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As If To Sing

Paul Henry
Publication Date: 
Monday, April 11, 2022
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‘A stunning collection. Much of what you’d anticipate to find is here: the lyricism, the haunting evocations of memory, of loss, of absence... and an exploration of song in itself. What makes his poetry so effective is the nuances of white space and the spaces between words... The suggestiveness of his work is incredible.’  – Paul Chambers; The Review Show (BBC Radio Wales)

As If To Sing explores the human condition through the language of music and does so with a mastery of poetics.’ – Isobel Roach; Wales Arts Review

‘Superb economy and control of language is evident in every poem.’ – Caroline Bracken; Nation.Cymru

‘He conveys complex emotions with beauty, economy and power and it’s impossible not to be moved by his writing.’ – Jenny White; The Western Mail.

‘A remarkable exercise in tone – lyrical, profound ... he moves across the whole landscape of life.’ – James Roderick Burns; London Grip 


The power of song, to sustain the human spirit, resonates through As if to Sing. A trapped caver crawls back through songs to the sea; Welsh soldiers pack their hearts into a song on the eve of battle, ‘for safe-keeping’; a child crossing a bridge sings ‘a song with no beginning or end’.... 

Blurring past and present, a ‘torchsong’ of music and light intensifies in The Boys in the Branches, a moving sequence to the poet’s sons where three boys scale a tree to manhood, to ‘carve their names on the late sun’. The collection’s closing cadence includes the long poem The Key to Penllain. Set in the summer of 1969, its apocalyptic dream stages a search for a key which could save the planet. Rich in the musical lyricism admired by readers and fellow poets, As if to Sing is an essential addition to this poet’s compelling body of work.


"He takes his place as one of the most important Welsh poets now writing." Carol Ann Duffy on The Glass Aisle

"This haunting, elegiac collection, about music, and made of music, leaves a reader’s mind full of phrases that catch the heart and lodge in the memory." –  Gillian Clarke on The Glass Aisle

"Paul Henry has much of his compatriot R.S.Thomas's gift, in that poet's later work, for terse, coolly forthright insightfulness." – The TLS 

"Henry is working at the core of lyric poetry, with love and loss and the 'deeper river'." – The Poetry Review


Review by James Roderick Burns, London Grip

Monday, February 6, 2023

Unsurprisingly, Paul Henry’s As if to Sing is a collection marked by images of song, music and sound. On almost every page, it conveys a clear (and evidently lifelong) fascination with life’s musicality – from songbirds, clocks and pattering rain to ticking conversation and even the shape absence of sound leaves behind: a house bubble-wrapped in rain, or “the sound-box of an old guitar” (‘The Key to Penllain’). The imagery of sound runs through the book like Prestatyn through a stick of rock.

As biographical notes underscore, Henry is Welsh, a Welsh speaker and a singer-songwriter as well as a poet. These things might naturally account for the thematic focus of As if to Sing – if it remains permissible to attribute characteristics to a nation, even positive ones! – were it not for the fact that Henry shapes the poems in such a deliberate, subtle manner as to make sound itself the core of the book. It is an active poetic choice, not an accident of birth or employment.

In ‘Return to Newport’, for instance, the poet melds the physical soundscapes of a town with the receptive nature of its inhabitants, before lifting into something more abstract:

     A train scans its freight across the town
     and into the tunnel of ears,
     the tinnitus of a slowly breaking dawn.
     This is how love disappears

A similar blend of the quotidian and abstract – both irreducibly rooted in sound – occurs in the opening of ‘All Souls Lay-by’:

                           We have lived and died in lay-bys,
     queued for Mari’s Snax, for a songbird, affected the heavy stillness of a herd,
     its shuffle towards an imagined border.

Henry is adept at bringing fresh, startling images into every aspect of experience. Perhaps his insistence on this technique – which never feels forced, but rather opens the eyes (or ears) to new perspectives – comes less from a musician’s habitual fondness for his trade, and more from the realisation that unlike visual novelty, where we can choose to see or not to see something in the world, for the most part we cannot choose what comes into our ears. Sound is omnipresent, and must be addressed on its own terms, in both poem and life.

As if to Sing covers a broad range of subjects, from Welsh history and personal history – particularly the long, impressively sustained nine-part ‘Key to Penllain’ – and is at times intensely personal and affecting. The loss of a child, for instance, is depicted through silent images of weightlessness and detachment, with a single whisper at its centre, and worth reproducing in whole:

     It is always the same –
     the traffic lights on red

     and the ghost boy at my side
     whispering Don’t go

     as they turn to green.

     Then a sense of flight

     followed by a fall

     as I cross without him
                                      [‘At the Bridge’]

We feel the silence drifting between these crisp, separated lines, only memory filling it in over and over with a refrain both charming and devastating in its implications.

Again, while many of the poems in the collection engage the world of sound-permeating-life in all its complexity, beauty or mellifluousness, Henry is also alive to the humdrum, even the ridiculous:

     Water trickles down from the field
     and he first warm day of the year
     spins its soundtrack about the house –
     mallards, wood pigeons, cockerels,
     day-shift owls, tone-deaf crows,
     all the hedgerow’s penny whistles …
                                                 [‘Waiting for Steph’]

The poem is a remarkable exercise in tone – lyrical, profound (“everything couples. The sun settles on a silver ring”) and humorous in equal measure, and typical of the volume overall. Henry works principally in the realm of the half-page poem (though ‘Dust O’Clock’ and ‘Cave Songs’, both longer, work extremely well) and across sixty pages, he moves across the whole landscape of life.

His finest achievement, however, appears to me to be the title poem, ‘As If to Sing’, which from the outset captures the melancholy brotherhood of soldiers heading to the front. The lines are clean, minimal even, and set the stage for the experiences of “the Welsh boys, mouths open/as if to sing”. In a moment of anticipation,

     Last night, for safe keeping,
     they packed their hearts
     into a song.

