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ISSUE 10

First Catch Your Hare - David Crystal (Two Rivers Press, 35-39 London Street, ReadIng RG1 4PS £6.00)  
Something Small Is Missing
-Susan Utting  
A Mesh of Wires
- Christopher North (Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield HD1 1 ND. £2.95 each.)  
How to Disappear
- Amanda Dalton (Bloodaxe Books, P0 Box 1 SN, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE99 I SN. £6.95)  

Four very different collections that arrived separately, but are forced to share a review for little good reason. Or so I thought until I saw the shortlist for the Forward Poetry Prize Best First Collection, where both Christopher North and Amanda Dalton's books proudly sit. So now I have that loose theme to tie my thoughts together. This is another way of focusing on the questions that bugged me when reading them: am I excited by this? Does it suggest possibilities?  

Three first collections and David Crystal's First Catch Your Hare. Although this well-produced book is the largest selection of his work so far. Having followed Crystal's work for a number of years, I was interested in what he was up to these days, how he'd developed since pamphlets like Big Money or The Beetle House, which both impressed me enormously with their evocative notations of urban living, with all the humour and humanity that entails. Crystal had an eye for the telling detail and the imagination to do something with it other than the blindingly obvious.

On the evidence of this new collection he still has that eye.

'White Birds, Black Market, for instance, plays nicely with the different appearances of -a man's tattooed hands: "blue... like mutant Jellyfish/ abandoned by the tide.../ coming alive at night/like mad bats" before bringing the reader up sharp with the reality beneath the imagery: "the cheap indian ink/ clearly stating/in Oxbridge bat language,/ please 'Cut Here'." These poems contain a lot of animal imagery for the people from all over the world - from Prudhoe to Africa trapped in a nightmare version of London. We meet 'The Salmon Man', 'Panda Eyes', 'Billy the Rat'. Dreams are full of birds and snakes, as are the illustrations that pepper the book. The hawks, horses, pigs and other animals usually meet a sticky end though, function as signs of how people cannot achieve their full humanity in this artificial landscape, despite the relish Crystal brings to his description of the life of pubs, offices and betting shops.  

But, I couldn't help feeling that Crystal was also rather trapped. Whilst the details continue to be well chosen, I didn't find the linguistic energy here that would have (a) excited me and (b) made the poems more experientlal and involving. Crystal uses shortish lines with irregular, flat rhythms to recreate an urban vernacular. He's fond of simile, and many work well. But many don't, and seem like an attempt to work or wake up the poem from mere notation. The notation that does go on feels, therefore, tired, in a way it didn't in his earlier work. There is definitely a risk of Crystal repeating himself, and of techniques and content that were fresh and stimulating in the early 90's growing stale. The characters and scenarios are merely presented, and need, it seems, a more expansive and exploratory poetic than they get here. I'd like to see Crystal take more risks, and more pleasure in his words - this is, in its way, pretty cerebral poetry, lacking in music.  

Susan Utting's Something Small is Missing has, if anything, the inverse problem. The poems here are full of rather febrile verbal invention, which carries you along in a rush - whereas Crystal makes short sentences queue for attention, Utting allows numerous clauses to jostle and skid down the page, so that you soon reach the end of the poem, having enjoyed the ride. But then you wonder where you've travelled to, and too often for me it isn't very far, or not far enough, and when you look back the scenery wasn't that stunning after all. A number of the poems here use a lively surface to communicate fairly predictable subjects - growing up, love, longing, bedsit land. There are many good lines and stanzas. Because she builds up her poems using clauses, repetition and variation it's hard to find a bite-sized quote, but try this as an example:

"The ifs and buts of it are sharp against my shoulder blades,  
at first its run-on lines strike cold against my belly,  
buttocks, nipples - all the skin parts that it touches, 
then the heat of circulating blood begins the chain reaction:  
molecule by agitated molecule it warms to me, and one by one  
the curves and hollows of its os and esses, of its hs and ys  
each letter in the mesh of it fills up with insulating air."

