A light tread on the life force: William Scammell on poems made with mallett and chisel - or with electronics

Click to follow
THERE ARE typewriter poems and word-processor poems, one lapidary, only a step away from mallet and chisel, the other electronic, starry with lightness of being. All the young whizzkids tread lightly on the keys, one imagines, dancing after the cursor of the self, which is not much more than a blip - while dinosaurs go on pounding away like Nietzsche at the life force. You can't imagine Basil Bunting fiddling with software. And it's hard to see Armitage or Duffy weighed down by the atomic numbers of phonology.

Anne Stevenson leans to the Bunting end of the scale. Four and a Half Dancing Men (OUP pounds 6.99) opens with a clutch of poems written from her Sabine farm in the wilds of County Durham. Actually it's a pair of terraces in an ex-mining village, but that is a minor detail. Sometimes there's a 'hot sun palming my back / like a good therapist', more often wind, rain, snow; either way 'A place to fall back to, thanks / When you've paid your youth for / visions in the Himalayas', a place which 'gives tang / to survival', whose 'weather of failure . . . / lets you off towards evening'.

That last detail is literally exact and extends a protective metaphorical wing, perhaps, over the latter half of a weather-beaten life. What the weather won't do is be 'grabbed' by art or pressed 'from living into paying'; 'Pieces of nature', as another poem puts it, 'not yet part / of the econony'. Pay is for city slickers, those who court the emperor or study this month's aesthetic hemline.

In the book's second section, 'Visits to the Cemetery of the Long Alive', she writes movingly about old women facing death, the 'awful little mucks' that accumulate daily, mental and physical. The poems about paintings and pets are competent but rather more conventional. What's treasurable about Stevenson is her sanity, her independence of mind, her love of people and peopled landscapes (the unpeopled ones are a bit too strenuously epiphanic). See 'When the Camel is Dust It Goes Through the Needle's Eye', a fine elegiac piece about her mother, for evidence of how feeling is strengthened, not weakened, by forensic skill.

John Whitworth's well-turned poems belong in another part of the wood, that one marked Here Be No Flights of the Higher Nonsense, well trodden by Ewart and Betjeman. Landscape with Small Humans (Peterloo pounds 6.95) conducts us briskly and funnily through his English and Scottish childhoods. The first was spent next door to Metroland ('Our railway bridge, our stream, our library, / Our bus to Pinner and the ABC'), the second among 'stubbly toughs with Caledonian calves' who would have made Stephen Spender cry. Whitworth was more adaptable ('This gringo got an expert at the lingo'), and discovered that for all their ferocity 'They have an honourable place for swots'. Hence the dubious tribute: 'Egotist-fascist-puritanical / I am a Scotsman in my very soul'.

Much of the fun lies in his formal skill, watching the lion of strict form lie down with the lambs of a slangy, streetwise diction. 'Fictions' shows him at his best, a far-off, mythological Indian birthplace delightfully mixed up with an ordinary urban one. It's spoken (I think) to his young daughter, softening the iambic thump and allusive wit into memorable speech.

Alistair Elliot is one of those old-style, natural, fouled-up guys: much-travelled, well-read, partial to food, sex, jokes, a Scottish ancestry and an Oxbridge classical education. Anything he puts into a poem, he once said, he will have in the afterlife, which means that he won't lack for good company and rich leisure pursuits. 'My Brown Boots', in Turning the Stones (Carcanet pounds 6.95), shows off one side of his Augustan talent, 'A Family Wireless' another, in which nostalgia has its face shoved up hard against grim 20th century 'news' and then drop-kicked all the way back to fifth-century Athens. Just occasionally the learning looks like stucco, obscuring the natural contours of his roomy emotional life, but mostly he's a poet to relish. 'Now I remember standing in the pool / myself, a Baptist, teaching you the crawl / without touching, my hand / hovering under your navel / like a poacher's'('More Swimming').

'Nothing the eye can size up but it trips off the tongue' says Michael Kruger in his enjoyable selected poems, Diderot's Cat (Carcanet pounds 9.95), translated by Richard Dove. The title poem offers a good conspectus of his gifts, 'Man, the machine' juxtaposed with his amiable cat, who might just stand in for his soul: 'Philosophy too is instruction in dying'. Kruger is not one of the 'sweating I-sayers' but a cool, puzzled archaeologist of our (and Germany's) strange times. 'Leave things / as they are - they only compare with themselves'. Another philosopher observes 'passions too get administered. / And, don't forget, the Apocalypse / is only the O of a cat's open mouth / into which the world is disappearing'.