I have often wondered, reading multiple notices of new volumes of poetry, how the reviewer set about doing them. I have now a chance to find out. Let me say at once (or, to be honest, while finding courage to tackle my pile of slim volumes) that this whole business is unfair. A good book of verse doesn't contain a single typical poem, to be quoted as Mr X at his most Xian. There is hardly room for quotation, anyway. I'm damned if I'll say, 'Miss Y exhibits her capacity for steely compression and aromatic memorability in, for example, "Bitch Goddess" and "Grey Cam", both of which! heartily commend to the reader.' But I'm damned if I can say much else. So.
Norman MacCaig (Tree of Strings, Chatto and Hogarth £2.25) and George Mackay Brown (Selected Poems, Hogarth Press, £3.50) Are generally praised as being among the most accomplished of Scotland's poets.. Mackay Brown is usually grave, always expert in a variety of forms (some of them simple and traditional), full of echoes of the skalds of the Orkneys, not much given to the surprising image, best in his runes (`No more ballads in Eynhallow. /The schoolmaster/Opens a box of grammars') and, to my ear, in a four-page prose-piece meant to be a letter from the innkeeper at Bethlehem to the Third Secretary (Security). MacCaig is witty and very honest. He remembers the name of a flower but has forgotten the flower itself — 'The curse of literacy', He would like to be Adam 'To whom everything was exactly its own name'. The enemy is 'the shamelessiDemander of similes, the destroyer of Eden'. There is hardly a poem in his book which does not shock with exactness of observation or charm with a kind of wry modesty. His range of comparison is wide ('Waxwing, smart gentleman, gaudy bank manager' . . . 'A moon-glance went by like Catullus on Loch Roe's/Hendecasyllabics,'). Often I want to say: `I'd give a whole novel to have thought of that one line.'
Anthony Thwaite's A Portion for Foxes (OUP 2.25) is very intelligent, also witty, with a wide stretch of subject-matter and a great boldness. He consults a book called Contemporary Poets of the English Language, puts all their names into a sternly rhymed catalogue and ends:
What is it, you may ask, that Thwaite's Up to in this epic? Yeats' Remark in the Cheshire Cheese one night With poets so thick they blocked the light: 'No one can tell who has talent, if any. Only one thing is certain. We are too many.'
The poem about Sakti Seppiya or Shakhs Bey-er in foreign lands (`Lady Macbeth is housewif full of sin,/Prince Hel is drinkard tho of nobel berth') encloses Matthew Arnold, 'schools inspector', and comes to a less grandiloquent conclusion than the 'Others abide our question' sonnet, also more moving. 'My Oxford' is a wicked funny delight, the tribute to Louis MacNeice (`Your long face, like a camel's, swivels round/The long bar of the George') very affecting. Thwaite is a fine poet, perhaps here finer than ever.
The Hinterland, the title of Peter Scupham's collection (OUP £1.95) is also the title of a sonnet sequence — the heart of the book — whose theme is the 1914-18 War, the last of the wars capable of generating myth. This is technically of great interest: the fifteenth sonnet is made up of the first lines (or the last lines: the sonnets are linked in the manner of Malay 'wedded pantuns') of the preceding fourteen. The entire
volume is knotty, serious, with strong individual voice: for lightness (but it is not all that light) we have 'Answers to Correspondents — Girl's Own, 1881', with its irresistibly quotable last stanza: Toujours Gai, your moulting canary needs a tonic; Xerxes, write poetry it' you wish, but only read prose.
Cambridge Senior, we should not really have imagined It would require much penetration to disclose That such answers as we supply have been elicited By genuine letters. You are impertinent, Rose.
Terrifying, that impertinence; as bad as sickness.
Paul Muldoon is, says Seamus Heaney, Ireland's most promising poet for many a year. He certainly has a remarkable rhythmical gift (Mules, Faber £1.95), the sort which can reconcile colloquial speech-tunes to more or less regular stanza forms. He is cheeky (`Numberless cherubim and seraphim/Alleluia on my prick!') and also very wise (as in the opening poem 'Lunch with Pancho Villa', which I heartily commend): His title-poem (the penultimate) has a moment of genuine wonder:
We might yet claim that it sprang from earth Were it not for the afterbirth Trailed like some fine, silk parachute, That we would know from what heights it fell.
