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Way More Than Luck

Ben Wilkinson
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
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Way More Than Luck is the vivid debut collection from the well-known young poet and critic Ben Wilkinson. The book opens with a series of poems that, with a remarkable clarity and sympathy, recall a battle with clinical depression: the “days when you weren’t anyone. Days gone undercover...”. The author interrogates this malady: “two-parts sadness, one-part anger”, grapples to understand that its sources are both personal and cultural. It soon emerges that competitive running, which possibly starts as therapy, a means of combat, becomes a way of life, not just for fitness but for the long-haul, for endurance. The poet finds a still, calm centre: “Running is the pure solitude of a wordless hour.”

The collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to the legends of Liverpool Football Club. With characteristic self-deprecation Wilkinson calls this section ‘An Ordinary Game’ and kicks things off with the Bill Shankly quote: “What a great day for football. All we need is some green grass and a ball.” In various inventive forms that echo the characters they celebrate or decry, the author finds in football an apt field for human display. Bruce Grobbelaar shoots a ball straight at the ref’s face; old-school Billy Liddell still inspires hymns in the stands; Stevie Gerrard is the soul of “grit”; the “dancing shadow”of John Barnes endures racism: “dark slurs circle the stands”; Fernando Torres is a latter-day Icarus. These poems recapture both the childish wonder of the young fan and the die-hard faith of adult fans undefeated by cynicism or rain.

The final section, ‘An Absurd Pastime’, contains more occasional poems, about the writing life, both the graft of the craft and the petty indignities of performance as in ‘You Must Be Joking’ where a comedian must, by the brutal trial and error of stand-up, discover the means to laughter. Here, there are also poems about dreams, fraught with strange vertigo. There are also a number of tenderly hesitant love poems. There is an enjoyably vicious satire of the anodyne non-promises of a conservative party speech. Most notably, many poems in this collection are in artfully invisible poetic forms. Their rhymes and repetitions are wonderfully woven to suit content and expression. Way More Than Luck is a beautifully serious debut by a more-than-promising young author, Ben Wilkinson.



Review by Martyn Crucefix

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

During lockdown there has been a proliferation of on-line poetry readings and launches and most of those I have attended have been very successful. I had to teach my (well educated) daughter the meaning of ‘necessity being the mother of invention’ the other day and the poetry world is not the only one learning new ways to do old things. My publisher, Seren Books, has been particularly active in this area, recently staging the launch of Katrina Naomi’s new collection, Wild Persistence and running a mini festival, their Stay-At -Home series. It was during this series of events that I heard Ben Wilkinson read from his 2018 collection, Way More Than LuckAs part of his own reading, Wilkinson also read Louise MacNeice’s ‘Wolves’: “Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle, /Join hands…”

I’m not proud to admit that Way More Than Luck passed me by when it was first published. As you are probably aware, Wilkinson reviews poetry regularly for The Guardian, and he’s very familiar on social media as a poet and critic, a distance runner and a passionate Liverpool football fan. But the book’s cover (Dalglish, I think), its title and some of the publicity persuaded me that the football bit was going to be predominant. It’s certainly an almost unique aspect of the collection, but it turns out the debilitating darkness of psychological depression is an even more significant one. Wilkinson signals this concern via the book’s two epigraphs. One is about the nature of depression by Matt Haig and a second by John Hanc links challenging physical activities with mental strength, with “state of mind”. And the opening poem immediately suggests the un-put-downable burden of depression for those who struggle with it, while ‘Days’ obsessively lists multiple occasions blighted by it. Both poems use repetition as a device to evoke the persistent nature of depressive episodes, while ‘Pal’ uses that plus personification to convey its haunting, abusive nature:


Next time you’re trying to stand your ground –

argue your case, sprint the home straight,

stare yourself down in the mirror at eight –

he’ll be there alright. His smile is a frown.

His frown is a scowl. His scowl is the fear

you hoped was long gone. Still here. Still here.