('Hinged Copper Poem Dress')  

This is from one of the more successful poems, a response to an art installation. Too many of the poems felt like skilled workings up of emotions, which is no small achievement, but not enough. The opening poem 'Ecdysis for instance links a caterpillar shedding its skin to memories of small town childhood, using all-too-Instantly recognisable and shareable signs - 'a Woolworths/ you could meet your mates on Saturdays in'. It's true, it evokes a memory in me (though maybe Woolworths was a girl thing), but it does it too easily, and doesn't do anything with the collectivity created. Increasingly I feel frustrated with poems that are only about recognition, and this applies to both Utting and David Crystal - you can only recognise something for so long before wondering how or why that happened or why or how its presented and how it effects us, how we can use that representation, that recognition, where it might take us.  

If Susan Utting could be fairly placed in the Armitage Huddersfield strand of Smith/Doorstop's admirable output (though she is not actually from anywhere near West Yorkshire), Christopher North draws more from the New York poets, whose deep influence on New Yorkshire has been neglected. Though this can lead to the odd loose, trivial poem like 'Someone I Know - a list of things this person does that really goes nowhere pretty slowly - the more pervasive effect is a positive one. These poems are characterised by a complicated ease of address, a conviviality that is sparked by interest not in the experience of the first person, but by what surrounds it. What excited me about the best of these poems was that they could not be summarised - they speak for themselves in a variety of tones and tongues. The first few poems in the booklet draw you into their conversational atmospheres, names and places assumed as common knowledge in the manner of O'Hara. Whilst conversational In their tone, the poems are as tight as a drum, wIth not a word wasted, the rhythms taut and the perceptions slightly skewed:  

"Just those strange unexplained discs to start with, 
but now tweaked and twiddled and made baroque  
and mostly where they can be seen from a road  
and finally the possibility or otherwise  
of whirling molecules In the universe somewhere,  
forming down to the last detail,  
a full-sized Lockheed Tri-star by chance."

('From The Air')  

Other poems I found even more appealing, as they became more playful in their procedures, more puzzling in tone, giving me more work to do as a reader, the room to manoeuvre I was perhaps missing in the first two collections. 'Some Questions' is just that, and is funny and philosophical at the same time, from its opening question, 'Can history be interpreted by considering the lemon? 'to its last: ' But what secret's breathing in the corner of a dandelion/or lies in glinting dune slacks with the tumbleweeds,/ or In this specific dead cat seething with files?' The poem contains what could be the key line for the booklet: 'By lack of focus maybe focus tricked into place.' There is a greater freedom in North's work, which gives him room to play and to expand his lines - most of the poems use a longer line than is common, giving the poems a very different feel. This is not to say he isn't both serious in his concerns and skilled in his crafting. Booklets can be dispiriting things if you feel the writer is never going to get beyond them to a full-length set of poems, or exciting when you sense there is more and better to come, and the writer may get the chance. Being shortlisted for the Forward Prize should help North get that far, if he needed it, which on the evidence of these fine and entertaining poems he didn't.  

Amanda Dalton's How to Disappear, also shortlisted for the Forward Prize, is her graduation from pamphlets to a full-length shinyspined collection. it is an accomplished collection by a skilled writer. The mood throughout is one of melancholy and longing, of absences and shadowy grotesqueries - not the urban grotesques of David Crystal, but the psychological disfigurements of the suburbs. The main sequence, 'Room of Leavesí I found the least interesting element of the collection. The story of a jilted woman who sets up home in the garden and lives under 'a canopy of umbrellas' until she dies, it is Miss Haversham out of Selima Hill, but feels contrived and poetical, with the characters refusing to come alive in the way Hill's lovelorn do. Neither Grace nor Frank, the jitter, feel fully human once the wedding is off- they are pawns in Dalton's oddly conventional game. There's even a policeman to deliver the last words and sum it all up for us, like Morse and Lewis walking back to their car. Except we've had no mystery to sustain us to that point It's all been rather obvious and curiously unmoving.  

Dalton is more effective in the shorter poems which utilise similar techniques of elliptical fiction and evocation through haunting frozen moments full of imagery that grows out of them quite naturally. 'Oil Scare', for instance, moves well from detail: 'For weeks you could write your name/in the grease on Hanson's window' to mystery:  

And her youngest lad
down at the edge of the storm  
where water explodes In your eyes,  
watching the guillemots circle and dive 
at the thick black tide.  
They 're committed to the sea,  
he screamed across the wind.  
The water 's dying, and you thought  
they were the strangest words  
to hear from a boy."  

