘don’t you know that love’s need for pity and warmth/always wins, always snuggles in, always leaves.’

John is in touch with the remaining Beat poets and plans to bring George Wallace over to Manchester this summer. I’ll close with Wallace’s words, from the foreword to one of John’s previous collections:

In these early days of the 21st century; in these days of Cookie Cutter MFAs, McPoems and MTV-style performance poseurs; in these sad, terrible wondrous days, it is reassuring to read the poetry of John Hall, writings that remind us that the generative power of poetry comes not from the formalists and the faux counter-culturalists inside the academy, but from the people standing outside the academy’s lustrous gates.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry, and reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 15th, 2010.