As well as radio poems, Farley has written radio plays, and says: “I love the medium. You can appeal to the ear and the mind’s eye and the imagination using voices and a bare minimum of effects and music, and I just find it utterly exciting when you go into the studio and start to hear your play being put together.”
Paul Farley often experiments with free verse but also works with more traditional forms such as sonnets and sestinas and has been likened to Larkin in his methods of fusing the demotic with loftier language and imagery: “the ghost of Larkin presides in a surprisingly benign manner over his work” (Andrew Nielson, in Magma).
Farley is a poet who has the ability to turn the everyday into the apocalyptic, as we find ourselves inside the belly of a Liverpool raincloud in ‘The Front’ (Tramp in Flames); and as he talks of a newsagent’s encounter with morning light in his poem of the same name: “Ten thousand unseen dawns will settle softly on this one.” Farley offers a glimpse into the lives of those “who claim to hear the distant roar/ of comets on the turn” in ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’ (also from Tramp in Flames).
In his second collection, Ice Age, the poem, ‘11th February 1963’, sees London “held inside a glacier”, an eerie and fateful date in history that marks both the date of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and the day the Beatles recorded their iconic ‘Twist and Shout’. Farley is acutely aware of the vastness of the universe, of both the controlled and the earth-shatteringly unpredictable events that leave the reader with this reality thundering in their ears.
Farley also often plays the part of a detective, investigating the origin of Manchester’s water supply, stalking its reservoir at night, “a spring underfoot made up / of a billion needles and cones that carpet the floor / and a criss-cross of roots that keep the earth in its place” (‘Civic’). In his epic poem, ‘Ports’ (from Field Recordings), Farley documents the lives of three port cities, past, present, and future, personifying the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of Carthage, Liverpool and Rotterdam.
In his poetry, ancestry, time and memory are stitched into the fabric of the earth. Farley’s birth city, Liverpool, features heavily as a place with a dream-like quality. He has spoken in the past of “a Liverpool of the mind” and many of his poems, especially in his collection, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You, take us on a tour of the set of Paradise Street, of Pier Head, of “Williamson Square in the rain” or to the panorama of the three graces.
These poems are steeped in history, highlighting Liverpool’s triumphs and disgraces, love and loss, as its population diminished during the decline of industry. The poem ‘Treacle’ (The Boy From the Chemist is Here to See You) takes this product from the Tate and Lyle factory – suppliers of Liverpool industry as well as the Tate art galleries – and explores it as history itself, the glue that binds together the city’s buildings and communities, but also hints at its darker past and its part in the slave trade.
Tramp in Flames finishes with ‘I Ran All the Way Home’, a poem written after Joe Brainard’s iconic memoir ‘I Remember’. It is a montage of snapshots from a Liverpool lad’s childhood to Farley’s own journey away from the city to a career as one of the UK’s most important poets:
I remember my first night in London. It was a shared room
in a hostel in Knightsbridge, and somebody had carved
stumbled into town into the headboard
Farley has been described as a ‘cross-cultural’ poet, with a cinematic current running through many of his poems, selecting childhood memories, snapshots of Liverpool, and presenting them to the reader through a filmmaker’s eye. “It’s clear I love the footage of the past”, he says.
The poem ‘The Front’, was written as a tribute to the opening scene of Terence Davies’ film, Distant Voices, Still Lives. Other poems such as ‘The Lapse’ present a montage of childhood cinematic snapshots from Jason and the Argonauts to Ursula Andress in She. Farley’s study of Distant Voices, Still Lives was published in the British Film Institute’s ‘Modern Classics’ series in 2006, responding to Davies’ film about a Catholic working-class family.
Mark Haddon, writing for the Guardian, has said that Paul Farley’s poems contain “lines that will stick with you for a really really long time”. They are poems that can chill you to the core (see ‘Tramp in Flames’), make you laugh out loud (see ‘For St Jerome’), that crackle like electricity on the silver screen:
. . . and their hairs stand on end to a shimmer of leaves
or the movement of clouds, and the way that the tense
has been thrown like a switch, where the land turns
to dreams . . .
(from ‘Electricity’, in The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You)
Farley’s first work of non-fiction is out later in 2010: Edgelands – Journeys into England’s Last Wilderness, was written with Michael Symmons Roberts and won the 2008 Jerwood Prize for Non-Fiction. “The idea behind Edgelands was a response to the array of rural landscape books currently lining bookshop shelves,” Farley has explained. “Michael and I wanted instead to write about the forgotten areas of our country, the overlooked places on the outskirts of towns that planners refer to as ‘edgelands’, full of business parks, rubbish tips, scrap yards and storage depots. We want to explore and celebrate them.”
Born in Liverpool in 1965, Paul Farley has been described as, “one of our most vital and engaging voices,” (W.N. Herbert). His poetry career took off in 1998, when he won the Poetry Review’s award for debut poets, the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. His first collection, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), swiftly followed, winning the Forward Poetry Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, and shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award.
Continuing his unbroken run of prize-winners, Farley published his second collection, The Ice Age, in 2002, which then went on to win the Whitbread Poetry Award, was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and was a Poetry Book Society Choice. Several poems in The Ice Age are influenced by his time as writer in residence at Dove Cottage, the home of Romantic poet William Wordsworth in the Lake District. The Poetry Book Society named him as one of their Next Generation poets in 2004. ‘Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second’ won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Single Poem and his 2006 collection, Tramp in Flames, was shortlisted for the 2007 International Griffin Poetry Prize. In 2009, Farley’s poem ‘Moles’, first published in Poetry Review, was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem).
Farley has edited a selection of work by John Clare in Faber’s Poet to Poet series (2007). He is currently Professor of Poetry at the University of Lancaster.
Poems reproduced by kind permission of Picador and Donut Press.
The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You, Picador, London, 1998
The Ice Age, Picador, London, 2002
Distant Voices, Still Lives, BFI Publishing, London, 2006
Tramp in Flames, Picador, London, 2006
John Clare (Poet to Poet), editor, Faber and Faber, London, 2007
Paul Farley – Field Recordings: BBC Poems (1998-2008), Donut Press, London, 2009
Edgelands: Journeys into England’s Last Wilderness (with Michael Symmons Roberts), Cape, London, 2010
Paul Farley’s poems for radio are published in the volume Field Recordings, published by Donut Press.
Paul Farley’s other work is published mainly by Picador .
Listen to Paul Farley read ‘Treacle’ and other poems at The Poetry Archive.
Watch Liverpool Disappear for a Billionth of a Second