Dalton is refreshingly unconcerned with herself, at least in any way that shows, though the one or two poems where she does give signs of drawing on her own experience, such as 'And the map's no help', do have a lighter touch, and a spark to them sometimes lacking in her menacing fictions. It's easy to see how this book could get shortlisted for a prize: It's skillfully made, serious, and perfectly within the current mainstream of English poetry (echoes of Duffy, Hill, a feminized Armitage) without ever being imitative or dull. Taken at a stretch, however, the collection does become a little repetitive in its effects, however, and needs to be taken in small chunks, otherwise the atmosphere of foreboding (actually it's usually the opposite of foreboding, whatever you'd call that -afterboding? retrospective foreboding?) gets bit much and starts to lose its impact. There are occasional flashes of sardonic humour to lighten the dimness, but the one fullblown attempt at humour - a monologue by a man's chin, from birth to beard via spotty adolescence doesn't really come off at all. The sun was shining most of the times I read this book, which was perhaps not the best accompaniment - it's more of an autumn book, I'd have thought.

 

Ob by Peter Reading. Bloodaxe Books. £6.95. ISBN 1 85224 490 9.  

There are two poems in this collection entitled Coplas de Pie Quebrado (Broken Foot Couplets ) the second of which is a sharp evocation of the vicious mentality of the rich and powerful of South America. The poor are expendable. Property before people. It is this that breaks Reading's heart. The human condition (for want of a better shorthand ) can appall him, though he has his three worthy compensations: verse, viticulture and love. Nevertheless, what really crushes him is avoidable injustice and stupidity. Most of the pieces collected here are short though there is an impressive 17 page section of Chinoiserie, based on the work of Li Po. Does the brevity indicate failing powers or greater control? it is impossible to read this collection without thinking of what is well known about Reading's life. It's cover sports his death-mask and he is clearly haunted by his mortality. Curiously then, the collection is full of life. A premature obit it may be intended to be but it sparkles with the bright wit and sensitivity of a man for whom death, like drink (and Nocturne recreates the pattern of the temporary death from worry of drunkenness to be followed by the inevitable return of despair) is an escape from a reality which constantly offends his sensibility. The irony of expressions of despair is that in order to work they must overcome the very despair they evoke. Beckett's Krapp is wonderfully hilarious. And Reading, in spite of previous claims that he was finished with publishing, can't stop celebrating poetry. W.H.Auden famously upbraided Hardy for claiming never to have cared for life, preferring Frost's lovers' tiff. Diderot argued that absolute cynics are simply trying, in a world where no attitude can ever be fixed and final, to find a fixed and final position which cannot be undermined. Absolute cynicism is a kind of comfort. There is something of this about Reading. His poems cry out bitterly for a way to be at home In the world, and the world responds with brutality, ugliness, stupidity and neglect. Except of course for verse, viticulture and love. Reading's poetry has always been a response to the cruelty of modern society, a cruelty which exacerbates that of the human lot. In Coplas de Pie Quebrado he hits a pitch of principled anger in which hope displaces despair. Finally, perhaps In spite of himself, he affirms life. It is this, and Reading's long-established skill which make this collection a pleasure. It has that feel of inevitability that is characteristic of all the best art. It is authentic Reading, warts, booze, broken heart and all.  

 

The Man In The White Suit by Nick Drake.   Bloodaxe Books. £6.95. 

It's unfair to compare a relatively novice poet ( Drake has previously published a pamphlet Chocolate and Salt) with an old hand like Reading, but I read these collections consecutively and while Reading's had that convincing feel of something that had to be written, this felt much more like an exercise in poetry. Poetry, as Auden remarked, begins in the guts and only flowers in the head. In the letter to the sixteen-year-old John Cornford in which that remark appeared, he went on to say that poets too often try to make the head work the guts. Perhaps most poetry will always be like that. Perhaps it takes a special talent to be able to hear the inarticulate voice of the emotions and to make it flower into poetry, but, in any case, there is a great deal of poetry today which begins in the head and withers in the guts. This is not to say that Drake isn't a competent writer, but the final piece in the collection seems to summarize its inspiration. A Foley artist is the person who creates the sounds to accompany pictures on a screen. Drake takes the idea of the curiousness of this work and produces a catalogue piece in the voice of a practitioner. It's imaginative and well put together, but as soon as you see how it works your interest begins to wane. The poem has begun in the writer's head. A neat idea. But its accomplishment implies a kind of obviousness. Once you've got the idea, you can see how it's bound to play itself out. This in turn influences the use of language. The words aren't searching for anything so much as trying to tell what has already been found. I think this is a question of the mind's certainty over the uncertainty of feeling. The Uncertainty Principle of poetry might be that when language is chasing feeling it tends to surprise.  

Nick Drake is perfectly good at structuring a poem round an idea. All the poems work in the sense that the idea they began with is accurately evoked and the writing isn't sloppy. But to take one poem as an example. The Angel Of History is about the nasty death of Drake's mother, or perhaps of a poetic persona's mother. The narrative is well handled, the strangeness of the old lady brought to life, but the poem leaves you with the sense that here was just another subject for an exercise in poetry. I wish that something had come from the guts to subvert the control of the head.  

The collection is held together here and there by common references: Drake has central European forbears and references to this recur; there are some historical connections between one poem and other; but like a great many collections there is no sense of a powerful consistency. Maybe most collections have to be this way, or perhaps it has become a mere lazy habit of poets to gather together sixty or so miscellaneous pieces and publish them. I think poets might be well advised to think harder about how to give a collection a sense of shape, weight, destiny. At the heart of all the literature that really sticks in your mind (and your guts ) is a sense of the writer's reason for writing. A somewhat untidy poem full of that sense tends to endure more than a perfectly neat piece which lacks it. In this collection Drake shows he can write but he doesn't reveal the es muss sein of his writing. Still, this is a first full-length. He's got time.

 

Fireclay by Stephanie Norgate. Smith/Doorstop Books. £2.95  

The presentation of poetry is a worthwhile issue. In order to get the work of as many writers as possible into print, It seems sensible to give the small but well-presented pamphlet an important place. Smith/Doorstop have published the winners of their 1998 pamphlet competition in this neat, pocket-sized format ( handy for the bus and the train ) with plain but attractive card covers and a classical simplicity. Each pamphlet has about twenty poems, enough to give a feel for the author's style and preoccupations, and sufficiently cheaply priced to attract even skinflint philistines.  

Stephanie Norgate has a distinctive hallmark: she writes about sex without ideological baggage. Plenty of women have written about sex of course, but Norgate has a way of drawing you in to the warmth, excitement and tenderness of her experience which has been lost to some female writers because, I suspect, of their sense of having to take a stand in the sex war. Norgate isn't at war. She likes men. She obviously relishes her femininity and my guess is that women-hating men will find that more difficult to disgest than ideological feminism, which like all ideology appeals to a small part of the psyche and is easy to dismiss. Norgate goes deep and her authenticity is humanizing.  

Intimacy is not by any means her only subject, but it is her treatment of sex which, I think, marks her out . She has a simple, relatively conversational style but she manages, in most poems, to endow it with a strongly personal aura which prevents it being just another of those conversational poems you find everywhere. it is when she opens up to her experience, not fully understood but always poignant that her poems lift and produce memorable lines:  

When I catch you,  
we'll lie down on small seeds of gravel.  

We'll lie under slatted shelves, 
glimpse sturdy shoes, swollen ankles, 
and hear murmurings, the ritual of naming plants.  

Our thighs will rub oakleaves of lemon geranium. 
When your lips work downwards,  
you'll taste musty citrus, a balm for my bitten skin.  

This isn't ground-breaking or great poetry but it speaks of the genuinely personal In a way that much contemporary poetry doesn't and perhaps a defence of the personal in a world ever more depersonalized is the most urgent task of poetry.  

I find myself wondering what I would have made of full-length collection. It may well be that the very format of the pamphlet is in keeping with a modesty that speaks through the poems. In any case, this is a delightful little read and Norgate has enough originality in her voice to be worth looking out for.

AS GOOD A REASON AS ANY by Jim Burns.  

Jim Burns was born in Preston in 1936 and apart from a spell in the army, lived there until 1983. He makes no identification with the place but in a sense he is a Prestonian poet. People are marked by circumstance. The most important circumstance concerning Preston is industrialism. Think or any ugliness associated with the industrial Revolution and Preston knew it. Prior to the steam engine it was a pleasant market town. Industrial capitalism made it dirty, ugly, rough, poor. Its present-day attempts at piecemeal gentrification are like lipstick on a face scarred by razor slashes. Out of its grim and dour past of two and half centuries it has produced a particular character. Prestonlans like to recount anecdotes with a little, black-humorous lift in the tail. The old working-class contempt of pretension and social climbing lingers. When I read these poems I hear Jim Burns's Prestonian accent, both on the surface and beneath. 

