22 JULY 1972, Page 17

Ice on the wings

Christopher Hudson

Some Time After Anne Ridler (Faber £1) Strange Encounter A. L. Rowse (Cape £1.25) Celebrations William Plomer (Cape El) Poems and Paraphrases James Reeves (Heinemann El)

Muse of middle-age, ice on the wings, Earthbound loops towards skies Where once she looped and curtsied;

Or, hovercraft close to the ground, goes On a cushion of stale air.

All of these poets are in their sixties, when years of achievement might be expected to have blurred differences in accomplishment. Yet it is evident from these four collections how gracefully ice on the wings can be borne by some, how ponderously by others.

Anne Ridler's call For a New Voice, of which the first lines are quoted above, is surely unnecessary. Her new collection, the first for a number of years, is as graceful and sprightly as could be wished. Her poems are quietly successful within their self-imposed limits, which exclude the harsher triumphs of battering recalcitrant themes into the shape of poetry. She never resorts to gratuitous modernism; her subjects are mostly familiar and her treatment of them confident and easy, as if speaking from the heart of a tradition. A poem, 'Corneal Graft,' about a blind man restored to partial sight and now menaced by half-seen monsters he could previously ignore, finishes with a parallel that would be prosaic if handled with any less certainty:— And if, after this five-sense living,

The hand of God should touch us to eternal light Not saints, well practised in that mode of seeing,

But grown-up babies, with a world to unlearn, Menaced by marvels, how should we fare? Dense, slow of response, only at the finger tips Keeping some fragments of truth — What could that heaven bring us but despair? Mrs Ridler is first and foremost a lyric poet and it was a mistake to reprint her libretto for a one-act opera The Departure. But, for the rest, she strikes a sincere, unfevered note which is well worth hearing.

Rowse points out in a Preface to his latest volume that very few historians of the first rank have also been poets, and goes on to notice "the disadvantage of having one's poetry disregarded by those who haven't noticed the rarity of the conjunction.” An intimation that he sees himself as something of an outsider in the world of letters is strengthened by his dedication To Colin Wilson for his faith. Certainly Rowse has met with considerable setbacks in his life — even to the extent of being excluded recently from an Anthono/ogy of Cornish Verse — but the scorn he pours on the 'contemporary' in his preface, and his quiet confidence that the historian, above all, knows how to wait for Time to winnow out the authentic in literature, show that he is prepared, like St Simon Stylites, to sit out the age and bequeath his pedestal to posterity.

After such a preface it seems petty to criticise the poems. But they are not distinguished. Rowse lacks an ear for assonance and stress; a conspicuous failing in a poet. The mellow harmony of his reflections is traduced by the prosy, unmusical, end-stopped lines which express them. Admittedly some of the poems set in New York like 'Fourth Sunday in Lent in Central Park' are quite funny and well observed. The sheer energy of America seems to have infected Rowse's habitual resignation with an altogether livelier misanthropy. But the characteristic flavour of this volume is given by his lines in 'Near Boconnoc

In spite of being given to words I have never been able to express Fully the sense of life at heart, Find the right words for the mystery. But then, who can?

William Plomer has recently distinguished himself at least as much in the administration as in the maintenance of poetic standards, and there is, sadly, little to choose between his new collection and Rowse's. The poems celebrate moments and encounters — the first concert after the restoration of the Maltings, an Edwardian afternoon in Bedford Square, a memorial service, the death of a hedge-sparrow — but for all their charm and quiet humour they rarely rise above the prosaic.

One reason is that Plomer cannot move into free verse with any assurance, and the whole point of throwing off metrical shackles — that the free movement of the verse should imitate the spring and impetus of what it conveys — is lost in a series of poems that casually sling together ideas that could as well be expressed in prose. In 'No Identity One would like to reply:

'No, that's not me, because I'm incapable 'Of starting the very least personality cult. 'I have freed myself at last from being me; 'Don't think of me as champion or actor; if I take

' Protective colouring, it is that I mean to be 'A kind of medium, free to enjoy, well, no identity.'

These chatty lines make a pleasant enough monologue, but the tension of poetry is entirely absent. If the mind slackens and breeds fewer ideas, is it too much to ask that a measure of such tension be achieved through prosodic skills, through rhyme and metre and stress? Plomer has these skills is abundance, but too often he chooses to ignore them.

Oddly enough James Reeves betrays little of himself to the reader except his prosodic skills: and yet somehow the verve is missing. We can hear the brain ticking out the precise syllables, but the poet's features are invisible. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the delphic from the merely cryptic, and I suspect that Cloistered,' for example, says far less than it appears to on first reading:— Let us not visualise the shapes of love Nor the demure tonality of features But reason of the archetypal dove, The special iconography of creatures, So to alleviate our mind's despair By riddling out the symbols of the air. Pictorial brotherhoods continue to see The Holy Ghost as ornithology.

There are some wittily desiccated Bagatelles and the translations from the French and German are foils for Reeves's exacting skills: but the whole adds up to a very slender collection.