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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)