Paul Spalding-Mulcock, Features Writer

Interview With Chris M. L. Burleigh

Chris M. L. Burleigh
Chris M. L. Burleigh
Poetry, like any form of literature speaks to us through many voices, its polyphonic diversity made all the more potent by dint of its refusal to be corralled, or reductively diminished by banal literary conventions. As such, poets are seldom psychocentric, often seeking to express their idiosyncratic responses to life unfettered by prescriptivism. The quintessence of resonant, satisfyingly nuanced poetry owes more to authenticity of voice, than to intellectually finessed legerdemain, or technical bravura.

If we are to harvest all that poetry as a form of language has to offer, we must allow those who create it to garb their thoughts however they see fit, unmolested by supercilious censure. With this thought in mind, I like to keep my poetry shelves brimming with venerated masters, cordially rubbing shoulders with the works of those best described as less well known.

Chris M.L. Burleigh is a poet with a distinctive and refreshingly light-hearted voice expressed through his viscerally nuanced and at times acutely perspicacious work. I recently read the first volume of his early poems, Particles Of Light, a self-published collection, which also includes pugnacious puns, witty word play and epigrammatical offerings with a sting in the tail. I followed this up with his latest collection, Intersecting Lines, published by Beercott Books.

Burleigh’s work put me in mind of Philip Larkin’s words, ‘Poetry should begin with emotion in the poet, and end with the same emotion in the reader. The poem is simply the instrument of transference’. W.H. Auden also seems apposite: ‘Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings’. Burleigh is an interesting voice adding a quirky, sardonic note to the poetic choir he seeks to enrich with his own brand of song:

‘On the face of it, my background is completely bland and boring – 3 years reading Eng. Lit. at Cardiff, marriage, mortgage, children, career. But always a free-thinker…today I find myself at odds with Western culture and secular surroundings. I see beauty, pattern, and order in a created world. I need the metaphysical as well as the rational, to make sense of the universe. I retain a sense of something bigger than ourselves. The titles I have chosen for my collections reflect my fascination with the poetry at the core of the physical universe’.

I wanted to understand Burleigh’s fascination with words, his poetry the product of a mind enchanted by the plasticity of language: ‘From my first awakening to popular music, it was the words of the Beatles, Stones, and the Sixties generation, that interested me, rather than the music. It was in my later teens, studying for ‘A’ levels, that I first felt motivated to write my own poetry.’

‘I have some of those early efforts still and they are both embarrassing, and in their way, quite impressive. Youthful creativity is wonderfully uninhibited. Subject and style take a long time to develop. I have been writing all my life, since those first attempts’.

No poet is an island, or so the cannibalised aphorism goes. So which poets fed Burleigh’s nascent talent and nourish him still ?

‘I enjoy most poetry, but I would select Shakespeare and G.M. Hopkins as my favourites. Shakespeare’s power and his scope are just staggering, the sonnets are unbelievably skilfully executed, his sentiments are sublime’.

‘Hopkins writes like no other poet. He is original and unique. I could not claim that my writing reflects much of Shakespeare’s genius, but anyone reading my poetry couldn’t fail to see Hopkins’ influence in my multiple stressed lines, the alliteration, and the hyphenated compound images. I have my own authentic voice, my style is original, though you may hear echoes of Shakespeare, Hopkins, Lawrence, Larkin, Betjeman, Carroll, Milne, or Milligan’.

Asking a poet to articulate the essence of their meaning is almost as unrewarding as trying to feel Bach by reading the notes garlanding his orchestral score. Yet, Burleigh’s response did illume his work for me:

‘My poetry is the poetry of the everyday. I try to celebrate Life and to capture my response to how I experience the World whether that is a view, a situation, or a person. My poetry reflects my interest in people, love, the natural world, and the human condition’.

‘Life is serious, but is not to be lived too seriously. Though serious, it is full of joy and fun. As all good poetry should, I try to show the familiar in unfamiliar ways, giving the reader fresh insights into the experiences we all share. Our vanity and our fragility are exposed with generosity of spirit. I avoid introspection – the reader effortlessly becomes both the ‘I’ and the ‘eye’. I hope there is something for everyone’.

The two extant collections written by Burleigh share stylistic commonalities, yet both anthologies evince qualities unique to each offering: ‘My first poetry collection, Particles of Light, was self-published through Matador in late 2017. My purpose then was to get my best poems over several decades into print. I was delighted to find a readership and I feel humbled, and I am deeply grateful to all those who chose to buy a personal copy. My new collection, Intersecting Lines, is traditionally published by a local indie publisher. It consists of new poems written over the last 3 years.’

‘Whereas Particles of Light was a collection of private writings, this new collection has been written very much with a readership in mind. Intersecting Lines is divided into 3 sections – Permanence, Impermanence, and Impertinence - reflecting the living world, the nature of mortality, and humour and wit. I consider each section to be homogenous and consistent, though poems are written in a variety of formats. My style and subject matter have developed from the previous collection.’

‘I find myself using much more rhyme to hold a poem together, and there is more reflection on time passing, on the sense that there will be an ending to everything we enjoy. Impermanence can be humorous, and it can be dignified, but it is not gloomy. There is a greater level of consistency and unity than in the earlier collection. My penchant for alliteration as a device for emphasis is again evident, but there is less hyphenation and more rhyme in this collection’.

Keen to explore the thematic substance of his second collection, I asked Burleigh to cast light upon his choice of subject matter and the treatment of it. ‘There are poems of the everyday such as ‘Black Skies, Black Flag’ which is set on a beach activity holiday, and ‘Hard Day’s Work’, which invokes the world of bedsits and one-bed flats. Contemporary issues are reflected in a poem concerning the migrant crisis including a remembrance of little Alan Kurdi, ‘A small boy, limp on wet sand’.

‘The Bookshop’ is based on the painted window displays of one bookshop, but is a celebration of all bookshops supporting our love of the physical book and the escape we all find in well written stories. The window displays draw us into the bookshop, where we find books to take us outside ourselves – ‘A portal to books within/Taking readers to worlds without.’

‘There are poems for when you look up at the sky – ‘Summer Skies’ - ‘Amazing Flight/Majestic Kite/Slides on Air/Glides to nowhere…’. Here the air, invisible to us, is solid for an agile kite. ‘Skies over St David’s Head’ - ‘Milky Way/Smoked Across blue-dark glass/Pricked by Stars/Poked by Planets…’ uses alliteration to convey the varying size of the specks of light in the sky, again imagining the sky as a thin sheet, something physical.’

‘The nature of mortality is extensively explored. ‘Letting Go’ is a sonnet about the pathos and awkwardness of visiting in their final weeks or days, somebody we have known or loved, and trying to find the right way to part. We do not know how long they have and it would be tactless to ask - ‘Or gradually you let loose your grip/As slowly full sup becomes a sip’. In the end, whatever we do is inadequate to the situation - ‘No, this is how we will come to say goodbye-/ We’ll hug, hold hands, we’ll remember, and cry’.

I’ll confess to savouring Burleigh’s puns and one-liners with far less delight than that catalysed by his sensitively nuanced, bitter-sweet, yet vibrantly playful poetry. The words of Dylan Thomas eloquently sum up my own response to his eclectic oeuvre…‘Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own’.

Burleigh may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s what makes poetry appeal… to both You and Me !

Particles Of Light is self-published through Matador

Intersecting Lines is published by Beercott Books