Burns grew up in a working-class area of the town. Today it is one of its most run-down, frequented by prostitutes some of whom have perfected the dangerous practice of walking out in front of cars, flagging them and offering the driver a good time. Desperate measures. He passed the 11-plus and went to Preston Grammar, amongst its first intake of working-class boys. A vertical invader. This background informs much of the content and style of his work: straightforward, accessible, everyday, plain. In a sense he has always been writing for an audience of his peers. But they don't read him. Throughout his work runs a constant thread of rescuing from neglect combined with a subtle attack on the neglecting mentality, its society, its class. The title poem is about a drunken old woman picked up by disapprovng policemen. Her defiance of their assumption that she should be safely locked in somewhere is characteristic. Bums is always asking why society should assume rights over the individual and he is always sticking up for those who get it in the neck from a smug social order. This is a principled position from which he has never wavered. Not ideological, rhetorical or anxious to persuade, but the position of a man thinking. It goes a long way to explaining his style. Acutely aware of society's neglect of its victims, he prefers to be on their side. His plain style is a defence against the pomposity that makes victims, it is a style which says: "These people you ignore and degrade have a story to tell. They bleed if you cut them. Listen."  

This is not to suggest that Burns is a political poet. He is not pushing any creed, he is simply on the side of individuals when institutions and ideologies do them down. In many of these poems, the good-humour, the warmth, the simplicity that seem the only truly human response to the madness of the world of power, provides a kind of coda. This is referred to specifically in a poem dedicated to the late Geoffrey Holloway which ends:  

I turn to some of your poems,  
and see at once how good humour,  
and warmth, can hold at bay 
the cold that touches heart and mind.  

These poems try to carve out a space where humanity can be rediscovered in a world of cold calculation and glib assumption.  

But they are the poems of a very cultured man. Burns is exceptionally well-read and takes delight in music, theatre and the visual arts. in what, for me, is the most appealing poem of the collection, Eating A Peach, he toys with ideas about surrealism as his happy, easygoing voice tells of his strolling Paris, a would be flaneur, in the company of two women ( Burns is refreshingly unapologetic about his liking for women ) , and though he knows his companions have a much more conventional view of the world than himself, he can get along with them, even if his thoughts do run along entirely different lines.. The poem includes a quotation from Breton:  

"The embrace of poetry like the embrace of the naked body  
protects while it lasts  
against all access by the misery of the world."  

I wouldn't have trusted the autocratic Breton to keep the misery at bay, but you can trust Jim Burns. The embrace of this poetry is intended to keep out the cold, comformist world where the individual's quirkiness is frowned upon. And it does.

 

CARNEGIE HALL WITH TIN WALLS by Fred Voss. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1 65224 473 9 

Is being human enough to have in common ? Brotherhood, collected here, contains the claim and explains why Fred Voss is a machinist in an aircraft factory and not a professor of literature. According to the values of his culture, he must be thought mad. No-one in their senses chooses to work in a factory, especially when they have available to them the possibility of an academic career, status, money. This choice is the bedrock of Voss's poetry. He is the laureate of alienated labour. Of necessity a rarity among the other machinists - a man who reads and writes poetry - he is at once one of them and an outsider. Ha writes out of his experience of sharing their world, but also from greater education, a finer sensibility, a wider perception, a greater sense of tragedy. The latter is essentially un-American, in so far as America has forgotten its republican and Populist traditions, as well as the robust wisdom of Emerson and Thoreau and the generous-hearted democratic ideal of Whitman. America is the land of optimism, and nothing, of course, is quite so depressing. Voss's subject is the tragi-comic lives of men (the odd poem deals with women but the factory is a macho arena ) stripped of their dignity, their humanity, reduced to factors of production to make the money to be good consumers. The self-reliance which Emerson hoped could be the essence of American character has been denied them. They are machinists and as they operate machines they are operated by them. The huge machine of the factory dumps their autonomy like swan. in response they strut and swagger and curse and pose. Anything to hide from themselves the truth about themselves. The truth is what Voss's poems tell. He is a wide-eyed innocent sufficiently distanced from the life of the factory floor to recreate it without illusion.  

Each poem is a little story, a neat unit of energy. Many of them make you laugh and despair simultaneously. A stand-up comic could make little story-jokes out of this material. But Voss is more serious than that, His jokes are like Lenny Bruce's or Joe Orton's : assaults on cruelty, a retaliation against a vicious culture. Behind them is always a tone of tolerance, sometimes mixed with exasperation or amazement, but never dismissive of his co-workers, however crazy their behaviour. What is constantly attacked, though, is the Goodstone aircraft company and its preening management. One of the primary definitions of management, of course, is trickery or deceit and Voss likes to mock the see-through attempts of management to instill into the workers a corporate mentality.  

He knows, because he's on the receiving end, that management is incompetent and out-of-touch. He knows that bureaucrats are puffed with their own importance and produce self-justifying bumpf that is not use to anyone. He is firmly on the side of people who do something practical but he knows he is part of a system which hates simple, honest labour. Goodstone aircraft company is a Kafkaesque monster run according to its own lunatic rules in which the straightforward common sense matter of building aircraft becomes lost in a Byzantine system of confused values, meaningless aims and outrageous justifications. But they build military aircraft so their work has a patriotic dimension too. Voss pokes dark fun at this ; the negligence of safety procedure, the advice from a foremen never to join the air force and fly one these things because they're going to crash.  

Voss's debt to Bukowski has been much commented. Voss himself admits the latter's significant influence. But there is a big difference. Bukowski has a tendency to wallow in debasement. A statement like Bukowski's that had he been a woman he would definitely have been a prostitute could never come from Voss. It reveals Bukowski's regressive mentality, his capitulation to a glib egotism that fails in the attempt to imagine otherness. Part of Bukowski's strength as a poet comes from this immersion in self, but it is also the source of his weakness. Publishing too much and too many poems that go over the same ground, as well as an increasing sense of retreat from reality, the slippage into a narcissistic fantasy of the world as a polymorphously perverse playground. Voss differs in his essential orientation. He is against the degradation he depicts. He doesn't wallow. Nor does he regress. He is more transcendental. He wants to rise above circumstance, the debased circumstance of factory work and this rising Is an implicit rejection of that acceptance of debasement as a viable form of life in response to respectable hypocrisy which was at the heart of Bukowski's sensibility.

As for prosody, Voss has a natural ear and his poems are full of rhythms and repetitions, of parallels, allusions, alliterations, of a subtle use of a poet's tools so that the poems are nothing like the chopped up prose some writers assume is poetry just because there's a gap at the right-hand side of the page. I tried taking one or two of these poems and writing them as prose. They're still poetry. The rhythms are still there. They refuse to read as prose. Perhaps the skill of turning out a poem whose simple form conceals the skill behind it is akin to turning out aircraft parts. In any case, Voss is a highly original, unique voice. He has opened up a new pathway for poetry.

Alan Dent.

 

NEW BLOOD  Edited by Neil Astley.  

Thirty-eight poets born between 1941 and 1978. Poets whose writing lives, therefore, have spanned Thatcherism, the Falklands, the Gulf War, the failure of socialism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, the rise of a new nationalism, a widening gulf between the rich and poor, pogrom in the Balkans, inter alia. But to read their work you would have no idea that any of this has happened. You would have little sense, indeed, of how it has felt to live in Britain in the last quarter century. There is an argument which says poetry is always like this: at a distance from the political, social, economic, public events of its time. Poetry is not of the Times but of the Eternities, to paraphrase Thoreau. There is truth in this, but it is nevertheless the case, as Kenneth Rexroth wrote, that Shakespeare and Eliot are the characteristic poets of their age because they found an accurate and powerful artistic expression of the prevailing mood. Surely all art aims at this ? However oblique the lines that run between Shakespeare's plays and the upsurge of economic and social energy of Elizabethan England, they exist. Surely poets don't want to sit in the coiner staring at their navels while the world goes to hell?  

Before anyone accuses me of Marxism, I'm not. Unlike Marx, I think capitalism is mistake. Before anyone says: Ah, it's that bloody Alan Dent asking poetry to be political again, I'm not. Unless you think Shakespeare and Eliot are political poets. The Waste Land isn't merely an expression of Eliot's gloomy, frustrated, reactionary, defeatism. It's also a record of how the First World War changed the European sensibility. King Lear isn't merely a play about ancient England. it's about the struggle for power and how it perverts and distorts human nature and ultimately drives mad those who see through it. Serious literature produced by minds trying to understand the mind and, in the attempt, elaborating memorable language. This book is full of poems which pull back from such robust ambition. To follow Christopher Lasch, this is the poetry of narcissism. The minds that produced it are trying to retreat, to find a minimalist position of safety as the crises pile up, as the sense of powerlessness increases, as the old answers are rapidly divested of their meaning, as the old signposts send us nowhere. Surely what we need is a poetry which expresses this? This is the reality of life at the end of the twentieth century. What sense does it make to refuse to acknowledge it? Surely we need a poetry big enough to expresses how it feels to be beleaguered, lost, turned Inside out by the speed and power of huge events over which we have little or no control?  

Such a poetry would have to find new means of expression. There are no such new means here. Nothing In this book could not have been written in 1960. The New Poetry is not here, nor in the collection that claimed to collect it. Making it new takes the imagination and courage to go out on a limb. Most of these poets are thinking of their careers and play too safe. They all work in the same way: they look for a subject and build a poem from it. The sense of a gap between the poetic execution and the subject is almost always present. To see what I mean, try reading Apollinaire's Zone (I choose this because its seminal and I like it ) and then any of the poems in this book ? What's the difference ? Seamlessness. Apollinaire didn't have to search for a subject. As Auden remarked, a poem begins in the guts and only flowers In the head. When a poem begins in a petty cerebral impulse it tends to lack depth and unity, that sense of inevitability, of having had to be written which makes all the best art compelling. But a poem that begins in the guts is both more difficult to get at and more dangerous. Poetry should be dangerous.  

Most contemporary poetry plays safe. In the introduction to this collection Neil Astley explains that he wanted to overturn the indifference to poetry that Adrian Mitchell's famous dictum sought to explain. There's a story behind that epigraph. Adrian Mitchell was nervous about what the critics might make of his book, his first full-length. He knew if he could distract them from the poems by including a controversial epigraph he might save himself a mauling. And it worked. the Telegraph critic, for example, spent more words on the barb than on the book. Adrian Mitchell has a much sharper mind than many people give him credit for and he has achieved something remarkable: a successful career as a radical writer who has never ceased to be the enemy of the capitalism that feeds him. But neither Adrian nor Neil Astley have prevented the majority of people ignoring poetry. They do so because poetry is difficult. Even simple poetry. Brecht understood this when, having honed his style to the bone, he wrote his little piece of exasperation at the failure of those he wished to address to appreciate even the most elementary lessons. Human stupidity and ill-will, as Flaubert knew, run extremely deep. But to return to Adrian Mitchell. That book, published in 1964, strikes me as fresher, newer in the Poundian sense than most of the work here. Why ? Because It begins in the guts, because it connects, because it's dangerous. A poem like Fifteen Million Plastic Bags, owing something to the satirical Auden in its form and being, therefore, retrospective and ostensibly safe, combines this apparent safety with an assault on the assumptions of power which remains poignant thirty-five years later. It's a simple, clever little piece that still gives me a frisson and makes my heart beat faster.  

There are some poems in this book which display that quality. Brendan Cleary is at odds with his culture and prepared to show it. Slouch is a good poem because it uses the personal to go beyond the personal. Its form and style are conventional but its punch lies in its accurate evocation of sickening bigotry, empty pride and aggression. W.N.Herbert is hilarious in his scurrility and wit and clearly a writer prepared to find his own way. Cabaret McGonagall is a good choice but he has written better poems than some of the others included here. He's probably the most talented writer featured here and certainly makes you feel you'd like to see more. I wonder if his versatility doesn't bring with it, though, a lack of consistency and perhaps a hint of facetiousness. Maura Dooley's Mansize is a strong, honest and tender poem. It succeeds in creating the sense it seeks. She has a good feel for where to break the line though I think In the second stanza of this poem there is a repetition (with it) which should have been left out. At her best she has some of the qualities of Denise Levertov, whose intuitive grasp of organic form no-one can afford to ignore. Geoff Hattersley's On The Buses With Dostoyevsky is funny, even if it does peter out rather and if he does refuse to accept what he knows only too well and what makes the poem amusing: the huge gulf in this country between popular and serious culture. Jackie Kay's In My Country is a neat little evocation of how it feels to be treated as a stranger in your own home. The modesty of the form belies the power of the insight and the acute sense of hurt that comes from that glib insenitivity of those who judge superficially and arrogantly.  

