Jonathan Edwards’ “Gen”: A Human Comedy

It’s hard to find a funny poet – it seems that the vast majority of us are doomed to sit around bemoaning the sad state of the world as it is/was/always will be. It’s even harder to find someone who can be funny without being either superficial or depressing. But somehow, despite the many ways the world has changed for the worse in the four years since My Family and Other Superheroes, Jonathan Edwards has done it: he’s got me laughing again.

It was always going to be tough following up on the success of the Costa Award winning My Family and Other Superheroes. Second Novel Syndrome is up there as one of the most common excuses for writers spending so much time scrolling through Twitter instead of, say, writing – second only to the ever present ‘writer’s block’. Turns out there’s a simple solution to both: as Edwards puts it in his opening poem, ‘get up off your arse boy and begin’ (“Sing Song Spring Song”). And with that we do – begin, that is.

The first part of Gen focuses on family. While family stories were evidently a key portion of My Family, these fresh offerings go further. Family members are presented in their youth: a grandfather as a teenager, mother and father as children stealing sweets. As he posits in the eponymous “Gen”, each of us is or has been one of those ‘youths’: ‘they’re me, they’re you, but slightly cooler”.  Sometimes they are the centre of their own stories; sometimes they’re on the edges of greater, historical moments and figures – Houdini, Kurt Cobain, the Olympics. They’re the people in the corners in photographs, looking in at history as it’s being made, knowing that ‘one day this moment, now, will be in retro’ (“Olympic 100m, Final, Seoul”). Edwards is holding up a photo-album, a home video, and pointing for us, telling us to look here, look there, see how the young have always been there. We’ve all been young, even if some of us haven’t been old yet.

Gen goes on to focus on these kinds of bystanders in the second part, though more broadly – first outside the family, then outside humanity. The anthropomorphic poems in this second part, alongside the physical structures and cities of the third part, are where Edwards’s mastery really shines through. Anthropomorphism is too often used by poets as fables, taking issues of morality head on. In Gen, animals are humanised by drawing comparisons between their lives and those of modern humans. References to marketing and USPs, boredom and jests play off of earlier references to the chrysalis and to the runts of litters. Humans and animals are tied together by the way they reflect back modern life, the way that both are presented as bystanders in the wings: ‘it’s then that I see what all this is about / the you beneath the surface, trapped inside, / the me that’s in you, trying to get out’ (“Giraffe). Anthropomorphism could come across as lazy, but Edwards writes for a modern audience, revitalising the form and breathing fresh thoughts into the practice of poetry.

While the third section is rooted in the places and common people in Wales, the fourth and final section takes a step out. No more little stories of specific instances, specific people. These last poems are broad, vaguer, with characters we’re familiar with: a girl in a coffee shop, a couple snogging against a pub, the start and stop of a new love. These are sweeter poems. Edwards’s trademark humour continues to shine through, but the background voice that’s been present throughout, the one telling us to look here and there, becomes louder. It takes the time now to tell lessons, though is willing to admit when it doesn’t know the answer. The poem “When I’m Gone” stands out particularly here. It tells a loved one not to pine when you’re gone, not to waste time over someone who’s not here anymore, but ultimately lands on a killer line that asks whether this lesson even needs to be taught. It echoes through your mind long after you’ve closed the book, more so than any of the many other stellar poems in the collection, and it’s notable that this poem is potentially the saddest. This kind of landing is only possible in the context of the wider collection: the jests are done, the jokes have been used up. Life is made of ups and downs – it stands to reason that a collection that covers lives, generations, should be too.

Individually, the poems of Gen are what we’ve come to expect from Jonathan Edwards: funny, smart, warm. A little taste of home, even for those of us who didn’t grow up in Wales, and a splash of nostalgia thrown in for good measure. But as a collection, Gen is stunning: it scopes out the hilarity of our small world and comforts us through the tragedies of it. It’s the human story told not as an epic tale but as a tale told from father to child, passing through the minds and pens of generations. It’s a comfort; a hug; a cwtch, even.

by Zoë Wells

Gen was released November 1st. Available for order online.

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