Publication Date
Publication Status
Out of print
Poetry by individual poets
Trim Size
216 x 140mm

The Ship


John Hartley Williams may well contain several poets, all of them jostling for expression. These would include his younger self and many of his aliases, the lover, the satirist, the anarchist, the lyricist, the experimentalist, the saboteur etc. – all of whom are represented in this collection of largely unpublished work dating back as far as 1958, and ending in 1982. This marvellous book is organised not simply an ‘early selected’ poems, with everything arranged in chronological order, but as a coherent new collection epitomised by the title poem The Ship.

Poetry has a philosophical function: to place seriousness (often equated with reliability or consistency) in question, and thereby achieve the serious joke that conceals the fundamental unease without which things never will get better. This is not just irony, which is just a privileged form of time-wasting. The humour that the serious joke contains demonstrates how much of what we take seriously for granted is merely shadow-play (political speeches, the news channel, the oil crisis, supermarkets). The serious joke reveals the paucity of present day reality. It replaces the names of shadow-discourse with the names of things as they are: axes, bottles, carpets, dwarves, eggs, feet, geckoes, hats, igloos, jampots, kukudus, lampposts, mistresses, nappies, octopi, penguins, quicksands, rats, sausages, tubs, underwear, violins, whips, ex-wives, yams, and zoot-suits. If the names come at you systematised through the alphabet, so much the better; the alphabet is the most humorously devised system ever (it makes no sense). This book aims to give you things as they are, and to make sense through the fuzzy logic with which they are presented.

Praise for this Book

‘Good poets are always pressing on: all too easily they can overlook their past achievements – work not sent out, left in a drawer or relegated after a change of emphasis. John Hartley Williams’s recent poetry is powerful and richly embellished. But, as this remarkable earlier collection reveals, so was what he was writing three decades ago. The Ship is more than a welcome act of salvage – it carries a cargo of lyrical, symbolic, Surreal and personal poems which pulse with energy. Williams’s eye is exact; his nerve never fails; his language dazzles. A welcome homecoming to an argosy, not lost, only delayed.’ —Peter Porter

The Ship reaffirms John Hartley Williams as a heroic presence in contemporary poetry, a warrior in language whose weapons are truth and hilarity.’ —Carol Ann Duffy

‘He is one of our most original voices, funny and tender, savage and lyrical all at once. His restlessly international and quirky intelligence goes right to the bone.’ —Ruth Padel

Reviews of this Book

‘Over a long and productive career, John Hartley Williams has always enjoyed launching poems that sail far away from land. The poems that make up The Ship are, it appears, ones that go back to his beginnings, though there's little sense of apprentice work here, let alone dewy-eyed rapture at sexual appetency, even though several poems appear at first blush to be about young love. No blushing for this poet, though. This is Keats reprised through the sensibility of a tongue-in-cheek Rimbaud (say). ‘I was standing in the station listening to/loudspeakers, when her sexy fingers//tickled my back. C' etait le coup de foudre!/A picture of ideological villains we were – la chap with slick chops, a dolly with/blind, straight, hair, speeding in a/coloured motor car to egophilia.’ The decision to end lines with unimportant, casual-raggedy words, the mingling of linguistic registers (slangy idiom, codformality, neologisms, the sudden lurch into French), the cheeky-aggressive discomposing of readerly expectations (‘are you sitting comfortably. Then watch out’ each and every Williams poem seems to imply): these are all trademarks which characterise his later work.’ —John Lucas, Staple

‘There is certainly a more melancholy edge to some of the work here, a sense of ‘inarticulate longing’ more closely associated with a strict romantic sensibility, perhaps, but there is also the absurd humour, the sharp and acrid reek of piracy, as well as those hilarious narrative romps – Who Invited Carstairs? – for example, which are picaresque and swashbuckling to boot. John Hartley Williams is a much underrated poet and this collection of his early writing provides a rich and rewarding read.’ —Steve Spence, Tears in the Fence

Praise for Previous Work

‘If you truly want to write good poems, try the brilliant handbook 'Writing Poetry and Getting Published' by Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams.’ —Ruth Padel, Independent

Blues opens with one of the finest elegies of modern times. Ken Smith, a great friend and fellow poet, to whom it is addressed, had many of the virtues Williams admires and aspires to: a serious playfulness; concern about history and politics; a disdain of fashion; and a determination to keep his language free from the abuse it is habitually subjected to.’ —Paul McLoughlin, Critical Survey

‘JHW, despite having been nominated for major prizes, and for all that collections of his have been PBS Choices and Recommendations, hasn't received the praise and attention he deserves. For his poetry comes at you from any angle. You could no more predict what he will do next – from one collection to another, from one poem to another, than you can know whether or why Cootie Williams will come after Johnny Hodges or Tricky Sam or Harry Carney. About the only thing you can be sure is that whatever he serves up will be well worth reading....

The 9 page poem with which Blues opens is part elegy, part meditation on and part evocation of that singularly gifted poet (Ken Smith), and is so prodigiously accomplished that you feel the poem on its own would be enough for one book. In a short review I can't hope to quote from ‘Fox to Earth’ so as to give any sense of how surpassingly good a poem it is.

’ —John Lucas, Other Poetry