On the other hand, there is John Kinsella, a hugely overrated poet. The pieces collected here are dull and conventional and his own introduction reveals his lack of depth and orientation. "Everything is viable subject-matter" he writes airily, as if this is insight when it is mere excuse for having little, if anything, of importance to say. There is also the vaporous inadequacy of Pauline Stainer, surely one of the most pretentious poets ever to appear In English. There are two pieces by Julia Copus in which she writes a first stanza of shaky tone and silly sentiment and a second in which she runs the first backwards. It's the kind of exercise you'd set your fourth-year for a Friday afternoon. One example of It is embarrassing, two is excrutlating. There are the clumsy enjambements of Marion Lomax who really urgently needs to read Denise Levertov's" Notes on Organic Form", as well as her poetry. There is Jackie Hardy's limp wit and conventional form. There is Tracy Ryan, billed as one of Australia's " finest" young poets but who is simply competent and gives nothing you can't find in the work of dozens of today's writers. There is Chris Greenhalgh who recycles a very old joke about women's labia and milk cartons. He's an English teacher and A Man in the Valley of Women reads like an exercise in poetry: here's the title, now write the piece. Titles should always come last. There is Linda France writing of Charlie Parker in a way that makes you feel she can never have really heard the music. He breathed in air, he breathed out light/ Charlie Parker is my delight. Isn't that better ? There is Clare Pollard who has talent and who will make a real poet with time and discipline but whose charting the cold and curious seas of modern adolescence has a touch of sensationalism, sentimentality and an assumed cynicism that she will need to bring under control. There is Deborah Randall who says in her introduction that if you're dead you can't be having sex. Tell that to Felix Faure. And the writers' introductions to their own work are for the most part cringe-making. The problem is excessive self-consciousness and a desire to control response. Neil Astley says he has included these intros because they're the kind of thing people enjoy at readings. But everyone knows the kind of poet who tells you so much about the poem, tells you so lengthily what to expect from the poem that you want to behave like Ginsberg in the Albert Hall: start stamping your feet and shout" Read poem! Read poem!" Many writers are at their weakest when trying to account for their own practice. The odd bit of background to a poem can be useful, but there is too much false knowingness in most of the introductions here.  

Twenty-one years of Bloodaxe. I raise my glass to Nell Astley, but it's full of lemonade. I think the worst thing for literature is for its publication to fall into a very few hands. Bloodaxe still needs public money to survive. I think it should be a principle that public money for the arts should be distributed as widely as possible. People complain that Astley publishes too much and there is an argument which says that where grants are provided publication expands to exhaust them. I don't think too much poetry is being published, I think too few people are publishing. The existence of prestigious imprints encourages a sniffy attitude. People judge the imprint rather than the work and pusillanimity makes people fear talking straight about what the prestigious houses publish for fear of being black-balled. The result is an excess of hype and puffery and a failure of the honest criticism from which both readers and writers benefit. So many unexceptional poets are hyped beyond recognition today, presented as though they are the next Walt Whitman. We need blurbs that give the reader an honest idea of what kind of poetry they are going to encounter. This may be commercially risky but I doubt that the exaggerated hype is selling many books anyway.  

No-one can blame Neil Astley for blowing his trumpet and he has much to be proud of. Bloodaxe's anthologies are especially impressive and valuable. It's wonderful, for example, to be able to pick up a collection of modern Finnish poetry. We need more of that. Modem literature is world literature. Getting translated and into print poetry that British readers would otherwise have trouble getting to know is splendid. But pride is a perilous attitude. No-one in their right mind could expect thirty-eight great poets to emerge in a decade. One third that number would be exciting. If any of the poets featured here tums out to be a great, enduring writer, I'd be surprised. But it's good that they're in print. It's good that their work is well-presented. Let as many poets as possible be published. But spread the money round so that disparate imaginations can be behind the publishing. And drop the hype. Let minor poets be what they are and save the highest praise for the geniuses who are as rare as they are invaluable.