Louis MacNeice

Wilkinson’s admiration for MacNeice can be heard in the vigorous syntax here, the use of form and rhyme and his liking for repetition perhaps reflects something of the 1930s poet’s “controlled flamboyance of diction”. Even more successfully, ‘Hound’ treats depression as a beast (an idea famously and perhaps erroneously linked with Winston Churchill):


Know it’s no dog but a phantom,

fur so dark it gives back nothing,

see your hand pass through


its come-and-go presence,

air of self-satisfied deception,

just as the future bursts in on

the present, its big I am, and that

sulking hound goes to ground again.


Troubling dreams feature in two powerful poems. ‘The Nightmare’ is all the more frightening in remaining aware of the real-life episode the dream is based on. A long drive, “to Newby, Lawkland, Cleatop”, is transmuted as the car shudders, the windscreen warps, roadside trees shrivel and the narrator’s companion is suddenly “nowhere to be found”. ‘Stag’ rehearses something similar – the real animal, “on the bypass that night – / antlers like a winter oak”, is, in the dreamed version, pursued vainly across a landscape, seemingly in hope that some secret communication might be recovered from “those cavernous eyes”.

David Foster Wallace

Perhaps the best poem in the book, ‘To David Foster Wallace’, is addressed to the American writer who himself struggled with depression and alcoholism. Wilkinson’s poem takes up a wholly convincing, chatty, MacNeicean tone to discuss – frankly – the experience of despair, “the unpindownable feeling / of hopelessness, hard frustration”. The poem itself declares it takes “courage” to appear weak and it certainly takes courage to write as nakedly as this. Of course, all lyric poetry is to some degree “dramatic”, but there seems a strong autobiographical element to this poem (and others). The poem ends with the narrator explaining that there are occasions, while out running (“my breath dogged on the fellside”), when he experiences something of “peace”, something of psychological relief. Wilkinson’s book title turns out to be not an allusion to a Fernando Torres wonder goal, but what the struggling narrator is left hoping for from David Foster Wallace, even from beyond the grave: “Wish me way more than luck”.

For me, it’s these psychological truths that Wilkinson is so good at conveying. There are other poems later in the book (and perhaps ‘Stag’ is an elusive example) which begin to sketch episodes of a foundering romantic relationship and ‘Building a Brighter, More Secure Future’ is a very effective excursion into witty political satire (a skilfully handled sestina based on the Conservative Party election manifesto, 2015). And there are the football poems. They comprise the central sequence of 14 poems, introduced with a heart-felt Prologue that says what follows is for the ordinary football fans, written out of “a love beyond the smear campaigns, / the media’s hooligans”. A large part of what Wilkinson has in mind here is the shocking response in parts of the media to the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, when 96 men, women and children died (David Cain’s Forward prize shortlisted book, Truth Street, from Smokestack Books, movingly dealt with this event and the media and policing responses and I reviewed it last summer). Wilkinson obliquely refers to the occasion in ‘Kenny Dalglish’ and several poems have worthwhile things to say about racism in the game (‘John Barnes’) and how the game can offer an escape route for working class boys (‘Billy Liddell’ and ‘Steven Gerrard’).

But the poems also show how difficult it is to escape the miasma of cliché that seems to engulf football itself. Anfield is filled with a “fabled buzz”, then “the place erupt[s]”. Barnes unleashes a “a sweeping, goal-bound ball”, and a particular game offers one “last-ditch twist”. I’m reminded of Louis MacNeice’s observation (now sadly compromised in various ways, but the spirit of it remains valid, I think) that he wanted a poet not to be “too esoteric. I would have a poet able-bodied [sic], fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women [sic], involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions’. There are many more of these poets around these days and to bring (even) football into the purview of poetry can hardly be a bad thing. Yet it is not an easy one and there may be some risks in deciding to headline the attempt. Ian Duhig’s blurb note to Way More Than Luck has gingerly to negotiate this issue: “The beautiful game inspires some beautiful poems in Ben Wilkinson’s terrific debut collection … but there’s far more than football to focus on here”. Yes, indeed.