Richard Wilbur's The Mind Reader (Faber £2.50) discloses, under the fine cover, pages of polygraphed typescript. Wilbur is one of the most technically skilful of all America's poets, and he likes to expend this skill on translation, which he seems to do well from any language. When he is himself and not Voltaire's or
Brodsky's medium, he is full of fine visual surprises: Some winters, taking leave, Deal us a last, hard blow, Salting the ground like Carthage Before the will go Visual, yes, and a whole two-part poem is dedicated to the eye, which he prays not to be 'folly's loophole/But giver of due regard': Preserve us, Lucy, From the eye's nonsense, you by whom Benighted Dante was beheld, To whom he was beholden.
His search for the right word remains unrelenting. He told me, at Rochester NY I think it was, that he wished to know the name of the hollow under the lower lip and so asked his dentist. His dentist said`The poculum'. What a find. Most of Wilbur's poems contain finds, or are finds: 'All night, this headland/Lunges into the rumpling/Capework of the wind,'
'A new collection of poems from Thomas Blackburn,' (Post Morton, Rondo £1.95) says the blurb, 'is always a literary event.' I bow, take breath, and open. Few poets deal so usefully with physical pain — 'Lumbar' and 'Fracture', for example. The latter contains the marvellous couplet 'Until a hand shall blow the fuse/And I become my energies'. Other people's illnesses are our own:
They talked about schizophrenia, Their grandson has it and is very ill. I thought about a cross upon a hill And of how alone and how lost we indeed are.
Some defect of ear in myself (there's modesty for you) makes me reject two facing poems which both batter away at an o-rhyme, thus: Lion gated is the garden of the Villa Lorenzo Where the tamarisk and mimosa blossom near our front window; Once before our longer journey with you I would like to go.
A poet of such technical accomplishment must have a reason for slap-in-the-face banality like that, but the reason is not apparent. And similarly the motive behind 'Dialogue', deliberately but somehow ineptly echoing Auden's poem at the end of The Orators, remains in shadow:
And where is that garden my friend, my fellow?
The garden of grief I indeed wish to see.
Then draw your heart's curtain and it is certain You will find the place called Gethsemane, Blackburn's rage is very large and can accommodate a number of divagations. He shows that late middle age admits no hebetude of sensation, can reconcile wry wisdom with bewilderment. Before the certitude of pain and loss he erects powerful apotropaic structures.
That last sentence is precisely the kind of spacious generalisation I did not intend to make. But it probably says as much as Blackburn himself said in commending Kathleen Raines last book of poems: 'This admirable volume will be both a surprise and a poignant delight. She speaks with a personal directness she has never, before achieved and the result is both memorable and deeply moving.' What in God's name does all this mean except that Kathleen Raine is a good poet and gets better? On the evidence of her new volume she seems to have allowed herself to rest easy with an unpardonable mass of cliché: Who knows if saint's or sinner's hand Carved divine lineaments in stone? Piano, flute and violin Respond to bad men as to good, Chaste Galahad was son Of Lancelot that adulterer: In .blood, in stone, the'fruits alone Transcend and justify the maker.
So one had always thought and, in much the same language, said. I am disturbed too by the presence of outworn poetic inversions that muffle the force of some of her statements. Surely 'Only before eyes newborn,/Eyes fading, does the mystery stay' would be sharper as 'The mystery stays only before/New-born eyes, fading eyes'? Would you, reader, be content with having written `To ponder deeper themes/In unrecorded dreams'? There is never once that element of verbal surprise which is the justification of the art. But the personality revealed is wise, brave, affectionate.
I say no more and, 1 promise, will never again say anything publicly about new poetry. I doubt whether even the slimmest book of verse can be adequately dealt with under, say, ten thousand words. Novels are altogether different: you can summarise the plot, discuss the handling of motivation, tnise en scene and the description of the women's clothes. Every poem written represents a most painful distillation. Who is the reviewer to distil the whole box of distillations? I have said that these new volumes are here, and now I say no more.