Catch Your Hare
David Crystal (Two Rivers Press, 35-39 London Street, ReadIng RG1 4PS £6.00)
Small Is Missing -Susan
Mesh of Wires
- Christopher North (Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield
HD1 1 ND. £2.95 each.)
- Amanda Dalton (Bloodaxe Books, P0 Box 1 SN, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE99 I
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?
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.
the evidence of this new collection he still has that eye.
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.
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.
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:
ifs and buts of it are sharp against my shoulder blades,
first its run-on lines strike cold against my belly,
nipples - all the skin parts that it touches,
the heat of circulating blood begins the chain reaction:
by agitated molecule it warms to me, and one by one
curves and hollows of its os and esses, of its hs and ys
letter in the mesh of it fills up with insulating air."
Copper Poem Dress')
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.
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:
those strange unexplained discs to start with,
now tweaked and twiddled and made baroque
mostly where they can be seen from a road
finally the possibility or otherwise
whirling molecules In the universe somewhere,
down to the last detail,
full-sized Lockheed Tri-star by chance."
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.
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
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:
her youngest lad
at the edge of the storm
water explodes In your eyes,
the guillemots circle and dive
the thick black tide.
're committed to the sea,
screamed across the wind.
water 's dying, and you thought
were the strangest words
hear from a boy."
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
Peter Reading. Bloodaxe Books. £6.95.
ISBN 1 85224 490 9.
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.
Man In The White Suit
by Nick Drake.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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:
I catch you,
lie down on small seeds of gravel.
lie under slatted shelves,
sturdy shoes, swollen ankles,
hear murmurings, the ritual of naming plants.
thighs will rub oakleaves of lemon geranium.
your lips work downwards,
taste musty citrus, a balm for my bitten skin.
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.
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.
GOOD A REASON AS ANY
by Jim Burns.
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
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."
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
turn to some of your poems,
see at once how good humour,
warmth, can hold at bay
cold that touches heart and mind.
poems try to carve out a space where humanity can be rediscovered in a
world of cold calculation and glib assumption.
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
embrace of poetry like the embrace of the naked body
while it lasts
all access by the misery of the world."
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.
HALL WITH TIN WALLS
Voss. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 1 65224 473 9
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Edited by Neil Astley.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.