BOOK REVIEW / Leap back into make-believe: William Scammell examines four poets' treatment of love, family and contemporary life
Sunday 03 July 1994
If his first virtue is readability, his second is a limpid, wide-eyed clarity that clashes gently with his a la mode worldliness. He is someone who seems equally at home in the Ritz or in biker's leathers: perhaps this is what an Eton education does for you. What comes through it all is his gravely witty, bittersweet apprehension of contemporary life, potent as that cocktail you sip out of a salt-rimmed glass.
Nostalgia is one driving force, self-incrimination another, both linked to the technical difficulty - and necessity - of renewing the lyric mode. Scenes from childhood dominate the proceedings, lightly italicised by adult wisdom. As for young manhood: 'Remember the days when six things happened every night/and no one wore an overcoat to go out?/ . . . The triple miracle/of meeting, liking, being liked, was taken for granted/on the way back to her flat' ('Safe'). His favourite device is to mix up present and past in one deft montage ('This is it, then - the great leap backwards/into make-believe'), with something rueful on the sound-track and a skilful disposition of the large white lies of youth.
It could turn out to be cloying, or slight, and occasionally it is both, but there's a sharp humour at work which exactly places both rememberer and remembered. Often this involves his mother, whose biography is memorably sketched in the prose piece 'Margaret Vyner'. His father, too, was pinned down with Popean precision - and huge affection - in Letters Home. He pops up again here, 'imperious, categorical, always in the wrong/and rightly so, the only man in the world/ who could talk about opera and French mustard/ as if they were the same sort of thing'. Other successes include 'A Lap of Honour', celebrating a day alone in the house, and 'A Look' - 'of 'How could you do this to me?' / was written all over her face, / which he knew very well would soon / be written all over his own'.
I wish he'd resisted the temptation to write a couple of poems about writing poems, that first infirmity of all versifiers. But, like Betjeman, whom he occasionally resembles, Williams is one of those rare pros who writes out of sheer enjoyment - it is his sternest morality - and it rubs off on the reader.
Harry Clifton kicks off Night Train Through the Brenner (Gallery pounds 5.95) with a virtuoso poem about a marriage feast in Italy, and follows it up with a sequence about village life in the Arbruzzo mountains. It is impressive, craftsmanly stuff, somewhat in the wry manner of Derek Mahon, and so are the meditations on love, lit and life set in various other parts of Europe. If he has a fault, it is that his air of commonsensical stoicism armours him in too many dying falls, too much rue, and the cost is a certain monotony of tone.
His countryman Thomas Kinsella stays firmly at home in From Centre City (OUP pounds 7.99). In the opening poem he settles literary scores (though who is who is anybody's guess); he has another go at the literati in the pub in 'Open Court'. This one is in Swiftian octosyllabics, but no less impenetrable as to names and crimes. Kinsella's later career is a puzzle, mired in hermeticisms, public oratory and private spleen, full of large gestures signifying the Lord knows what. David Malouf's largeness, on the other hand, in Selected Poems 1952-1989 (Chatto pounds 8.99) is a matter of sweeping historical and geographical vistas which read like notes from a hectic journal written up by a man with five continents to explore, pronto.
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