SHORTLISTED FOR THE T.S ELIOT PRIZE 2010
Read an interview with John Haynes on the Cyprus Well website www.cypruswell.com
You is the new book-length long poem by Costa-Award winning poet, John Haynes. The ‘You’ of the title is the narrator’s partner, wife of many years and the book is not just a celebration of and meditation on,personal love and devotion, but a record of how such love moves out of a family and is refracted out into the community and the wider world. The tensions inherent in this are compounded by the cross-cultural nature of the union. The narrator is a white British man and his wife was born and raised in Nigeria. Exploring a partnership based on culturally quite different – and in some aspects painfully incompatible - conceptions of ‘love’, the poem is knit together by philosophical theme of ‘I’ and ‘you’ seen from many perspectives.
The Nigeria where the couple met is re-created with great sensitivity. Amidst the joy of their early love, we meet a number of characters in the African extended family and village and trace the early mission education of ‘You’, the death of her father, her family’s strongly felt Christianity. The narrator observes and embraces both the harsh facts and the undeniable beauty of the northern Nigerian setting. A ‘new’ life in Britain offers its own contrasts and problems: exposure to racism, unfamiliar customs, homesickness, cold weather. The bringing up of children in a strange culture adds another thread of complexity to the theme of love.
Much love poetry is based in the threat to that love, and in this long poem it is a threat that arises from the potential for misunderstanding posed by two kinds of love, one derived from ‘romantic’ courtly love, the other from communal values of the homestead, the hoe and the cooking fire. Written in an adaptation of a traditional ‘Rhyme Royal’ stanza used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Auden and Yeats, Haynes nevertheless writes in beautifully clear English vernacular and this poem, set out in sections of three stanzas, flows unbroken from beginning to end.
Listen to John Haynes read the beginning of his long poem, ‘You’: