Books: The Sunday Poem - No 20 Hugo Williams

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work

Born in Windsor, Eton- educated, Hugo Williams is the son of an actor. The rueful-shrug aesthetic of his elegantly casual poem belongs with a fiercely-held conviction that poetry should be egalitarian, demotic and natural: he is brilliant at the music of ordinary speech. His work is poignant, understated, witty; deeply against any attitude-striking or elitist allusions. A big theme is the double- edgedness of form: our need for it, the hollowness of it. (One poem about making love has the poet wondering, the moment sex is over, where the line-breaks will go in the poem he'll write about this.) More deeply, the theme is never entirely understanding what happens to you as you grow up, grow old, remember childhood; find love, lose it, worry about it. The poems are smoothly offbeat, but also offhandedly subversive. Six collections, most recently Dock Leaves (with typically elided economic wit, it has a nettle on its cover), shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize; plus a Selected.

Growing up is a major Williams theme. I heard of one class of public schoolboys outraged by his poem "When I Grow Up", which imagines the poet as an old man - who has a tube stuck through his penis and is never told why. "No one should be allowed to write poems like that!" they howled.

This poem is about how impossible it is to live up to your dad; about accepting the limits of a parent's love. The voices belong in a particular social class and era - public-school gentlemanly (see dear boy) in the Second World War. Everything hinges on appearance. The first line is a classical pentameter, the line which ever since Shakespeare has dominated English verse and is all too easy to fall into. Out there at the start, it suggests you may be in for a formal, old-fashioned poem, appropriate to that tie so immaculately judged in colour and form for every occasion, even wartime. But the second and third lines stop all that. Despite the stricture get it right first time, this poem is not going to copy dad's formal mannerisms. It'll make its own rhythms, thanks, for its own outlook on the world. (Or on ties.) The details (smartly plumped, dent, groove, sturdy, rectangular knot) get across dad's obsession with appearance in a way which increasingly suggests the poet's scepticism about it.

The last stanza dramatises this process of distancing. You move from the small boy in his first term, so impressed by dad's advice that he makes friends according to appearance, to a boy old enough to be drunk and question the central fact of dad's appearance. Then the poem hits you with the father's attitude to the boy: his face softened towards me for a moment. You have had two and a half stanzas about that damn tie, about a son learning from dad the formal central glory of being a man. (A tie, of course, is the long symbolic thing dangling in front of a man from the first: first time, first term.) You've had the importance of getting it right the way dad got right this sturdy feature of his own manhood, exactly the same place all his life. Now you realise that the appearance was perfect at the expense of any feeling beneath. The poem enacts the son's distancing, but also shows how the distancing was learnt. Dad used form to distance. That tie was a barrier. Of course the boy learns to make friends with ties, not people.

Dad's face softens only when the boy shows independence of judgement about that omni-present question of style ("I don't like the groove"). That is when he finally calls him dear. The smoking-jacket phrase dear boy sums up what the small boy got; affectation, not affection. In the last line, the boy finally does delight his dad - by disliking what that dad got right and saying no. This is a father you can only please when you stop admiring him.

In a way, this poem itself is a perfectly knotted tie, all line-breaks in exactly the right place for the natural cadences of conversation. Like the tie, it is slightly asymmetrical (the first stanza has five lines, the last two seven - like a tie with a knot at the top and tail below), but beautifully judged. Amused, elegiac, witty, critical and poignant, the poem reflects dad's central lesson of form: ties matter more than people. But it also accepts dad, hurtful as he was. Growing up is making friends with all ties of blood as well as you can, however infrequently their faces soften towards you.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Making Friends with Ties' is taken from Selected Poems (OUP)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine