The Glass Sanctuary: The Vulnerability of Keaton Henson

A gaunt figure makes his way to the centre of a stage, holding a sheaf of papers that dimly glimmer in the spotlight. He stands, shuffles his papers, and begins to read to a silent audience. This is a rare appearance at the National Poetry Day from Keaton Henson, an ‘acclaimed musician, writer and visual artist’, whose anxiety leads him to shy away from public performances of his work. And yet, this reluctance hasn’t prevented a growing fanbase keen for Henson’s simple yet emotionally charged lyricism, the gentle wavering of his voice, and his nigh-on brutal vulnerability.

In his first collection of poetry, ‘Idiot Verse’, the reader is greeted by an eclectic, colourful and barely visible font, only marred by a black scoring out of a letter in ‘Verse’, as though a mistake has been made in the typing and this is the only way to fix it. Opening the book, there is another pencilled mark scratching out Henson’s name; a line that crosses the bottom of the copyright page, and a globe softly emerges from the space between the pages, as an eye watches over its ascent. So begins a series of drawings and marks that stretch across pages. Sketches of empty mugs, ashtrays, and shaded triangles encroach upon the corners and bottoms of pages, while grotesque figures stride across the divides. As we encounter these drawings, including a two-page sketch of a naked man smoking in what appears to be an empty room, it is difficult not to feel as if we are intruding upon Henson’s private notebook.

This sense of intrusion is compounded when reading the shorter poems, such as Writer’s Block, which have a tendency to be read more as a personal note than as a poem: ‘I am empty, woe is me / void of any poetry’. They also represent the weakest sections of the collection, as the forced rhymes fail to rise above cliché, or engage the reader in more than a gesture of introspection. Yet these poems are rare occurrences amongst the collection, as the candidness of Henson’s emotion within both the poems and sketches, represents a genuineness that can be found in all threads of his work and prevents the collection from falling into a rut of inseparable groans of melancholy.

Henson has gracefully crafted a collection that gestures towards a greater form of intimacy than he has previously offered to his audience, and while it offers a glimpse of the musings in ‘hotel rooms, on park benches, and in in various apartments’ to those unfamiliar with Henson’s work, it offers compassion and beauty to those who already adore him.

The book does not stand as a first collection from an emerging author, nor as a poorly formed endeavour into the landscape of poetry by a songwriter or celebrity, using the form of verse as an opportunity to showcase their creative muscles. Rather, it is an addition to a remarkable body of work that Henson has crafted, which finds beauty in opening its wounds, as well as remembering the days before those wounds came about.

In both poem and song, Henson offers the audience a glance of both his wounds and triumphs – the emotional scar tissue that forms around a soul through a half-life. In these works, Henson also recognises the position he puts himself in, and notes that the vulnerability of his work invites voyeuristic inspection as he sings, as he asks ‘how can the lines be affecting your soul / when you’re too busy reading between them’? In a similar tone, he softly warns a lover, ‘[o]bviously / My wounds are open to see / But don’t take them / seriously’.

As such, ‘Idiot Verse’ stands as a testament to the difficulties of loneliness and anxiety, yet also the adoration we can find within one another. Even as those he loves handle corpses, Henson notes their ‘kindly words and loving arms’. There is beauty in the worst of times, and even if the poet cannot help but notice it. Whether Henson is broken-hearted, travelling, or amongst those he loves, there is both horror and beauty. And this wholeness of sight is what marks Henson out as a shining figure amongst the dark.

Returning to the Southbank stage, we see the poet slightly tilting his head, arising from anxious meditation to address a figure that he assumes is somewhere amongst the audience.

“The next poem contains some swearing, is that alright?” There is a slight shift in the atmosphere and a glance between the hosts, before he laughs softly and looks down again at the poem, murmuring, “It’s okay, I’ll just say them very quietly.” The audience and hosts are quiet, almost reverent in their silence. They recognise that they have placed him on a pedestal that the poet both desires and despairs of.

They shall not forget this moment, and they shall not forget him.

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Keaton Henson’s collection of poetry, Idiot Verse (2015), is published by Eyewear Books. It can be purchased from Henson’s store

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