The northern word for hometown, ‘toon’, flickers in meaning between ‘tune’ and ‘cartoon’. In Bill Herbert’s big bumper book, the title toon is Troy: the first lost home. Exiled to a lighthouse on the River Tyne, the wily Scots maestro has written a book in love with lost and difficult things. Sometimes reflective, sometimes subversively mischievous, he registers or rails against displacement and resettlement, lamenting the passing of relatives, cities, furniture, and the odd lemur.
Plugged in to the poetry zeitgeist as ever, Herbert has revived a medieval publishing craze: the Troybook. Painstaking excavation of old comics establishes that the original site of Troytoon is Dundee. Or Madrid. Or possibly St Petersburg. The search for traces of Troy leads to Donegal, Crete, and, at the heart of his grand tour, a vivid verse journal set in post-perestroika Moscow. Dust off your highest brow and fasten your seatbelt, we’re flying Economy to Byzantium.
The Big Bumper Book of Troy is driven by sudden shifts of register – English to Scots, free verse to antique stanza, page to performance, narrative to lyric. Everything has become a dialect, yet – cheekily borrowing the Russian composer Schnittke’s term – Herbert aims at a disrespectful polystylist unity. It is his most unorthodox rebellion yet against the dictatorship of the slim volume. A riot of colourful humour, a revolution in poetic taste.
‘A weird mix of Desperate Dan, MacDiarmid and Dostoyevsky…a rare and fantastic voice’ – Fiachra Gibbons, Guardian.
‘This antithesis of the slim volume bubbles and seethes with wit and polysyllabic adventurousness’ – Edwin Morgan, The Scotsman.
W.N. Herbert reads six poems
W.N. (Bill) Herbert lives in a converted lighthouse overlooking the River Tyne at North Shields. Pamela Robertson-Pearce him in December 2007 in his study at the very top of the house, the walls of which are criss-crossed with salvaged ship timbers. He reads six poems in this video taken from his collections Cabaret McGonagall (1996), The Laurelude (1998), The Big Bumper Book of Troy (2002) and Bad Shaman Blues (2006), all published by Bloodaxe: ‘Corbandie’, ‘The Black Wet’, ’To a Mousse’, ’Song of the Longboat Boys’, ‘Slow Animals Crossing’ and ‘Bad Shaman Blues’. This film is from the DVD-anthology In Person: 30 Poets, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce & edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2008).