Review by Jade Cuttle, The Poetry Review

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ben Wilkinson’s debut collection, Way More Than Luck, is divided into three parts: ‘Way More Than Luck’, ‘An Ordinary Game’ and ‘An Absurd Pastime’. The legacy of Liverpool Football Club stands proudly at its core, explored through entertaining verse and vivid character portraits, with thrilling stories of theatrical penalty saves and sly goal-line tactics, match-fixing and fame turned sour to share.
        It’s clear that the love of the game extends to Wilkinson’s poetics, for he embraces a variety of forms and modes of address. From formally dexterous sonnets and sestinas, to epistles and endearing confessionalism, this is a book that likes to keep the reader on their toes. This is especially the case in ‘Building A Brighter, More Secure Future’ when the poet spins the Conservative Party election manifesto slogan of 2015 into witty political satire. “This is a brighter // future, we promise, it is much brighter / than a concept like equality [...] What we promise is a secure future / and this will be true, for some”, he attests in a quietly sardonic tone.
        In ‘An Ordinary Game’, Wilkinson dedicates himself to eulogising the kids stood on each other’s shoulders, the lads at trials who’ll never make the cut, the single dads cheering with their daughters. “This is for the beautiful game.” But as Wilkinson celebrates his lifelong passion for football, not all the poems can avoid the pitfalls of romanticism, rendered all the more problematic because of certain rhyming couplets. “Practise makes perfect: can’t argue with it. / It’s easier to keep on than quit. // It eats up every minute of every day. / We all know what it is I’m trying to say” (‘An Absurd Pastime’). The pedestrian execution of such phrases, that actively endorse cliché with threadbare conviction, seems a shame when pitted against the more sensitive, skilful poems of the collection.
        Something Wilkinson does well is navigate the dark abyss of clinical depression, in a less roundabout, more relatable fashion. From “going about / the tedium that strings our lives / together: paperchain people, / baskets lined under strip-lights” (‘To David Foster Wallace’), to shivering over a beige Cornish pasty, “ticking over / before some godforsaken motorway service station” (‘You Must Be Joking’), there is a tenderness an touching honesty to be found in the darker moments he describes.
        For this reason the collection’s title, Way More Than Luck, is apt, for its scope reaches way beyond the boundaries of the football pitch and the fabled buzz of excitement, which rather serves as a backdrop against which the poet can stand and inspect the state of his own thumping heart.



Review by Dave Morgan, WriteOutLoud

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

I found Ben Wilkinson’s work, as represented in this collection from Seren, direct but nuanced.  The poems are well crafted in a range of forms. The three sections of the book have distinct themes. The first section, which gives the book its title, dwells on the writer’s depression and charts the accompanying self-deprecating despair. This is a brave project and articulates an unsentimental journey redeemed through serious running. In ‘Where I Run From’, referencing Murakami’s paean to the discipline, he clearly articulates its importance:


     Running is not the tough guys stance. It’s you

     versus you, the you you used to be, before you

     realised that pain is certain, but sorrow is a choice.


Wilkinson hints broadly at not just where he runs from, but what he is running from. In a reminiscence of childhood Sunday mornings where his father disappears each Sunday leaving mum in bed, children watching the TV, he imagines him “dancing over tree roots, trails in the cold morning light” and concludes


     Then I’d know why I lace up

     Before the day’s begun

     In slate rain and deepest dark,

     To get gone before anyone

     Can hold me back.

                              (‘Sundays too my Dad got up early’)


In ‘To David Foster Wallace’, whose work I was unfamiliar with, Ben Wilkinson offers a lengthy and tortured epistle to a fellow sufferer. Strong lines abound:


     the constant gnawing sense of having

     Had and lost some infinite thing


     - my chest

     bumps like a dryer with shoes in it


     We’re all utterly alone, but we’re

     Utterly alone in this together.


Glimmers of salvation shine through. Sharing may be part of the answer but it’s an individual battle needing individual response. The black ‘Hound’ that haunts you, follows you around, pretends to be a faithful pet, needs to be tethered to a lamppost without guilt to stop it taking without giving.

And there is ‘Some Relief’, “relief in coming down; relief in standing on the fell after rainfall, looking down at the town, the houses, your house, smaller than you imagined, everything somehow more manageable for now.” Wilkinson crosses that ‘men and feelings’ boundary with knobs on. To dwell on and share an insight into a nightmare world, the poems made all the more vivid by their very northern sense of place, is a considerable feat.

