22 JUNE 2002, Page 47

Politically, if not poetically, correct

Lloyd Evans

52 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A POEM, OR HOW READING MODERN POETRY CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE by Ruth Padel Chatto, £12.99. pp. 272, ISBN 0701173181 Not owning a wheelbarrow I never buy a newspaper at the weekend. I've been missing out. For the last two years the Independent on Sunday has been running a sort of soup-kitchen for malnourished poems. This admirable project is overseen by the benign, nurturing and twinkly-eyed critic Ruth Padel, who if she isn't a Lib Dem peeress already certainly deserves to be. Her approach is defiantly political. As she sees it, the task of poetry is to restore the voices of the lost, the oppressed, the despairing and the downtrodden.

Many of the 'poems' in this anthology are just fragments of stimulating, wellobserved prose aligned to the left-hand side of the page. Atrocity-pedlars are given plenty of space. In '1847' Maura Dooley turns the potato famine into a bloodthirsty piece of needle-point whose purpose is to generate shock and income from a historical tragedy. Our shock, her income. It's like watching a Jew selling Auschwitz lampshades to a Holocaust museum. David Dabydeen's 'El Dorado' — a rose-tinted lament for a dead slave — is a similar exercise in genocide trinketry.

There are excellent pieces by Derek Mahon, Carol Ann Duffy, Colette Bryce and a few others who understand the virtues of poetic craftspersonship. Lady Padel's critical method is enthusiastic, if a touch convoluted. Her discussion of a line by Jo Shapcott looks like this:

Here, Back on dry land I shouldn't think these things is an IAMBIC PENTAMETER with no IAMBS just an ANAPAEST (back on dry), and three spondees: land shouldn't think (a SPONDEE with a hiccough in the middle); these things.

This spangled porridge is murder on the eyes. After barely a page of it my poor wee whimpering peepers were crying out for Optrex. Alas, the entire book is laid out in the same way. She uses the upper case not just for IAMB, SPONDEE and so on, but for simple words like SONNET, METAPHOR, GREEK VERSE, COUPLET and even FOOT. This is to remind you that they are technical terms which you can look up in the GLOSSARY. I suppose it's churlish of me to point out that her scansion is completely bananas. That line consists of a trochee followed by four iambs.

In her meandering introduction, Lady P comes across as decidedly anti-chap. Chaps don't know how to read women's poetry, she tells us. They dismiss it as whimsical, irrational, formless, barmy. And unfortunately we chaps are everywhere, promoting our chap's eye view of things. Faber is run by a chap. The Laureate's a chap. The new chaps at the Poetry Society are chaps. I'm a chap. Even discussion rooms on the Internet are `dominated by men', she pines wistfully. So come along, chaps, move aside and let the girls have a natter.

You may surmise that I approach this topic with insufficient gravity. I would level the same charge at the good baroness. One minute she is terse and perceptive ('Rhyme makes an idea feel like law'), the next she's burbling away like a loved-up hippy-chick at a late-night Sauvignon session. Listen to this:

Contemporary poetry ladles from all today's verbal puddles. Ironisina and questioning political soundbites, headlines, media-speak, chat-up lines, it uses the tones of the age to show the age up.

Surely she should have removed some of those awkward clanging rhymes.

Gender disqualifies me from offering anything other than a blinkered and dismissive verdict, so here it is. I found this a scatty, patchy, irritating, partisan and occasionally enjoyable book. Its weepy and selfrighteous tone will reinforce the widely held impression that poetry is a pantomime of philanthropy enacted by beaming liberals and grumbling outcasts. It will, of course, sell by the skipful, not least because it is the perfect gift: i.e. a thing which everyone thinks someone else ought to need. Now comes the tricky part. I know Lady P slightly and am bound to bump into her at some summer party or other, so I'd better finish with a round of applause. This is an indispensable guidebook. It tells you everything you need to know about modern poetry.