Jacob Polley, “A Jar of Honey” – image and syntax
I was introduced to Jacob Polley’s “A Jar of Honey” at a Poetry School workshop run by Helen Ivory a couple of days ago. Here’s a link to the poem:
My first feeling was of sheer delight in the image in the first two lines. I had a slightly mixed reaction to line three – I was torn between thinking what a brilliant phrase and idea “stunned glow” was and feeling that there was something just slightly heavy-handed and insistent about it. I liked “the sun all flesh and no bones”. All kinds of associations combine to make the phrase shimmer with humour and imaginative life, and it completes a wonderful shift from thinking of honey purely in terms of the ethereality of light to giving it the heavy materiality of flesh. But I found the final line terribly weak – it seems to me pompous, over explicit, and clichéd.
Rereading the poem today I think the cause of my mixed reaction goes deeper. It’s to do with syntactical momentum, or the lack of it. The reason those first two lines work so well is not only the brilliance of the images but also the forward thrust of utterance. We come to a stop after line two (the thought is completed) and have to pick up momentum again. “And” just doesn’t do it. To my mind “You” would have kicked off the line more strongly (whatever other objections there might be to using it here) because it would have created an immediate expectation of a verb, and of a statement syntactically paralleling the first line. Expectation is crucial to creating momentum. In the next line, “fat glass sides” forms a strong image but the whole phrase seems to hang limply off the end of the sentence. And each of the last three lines of the second stanza seems to me to hang limply too. Maybe a live reading would give them the momentum they need, but on the page they just don’t have it, for me.
We also looked at “Avocados”, by Esther Morgan. You can find it at
Though no single image in this delighted me as much as the best in “A Jar of Honey” I felt much happier with it as a whole poem, essentially because it did sustain momentum all through.
Of course I’d be very pleased with myself if I’d written either of these poems. I didn’t know Polley’s work at all before and I now very definitely feel I should.