Jack Underwood is a regular participant in the London poetry community, and lectures in English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College, as well as working as a tutor for The Poetry School. As a reviewer, he has contributed regularly to Poetry London and The Poetry Review, and he was a founding editor of the anthology series Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives. He was chosen as one of the first four poets published as part of the Faber New Poets pamphlets scheme in 2009. Happiness (Faber, 2015) is his first collection.
Although Underwood’s poetry is often intensely intimate in tone, he urges his readers to abandon a biographical reading of his work, theorizing that poetry can be better appreciated when the lens of the author’s personality has been lifted from the page. This is an idea he notably explored in a series of tweets which were published online by IdeasTap as 'Jack Underwood's 20 Poetry Tenets'. These tongue-in-cheek commandments (including the mantra ‘Poems should not recount events but be events’) form part of a striking literary philosophy, one which is thoroughly explored in his debut collection.
Symbols link Underwood's work as effectively as themes. The image of an egg bobs up again and again in Happiness, always as a symbol of potential, ready to birth new life, or foul rot, at any instant. In 'A Poem of Fear for my Future Child', the egg represents the failure of hope and wholesome, ordinary desires. The speaker pictures himself failing to protect an imagined child from being murdered by a terrier, drowned, snatched away or run over. The egg is hatched in the aftermath of this potential event:
on the curb, crying, I’m a mess with your scarf.
All this fear, like a fizz building in a bad, grey egg,
is waiting for you.
of the egg, contained inside from the moment
it was laid, is broken by your tongue, then,
like love, it is remade, I promise.
Underwood’s work serves as a reminder that not every writer writes in order to communicate a unified inner vision, or even in order to be fully understood. Instead, this poet works to create small, encapsulated worlds for the reader to inhabit for a time, and while these worlds are not always entirely pleasant (only the dullest of poems are thoroughly nice) they are always engaging, if surreal. In 'The Spooks’ the speaker speculates on what would happen if he were to inject a plunger full of blood into the flesh of an unskinned banana, so that the theoretical eater would find a hot red vein pulsing halfway down the length of the fruit:
even meaning to without a logical tracing
of thought look back to the banana and see
blood in the banana, feel the raw shock
of something possibly unthought of
I want them to get to the idea that
someone put the blood in the banana
Beneath the smooth, ordinary-seeming skin of the world there lies a hidden strangeness. This strangeness is difficult, somewhat senseless, a little traumatic, but it is undoubtedly more interesting than a taste of unvariegated sweetness. Such is the truth that ‘The Spooks’ would reveal.
If the idea of a bloody banana is disturbing, it is partly because it represents the sudden appearance of a symbol of death in a space that is, not unreasonably, expected to be entirely wholesome. This theme of death, the unexpected, inescapable nature of it, is one of the main struts that Happiness is built on. If every word contains its opposite (and it does - life is infected with death which spreads until death is everything and the body is a mulch where seeds can be planted), then any exploration of joy must also entail a dissection of despair. In this collection, the poem which lends its title to the collection - a middle-class love-song to simple pleasures - is directly followed by one which compares the sorrow of a loved-one to a variety of everyday objects. In 'Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’ depression becomes something which can be seen, but never fully comprehended. It's costly, unattainable; yet it cannot be ignored:
huge, white and expensive, like an anvil
dropped from heaven: how will we get onboard,
up there, when it hurts our necks to look?
If someone else's sadness is an object which can never be reached, then the thought of your own death is a subject that can never be escaped. In 'The Ashes’ the speaker projects himself into the body of a dying man while listening to an ordinary game of cricket:
seems to know it too, but it has wheels and he hadn’t
thought of that. They have him resting on the edge,
and twist him, lifting his legs around and a feeling
of resentment sinks through him because they
are putting him away, because he cannot put himself
away, and he does not want to be put away at all!
Death is happening to him
Death is terrible, terrifying, at least in part because it is completely beyond the control of the person it is happening to. It cannot be directed (like the ending of a story) it cannot be delayed. In Underwood's world, we are all eggs set to boiling on some giant cosmic stove. Our lives are that tragic, that comically ridiculous, that deliciously brief.
Happiness. Faber, London, 2015
Faber New Poets 4: Jack Underwood. Faber, London, 2009
The Forward Book of Poetry 2016. Faber, London, 2016
The Forward Book of Poetry 2015. Faber, London, 2015
Best British Poetry 2015. Ed. Emily Berry. Salt, Cromer, 2015
Best British Poetry 2014. Ed. Mark Ford. Salt, Cromer, 2014
Dear World and Everyone In It. Ed. Nathan Hamilton. Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2013.
Voice Recognition: 21 poets for the 21st Century. Eds. James Byrne and Clare Pollard. Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2009.
Underwood’s profile on The Poetry Archive
Underwood’s profile at Goldsmith’s University
Happiness at Faber
Underwood’s article ‘I Guess You had to Be There’ for Five Dials
Interview with Underwood on Body