Ian McMillan's latest collection of poems – completing nearly 30 years in the business – is subtitled "My Life in Verses". The echo of John Betjeman's Summoned By Bells, promoted in 1960 by the same publishing house as a "verse autobiography", is instant. The heart shrinks: all that archaism, all that jollity, the unanswerable question Betjeman poses ("Why is this account... not written in prose?"). Yet Summoned By Bells remains astonishing popular, and had its champions, including George MacBeth.
But McMillan isn't offering anything like that, other than the promise that it's autobiographical, and in poetic form. There are almost no other exponents of poetic memoir, unless you count Michael Rosen's three volumes of prose-poetry. But is that really true? Aren't many poems, or collections of poems, autobiographical, or disguised autobiography? Tony Harrison's sonnets, anyone? Selima Hill's last four collections?
McMillan plays his hand very deftly. He starts with a short prose sketch, which focuses readers on the 47 poems which follow. They're all gentle, offering glimpses, never unsentimental, but never mawkish, of his Yorkshire childhood, his parents, his children, and his life on the road as an offbeat entertainer. Ostensibly, they're chronological, but McMillan, who has a weather eye for what's daft, surreptitiously strays backwards and forwards, goes off at tangents, dwells on absurdities.
The first hint of this comes in a poem about a National Coal Board recruiting film projected in a school cloakroom, on to the coats: "the pitmen moved and shimmered over gaberdines/ And duffels and macs, spare pegs sticking from their snap tins,/ Helmets lighting a scarf". Although the poems here are rarely as downright surreal as in his Carcanet collections, the sense of the sublimely ridiculous is never far off – whether wall-lights in the Sixties or the grim audience who expected heavy metal and got McMillan and friend playing "Stranger On The Shore" on watering cans.
McMillan loves to play. The poems rhyme or unrhyme as the mood takes him, while "Geological Shifts; A Poem that Shifts into Prose as Pieces Fall Off" does just that, beginning with an image of a disintegrating plastic bag and slowly deviating into a prose riff about nicking free pens from hotels. At the core of this apparently innocent poem there is a recognition and acknowledgement of ageing, the incidental way family relationships change. There's also a terrific poem about waiting for a ferry in Scotland, into which colours are insinuated as a busking violinist works the queue.
McMillan's championing of eclectic poetry and prose will be familiar to listeners to his Radio 3 programme, The Verb. But he's undervalued as a writer, rarely if ever making the most noted anthologies. Although he's rightly seen as the country's most tireless campaigner for poetry, his own, subtly strange writing needs fêting. Not that he lacks an audience – he's booked up years ahead, and brings houses down. There's much more to him than that he has always lived near Barnsley. This collection of accessible fragments, some complex, some winsome, should gain many more admirers.
He can seem artless, but isn't; and his life intersects with ours. To get the most out of this "memoir", you'd be wise to buy the CD released by Hachette (£12.99). Better still, see him. His affable, melodious voice transforms his poetry in ways that print can't perfectly capture. Wonderful stuff.