Portico Prize Shortlist: ‘Under the Rock’

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Benjamin Myers’ Under The Rock is an interesting mix of genres. It is part poetry, part autobiography, and entirely intense. Its title indicates some kind of unearthing, an excavational approach to an investigation that attempts to define the modern day relationship between person and place.

It’s certainly detailed. There’s a level of Hughesian connection with nature at work here – not unintentional, seeing as the central setting of the memoir is quite literally ‘under the rock’, at the site of Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, which is overshadowed by the craggy face of Scout Rock.

It is also the site of Ted Hughes’ early life. There’s an obvious attempt at parallelism here; it isn’t surprising that Myers is drawing upon one of the canonical greats to establish a foothold in nature writing, which appears to be a changing, faintly indefinable genre in the present era. There’s a similar attempt to push boundaries here, and on some level, it works. In the same way Hughes attempted to bridge the gap between the present day and the canonical weight of Shakespeare in his style, Myers uses a range of stylistic approaches (photography, poetry and prose) to offer a multifaceted, diverse account of relocating to the northern countryside after five years of London drudgery. 

Myers uses a range of stylistic approaches to offer a multifaceted, diverse account of relocating to the northern countryside after five years of London drudgery

The thing is, some of it’s a bit dry. Maybe less accessible than Myers intended, like the hike up to Scout Rock. Although Myers references important current affairs, the majority of the text focuses on the visual, prosaic and literary qualities of the space. Lovely. The description is beautiful. There’s stunning visual detail, incredible attention to the history of the place.

The strongest part is the poetry, some of which is gorgeous. Take ‘Scout Rock from Daisy Bank’, for example. It’s about the relationship of humans with nature, distilled into one single image – a sculptor with a mallet. It starts with an affinity between the creator and the material, a tight tension that ‘awaits the sculptor’s chisel’ almost hopefully, one that is hacked apart as the mallet hits the rock in the final line. It says everything that Myers explores in the entirety of the ‘Rock’ section in six lines.

Perhaps this is the fault of editorship; each section, split up into chapters, is accompanied by ‘field notes’ – poetry and lyrical prose inspired by the events that Myers explores in each section of the work. These would perhaps be more effective if placed at the beginning, rather than the end of the section. Once I’d trawled through 100 pages of description of the woods, I wasn’t really feeling up to reading and analysing 14 poems. 

The strongest part is the poetry

Interestingly, had these ‘field notes’ come at the beginning, I think I’d have had more incentive to engage critically with the prose. The thing about poetry is that it gets your brain working. There’s a level of uncertainty of meaning, symbolism and image that you just aren’t going to replicate in non-fiction. It’s a vehicle for exploring an idea, a theme, a sensation – you never quite know if you’re correct in assuming what the writer is ‘getting at’. By engaging the reader from the outset, these poems would function as little tasters of what is to come rather than simply reinforcements of the same themes that Myers touches on in the previous section. 

One of the key themes of this book is resettling; something which is perhaps replicated unconsciously in the style of the text. As Myers readjusts to his new life in Mytholmroyd and finds a sense of community that his life has previously lacked, his style grows in confidence. He has obviously, painstakingly so, taken care to demonstrate his love for this village, for the slowing down of life and the rediscovery of an affinity with the land that so many have forgotten. For that, I can’t fault it.

The Portico Prize awards £10,000 to the book that best evokes the spirit of the North of England. Palatinate is reviewing the shortlist and a winner will be announced on 23rd January 2020.

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

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