22 JULY 1972, Page 16

Complaining by the Humber

Jonathan Raban

The Happier Life Douglas Dunn (Faber £1.50) Poems and A Family Album Brian Jones (London Magazine Editions £1.80) Dunn's new poems show him coming to terms with the talent which lit up his first book, Terry Street. It's proving a singularly difficult talent to come to terms with; a wayward, wall-eyed creature that one moment streaks off into the blue, and the next slumps in a corner and is not to be stirred. At present Dunn is feeding it on hard tack and making it run marathons when all its inclinations are for the short winded burst and the light verse sprint. He is a grim custodian, a gloomy presbyter who doesn't find much to approve of in the world with which his poems have to have commerce. "Here I am," he says, "A very old man of twenty-eight," and, indeed, he is. He tetchily contemplates a Hull full of men in raincoats, footling student revolutionaries, moustached sporting motorists, the raggy tribe of dole-drawers and unspeakably ancient tarts, and pipes and whistles at the intrusive vulgarities of "the scum."

Complaining by the tide of Humber is nothing new, of course, and Dunn does open himself to being read as a shriller, more priggish version of Larkin. But he's weakest when he takes on the role of suburban Tiresias, strongest when exercising a solitary, sensually responsive eye on the details of an interior, the tangle of a garden — when he's absorbed in that part of the world which the scum haven't yet vandalised. His self-announced seriousness often seems something of a pose, and his scrupulous distaste is bandied about with the relish of the romantic spiv in "Morning Bedroom" who rhymes "last night's rose" with " underclothes," A poem called The Hunch' begins: "They will not leave me, the lives of other people ". But when one examines these lives, they turn out to be capricious inventions, summoned up by the poet so that he can have something to feel bad about. The afternoon men of 'Midweek Matinee,' for instance—

the itinerant heavy drinkers, Who take the piss out of bus conductors Or fall asleep in public reading rooms Dyer unlikely learned periodicals.

This is amiable stuff; its forced details are fun, if a bit whimsical. It is therefore a shock to hear Dunn shouting later on in the same poem, "I don't want you here on my page, pink faces / Under spit and stubble . . ". It's like inviting everyone from the pub round to one's place for a party, only to kick them in the teeth when they arrive. The trouble is that Dunn has a real gift for a kind of Gilbertian comic writing which he's always trying to convert to an unsatisfactorily solemn purpose. There are some joyful doodles at the beginning of 'At a Yorkshire Bus Stop,' like—

Somebody's cleaning woman look At maps and open picture books In the travel agent's window.

Where will she go, where will she go, Madrid by BEA, by rail To Istanbul with mop and pail?

But by the end of the poem, the glum puritan is shoving his spoke in the wheel and ruining the ride. We are offered a mighty metaphor—

All my life inside a bus From terminus to terminus

—which even the throwaway doggerel in which it's wrapped cannot redeem. It is seriousness, of a sort, that spoils the title poem too, a readiness to peter out into a sonorous sludge of poetic abstractions— This city lives off Hull, Hell and Halifax, All sad varieties of furtive sex

And irresistible beauties of shame or wealth, Facilities of spirit to soothe them with.

I dont know what this means. Its final effect is of the professional misery exuded by undertakers.

Much that now sounds posed or forced in Dunn's work is simply the product of a lack of metrical polish, a faltering sense of timing. The collection has an amateurish feel to it, as if none of the poems, for all their sermonising, had ever quite fixed on the page or arrived at their right form. There are patches, individual lines, single images that turn perfectly in the lock, but very little sustained achievement. If only he could ease up on the solemnity, allow his talent a looser rein, and grin occasionally through that murky Tennysonian gloom.

Brian Jones's Poems & A Family Album is a single-volume hardback reissue of two titles originally published in 1966 and 1968. I remember that when Poems first came out, Jones read a group of them on TV, sounding slyly relaxed, astraddle one of those tall stools they used to reserve for Arts Features. He made them work very well; good, no-nonsense, bluff-guy poems which could rise to a simple, unembarrassed and unembarrassing lyricism, or show a mordant edge with a schoolmasterly tweak. His marital love poems, his conversation pieces (' Stripping Walls ') and his poems for and about children are by far his best. There's more skill and enthusiasm than genius in them, but Jones can make a line of words follow the sequence of an action or a thread of close observation in a way that makes one delight in the sheer carpenterly craftsmanship of the poem. From 'How to Catch Tiddlers': The hand, and, now, near an old glance some where, A sleek shape holding its body constant, Firm in its fluid world. Move on. Watch Only the net. You are a hand only, Steering, controlling. New look.

Inside that silent bulge the shape Breaks black and firm . . .

Like Dunn, Jones tends to get into tangles when he goes after bigger fish, thrashing the water with much literary false casting (" Bits of a broken / Purpose, a litter / Of meaning scattered functioning into void . . . " and so forth) and glooming into deep and serious pools. On his home stream, he's excellent; on Eliot's river, he's awkward and out of place. A Family Album, his group of interlinked monologues spoken by members of a London family, points up the problem. It would make a forty-five-minute programme on Radio 3; its voices are genuine and sharp and nicely timed. Yet on the page it never gets up quite enough steam to become a whole poem, and one is left liking bits and pieces, admiring the joinery, and craving a cast of actors to deliver lines like these from 'Uncle Fred ':

Won't see doctors — bloody quacks and sharks — pretending to cure old age. Buggered if I'll let them make their pile by filling me with jollop. Hate the lot and won't change now.

Em calls me a grumpy sod — the cow —

It may not be the best poem in the world, but it's a lovely piece of sound writing, in the kind of half-breed, radio-verse genre that no one has practised since Louis MacNeice.