Stephen Payne Pattern Beyond Chance (Happenstance, £10.00)

‘Stephen Payne’s academic background is in psychology’ says the first line of the blurb on the back of Payne’s Happenstance collection.  And this book is quite often about the scientist as poet.  It is broken down into four sections:  Design; Word; Mind & Time – so asking the big questions one suspects. And each of those sections contains occasionally abstruse quotations from eminent figures in the history of psychology, each quotation dutifully referenced in full Harvard style!!  So, on the surface at least, there is a slightly four-square attitude struck in this book.  We might assume that the book might present the scientist as slightly more ‘human’ and ‘romantic’ than the ‘public perception’ might have us believe.

And there is an element of that.  In the poem ‘The Scientific Method’, the narrator (and it’s clear that the ‘I’ in these poems is Payne, himself) discusses with his daughter the fact that she has ‘noticed the way grown-up books/ print the author’s name bigger than the title/ but books for kids have things the other way round’.  Slightly below this, the narrator/Payne comments ‘You’re a scientist, and I’m your Research Assistant’.   The two then go around the house investigating the daughter’s observation.  The exception to the rule is Roald Dahl, whose name is bigger than the title.  Noticing his daughter ‘deflate a little’, he explains, ‘What matters is the tendency, the pattern/ beyond chance, which calls for an explanation’.

If a central premise of the book is the scientist as poet, the book is also very much the poet as scientist; the empiricist poet following deductive logic where it might lead. This means that the poet observes carefully and sees where that takes you. And there is no doubt in this book that Payne is a highly empathetic empiricist, who observes carefully and astutely and whose conclusions are nuanced and sensitive. That kind of description makes the book sound cold, but this is one of those very rare books of poetry which gives the definite sense of the warmth of personality of the writer.  The second section of the book, ‘Word’, is particularly effective in these ways. Particularly moving is the poem ‘Dyslexia’, which I’ll quote in full:


A hard thing to explain to an eight-year-old.

How to lift from everything we know

a clutch of truths by which he’ll be consoled.

I keep to what it doesn’t mean, name

the famous cases.  Hard to answer no

when he asks quietly, Are you the same?

 This is not only beautifully paced and structured, but here the scientist is forced to evade the logical end of the thoughts.  Of course, that opening line is carefully heart-string pulling, with its neat elision of ‘It is’ from the beginning of the line.  Then Payne shows the dilemma of the adult in trying to console.  And then that final line, so deftly yet so completely heart-stopping.

One thing that should be noted is Payne’s wry sense of humour; poems about anything from the development of taxi drivers’ brains to the filming of a Doctor Who episode, outside his house in Penarth. One would be tempted to suggest that Payne has an English sense of humour were it not that he is clearly quite a proud Welshman. The book also contains a wonderful poem about Glenn Gould.  It finishes with a fine poem on walking to a pier which turns into a lovely memory of his father.  This is a very fine book; one of those quiet books which should garner much more recognition than it might.


Ian Pople


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