The second section, ‘An Ordinary Game’, is a collection of football-related poems. Very apposite in July 2018, but all focused around Wilkinson’s adopted football team, Liverpool. They are enchanting and uplifting. Soaring above the obvious in some cases and restating it bluntly in others, they really do make a case for the beautiful game and its role in forging identity, creating popular heroes, and sustaining myth. Poems on John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish are about things that matter much more than football, although the lovely Bill Shankly tribute, a collection of his aphorisms, does include that one which suggests the opposite.

Part three, ‘An Absurd Pastime’, is about life. Life as an absurd obstacle course of imperfection, where we constantly try to improve our performance, and invariably end up repeating the same mistakes. Among the reflections on failing relationships, lost moments, transient landscapes, one poem stands out as overtly political. ‘Building A Brighter, More Secure Future’ (Conservative Party Manifesto 2015) is a cut-up of familiar slogans that no doubt we will soon hear again. And no doubt, despite their apparent absurdity, we will again buy into them:


     This is our future. What we have is a

     mandate to fulfil, building a Britain more

     secure. And for us, it will be brighter.


Way More Than Luck is a mixed bag. Many of the poems included are award winners and it’s not hard to see why. Ben Wilkinson’s poems at their best and bravest create a link between a troubled inner world and an outer world, urban or rural, that can mirror, kindle or exorcise it.

Review by Matthew Stewart, Rogue Strands

Sunday, June 17, 2018
A lot of so-called socially aware poetry falls into the trap of reflecting stereotypes, clichés and a sense of outsiders looking in. In fact, a more personal type of poetry is often more adept at capturing a snapshot of a society at a certain moment. Ben Wilkinson’s first full collection, Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018), is a perfect example.
Wilkinson might explicitly be writing about an individual’s experiences in Way More Than Luck, but he’s implicitly portraying the society that surrounds and affects the individual in question. Let’s look at a number of pieces from the book.
First of all, there’s contemporary U.K. society’s expectations, doubts and demands regarding the role of a young heterosexual male. Wilkinson begins by homing in on depression, as in “Pal”:
“…he’ll be there alright. His smile is a frown.
His frown is a scowl. His scowl is the fear
you hoped was long gone. Still here. Still here.”
The very title of this poem, and by extension the naming of its beast, is traditionally masculine. The poet is thus not only facing down depression but society’s view of how a man with a pal should act, turning the definition of a “pal” on its head.
And then there’s the use of football in poetry, male roles implicit once more, as is the mapping of wider social history alongside the histories of countless families and lives, all filtered through an individual’s perspective. One such example invokes and evokes a child’s first visit to Liverpool F.C. in “This is Anfield”:
“…I still remember it like that: the luminous pitch,
echo of the terraces, players floodlit
beneath an October sky. An ordinary game,
solid win, save for one kid looking on in wonder.”
This stanza, which brings the poem to a close, is an illustration of Wilkinson’s deft use of line endings and sentence structures, first panning out across the stadium before homing in on the eyes of “one kid”. At this point, the reader is reminded that the scene forms part of a person's story.
As the collection moves on, so there are poems with clear political overtones, such as “Building a Brighter, More Secure Future” or pieces that set out to describe a set of physical surroundings with social connotations, as in Byroads, which mentions “hanging baskets…the pub’s carpark…the village shop…the borderline/where post boxes change from red to green…hillside housing estates…”.
However, once again, the most affecting poems, those with most powerful social ramifications, are personal in nature. “The Argument” is an excellent piece in this respect. Its final stanza reads as follows:
“…And it isn’t that they won’t come though this, but what
the house alone, insidious, is able to articulate. Half-empty
cups on a table. A dust-thick windowsill. A washer spinning
through its final cycle, like a HGV thundering downhill.”
The poem in question is taking a specific couple’s argument and layering it with their context. The roles of the man and woman are clearly no longer those that traditional society assigned, while this final stanza also undermines itself on purpose. It starts by stating that only the house itself, internally, can find the right words, while it ends by reaching out beyond the humdrum washer (who put it on?!) to an external and extremely contemporary element, the HGV. The poet’s choice of simile is shocking and mirrors a “thundering” threat.
Ben Wilkinson’s first full collection is of the moment. It succeeds in capturing the here-and-now of society via personal involvement instead of rhetorical soapboxes. As a consequence, Way More Than Luck will resonate for years to come.

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