As with Wilfred Owen, or Keith Douglas, the end is implicit in these simple beginnings (and the poetry in the pity):

     So when only one in four parts
     of their harmony
     returned, for roll call,
     the song still held them all.

The whole poem is only eleven lines long, and yet holds true to the overriding theme of the book: life, good and bad, quiet and pedestrian or stretched to extremes through stress and grief, resonates with sound. Sound forms and surrounds us, seeps through us, marks us out and hems us in, charming and disturbing in equal parts. It is underlined by the climax of another poem, ‘Red Moped, Powys’, which finds another sort of unifying image in all the potential of youth – wasted in war – lying untapped inside the homeliest of battered objects:

     And which of us wrote it off
     on wet leaves matters less today
     than our going halves on repairs

     or that each kept a wheel, for a harp.

Review by Sheenah Pugh, Live Journal

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

 says the metronome

Two words I’ve used before in reviews of Henry’s work, “fugue” and “elegiac”, are becoming ever more appropriate. He has always used recurring themes and images in a fugue-like way, and the more he does it, the more they resonate. And of course, the more life one has to look back on, the more elegiac one’s poems are liable to become.  Certainly this collection is pervaded by a sense not just of time passing but of mortality.

The collection is in three parts. The first, As If To Sing, is indeed very music-centred, and though the wider world makes an appearance in poems like “Tauseef Akhtar’s Harmonium” and the title poem, which references the Great War, this section is mostly haunted by the poet’s own past.  It contains “The Well of Song”, in which the poet, listening to a woman’s voice (very possibly his mother’s) on a gramophone record, observes

    The needle works towards
    the hole time slips through.

Even more conscious of the passing of time is “Last Move”, with its image, like a dream or fantasy, of lost parents:

    It is too cold to stop and talk.
    Their mournful steps leave no prints.
    My mother smiles at my greying hair,
    half-raises a gloved hand.
    Songs hibernate inside her.
    We may not pass like this again. 

The effectiveness with which he uses heavily end-stopped lines here is typical of this collection’s concern for technique. There is a line in the second section:

    Your cot a tight fit in the white Fiat (“The New Tenant”)

which is a positive Persian carpet of sound patterns and might, at first sight, look like a tongue-twister – but say it out loud and it flows musically off the tongue without a hitch. Part of it is his feeling for rhythm, which is faultless and much to the fore in a couple of ballad-style poems from the second section, “The Boys in the Branches”:

    Your weekly gift, these minutes
    alone, that pass into years,
    a small park’s blinding light,
    and you not waiting there. (“The Winter Park”)

As usual, though, you have to look for the technique; it doesn’t advertise itself like that of some poets who like to leave the scaffolding up.  Henry tends to make it look easy, though if you try to emulate him, you will soon find it isn’t. Phrase after phrase, in his poems, sounds right, without it being all that obvious why:

    a flock of cellos settled
    on the saltmarsh
    and remembered us

    to the sea’s applause (Cave Songs)

or the end of his Mari Llwyd poem for New Year:

    and the bells in the valley hold their tongues
    and the ghostly snow horses thaw
    and the mice bed down in the walls. (Dust o’clock)

He seems, in this collection, to be getting ever more spare in his utterance: Catrin Sands, a figure familiar from earlier collections, is “Cat” here, and the contraction feels appropriate in a collection where passing allusions like “three conifers” recall whole poems from elsewhere. In fact, if you are new to Henry’s work, don’t beginwith this one, because many motifs, images, even individual words, in it will resonate more if you already know them from his earlier work. If on the other hand you are already acquainted with Penllain, Brown Helen, three trees, a haircut, Newport and many other old friends, go ahead and enjoy both the craftsmanship and the nostalgia. Its final poem in English (there is a brief coda in Welsh) is “Cei Newydd”, which brings us back to mortality:

   We drifted out one afternoon
   on a dinghy’s water-bed,

   woke to no sight of the shore.
   We had not been born.

   A panic of oars
   scratched the wilderness

   and the harbour came back to us,
   our mothers on the pier.

   The salt on the fishing nets
   tasted the same.

   Soon, Brown Helen,
   we shall drift out again.

Review by Caroline Bracken, Nation.Cymru

Saturday, June 11, 2022

‘As If To Sing’ is Paul Henry’s eleventh collection.

Of course, there is song and music throughout, no more so than in the title poem, a devastating 11-line tribute to Welsh soldiers at war and the power of song to hold them together even after some comrades have fallen:

‘Their glassy dreams lined the front
and sometimes caught the sun,
the Welsh boys, mouths open
as if to sing.

For me though, this collection is about listening, a theme that echoes throughout the book from beginning to end.

‘Answering church bells in the dark/ a clock that hasn’t talked for years’ (Dust o’clock) and ‘Speak into my good ear./ The house is bubble-wrapped/ with rain. It’s late.’ (Somniloquy) and in ‘Bridge 120’ a lovely nod to William Carlos Williams without overdoing it:

‘Glazed with rain its crypt
already hears your ghost
when you call or stamp
on leaves, a girder’s rust.

This superb economy and control of language is evident in every poem. Love is another theme in the collection, parental, filial, romantic, love of friends and place:

‘They swapped a promenade for this lane,
my parents, who cling to each other
for ballast, against an arctic wind.’ (Last Move) and in ‘Cei Newydd’

‘A panic of oars
scratched the wilderness

and the harbour came back to us,
our mothers on the pier.’

It is testament to Paul Henry’s experience and expertise that he creates his poems in such a skilled manner that they can be read in numerous ways and mean something different to each reader and at each reading you find something more than you found previously.

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